Is Vegetarianism the greatest hypocrisy?
Spoiler Alert! NO, but there are many vegans who will insist that it is.
I'd just like to preface this one-sided discussion (I've turned commenting off) with a short explanation of my credentials here; Yes, I'm a vegan, and I run a vegan restaurant, but I've only been vegan for 5 years, and it's just over two since we stopped offering dairy milks and ice creams in the restaurant. The latter was a concession to those customers we thought we'd drive off if we didn't have some dairy options (the restaurant was started and run for several years as a vegetarian restaurant.) The former comes after 30 plus years as a vegetarian, during which time I occasionally had some vociferous things to say about vegans! The other thing to add is that this is a discussion about relatives, not absolutes, positions not poles. We can see from the shenanigans at Downing Street that the hypocrisy bar is set high, and it can go very high indeed! But it is as possible to hold a highly hypocritical stance about minor misdemeanours as major crimes.
I started writing this article, and losing my way a bit, so shelved it for a while, but the whole question resurfaced in the restaurant recently. Without adding too much detail, a customer in the restaurant, who had visited in the distant past, but only once since Covid lockdowns, embarked on a complaint that they hadn't realised the milk in their drink would be plant not dairy. I pointed out that the drinks menu specifically details the options available. The salient fact that brought their argument to a stuttering close however, was that I knew (and they knew that I knew) that this person was a bona fide naturalist in a field of zoology. My question to them about whether they were about to complain that no animals were harmed in the production of their drink, may have hit home, it certainly took the heat out of the conversation.
Do you like the picture? It's a tart of cherry tomatoes, roasted peppers, butternut and locally produced goat's cheese. I liked the idea of using the Norfolk goat's cheese when I took on River Green as a vegetarian restaurant; It is produced seasonally, locally, does not involve artificial insemination, and the kids aren't removed from their mothers. Later on however, the producers found a new income stream: Goat meat. I'd say that the credentials of the locally produced goat's cheese were better than those of ordinary dairy producers, but I couldn't countenance it, and we soon began the process of veganising the whole menu anyhow. Nevertheless, there are many people who hold that animal welfare is important to them, and yet they would eat this cheese but not the meat. This is not hypocrisy but cognitive dissonance; The ability to hold different and mutually exclusive opinions simultaneously in equally high regard, like believing in a creator god, and evolution.
The thing that separates cognitive dissonance from hypocrisy is the stories we tell ourselves and others to justify our positions. For example I'll start with the least hypocritical position: "I eat meat, I know where my meat comes from, I'm comfortable with how it is produced, grown and manufactured." This, from the mouth of someone who only views animals as food sources is perfectly legitimate; Regardless of your opinion, or the absolute moral imperatives, it's an internally consistent position and involves no dissonance nor hypocrisy. The second the person adds that they have a pet dog, or perhaps cares for the environment, then they have to introduce justifications for their position: They might maintain the raising of animals for food can be made compatible with environmental concerns. Or say that animals should be treated differently as arbitrarily determined only by their utility in relation to humans; Thus wild animals become part of an ecological system, companion animals, a psychological comfort, and farmed animals a physical necessity (notably, different cultures treat different animals as food!) Usually the background story involves the history of man's interaction with that species, whether it has been traditionally hunted, or bred and raised for meat, creating an artificial distinction between animals. Or perhaps they have convinced themselves of an ideal whereby animals live a happy life on a farm, until they are painlessly and 'humanely' dispatched. Some people can maintain this act of cognitive dissonance indefinitely. It only becomes hypocrisy, if they realise their error, but keep up their position: "I eat animals, I keep animals, I'm prepared to treat one group of animals as food, the other as companions, even though there is no moral or scientific justification for this." This position is not dissonant, they now know that the two cannot both be true, yet are prepared to tolerate the situation for convenience, tradition, convention, or their personal need or gratification; It's hypocrisy, pure and simple. Another double standard is viewing animals as food, but not wishing or being capable of doing the killing or butchery. Outsourcing such dirty work and only buying pre-cut or prepared meats is a form of hypocrisy which allows the meat eater to literally put the unpalatable (excuse the pun) aspect of their choices out of sight and mind.
Back in the 1980's we were part of a movement which thought that we could change the world by going vegetarian. We hoped we could initiate a happy place where animals could be looked after and not consumed if enough people joined with us. We were young idealistic and innocent, we didn't have the information readily available to us now, and arguably, it was a more innocent time for food producers too; We didn't know about what happened to male chicks, or the natural life spans of animals. We knew something about factory farmed chickens, but we never imagined a time when cattle too would spend their lives on concrete alone, never feeling the grass beneath their feet, and neither did many farmers at the time. The idea of a fantasy symbiosis between farmed and farmer was a fiction created to obscure our cognitive dissonance. The vision of a vegetarian world was one of a utopian system, where free range animals were complicit in their confinement, offering their bodily produce in return for a life where they would want for nothing and be cared for by the benevolent farmer. The consumer could take dairy and eggs as a by-product of the farming system, which could be harnessed in beneficial ways to serve the planet by producing organic manure for crop growing. It was a fantasy story we told ourselves to hide the reality that we didn't want to hear. It's true that animal agriculture was still only on the cusp of a revolution that would put food production even further beyond the pale, but we closed our eyes to the reality even then, and dreamed that things would get better as we changed vegetarian food and cooking.
Now we know... We know that millions of animals are unceremoniously dispatched because they are the wrong sex. We know that innumerable hectares of land are planted with crops used to feed animals not people. We know that megadairy farms keep cattle in prison-like conditions. We know that veal meat subsidises the dairy industry, that 'free range' chickens are conditioned to want to stay indoors, and we know how that the lifespan of these animals is barely longer than those of their meat-producing cousins, and far short of their 'natural' expectancy. We know the environmental cost of raising cattle for milk, and feel the consequences of global warming. We know about the stress of egg laying, about artificial insemination, about breeding for production ideals; It's almost impossible to not know these things, and we are left with three choices:
We can continue to tell ourselves stories to counter the cognitive dissonance; Going further afield and looking more closely for the fabled 'animal friendly' products. Looking for various farm assured schemes or organic labels, going for plant-based or plant-forward brands or eateries, hoping that they have done the good work for us, in welfare and environmental stewardship.
We can embrace the hypocrisy, justify our divergent positions, claim it is the best of a bad job and that no system can be perfect.
We can change our minds, and change our attitudes. Sometimes, I think it is actually easier to admit that we're wrong, than it is to do anything about it. I'll hold my hands up and say I have been wrong about many things in my life, and I'm sure I still am. I was wrong about vegetarianism, and knew it too for a least a year before I made the change. So these days, when I heard someone saying that they won't eat meat, but they should be free to choose whether to have dairy or eggs, my first instinct was to think they are being more hypocritical than the meat eater who insists that it should be their choice to have bacon with their eggs. However, I realised that when I judge people by the standards I have adopted for myself, expecting them to uphold up an ideal that I failed to do for so long. The hypocrisy is not theirs but mine!
Rather than pander to those choices and resent people for making them, I have removed the options and made the choice for them. They can't complain that no animals were harmed in the making of their food, but they might still try.