Loving The Natural World and Being Vegetarian
Firstly, to be clear from the outset, what follows is not an argument for or against vegetarianism or veganism. Rather, my aim is to address a view that has been put to me several times recently – namely, that in order for a professed love of the natural world to be fully authentic, one must be vegetarian. In other words, the belief is that there is a logical connection between a claim that one loves the natural world and whether or not one is vegetarian or vegan; to claim that one loves the natural world and eats meat is a contradiction. This contradiction can be understood in much the same way as the contradiction”It’s raining and it’s not raining” (p&~p).
My intention here is to point out that this position is false. It is not the case that there is any kind of logical connection between a love of the natural world and being vegetarian; it is wholly possible to possess a deep love of nature and eat meat. Instead, we should look to the examples we provide in the form of our thoughts and actions as that which conditions what we understand as authentic (and authoritative) love of the natural world. Such examples, as I will show, also in part condition our conceptual landscape through providing a foundation for the critical concepts that we use to describe our relationship with the natural world, and the rules that govern their application. In other words, I argue that examples which we take as authoritative expressions of love of the natural world condition a realm of meaning that is interdependent with the development and the character of the critical concepts we have at our disposal. It is the contingency of how we take such examples which means that there cannot be a logical connection between being vegetarian and an authentic love of the natural world.
There is no metaphysics underpinning vegetarianism or veganism in relation to authentic love of the natural world; a love of the natural world does not logically require vegetarianism of the lover.
To put some flesh on the bones of this argument, I will start with an example taken from Raimond Gaita’s book The Philosopher’s Dog:
During the worst of the drought of the 1980s my father [Romulus Gaita] had thirty or so goats. He had them because he felt sorry for a goat with a broken leg he had seen at the market. He bought it only so that he could tend to its injury but, when the goat’s leg mended, my father thought it should have company and so he bought it a mate. From those two he eventually got thirty and they brought him nothing but hard work and sorrow. When my father ran out of feed for his goats he cut grass at the side of the road with a scythe, trailer after trailer load, month after month. At the time he was over sixty years old and the work placed great strain on his health. The farmers in the region who saw him at work and saw its results—grass cut for fifteen or so kilometres along the road from Maryborough to Castlemaine—were astonished that he would work so hard and risk his health for animals, especially since they knew that he earned nothing from them..
Occasionally my father killed a goat to eat, but mostly he killed them to feed to his dogs...When my daughter Eva heard that he sometimes killed his goats she was distressed... ‘How could he do it?’ she asked me. Really she meant how could he, of all people, he who cares so much. I asked her if she knew anyone or had even heard of anyone who was kinder to animals than her grandfather. ‘No,’ she said. (Gaita, R. 2003. p.213-214)
The example illustrates that compassion and love for the natural world does not require that we do not kill animals for meat. It thus shows to be false the thought that if one kills animals for food then love and compassion for them must (logically) be counterfeit.
However, if one nevertheless maintains such a position, the answer is as follows: it is the authority of such examples that is primary; moral reasons for vegetarianism depend on them as opposed to the other way round. Vegetarianism for moral reasons is made intelligible by a love of the natural world that is interdependent with (and, accordingly, grounded in) the kind of realisation that struck Eve in relation to the example set by her grandfather and (the ‘and’ is important) her own preconceived ideas about humans killing animals and what it means to do so. If examples were not primary – if our moral positions were not ontologically dependent upon them – what would give us so much as the idea that we should be vegetarian for moral reasons?
In other words, the authority of an example that someone sets does not depend on a principle that they might adopt, but rather on what is revealed about them (and the objects upon which their examples are centred) through the examples that they set. The idea of vegetarianism as expressive of love and compassion for the natural world and its creatures is, itself, ontologically dependent upon the examples that give it intelligibility in the first instance. Accordingly, the principle of vegetarianism and its adoption is not a metaphysical underpinning that arbitrates whether or not one’s profession of love of the natural world is authentic or counterfeit. Rather, it is morality that judges the principles we adopt and the kinds of rights we accord, not the other way round; morality judges which principles are acceptable and which are not.
