is one of the most common measures of morality; it's about cultivating virtue and keeping out the things that don't belong. Among liberals and leftists it is often manifested through food. Veganism is not for everybody--only for the virtuous, those who care about ethics, those who are willing to sacrifice. Eating local, organic, produce and excluding whatever is ethically dubious will make you skinny and healthy and. . . virtuous. Right?
Maybe. If one is concerned with animal welfare and the environment, having a lifestyle that supports that is a spectrum, not a step, and it isn't just food. As humans in the first world, virtually everything we do has a detrimental environmental impact. How does your veggie burger hold up against your refusal to take the bus? The clothes you bought new at Wal-mart? Your soap from the dollar store? Do you know what oilfield your 100% vegan fleece came from? Is it really better, just because the bodies of the dead are rotting in the Niger delta instead of marinating in tariyaki sauce?
I don't mean to belittle the efforts of really dedicated environmentalist vegans. They have my admiration and support. I also don't mean to imply at all that any effort which doesn't cover everything isn't worthwhile. I even believe in being vocal about your ethical choices, and I want people to hold each other (socially) to a high ethical standard with regards to environmentalism.
My beef with this comes in when people think it's ok to try to invoke other people's sense of purity. Moral reasoning, I'm fine with. If you want to stop me from eating meat because of justice--because by eating it I'm doing harm to people and creatures who deserve no violence from me--I am absolutely fine with that. However, I'd rather have vegetarianism forced on me by violence than have people appropriate my understanding of virtue to get me to adopt it on my own.
When we disagree about what priorities are appropriate for the wider society to accept, that effects me but it is not an attack on my identity. When it comes to individual choices, there is only person one who should be allowed to decide what belongs in me--in my body, in my ethics--and what does not. This person is me. If I adopt an ethical standard based on selfish and inconsistent hedonism, as an individual you can think less of me, and as a citizen you can help enact laws that curb my outward behavior--and that's all.
I feel very strongly that trouble comes when outsiders try to arbitrate an individual's sense of purity. Religious readers might disagree with this, but I see this as a major problem in religious practice. When the emotional and ethical development process have not taken place for a teenager to reject pornography of their own accord, based on their own moral foundation, others will often attempt to impose this conclusion socially. The result is a massive cycle of guilt and shame. I don't know if it works or not, but guilt is an ugly motivator--and when allowed to fester and spiral into something huge, it does terrible damage to the person experiencing it.
The thing to be avoided is manipulation--projecting your values over someone else's, or usurping their values so that they will act in support of your preferences.
Besides its modern incarnation, there's a very long spiritual tradition of using food to establish or symbolize moral superiority, using purity. My first bout with severely disordered eating was triggered--after many other things had been set in place--by a sacrament meeting devoted to how fasting can make you pure. You don't stop eating because of things you think; you do it because of things you feel. You do it because you want to feel pure and you don't feel like you deserve to live. When you associate purity with restricting food, you can get a double dose of self-destructive relief from one tragic course of action.
When others try to appropriate my sense of purity for their cause, I get defensive quickly. The idea that veganism isn't for everybody--only for the virtuous--pushes all the wrong buttons. I like to see myself as virtuous. I like to feel myself as pure. I enjoyed exercising for seven hours a day on a 1200 calorie, mostly-vegetable diet, and it makes me angry that people who were supposed to be my friends encouraged me to do so.
I think in dealing with these questions it's terribly important to get in touch with your own sense of virtue, your own sense of purity, your own moral reasoning--and to get in touch with your own judgmental side. Saying "I think you are in the wrong" makes it much clearer whose values are whose than saying "you could be pure if you were like me."
Someday, when there are less triggers associated with it, I'd like to become vegan with the exception of
a) foods I've raised myself humanely, and
b) significant cultural and culinary experiences.
I want to eat at the French Laundry, learn to make a spectacular saag paneer, and taste peeking duck when I'm in China. These moments will not come often, and I choose not to miss them.
My values lead me to think a lot about the ways my time and money impact other people and creatures, but they also lead me to assert my own claim to a rich and full existence. I am willing to take a stand for the things I care about. I am willing to make sacrifices, and I care passionately about changing the world for the better. I am not, and do not plan to be, vegetarian or vegan. This is what I believe about the purity and virtue of the way I eat.