Like most of the strongly held opinions that made up my identity when I was in college, such as the utility of taxing custom rims or the superiority of Megadeth over Metallica, vegetarianism has turned into from ideology into mere habit. It still exists like an old UCI sweatshirt as a vestige of the intellectual life I used to have. I still practice it (and still listen to Megadeth) more because it’s what I did yesterday and not because I am a consistently, mindfully moral person. Obviously, no completely moral person can listen to Megadeth as much as I do.
Most of this post will have the odor of long-dormant dogma reactivated. If I begin to sound too strident, just be glad you know me now and not when I was 22.
The moral crisis that fomented the change in my life from meat eating to not began with the death of one of my dogs in the summer of 2001. I felt suddenly aware of how much his admittedly simple life had meant to me, and how distressing it was to think of his last moments of suffering. I suppose almost any pet owner in the same situation feels the same things. This time, for some reason, I was also very aware of just how few beings in the world would be capable of drawing this kind of reaction, and as weeks went on afterward, this took up more and more of my thoughts. I was still feeling the loss itself, and some odd guilt as well for feeling this so selectively. I began to notice that the gap between my overriding preoccupation with my dog’s well-being at the end of his life and my complete ignorance of the well-being of every other animal on earth said something very bad about how my moral circle of concern applied to the world outside.
My dog’s death that summer, and the terror attacks soon to come after it, made very salient in my mind the inhumanity of how I drew my moral circle. Many of us have heard “expanding circle” arguments about morality, in which we treat the things that are close to us as valuable, and further things less valuable, until we are basically indifferent to things that are very distant or different from us. What my dog’s death made very clear to me is that 1) my moral circle where animals were concerned had a monstrous gap between the animals I cared about and the animals I didn’t, and 2) the center of my moral circle was quite small and was only justified by my own ego.
The way a circle of moral concern is often understood is that we simply don’t care about the things/beings outside it; we don’t wish them harm, but we also don’t actively try to improve their lives. In my case, the momentary suffering ending in death of one creature debilitated me for some time, which is an inevitable and even healthy response for pets and family members near the center of one’s circle of concern. The creatures outside of my moral concern, however, weren’t simply benignly outside of my attention. I paid people to emiserate and kill them, albeit indirectly. I enjoyed the fruits of their deaths and considered the savings from not giving them comfortable lives a bonus for my wallet. In short, I wasn’t indifferent to them; I actively participated in their torture and destruction. The revision of the outline of my moral circle from a slow fadeout into a sheer cliff was intellectually jarring.
And the center of my moral circle was me, just me and all my coincidental associations. I don’t think things enter or leave my life for cosmically meaningful reasons. My dog was adopted by my family, lived with us, and was loved by us because we happened to choose him that day when I was in fifth grade, not because he was made of clearly superior stuff and the universe especially wanted him to have a good life. Through the accident of his association with us, in addition to having been born a domesticated dog rather than a pig, chicken, or cow, he was granted a life of gentle leisure rather than one of neglect, prolonged discomfort or constant agony. His death would be seen as a tragedy rather than a transaction because he happened to come into contact with us. In other words, my family and I were the center of a bizarre moral universe in which only the few animals near us had human-like moral value, and all others deserved to die to make our sandwiches tastier. Our circle of concern wasn’t based on logical or universal criteria like the capacity to feel, consciousness, or a complex nervous system, but was transparently based on whether you happened to be lucky enough to know us. It was a solipsistic moral circle, and as I mentioned earlier, the edges were dropoffs into moral worthlessness.
So by becoming vegetarian I convinced myself that my moral circle was something I could justify. Now at least I wasn’t basing the moral value of animal life on its proximity to me, and deeming those animals who failed to meet that arbitrary criterion subject to slow torture and death.
I don’t completely agree with this point of view now, since the suffering of animals outside of human society is arguably worse than that of animals living in countries with decent animal welfare laws, even if they are being raised for meat. If I had the choice between a meat meal from an actually happy cow (the ones from California regrettably aren’t) and a vegetarian meal of 100% imported and processed rainforest-grown grains, I might really need to think about my choice. Of course, we don’t live in a country with decent animal welfare laws, so I’ve never had to resolve that conundrum.
(FYI, my last meaty meal ever was chicken soft tacos from the Del Taco on Campus Drive.)