Joe Chuman

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?

January 1, 1976. The date marks my resolution to give up eating meat, which includes poultry, but not fish. Only a year earlier, the ethicist, Peter Singer, published Animal Liberation, which launched the contemporary animal liberation movement. With few exceptions, occasioned by accident rather than choice, I have been totally faithful to my commitments.

My primary motivation for my qualified vegetarianism is ethical, and not much different from Singer’s. Unless there are compelling reasons for matters of health or because one is a member of a culture in which there is no alternative (Inuit cultures may be such an exception, though nowadays, hardly so) there can be no justified rationale for eating meat. The governing principle is that there can be no ethical justification for causing unwarranted pain to sentient creatures. And this ethical value cannot be trumped by matters of mere taste.

There are other compelling rationales as well. Meat eating on balance is less healthy. The raising of beef is extraordinarily wasteful of resources, especially for a planet on which, despite great progress, up to 10,000 human beings die of starvation each day because they cannot ingest enough food to stay alive. And more recently, dire environmental concerns point to the polluting despoliation caused by factory farming and the exacerbation of global warming that threatens the fate of the planet.

All together, these concerns, ethical in substance, make an overriding case for the move to a plant-based diet.

Back then, when I would discuss my resolution to become a vegetarian, some acquaintances, who were confirmed carnivores, would respond with ridicule. I interpreted their reaction as defensive; their commitment to meat eating was so entrenched in their habits, reinforced by their tastes, that the vegetarian option seemed like no option at all.

But however strong the argument for foreswearing meat may be, I think a stance of tolerance is called for. This is so for two reasons. First, as implied, I do not practice in full what I preach. I continue to consume fish, and I cannot doubt that fish are sentient. A new word has emerged to describe people such as myself – “piscatarian.” It is a word I do not use, or employ with discomfort. While descriptively accurate, speaking for myself, it is an attempt to mask my violation of the principles that guide me and an eating style to which I aspire. “Hypocritical vegetarian,” more accurately describes who I am, and I advertise myself as such with a sense of humor to blunt the discomfort of my falling short. In short, I am in no moral position to be passing judgement on others.

We need to tread gently, and this brings me to the topic under discussion, namely, how should those so committed try to move the Ethical Society in this direction which seems, at least to me (and an increasingly number of other members) to be ethically compelling?

This is a strategic question. The traditional religions, conservatively interpreted, all profess dietary rules. And in Judaism and Islam, especially, they are understood as divine commands that carry the weight of absolutism. Ethical Culture, by contrast, is a liberal religion that eschews dogma, binding creeds and lacks a divine commander whose edicts require obedience. For Ethical Culture, authority rests ultimately in individual autonomy, which works itself out to a diversity of beliefs, no less concerning choices about what to consume and what not to.

Yet this individualism, which yields a pluralism of values, by no means has produced chaos or a community without norms. Our guiding commitment to the primacy of human dignity ensures that Ethical Culturists overwhelmingly partake of a common humanistic world-view and overlapping political positions. Ethical Culture has a group character. So, there is little doubt that Ethical Culture is politically progressive. Ethical Culture is not a pacifist organization, but we are pacifistically-oriented and skeptical of militarism. The positions that Ethical Culture entertains are shaped by its primary values, its collective history and its being continually in dialogue with the issues of the day.

Within progressive circles issues concerning food production, food consumption and the welfare of animals are currently on the agenda. So, there is no surprise that several Ethical Societies are simultaneously grappling with what food choices are appropriate within the Societies themselves, at social gatherings, in post-platform meals and at other occasions that being us together.

Given both our overarching commonality of values and our respect for individual differences within those broader commonalities, it seems that the best approach is one of gradualism as the community moves in the direction of “ethical eating.” Laying down binding rules will be interpreted as moralistic and generate a backlash from those who hold to different principles with regard to what to eat, and who feel that their autonomy is being violated. Moreover, while Ethical Societies may be politically progressive, they tend to be internally conservative. It takes a long time before new ideas and new programs gain traction.

The place to start is through conversation. Those taking leadership should begin by talking about vegetarianism and veganism. The next step is to introduce different food options at Society events, so that the circle of inclusion will be as wide as possible and no one will feel excluded. This can be supplemented by adult education courses related to food choices and their impact on the environment, health and animal welfare. As these changes are made and discussion goes on around them, the culture of “ethical eating” will over time change in what many feel is a favorable direction.