Half a Vegan (repost)

I've been thinking for some time that I really can't justify the animal products in my vegetarian diet--the milk, eggs, cheese, etc. It's very unfortunate to reach that conclusion, but irresistible. In fairyland, milk and cheese come from happy cows that laze around in the sunshine, while bulls do a little light labor nearby. Eggs come from barnyard chickens who consort with cockle-doodle-doo roosters. But I'm afraid it isn't so. Even if you buy organic eggs and dairy products (as I try to do) there's quite a bit of suffering and death behind these products. For evidence you can read Peter Singer and Jim Mason--The Ethics of What We Eat.

And so what is a cappucino and pancake loving person to do? Why not just eat more vegan meals? Become half a vegan? There was a great article about becoming a sometimes vegetarian (or vegan) in The New York Times back in June. The author pointed out that a certain number of fractional-vegetarians benefit animals and the envirionment just as much as one whole vegetarian. He also suggests making explicit pacts with others to keep yourself going, and doing so using online "commitment" websites like stickK.com.

I admit, there's a certain sort of moral theory on which this suggestion is pretty strange. If killing animals were strongly analogous to killing people, you'd have to be repelled by fractional-vegetarians and vegans. They're something like cannibals who cut back by 50%. We want people to go all the way when it comes to using other humans for food.

But from my ethical vantage point, being half a vegetarian or half a vegan is a good idea. And thus I'm paying more attention to vegan cookery. Without further ado, I offer you (dear reader) a vegan recipe.
In olive oil, sautee a chopped up zuchinni with a large crushed garlic clove. Add about a cup of tomato sauce, 16 oz. of drained black beans, and 16 oz. of drained hominy, plus water. Add some coriander, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper, to taste. Let all that heat for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, chop up avocados, tomatoes, lettuce, red peppers, red onion, and cilantro and arrange on big plate. Pour soup in bowls and let folks add salad to taste. Plus red pepper flakes, for extra excitement. (Crave cheese? For a vegetarian version, add shredded smoked cheese to the "salad" plate. Or to keep it vegan, try smoked soy cheese...if you can stand the idea.)
Elsewhere in food land. I appreciated Mark Bittman's list of 101 salads in the NYT recently. I love the way he organized them into vegan, vegetarian, meaty, etc. categories. The idea that you should be a vegetarian/vegan more often is an idea whose time has come.


Faust said...

I concur that a partial approach makes sense here. Especially if you are someone, like me, who does not have a problem with killing animals per se, but rather has a problem with agribusiness.

It's pretty clear for example that my friends who have some chickens in a coop in their backyard and get eggs from them aren't doing anything particularly obnoxious. They treat their chickens well and they get some eggs. Is this bad? It's hard to see how.

Anyway we could step through all the variables and the actual "killing for meat" is going to be its own category regardless of the means of production, but I think even there one would have to say there is a different between an animal that is raised in a "normal" or "pleasant" environment, or even say in the wild in the case of say...deer, and animals raised in the conditions which anyone who has studied mass animal production will know all too well.

If we could effect a total reduction of agribusiness by some significant percentage, say 50%, that seems that it would a good thing. And that can be accomplished by turning half the population into vegetarians or vegans or having the whole population cut their consumption by 50%

This remains a utilitarian approach and not a deontological one. So it won't satisfy the purist but surely it is pointed in the right direction.

Jean Kazez said...

I think the partial approach ought to have some appeal for people who look at killing in animals in all sorts of ways, utilitarian and deontological. The only person it won't appeal to is someone who really sees killing animals as just like killing people. There really aren't many ethicists who look at things that way.

Actually--let me qualify that. There's another basis for criticizing the partial approach. You might say that half-way measures make people feel better, so they lose the incentive to take more dramatic steps. On that basis, the animal rights lawyer Gary Francione doesn't get behind human farming initiatives. He can't stand the sort of moderation you find in Singer's book "The Ethics of What You Eat." Presumably he'd be not so keen on half-vegans and 19/20 vegetarians.

amos said...

