As someone who follows a mostly vegetarian diet, I get a lot of digs from carnivores who are just aching to take a bite out of my ethical integrity. I’m actually what I like to call an “ethical eater,” which means I will eat meat as long as it has been ethically reared and killed in as humane a manner as possible. But as I don’t fancy having to launch into a defense of my value system every time I go out for tea, I mostly just summarize my position as “vegetarian.”
I do this mostly because it’s polite I’m not militant about my beliefs and I don’t feel like shaming people by loudly enquiring about the ethics of food when my companions are, presumably, going to eat their food regardless. It is rude and annoying when someone comments on the gory details (however true they may be) of the origins of something that someone else is trying to eat. It will, at best, put them off their meal, ensuring that whatever they were trying to eat has died in vain and, at worst, will earn the commenter a deserved slap in the face.
But sometimes, a die-hard carnivore will provoke me by criticizing my choice and, should I choose to rise to the bait, I get to explain to them that my choice is actually completely rational, especially since I am not actively trying to convert anyone to my ethical stance. So unless they are willing to posit that animals do not have feelings (which would make them ignorant) or that they simply do not value these feelings (which is not an argument that can be levied against someone who does), they’re left with very little ammunition.
Now occasionally I’ll have to go one further in my argument, and this is generally when the person I am talking to is actually a fellow vegetarian. This argument is often a criticism of the standards that farmers must adhere to in order to market their products as “free range” or “organic.” While it is true that a chicken superficially labeled as “free range” may in reality have had only a modicum more space than its battery-caged brothers, the standards are getting more rigorous. I feel that contributing to the market of more ethically conscious foods does more for the treatment of animals and people than abstaining from meat all together. As the boycott of a single individual will do nothing to alter the number of people who eat unethical meat, I’m using the only vote that seems to count these days: the one I can make with my wallet.
My friends make fun of me sometimes, waving a piece of fruit in the air and asking me, “Has this banana has been ethically raised?” as though the ethical consuming dilemma runs out with meat. Of course, it doesn’t, and I try to be as ethically conscious as I can in all aspects of my life. I also value the living and working conditions of human beings, and so when I can, I buy fair-trade food and clothing, and I avoid contributing to any market sustained by exploitative working conditions. Of course, the practice of outsourcing often shrouds the origin of any product in obscurity, so making any purchase can be a gamble. But making the financial contribution to the more ethical market is just my small effort to improve the conditions in an age in which capitalism often supplants morality.
Naomi Rea always makes sure her bananas have been ethically raised.