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What Does It Take to Be a Vegetarian?


A Clear-Cut Position?
At first it could seem that classic vegetarianism is a clear-cut position: you choose not to eat animals. Some may be vegan, and choose not to eat also animal products as well as fish. At a closer look, however, the matter is not really that simple and the relationship between a general commitment to vegetarianism and its practical application may prove to be more complex matter. Here is why.

Vegetarian Riddles: Some Examples
The main problem for vegetarians is to specify what counts as an animal. In a first approximation, one may adopt the conception of the zoologist as a guide to a vegetarian diet. But, if so, then insects and worms – among others – should be expunged from our diet.

Typically, indeed, it is not the zoologist conception of the animal kingdom to be employed in defining vegetarianism. A widespread understanding of the term draws a line between those animals that are capable of feeling pleasure and sufferance and those that are not. Thus, if in order to eat an animal we would have to inflict it some sufferance, provided we have means of satisfying our hunger that would not involve any sufferance, we shall refrain from eating the animal. But, what about an oyster? Does the oyster feel pain? Or, more poignantly, suppose I decide not to hunt a deer living in my backyard because I would inflict some pain upon it, when I know that the deer is actually going to die of starvation, what would be best, to try and hunt it down or to let it starve? As a matter of fact, we do know that a large percentage of the deer population in North America dies each year of starvation; why not hunt some of them?

Another proposal draws the line between those beings that are capable of an autonomous life and those that are not. However, what to say of those humans (and animals in general) whose autonomy seems to be impaired: could they be eaten?

In general, it seems that it is quite hard to draw a precise and non-arbitrary line between that we can be eaten and that which cannot be eaten by vegetarians. But there are some practical difficulties as well.

Practical Difficulties
Consider those wines that are produced by the employment of animal byproducts, such as gelatin or chitosan (derived from crustaceans). Despite the fact that gelatin and chitosan may not actually be present in large quantities in the final product, the wine is still obtained via the use of animal parts. Should you drink it?

Or, take some breads and focaccias, which may contain animal fats as ingredients: on the surface they are vegetarian options, but actually they are not. If you are vegetarian, are you committed to avoid them?

What about a situation in which by sticking to your vegetarianism you would end up forcing everyone else to eat more expensive and hard to source foods?

From Principles to Actions
The questions raised so far exemplify what we can regard as a fairly common problem in ethics: the one of tying any general principle to specific actions. There seems to be a gap between theory and practice, as one can always find reasons for regarding some specific applications of a rule as legitimate exceptions; thus, the application of the rule always leaves some room for interpretation.

Further Online Readings

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  5. What Does It Take To Be a Vegetarian?

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