I'm a vegetarian myself, but there's a 8 year-old child in this household, and I don't hold him to my standards. First of all, he likes to eat meat, and second, I'm not at all sure that a vegetarian diet (without fish) is appropriate for a growing child.
Now, I'm almost sure that a vegan diet, without dairy products or eggs, is not appropriate for a child. Finally, soy cheese just isn't as tasty as real cheese, and would you subject a child to a diet of soy cheese, after having enjoyed real cheese all your life yourself, until having become a semi-vegan at a relatively late age?

Jean Kazez said...

I believe in making your own decisions. Both our twins chose to be vegetarians--one at the age of 6, the other at 12. It was pretty easy, because they were used to a vegetarian diet at home. They just had to give up ham sandwiches at Subway (to my son's sorrow) and the like.

One of them now talks about being a vegan. Highly reputable nutritionists say that would be fine, but I'm a nervous mother and don't want to take any chances. So...we are heading toward a greater fraction of vegan meals, but no more.

amos said...

After posting yesterday, I googled "vegan diet", and I did see that theoretically, a vegan diet suffices for children. However, first of all, an 8-year-old boy, who refuses to eat vegetables and who eats no fruit besides apples (lots of apples), who only drinks chocolate milk, is very unlikely to be willing to eat the variety of vegetables that a nutritiously adequate vegan diet demands. I doubt that my woman companion, who has no problem with a vegetarian diet, with lots of cheese and eggs, would accept eating a vegan diet either. Both of them might express lip-service about the suffering of animals and give up eating huge portions of meat (it's easier for people to visualize the connection between meat and animal suffering), but from there to do without cheese and eggs is a big step. Even if I myself were willing to eat a 100%vegans diet, there would be the problem of preparing two different menus in one household. Next, from time to time, we have guests, who once again, have no problem with eating cheese or a dish prepared with eggs, but might not be happy to dine on purely vegan fare. Thus, a vegan diet cuts one off from the rest of humanity in a way that a vegetarian diet doesn't, and the bond of eating with others is valuable. By the way, being a vegan also makes it difficult to be a guest in the house of others, who might be willing to boil an egg for one (to replace the meat dish), but hardly are going to look for soy products which are not available everywhere. Finally, I grew up in the 1950's in the golden age of vitamins, in the era in which modern medicine cured or soon would cure all ills. Disliking vegetables, I once suggested to my father that I could substitute my vegetables with some chocolate cookies that contained all the required vitamins. Was I so sure that science had discovered all the nutriments that a human being needs, asked my father. If not, he suggested, eat a balanced diet.

Jean Kazez said...

I relate to what you say about being cut off from the rest of humanity. I don't want to do that to myself. But everything you say is a reason to take seriously the value of fractional veganism. I think it's OK for kids to be fractional vegans too--they don't need every dinner to be laced with eggs and cheese. I rather like this idea.

amos said...

A weekly vegan dinner for young and old might be a good starting point. By the way, I don't understand how a strict vegan survives in the real world. The last time I entered a typical lunch counter in Santiago there were absolutely no sandwiches without meat, and I had to order a meat and cheese sandwich, without the meat. Finding vegan dishes in a normal restaurant, say, in an airport or a hotel, is impossible: you're lucky if you can find an omelet or raviolis with cheese.

Tom said...

This post made me think of Nick Hornby's novel *How to be Good.* Once we get started down the road of thinking that virtually everything we do has a demanding moral dimension (and there are good reasons for trodding that path), we might find ourselves faced with the choice of either living guilt-free in a hovel and sending most of our paychecks to the starving or feeling like we are complete moral failures.

The idea in this post (that it is better to do the best thing at least some of the time if that's all you can commit to--um, Jean, is that right?) seems to me one we should pay attention to. Or it's at least it's one I like. I have one daughter (aged 19) who is a vegetarian (but not a vegan) and a couple other kids (21 and 15) who are omnivores. But they have been raised with probably 2/3 of their dinners being vegetarian (and half of those vegan, I think--they've eaten an awful lot of lentils, red lentils, garbanzos, red beans, and black-eyed peas). So while they've not been raised in an ethically-pure eating home (i.e., vegan), they also know that you can eat well without meat and, sometimes at least, without cheese and eggs.

