Vegetarianism

Following a recent talk organised by Sceptic Soc, a society I co-founded, here’s my take on it. I obviously can’t cover all the many aspects of the issue so here’s a response to what was mentioned in the talk and ensuing discussion.

The main argument put forward was the economic one – the whole argument about each kilogram of meat requiring countless gallons of water and stacks of food to grow, while millions are starving in Africa. It’s true that meat production is hugely inefficient, however I do wonder why vegetarians believe that by depriving themselves of all meat, the suffering they incur on themselves, their friends and family is worth less than the infinitesimal benefit to people in Africa. What’s wrong with depriving themselves of just a bit of meat? Let’s take a look at a diagram:

Assuming the law of diminishing returns is true: if vegetarians eat enough meat to make them OY happy (maximum possible) – let’s say eating that much meat is of maximum utility to the person. Africa consequently gets minimum food. But almost the same utility (OC) can be achieved by eating much less meat, giving Africa OD food – much more. So I can understand the logic behind limiting intake of meat. what I can’t understand is what happens when vegetarians eat O meat. Africa gets OX food, but all one needs to do is deprive Africa of a tiny amount of food to provide just a bit more meat to vegetarians. This might be just half a steak every weekend, but is nevertheless still some meat. The utility this gives to vegetarians is huge, since it is a very rare luxury for them. So by depriving Africa of BX food, the vegetarians get OA utility. One would have to be very concerned indeed for Africa to create such misery for oneself by not eating any meat when by just eating a tiny amount of meat and having a tiny effect on Africa, personal happiness is increased so greatly.

The argument that one should be prepared to kill one’s own meat is also flawed. As pointed out by Dr Zetie, killing meat is incredibly messy (disembowelling hares etc.) and doing something like killing a cow requires tools that most of us simply haven’t got, although a taser in combination with a large knife might work.

The religious argument was also put forward. I guess I’ll always have to differ with religious vegetarians as I just personally find religion as a list of rules to be obeyed blindly nonsensical. The apparently famous quotation ‘only fools argue whether to eat meat or not’ was used – I personally believe that it’s more intelligent and less foolish to debate about it before making a decision than just accept it and say ‘God said so’. The same religion on the other hand believes each animal has a soul and that each soul is part of God’s big soul and by killing any soul you’re damaging God and therefore yourself since your soul is also part of God. Maybe this makes perfect sense to some people, but I personally can’t see myself buying this idea.

Overall, I think it’s true that by reducing meat consumption the world can dramatically change the distribution of food and help countries which really need it. But vegetarianism, with its inconsistent treatment of fish (if anything fish is more in danger than other animals) and dubious religious links is just not for me. Besides, even on a serious note, meat is very, very tasty and nobody should be forced to live without ever having eaten meat.

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9 Responses to Vegetarianism

  1. kirk says:

    thaw/schmitt will be proud

  2. Ketan says:

    thisis obviously flawed, as it seems to be based on the idea of meat being essential for happiness, which is clearly not the case, as there are over a billion vegetarians worldwide who would not be any happier if they ate meat…
    if you look at the real facts it proves that chasing after meat eaters is not what we should be doing in any case though…

  3. Bryant Tan says:

    I would argue that meat is not essential for happiness, but that most vegetarians suffer from not eating meat, therefore meat is of ‘utility’ to them, to use game theory lingo used in von Neumann’s excellent book ‘Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour’. This utility is obviously not all about the taste (which however is far from insignificant), but also the (perhaps only slight) social exclusion which Mr Thaw touched upon and the distress of family members and friends over their perceived state of health etc.

  4. Lewis Smith says:

    Perhaps knowledge they are minimising harm to defenceless animals, whilst contributing to better conditions for emaciated Africans provides more happiness than “half a steak every weekend”.

  5. Bryant Tan says:

    I’d argue some of the animals involved are far from defenceless, and that the effect of the vegetarian population really isn’t that great; certainly individuals have pretty much no effect. Besides, there was a huge problem last time when food aid was being sent to Africa for free from Europe which meant the local African agricultural economy never got off the ground – the problem had nothing to do with a food shortage, it was about incompetent manipulation of Africa’s economy by Europe. Rather than going vegetarian, why not simply try to tackle the bigger issues? Why inflict harm upon yourself when there are so many alternatives?

  6. Lewis Smith says:

    Animals involed are far from defenceless? Are you kidding? Farm animals? hello? These animals go through horrible deaths, and perhaps it is unconscionable to vegetarians to know how much suffering an animal has went through simply to give one “happiness”?

    Even if their influence wasn’t that great… so what? The vegetarian population has doubled in the past 10 years so obviously something is occuring. If you were a socialist would you not vote for a socialist party just because most people vote more conservative?

    Who said anything about sending food aid to africa? Im talking about a global food shortage, where it takes a lot more food from crops etc to produce a cow than the cow itself provides. Instead of using crops to raise cattle, that food can be used elsewhere. Cow fecal matter causes HUGE contamination problems in the US especially. A large proportion of american water is used on feeding cows. The methane gas also contributes considerably to global warming.

    vegetarians also tend to live longer than meat eaters. Again, you are exaggarating the “harm”. I have been a vegetarian for almost 10 years and its easy; I seriously don’t feel inhibited at all. How about being a vegetarian whilst doing other things? The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

  7. Bryant Tan says:

    Did I really write that ‘animals involved are far from defenceless’? I must have been talking out of the side of myself that never sees reality, to use a euphemism. On the other hand what about organic meat?

    About Africa, it is a huge resource which the world has failed to tap into. The food shortage I believe is a partially economic phenomenon – Africa’s agricultural economy yields far less than its theoretical maximum. That’s where the food aid created a problem which is actually soluble.

    And the reason for apparently greater longevity is probably that most meat eaters go a bit overkill. Meat every meal is definitely excessive for example… Also most unhealthy food is related to meat – especially deep fried stuff. And I guess not having been a vegetarian, I can’t really say much about the suffering and only take on trust what my Economics teacher said about it from first hand experience. For me I think it would be intolerable. Clearly not for you.

    Anyway, when the food crisis becomes critical, there’s always Soylent Green, made from high-energy plankton! :P

  8. Lewis Smith says:

    As far as Im aware, there is very minimal regulations on how a company can claim its product is organic meat.

    To be honest, I havent studied Africas economic situation enough to make any assertions here.

    Do plankton have feelings? haha :P

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