Conflict of duties – a vegetarian insight

I became a vegetarian just over two months ago, after spending three weeks living in a vegan household in Stockholm. I took the first step last year – cutting off all seafood (except oysters and mussels) and strongly reducing meat and dairy – when I drafted a section of the Global Challenges Annual Report on ecosystem collapse. This three-week meat-free stint with a bunch of effective altruists convinced me to take the next step, and entirely cut off meat (I did sneak out at times, and bought a yoghurt from the supermarket, a buttery Danish, or even a four-cheese pizza – each time, with a delightful sense of doing something very very nasty). It seems, I have now developed a level of empathy for other sentient beings, and no longer feel indifference when eating meat (and even feel some residual guilt when eating eggs and dairy).

I extended vegetarianism in settings that I would once have found rather challenging – and with great results. I am writing this on a two-day stopover in Guanghzou, notorious for a diet that includes all things that breathe – and famous for its seafood, pork and chicken. So far, I managed an exquisite range of snacks and meals, from BBQ’ed eggplant with garlic to sautéed peppers in black bean sauce, Portuguese egg tart, red dragonfruit, and a fabulous not-on-the-menu baked rice with egg and mushrooms at a street stall who responded creatively to my ‘no meat’ request. I flew China Southern here, and for some reason, wasn’t able to book a vegetarian meal on the website for that leg of the journey. I hesitated – would I get the beef or chicken – but instead, asked the stewardess if there was a vegetarian option. There wasn’t, but they made one for me: I had a special meal delivered on the first service, and on the second, was kindly handed over one of the crew’s fruit platters with an extra bread roll – and had not only my healthiest meal, but also one of my best ever experiences of bonding on a plane.

I did, however, consciously and deliberately broke my vegetarian diet on two occasions. Both times, I was taking people to Chinese restaurants: two visitors from Singapore to my local Sichuan, and a gourmet friend to his first encounter with DongBei cuisine. In both cases, we would be sharing dishes, I was hosting, and meat should be part of the full experience. On other occasions, when I joined large meals at a Chinese place, I gently mentioned that I no longer ate meat, and refrained from dipping into some of the dishes. But as a host, I felt it was my duty to politely say that I ‘ate meat only on special occasion’ – and that my guests offered such a special occasion. I experienced a conflict between two duties – respecting the life of other sentient beings and hospitality to fellow humans – and in both cases, the latter trumped the former.

I reflected on this while eating my baked rice with egg and mushroom. Why do people keep eating meat – why do people more generally keep on making all sorts of other choices that harm ecosystems and ruin the global climate? And when I say people, I think of myself too. Simple words come to mind easily – selfishness, indifference, ignorance. But, I wondered, could the answer be different? Could it be that we maintain environmentally harmful behaviours for an entirely distinct reason, because we encounter a conflict of duties, and a certain other duty trumps our responsibility to the planet.

What could it be? Well, I thought, there could be duty to friends and family for all meals taken in common – a duty to conform, a duty to let others have their way, or even a decadent ‘duty to celebrate’ translating as constant collective excess. But when it comes to meals taken alone – and to account for conformism defaulting to meat – I realised there could be something else: a certain ‘duty to oneself’, to look after one’s health, under the deluded belief that meat is essential, but more deeply, that I must ‘look after myself’. I have long cherished those words by Andre Gide, ‘it a duty to make oneself happy’ – but how easy to deform. For we live exposed to non-stop propaganda, telling us that such happiness will come from consumption, giving in to passing whims and desire, embracing convenience and constant hedonism. And so, when meat is advertised, convenient, appealing, no more expensive than alternatives, it becomes a – mistaken – ‘duty to ourselves’ to choose it. In the same way that single-use plastic bags, private cars and holidays overseas are not an expression of selfishness, indifference or ignorance, but the result of a conflict between ‘duty to the planet’ and ‘duty to ourselves’, where the latter trumps the former.

Or – and this is a much darker prospect – is it possible that we live such alienated lives that hospitality, calling to sacrifice an animal whenever a special visitor is sharing a meal with us, now applies for every single meal, with friends, with family, and even with our very self.

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