While I can't lose my taste for the occasional steak, I also would never want to do without a vegan red lentil curry that I make too often for my family's taste.

Ah, life's complications.

Jean Kazez said...

Actually, this post is sort of about "how to be bad." The "half vegan" thing presupposes that we're just not up to doing all that we should. So we should coordinate with other bad people and remember that the really important thing is the impact of our actions on the people or animals we help. As far as they're concerned, two half-bad people are just as good as one really good person! (I don't think I'm destined to be that one really good person.)

Ooh...red lentil curry. I'm a big lover of all sorts of beans.

amos said...

Two ethical goods are in conflict there, so the post is not about how to be bad. One good is to avoid animal suffering, but another good is sharing food with other humans (and not only food), and since very few other humans follow a vegan diet, sharing meals involves eating at least an egg or two.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, My judgment, all things considered is that I should be a vegan. So if I'm not one, it means I'm not doing all I should do. So I'm bad. But I can be a little less bad by eating more vegan meals, and 2-3 less-bad people makes one good person (imapact-wise).

amos said...

Perhaps we have different priorities. For me, the most pressing ethical issue, not something I can rationally defend, is the lack of good human relationships. I dare not say "community", because that has political connotations I wish to avoid. One of the chief ways to build good human relationships is through food and drink sharing. It would have been very different and much less effective if Obama had invited Professor Gates and the police officer to a discussion on race relations rather than to share a beer with him. Now, being a vegan cuts off the possibility of sharing food and drink with most of one's fellows.
Hence, if my priority is to cultivate better human relations, it would be hard for me to be a vegan. That being said, I'm a quite solitary person, which perhaps allows me the perspective to notice how bad human relationships tend to be.

Ophelia Benson said...

Let's see, how to pick a fight on this one.

Hominy - what's up with the hominy?! All the rest of it sounds good, but hominy?

Maybe I'm missing the point.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't really understand what hominy is. I've got this can of stuff that says "hominy." It kind of looks like a grainy corn product and gives the soup the taste of corn tortillas. Got it at Whole Foods. With an attack like this my mind is going to go to mush.

Alex Chernavsky said...

I'm know that I'm bit late to the game here, but I wanted to put in my two-cents'-worth.

I was an ovo-lacto vegetarian for a few months before I did some research and became fully vegan (this happened about five years ago). Veganism is easier than you might think, though I admit that there are occasional challenges along the way (family gatherings and work outings come to mind).

Still, my point is that you (Jean) should considering "just doing it" and going vegan completely. My suspicion is that it'll turn out better than you expected.

Amos wrote: "Now, being a vegan cuts off the possibility of sharing food and drink with most of one's fellows." I don't find this to be true. It's the rare restaurant indeed where you can't find SOMETHING that's vegan. If you're going over to someone's house for dinner, you can warn them in advance of your dietary preferences, and you can also offer to bring a delicious vegan dish to pass. There are lots of vegan recipes that should appeal to vegans and carnivores alike.

I recently got married, and our wedding was fully vegan -- well, except for my leather shoes, which I purchased several years before I became a vegan. As far as I can tell, everyone enjoyed the event. My wife and I went to great pains to make sure that we had food that would appeal to a wide variety of palettes. There are so many great vegan cookbooks these days!

Good luck, Jean.

Alex Chernavsky
Rochester, NY

amos said...

