Penultimate

November 20, 2016

If my math is correct (and it might not be) this is the 364th Thornapple Blog. I’ve written the blog from Italy, France, Japan and Germany, as well as at least four or five times from the lounge at Schipol in the Netherlands. My laptop has gotten thinner and lighter over the years, and in truth, so have I. Although I still carry too many pounds, I dropped about 15 of them a couple of years back when I switched medications and stopped trying to eat so many vegetarian meals.

Sooner or later (if I live that long) I intend to write a piece for my day job which I’ll call “Why I Am (Not Even) a Demi Vegetarian.” It’s an oblique reference to an essay by R.M. Hare, who was Peter Singer’s mentor. Singer was one of our “Food Ethics Icons” so if you’re scratching your head with that reference, follow this link. Hare was quite influential in ethics for developing “two-level utilitarianism”. The basic idea is that common sense morality is just fine most of the time (that’s one level), but sometimes you need to think more carefully about the consequences of your actions (that’s the other level). It is kind of amazing what you can become well-known for in the academic world, but that’s another rabbit-hole altogether.

At any rate, Hare felt compelled to explain why he had not followed his more famous student’s reasoning into vegetarianism. He gave his answer in an essay called “Why I Am Only a Demi Vegetarian,” He pointed out that Singer’s argument was targeted against factory farmed animals, and that he (Hare) was convinced that Singer was right on that score, but it didn’t mean you couldn’t eat any meat, just that meat. Besides, he was not eating much meat—mostly fish—and cutting down on your meat would send the same signals. Hare wrote before we had the sense that beef and dairy production might be contributing to global warming, but his arguments would have meant pretty much the same thing on that score. I guess you could say that it was the rationale for “meatless Mondays” type of dietary activism.

Well, I had been doing that kind of vegetarianism for a while, though given the number of meals I eat away from home, I really can’t say I know much about where any meat I eat at a restaurant might have come from. But the general point being that I was trying to do several meatless days a week, while also trying not to eat meat more than once a day. I wasn’t trying to cut down on dairy, and that might have been my downfall. At any rate, this diet did not make me thin. And in fact after a bout with a nasty anti-biotic resistant microbe a few years back, it took over a year for me to bring my blood sugars down to the just “slightly elevated” target level for most Type 2 diabetics. Finally, my doctor said that I had to give up the pasta and rice meals that had become too frequent on my meatless days. Eat a burger instead was the medical advice.

And in fact I lost some weight and my blood sugars went down. It’s my little personal “maybe vegetarianism isn’t for everybody” story. I’ve long argued that my colleagues who support vegetarianism as a moral obligation are rather insensitive to the life rhythms of working mothers, people who depend on hunting and, indeed, the very poor around the world whose meat consumption consists of a little broth in their gruel. My point was not that vegetarianism is impossible, but that it is a lot more difficult for some people than it is for others. I’m not sure whether Hare would count this as a moral argument, but I think that he might.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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