Put another way: examples of authentic and counterfeit forms of love of the natural world are ontologically prior to the principles we might adopt in relation to it. Without such examples, the idea of principles in relation to such things would make no sense. And, of course, there is always the possibility that our moral principles come apart from morality. This is brought out well in Leo Tolstoy’s short story ‘Father Sergius.
Father Sergius is a highly successful military figure who abandons his career to become a monk. In this enterprise he also gains a great reputation for saintliness. During this time a woman tries to seduce him and Sergius chops off one of his own fingers to defeat his lust.
As the philosopher Peter Winch points out, Sergius’s actions were not (as might be supposed) a conflict between the importance he accorded to his lust and religious conviction – rather, ‘at that stage, the problem presented to him by his lust was understood by him from the perspective of genuine religious belief...the fulfilment of his religious duties was not then for him an object to be achieved. (Winch, P. 1969. P.189). Later on however, Sergius’s religious convictions begin to wane and he allows himself to be seduced; nevertheless, outside of this occurrence, he continues the practices that gained him his saintly reputation. – Once Sergius’s religious perspective had dropped away, the resources to understand his lust from a religious perspective were no longer available to him; what mattered before no longer mattered now, and yet his religious practices remained those which had nourished his saintly reputation.
Principles Coming Apart From Morality
In a fundamental sense, this is a question of authenticity. Father Sergius’s response to the first (unsuccessful) attempt at seduction failed because it was understood from the perspective of genuine religious conviction. It was not a question of conflict between lust and religious conviction, and that meant that celibacy was not ‘an object to be achieved’ (ibid.) against the odds, so to speak; rather, it was a way of living and it was unthinkable that he might give in to his lust. The second attempt showed Sergius’s perspective to have changed – in this case, it was a conflict between lust and his religious convictions; he succumbed to his lust – it had become thinkable. But even if he had not succumbed to it, the fact that it had become a conflict is enough to say that his claims to religious conviction (authenticity) in relation to his practices were no longer authentic; the practices had become objects to be achieved because his convictions no longer mattered beyond their instrumental value (they were, therefore, no longer convictions).
In moral terms that relate to love of the natural world and vegetarianism much the same kind of thing can occur. One can become vegetarian through one’s love of nature and, provided one is sincere, that will be understood from the perspective of one’s love; vegetarianism will not be an object to be achieved and the examples that one sets will reflect that. Indeed, this form of authenticity is interdependent with the kinds of examples to which it gives rise. (Similarly, there would be no such thing as the kind of saintliness to which Sergius’s convictions gave rise because there would be no grounds upon which such examples could be set.) There could be no vegetarianism on moral grounds if this were not so.
Once these kinds of example become intelligible however, it is also possible for such moral grounds to fall away and for our moral principles to come apart from that which originally gave them (moral) substance. Thus, vegetarianism, like Sergius’s later (failed) celibacy, then becomes an object to be achieved. The principles (as it were) then exist separately (and with no moral authority) to that which originally gave them substance.
Accordingly, it becomes clear that it is the examples we set which condition our moral understanding (our moral landscape) and the principles that we adopt. But it is wrong to think that these principles, therefore, possess moral authority in their own right. As such, we can see in the example set by Romulus Gaita a love of the natural world that ran as deep as those set by any vegetarian.
Gaita, R. The Philosopher’s Dog. Routledge. London. 2003
Tolstoy, L. Father Sergius in Tales of Sexual Desire. Capuchin Classics. London. 2009
Winch. P. ‘Moral Integrity’ in Ethics and Action – Studies in Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. London. 1972.
Wittgenstein, L. ‘A Lecture on Ethics’ in The Philosophical Review. Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jan., 1965), pp. 3-12
Wittgenstein. L. Philosophical Investigations. 1953. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Third edition. Oxford. 2001.