Hello Alex, Let me first congratulate on your marriage. May it be very happy. I see that you live in New York, while I reside in Chile, where the possibilities of finding vegan dishes are, I would hazard to guess, more difficult than in New York. People who know me well are aware that I am a vegetarian and Claudio, who always prepares pizza, leaves a section of the pizza without meat for me. It would be considered rude or even weird to call a host to warn them about one's dietary options here. It's not done. A friend of mine, whom I don't see often, remarried and wanted me to meet his new bride. When I arrived I could see at a glance that she was much more conservative (I'm speaking of life-style, not politics) than his former wife or than I am. Dinner was served. No self-service: 3 prepared plates with a huge, say, one pound slab of beef. I haven't eaten meat for over 10 years, and eating a pound of red meat nauseates me. What could I do? I knew that if I informed my friend's wife that I was a vegetarian, she would consider me "weird" and that for her being weird was the worst of sins, unlike my friend, for whom being weird is one of my many amusing eccentricities. So I forced myself to eat the meat, without a comment, without a murmur. Even so, I failed the test. Since then, whenever my friend has invited me to his house, it has been on occasions when his wife isn't there, and those occasions have been increasingly less frequent.

Jean Kazez said...

Alex, I appreciate your thoughts and maybe one day I will just get on with it and "go vegan" (as PETA says). I imagine you're right that it's not as hard it seems to the non-vegan.

Meanwhile, I think the half-vegan concept has some value. Having taught animal rights for a long time, I've had many students tell me they watched our class videos and stopped eating meat for a couple of weeks. Then they gave in to their cravings, and the net effect was zip. That seems like a pity. It could be that if people simply told themselves to eat less meat, there would be lots of semi-vegetarians and semi-vegans, and they'd be able to stick to it.

It just might be more effective for people to think of their diet as a work in progress, instead of thinking they have black and white alternatives. Maybe. Actually, it would be interesting study empirically how different messages influence behavior.

Dominic said...


interesting questions.

The question about 'how vegan should I be?' is a little like the question 'how much of my money should I give to charity?'
There is a spectrum of responses to the latter question, but one problem for those who believe (as almost everyone does) that it is good to support those less fortunate, is that we could always give more. (Unless, that is, we give away our entire income). We try to find some balance between our duties to others and duties to our families (and ourselves). Even the suggestion by Singer and others that we should give 10% of our income to charity is vulnerable to the question - why not 11%, or 12% or 20% or 50%.
On the other hand, 10% is far more than most people give or appear willing to give. There is a danger that emphasising this figure might discourage people from even giving the small amount that they currently give.

Like donating money to reduce world poverty, measures to reduce animal suffering potentially seem to require enormous personal sacrifice if taken to their logical end.

I think the balanced message is
1. that it is good to care about animal wellbeing, and we should reduce the amount of suffering involved in the production of our food
2. that one way to do this is to adopt a vegan diet
3. that those who are not vegan should be encouraged to reduce the animal products in their diet and supported for doing so even if they are not (yet) able to be vegan.


PS I have been vegan for 10 years or so, but my wife and kids are vegetarian. In the past I have eaten eggs from chickens in my own backyard (don't have any at present).

Jean Kazez said...

My first reaction was that there actually is a stopping point--when all animal products have been removed from your diet, and when you've given to the point of "marginal utility" (as Singer puts it). But even then, you can worry that you haven't done enough. You now have to convince your neighbor to be vegan and to give to the poor. Up to a point "could I do more?" is a useful and motivating question, but then I think it becomes crippling and just plain annoying. I think your "balanced message" is just right!

Dominic said...

thanks Jean,

one problem is - where is the line of diminishing marginal utility to be drawn?

do you eliminate honey (do bees suffer?), what about red wine, beer, wool?
many commercial glues, pharmaceuticals, food additives are suspect...

I draw the line at dairy, eggs (unless I know for sure where they come from), gelatin, but others draw it at meat and fish, and other (purer) vegans draw it further down the line than I do.

I think there are two indirect reasons and one practical reason for the consequentialist concerned about animal rights to be vegan rather than vegetarian.
The practical reason is that it is really hard when eating out to ensure that the food you are served contains only non-animal rennet cheese and the eggs are genuinely free range. If those things are genuine concerns it is 'easier' to be vegan.
The first indirect reason is consistency - the ethical arguments supporting vegetarianism also support not eating dairy products or eggs, and it is an advantage in defending a position (to meat eaters) that you are consistent. (On the other hand it is a disadvantage that it seems like such a big sacrifice)
The second indirect reason is that being vegan always generates questions. There are so many people who are vegetarian that it is no longer (in most places) viewed as a curiosity. But being vegan guarantees that people will ask 'why?'
I don't try to proselytise or convert people when they do ask. I simply suggest something akin to the 'balanced' message above.


