Michael Franch

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?

A friend’s daughter was married recently. The wedding invitation had boxes to check for beef, chicken, or fish, and also a box marked “vegetarian.” “But,” my friend asked the caterer, “some of our friends are vegan, “how will we know about them?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” the caterer responded, “they’ll tell you.”

Our culture has changed a lot since I became a vegetarian in the early ’70’s. Actually, at first I didn’t call myself a vegetarian. I was simply someone who didn’t eat meat. To me, back then, and to most of society, “vegetarian” implied some sort of a crank. That’s how it was in those days, when not eating meat was not culturally accepted. I remember a few times when I felt coerced into eating meat because not to do so would hurt the hostesses’ feelings.

We’ve come a long way. We even have vegan food at National Leaders Council meetings!

Our Leaders’ meetings are vegetarian and vegan because there are Leaders for whom this is ethically important and their colleagues respect their views. At one time, some of us had to bring our own little stashes—soy milk, for example—to maintain our diets. Now we have cow’s milk, soy milk, and almond milk. It reflects our collegiality and the spirit of our community. Also, since we have great-tasting food, I don’t think the omnivores feel deprived. But if someone pulled out a personal beef sandwich, nobody would object. Our uniting principle is not vegetarianism in itself, but concern for our community.

While a different category of accommodation, this mirrors avoiding foods such as peanuts because others cannot eat them without discomfort or serious health effects. An analogous situation is smoking. At one time our meetings were thick with smoke—as just about every place was—and now we don’t smoke. A leader who wants an after-meal cigar is free to do so outside; we don’t insist that no one smoke at all, under any circumstances. But when we are together, in community, it is a different issue.

These National Leaders Council meetings are an example of how a group develops a way of being together that works for the community, in a specific setting. For all I know, some of my colleagues might immediately drive to a McDonalds after our meetings to gorge on Big Macs. But while we’re together, our voluntary community norms prevail.

So, too, for an Ethical Society which goes vegetarian or vegan in its communal events. How would a Society or Fellowship go about making a decision to only have vegetarian or vegan foods at its events? And what would it mean for community life? What does it say about the community? Consider these aspects:

Why are we doing this? To implement such a policy, it should come with a clearly articulated statement of why the Society is doing this. It might require a period of study to explore the ethical aspects of this change. Members should be able to explain the policy. There can be multiple reasons: for some members, it’s compassion for animals; for others, concern for their own health; for others, awareness of the ecological burden of meat production. Overall, it is a statement of community.

How do we do it? It would make potluck dinners and other events a bit more complicated. People would need to know, for example, what a vegan dish is and what it is not. They will need suggestions on how to prepare vegan or vegetarian dishes, but this is not complicated, and it need not sacrifice tastiness or variety. Furthermore, it need not be all or nothing, at least at first; the policy could be that there would be at least one vegetarian or vegan option; I know a congregation that has a monthly “Soup Sunday;” most of the soups are not vegan or even vegetarian, but there is always at least one vegan soup.

What does it say about our Society community? First, let’s consider what it does not say about the Society or Ethical Culture. It is not a precept of Ethical Culture that people be vegetarian or vegan. It is not a requirement of membership in the community, nor does it require that members adhere to a vegetarian or vegan diet outside Society events. It models behavior, but does not make a demand on the world.

What it does say is that this is a thoughtful and caring community. All the Society’s members might not care about these issues, or might care about them in different ways or for different reasons, but they care about their community.

In fact, it is just one aspect of how a Society seeks to be a caring and inclusive community. Does it take measures to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing members and guests can participate? Those with mobility impairments? How about those with allergies to scents? It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between issues that some see as trivial and others as crucial. What is personal idiosyncrasy and what is essential for the community to consider and accommodate? These are sometimes difficult discussions, but that is not a reason not to consider them.

Safe, but Challenging. It is an indication of changes in the larger society that the editor of Reflections has asked his contributors to ponder this issue. American society has been changing, and is far different from what it was when I became a vegetarian. This way of life has moved from being perceived as a personal quirk into an important ethical issue, one with implications not only for animal welfare but also for the health of the planet itself.

This shift in societal perception means that a Society adopting such a policy as we’ve been discussing would not become a societal outlier. If we had a Kansas City Society, that statement might not be true, but I think it’s true for most places where there are Ethical Societies.

The challenge comes when members ask if they should adopt the rules for the Society potluck as guides for their own lives. That is a shift from “the Ethical Society helps me think about ideas and issues” to “the Ethical Society is not only about ideas but about personal behavior. My personal behavior can, even in a small way, change the world.” Becoming a vegetarian or a vegan—even, if like I did years ago, you shy away from using those terms—makes the ethical personal. It will mean living your life more consciously, negotiating dinner invitations, and scanning restaurant menus. At least in today’s world, you’ll have a box to check on wedding invitations.