Confessions of a Conservative Vegetarian

“Of course they serve vegetarians, what do you think cows are?”

That’s my dad’s favorite dad-joke every time we go out to eat. When we’re with company, it means I’m about to answer a lot of personal questions. The conversation usually goes like this:

“Wait, so you’re a vegetarian now?”

“Yup!”

“But do you eat eggs and milk?”

“Yup! I just don’t eat meat.”

“But what about fish? Fish has some really important…”

“Sometimes, but rarely.”

“Do you wear wool?”

“What the…yeah?”

“Leather?”

“Uhhh…”

“So why are you not a vegan?”

“Cheese plates. Ice cream,” I tell a half-truth.  

“Wowww. How cool. What, um, brought this on?”

And this is where I pause, unsure of how to answer. Do I really want to explain factory farming, harmful hormones, the principle of ahimsa in the Jain religion, and my hypothesized dietary laws in the Celestial Kingdom all before my friend’s hot pulled-pork sandwich arrives to the table? No. I usually just say, “religion.” But this is the question that ruffles me the most:

“You’re still conservative though, right?”

According to one study done in 2014, 52% of vegetarians and vegans identify as liberal while only 14% identify as conservative. Another study found that 71% of Democrats are pro-choice. While this does not necessarily mean that every liberal vegetarian or vegan is pro-choice, the numbers indicate that a significant portion of vegetarians and vegans are likely pro-choice. Despite these numbers, the pro-life position and conservative principles support arguments in favor of vegetarianism more poignantly than do the pro-choice position and liberal principles.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, feminist scholars attempted to apply popular feminist theory to animal rights theory. They argued that feminism, animal ethics, and vegetarianism should be integrated because all three acknowledge “liberatory social ideals of opposition to all forms of oppression.” Feminism was about freedom and consent, and vegetarianism and veganism, they proposed, could be too.

Based on the underlying principles of freedom and consent, some liberally minded vegans and vegetarians argue that the cow didn’t have the freedom to live and that the chicken didn’t consent to the farmer taking her eggs. Somehow, by the same principles, in the case of elective abortion, a pregnant mother has the freedom to rid herself of an unwanted child, despite the inability of the child to even consent to its own death. In pro-choice arguments, freedom is being used against consent. When it comes to abortion, the two principles, the mother’s freedom and the child’s consent, are at odds, creating impassible cognitive dissonance. In the mind of a pro-choice vegan or vegetarian, animals have a greater right to life than unborn children.

Instead of relying on feminist principles to give reason to my vegetarianism, I turn to theology. In Sanskrit, the word sattva translates to “sentient beings.” In Buddhism, sattva refers to all beings who possess consciousness, who feel suffering, and can experience “rebirth.” In the Jain religion, ahimsa is a principle of nonviolence towards all living things. Because all life is connected, to violate the principle of ahimsa would cause harm to yourself and all other sattva. Or, put in a more familiar way, Joseph F. Smith wrote in an editorial in the Juvenile Instructor:

“The unnecessary destruction of life is a distinct spiritual loss to the human family. Men cannot worship their Creator and look with careless indifference upon his creations. The   love of all life helps man to the enjoyment of a better life. It exalts the spiritual nature of those in need of divine favor.”

The principles of the dignity of life and a love for all life underlie my vegetarianism. Not everyone might come to those principles in the same way I did. But, because they are a truth, the principles can be arrived at through many other paths. Not only do these principles have broad implications and applications for my political, philosophical, and theological beliefs, but they are deep and compelling. Trying to live by the principles of the dignity of life and a love for all life has given me more of a “bleeding heart” than the foundational principles of modern liberalism, freedom and consent, ever could. So, to the individual who ordered pulled-pork, “yes, I’m still conservative.”

A few weeks ago, my husband and I walked into Vic & Anthony’s, a mob-style Old Vegas steakhouse on Fremont. We greeted my parents, sat down, and my dad cracked his favorite joke before saying, “I talked to the chef before you arrived. He says he will grill up some veggies for you!”

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