Hugh Taft-Morales

Ethical Eating: Should Ethical Societies develop explicit policies with regard to which foods are served at Ethical Culture activities? Moving Societies toward vegetarianism and veganism has been promoted, but how is this best done? How can policies be advocated while avoiding moralism or alienating those who hold different positions as to the predilections and values that guide their eating choices?

There is so much to discuss about the ethics of eating, but in this short piece I mainly want to encourage as many Ethical Humanists as possible to take at least a small step toward a more plant-based diet. Full disclosure: I am not vegan and I still sometimes eat meat. But I’m trying to change for all sorts of reasons.

Since I believe in “deed before creed,” I won’t focus on what is the most commendable motive for ethical eating. While Peter Singer argues from a utilitarian perspective that we should lower the amount of suffering in the world, and Tom Regan offers a more Kantian rights-based argument, I’m more concerned in building support for plant-based diets and encouraging people to change their eating habits.

I won’t focus on some of the major debates between vegans and carnivores, but I do think it’s important to state some assumptions under which I operate. First, I believe that the meat and dairy industry causes great suffering in the hundreds of millions of caged animals around the world. Unless you are a strict “speciesist”—someone who sees the human species as so that it is okay to cause non-human animals great suffering—it’s hard not to at least consider trying to be more vegan.

Second, regarding the environmental impact of treating animals as a food source, there’s overwhelming evidence that meat and dairy industries harm our planet. Third, there are social justice considerations regarding the environmental and health impacts—marginalized populations are harmed the most by rising sea levels and by lack of access to healthy plant-based fresh foods.

As an Ethical Humanist that accepts these assumptions, I wasn’t pleased to find that Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, assumed that all people saw eating animals as acceptable. In speaking about eating animals, he wrote that “[t]he liberty of animals we do abridge without scruple.” Had he known more about animal consciousness, however, I think his moral scruples would have been more activated. Look how he emphasizes consciousness in this passage: “Doubtless stones and trees and animals, and the physical world itself, are but the screen behind which lies the infinite universe. But the light of that universe does not break through the screen where it is made up of stones and trees and the lower animals. It breaks through, however faintly, where there is consciousness of relation: and wherever I discover that consciousness I find my opportunity.” (EPL, p. 121-122)

Today we are much more aware of our conscious relations with animals. And we are far enough from a cruel Darwinian paradigm to think that we must eat animals to survive. And, luckily, we have so many opportunities to move toward a vegan diet. But what we put in our mouths is a very personal, intimate act, linked to primal bodily desires. Attacking someone ruthlessly too often drives carnivores to defend their relationship with food even more forcefully.

It’s time to turn down the level of polemics and offer gradual ways that people can turn their diets toward plant-based foods. To help me move closer to cruelty-free eating, I’ve just ordered Erik Marcus’s book, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating. He embraces a gradualism similar to the movement launched in 2003 called Meatless Monday, which provides information, news, and recipes to encourage people to eat meatless one day per week as a first step. Compassionate Action for Animals, a Minneapolis-based non-profit, shares this approach. It states, “We want to praise everyone who has made an effort to help animals. Every time someone chooses to eat fewer animal products, this reduces the amount of animal suffering in the world. We want to support people who care about animals, regardless of what stage they’re at on their journey to a fully plant-based diet and lifestyle.”

Easy alternatives to meat and dairy, along with mindful, compassionate conversation, will best bring our species closer to ethical eating. As Ethical Culture Leader Jerome Nathanson wrote, “Better than any age in the history of mankind, we are able to see the wonderful malleability, the infinite plasticity, of human nature.” So far we have molded ourselves to create armaments and art, poisons and poetry, burgers and tofu. We have incredible potential for change—for enjoying, even lusting after, foods that involve less cruelty and environmental damage. As humanists we know that the choice is ours.