by Eliot Michaelson
The basic question I want to ask is this: suppose that you’ve been convinced that killing animals for food is bad. You don’t want to be party to bad things happening, and accordingly you’ve become a vegetarian or vegan. Still, you live in a society full of people who aren’t vegetarians or vegans. So how should you interact with them? Should you be tolerant of their moral choices, even if you’re convinced that these are the wrong choices (and even though, per our assumptions, you’re right)? Or should you somehow alter the way that you interact with non-vegetarians? Alternatively, for those non-vegetarians reading this, we can put the question as: are your vegetarian friends morally required, at least by their own lights, to shun you?
“…are your vegetarian friends morally required, at least by their own lights, to shun you?”
A brief aside for those who’ve read my older posts. As you can probably tell, I’m setting aside the Futility Worry for the time being in order to focus on a different question: not whether or not one should be a vegetarian, but rather how one should conduct oneself as a vegetarian. For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to assume that any time someone declines to purchase or eat meat, one is doing something good; correlatively, when one decides to purchase or eat meat (except perhaps in some very special circumstances), one is doing something bad. We can assume that any individual choice has some direct or indirect effect on animal welfare, or not. For present purposes, this won’t matter much.
Now back to the main question. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume that there are basically only two ways you can go (as a vegetarian) in response to quandary: first, you can be what I’ll call an “Accommodator”; or, second, you can be “Resolute” (admittedly, these are less than perfect titles, since it can often seems good to be resolute and bad to accommodate, and I don’t want to prejudge anything here — so please try to hear these neutrally). What I mean by the former is that, in rough outline, you choose to offer your thoughts on why one should be vegetarian in some limited range of circumstances, and are willing to accommodate the preferences of your meat-eating friends, family, and acquaintances to a fair extent when attempting to coordinate eating plans with them. Perhaps you start by suggesting a vegetarian restaurant or by offering to cook a vegetarian meal, but you’re willing to compromise on someplace that serves both meat and decent vegetarian fare if pressed. Likewise, you probably avoid directly confronting these friends and acquaintances, at least regularly, about their leather shoes, jackets, etc. (though hopefully not fur). On the other hand, you might choose to be “Resolute”. That is, you might decide to voice your views on the evils of meat eating on a regular basis to those around you and to refuse to share a meal with others unless it is going to be exclusively vegetarian. Obviously, there are quite a few options in between these extremes, and many vegetarians probably in fact vacillate at different points in their lives (I certainly have). For the time being, however, let’s stick with our simplifying assumption and pretend that these are the two main ways that one might respond to the circumstance of being a vegetarian in the contemporary context — that is, in an overwhelmingly non-vegetarian society.