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Pursuits: The moral case for non-vegetarianism is a lot weaker than we may think

Shortly before I sat down to write this article, I made myself a bowl of onion soup.

Those of you with some knowledge of French onion soup and how it is made will recognize that despite its name, it is really a beef soup flavoured with onions.


In my case, because I did not want too beefy a flavour, I cooked six sliced onions over a low flame for half an hour with some good quality pancetta. When the soup was ready (and yes, I did use beef stock mixed with vegetable stock) I took all of the pancetta and most of the onions out of the soup (by sieving it), threw them into a food processor and then took the puree that resulted and added it back to the soup.


   If I had served the soup to a guest, there would have been nothing visible to suggest that this was a meat soup. And indeed, this is the problem that canny vegetarians have learnt to confront. Most soups at restaurants in countries where there is no tradition of vegetarianism (i.e. everywhere in the world except India) derive their body from meat stock. I know innumerable vegetarian Indian friends who have been horrified to discover that the ‘vegetarian’ soup they loved was not vegetarian at all. But here’s the funny thing. Many of them said they wished I had never told them about the stock component. As long as they couldn’t see the meat, they were happy enough to consume the soup. Now, they were forced to make a choice.


   The soup dilemma seems to me to sum up the kinds of problems – both moral and practical – faced by vegetarians everywhere. There are broadly, two kinds of vegetarians, Hindus and everybody else. Though Indians like to think of Buddhists as being almost-Hindus, they don’t have the same respect for vegetarianism as Hindus. The Dalai Lama likes nothing more than a good beef spring roll. Jains, who Hindus also regard as being just another sect of Hinduism, have a fundamentally different attitude to vegetarianism. Not only will they not eat meat but they will only eat the leaves and shoots of root vegetables. They will never touch the roots themselves, arguing that to do so would be to kill the plant. Most Hindus, on the other hand, are happy enough munching away at roots.


   The Jain position captures one of the many contradictions in the case for vegetarianism. If this case is predicated on a desire not to take life, then Hindus are committed to denying that plants have life. And yet, as we do know, plants are far from dead. They grow, they reproduce, and they do many of the things that are regarded as essential to life. You don’t have to believe that they can feel pain (as some botanists do) to accept that plants have life.


   The other contradiction relates to eggs. Orthodox Hindus will not eat eggs, arguing that they are non-vegetarian. Even when it is explained to them that hens lay eggs even without the intervention of a rooster and that these unfertilized eggs can never hatch, many Hindus stick to their stand. But few, if any, will worry too much about the eggs in cakes, in naans, and in ice-cream (almost everywhere in the world except India where eggless ice-cream is produced). Even those Hindus who pride themselves on being careful about such things are happy enough to eat mayonnaise, which is made with eggs.


"Some moral philosophers argue that while all killing is bad, the nature of the world requires us to take some life. For instance, if primitive man had not killed animals, he would not have survived and our species would have died out."

   You can’t really argue with people who won’t eat eggs. First of all, there is an element of willful suspension of disbelief (mayonnaise, cakes, etc.) and then, there is the absence of logic. If an egg is non-vegetarian because it comes out of a chicken, then what is milk? How can it be vegetarian considering that it comes out of a cow? An unfertilized egg and milk are roughly as vegetarian or non-vegetarian as each other. (There are people, called vegans, who won’t touch milk but you won’t find them in India where vegetarians love milk, ghee, curd, paneer, and a host of other milk products.)

  In recent years, philosophers have tried to create a new rationale for vegetarianism that owes little to religion. One view has it that meat is bad but that fish is okay. Many Western vegetarians have no problem eating fish. I find this bizarre but there are parallels elsewhere in the world. In Thailand, for instance, when Buddhists observe vegetarian fasts, they are quite happy with fish sauce, oyster sauce and the like which they regard as simple condiments and therefore, beyond the vegetarian-non vegetarian divide.


   A more philosophically sound case is the one about necessity. Some moral philosophers argue that while all killing is bad, the nature of the world requires us to take some life. For instance, if primitive man had not killed animals, he would not have survived and our species would have died out. But, say philosophers, with the growth of modern agriculture, it is no longer necessary for human beings to take animal life. We can live quite happily on plants. Yes, this may involve taking plant life but that is a price we pay for survival. The taking of animal life, however, is entirely unnecessary and we do it only for pleasure. Therefore, it is wrong. None of us should want to live in a world where we take life only for our own joy and delectation.


   To see this argument in perspective, consider the revulsion many of us feel when people go out hunting. What joy can they get from murdering animals, we ask. Well, say philosophers, meat eaters are no better than the hunters who kill for fun. We get other people to do our killing for us but the ultimate aim is still pleasure even if the fun is restricted to the dinner table.


   There are counter-arguments, of course. Some people argue that man was born to kill. That’s why our teeth are shaped in a certain way. Most animals (but not all) kill other animals for their survival. That is the way of nature. Why should we fight it? The problem with this view is that you could also make out a compelling case for the position that man was born to fight, that women were only born to procreate, or that the best kind of food is raw because cavemen did not know how to cook. Supporters of vegetarianism respond that yes, cavemen and Neanderthals were born to do certain things. But the history of civilization is a story of how modern man rose above animals and the tendencies of cavemen. Just because Neanderthals ate raw meat, it does not follow that all of us are meant to be non-vegetarians.


   I take no sides in this debate. I was brought up to be a non-vegetarian and that’s what I still am. But I respect the religious sentiments of others and I concede that the moral case for non-vegetarianism is a lot weaker than we may think.




  • Pawan H 10 Jun 2014

    Ha is much what you like and what suits your body....veg or non-veg....but we should not preach others about what they should eat

  • Sanjay Tripathi 08 Jun 2014

    Hey, you didn't touch upon the concept of Kosher and Halal... and If plants can have feelings and life forms so can animals!

  • Bp 07 Jun 2014

    You forgot to address role of animal husbandry in global warming. This might be the most scientific rationale for vegetarianism.

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