Jean Kazez said...

Very true about the way inconsistency becomes a PR problem. I think meat eaters are always looking for a way to dismiss the choices of vegans/vegetarians. If you are "caught" eating fish or wearing leather they think they've "won" and can go on ignoring animal issues.

Then again, I think there are ways to counteract that reaction. You just say--"Right, I'm not a saint. I'm just doing my best." Message: maybe that person could give up something too. Maybe it's not all or nothing.

Then again (again!)--I can really see how people would ask questions about veganism and find that especially thought-provoking.

The issue of drawing the line is interesting. I don't find it ridiculous to care about bees--and rather like going to the local vegan restaurant where there are no animal products served whatever, not even honey.

Dominic said...

my favourite source of vegan recipes on the web is the fantastic blog below



Jean Kazez said...

Thanks for that, and for your comments. I'll check it out!

parrhesia said...

I'm a vegetarian who doesn't drink milk but has recently started buying cheese again. We have chickens in the backyard, but we got them before we decided going vegan was the right thing to do, so for a while there we were would-be-vegan-ovo-vegetarians. But, to be honest, getting chickens in the backyard isn't as cosily ethical as it may seem at first glance.

Firstly, what happened to the male chicks that came out of the batch of eggs that our female chickens hatched from? Shouldn't we have bought an even number of male and female chickens and reared the males for their entire lives in order to pay the true cost of those eggs? Chicken feed isn't that cheap. The deaths of those male chicks (who were probably eaten one way or another) underwrite the cheaper cost of our eggs every day.

Also, chicken feed itself isn't vegetarian, and there are no purely vegetarian chicken feed options anywhere in my city. There is fish meal in the chicken feed we buy, and like all meat products, there are ethical problems with eating fish from an environmental perspective as well as an animal rights one.

I think going vegan is definitely the ideal thing to do for first-world urbanites. We have cooked vegan meals plenty of times for guests and they have been more than satisfied, and we sneak a huge range of vegetables and supplements like flax seed flakes into our kids food via the Bamix or in fruit smoothies. Having said that, I find purism too difficult to maintain, given the culture in which I live, both from a social perspective and from a temptation perspective. We don't really eat meat at all (unless it's free and no-one else is going to eat it), we eat eggs from the chickens we mistakenly bought and we go through phases of no dairy and phases of having a bit of dairy in cheese and yoghurt for the kids. We would be happily lacto-ovo-vegetarian if we had our own little farm and had the room to keep a cow and it's brother, as well as a raise an entire batch of chicks. We are aiming to buy a little farm in Tasmania one day and do just that. :-)

rtk said...

Jean: Easy enough to choose to be a vegan if the plate in front of you is empty. Try staring at some raw lamb with a small dessert of Floating Island or Trifle nearby and pronouncing your virtuous intentions.

Jean Kazez said...

Parrhesia--eggs are tricky. I confess, I didn't even think about the male chicks for the longest time. "buy a little farm in Tasmania"...please, let me come too!

rtk--the baby sheep doesn't tempt me much, but the desserts sound very good.

Marion Delgado said...

As a rural Alaskan who hunted and fished before becoming a vegetarian, and who also dairy farmed in the States, I know how eggs and milk work:

You can't keep old cows and hens, and you can only keep about 10-20% of male animals (although the time may come again when oxen are useful, who knows).

On the other hand, we have the human immunity destroying, polluting, shameful, mechanical, life-denying meat industry.

So you could make dairy and eggs all free-range, etc. (and thus more expensive) which would in turn encourage a slightly more vegan diet, and meanwhile, the males and older animals could BE the meat industry. Meat would cost more, and be less enticing, so meat consumption would go down.

That way no one goes broke, and the transition, which has to happen anyway, from having a meat industry to having it be a side or after market happens fairly naturally.

I also believe in hunting and fishing if you do eat meat - gives the animals the best lifestyle, and it's what they do.