(alternate title: How to alienate your vegetarian readers and spark a bunch or really really defensive comments on your blog)
Sometimes I've been asked why I call vegetarians "omnivores", as if I don't make a distinction between a life that includes eating meat, and one that does not. The short answer is that I actually *don't* see a difference ethically. Aesthetically, yes. There is a huge aesthetic difference between vegetarian food and meat-including food, though this need not be the case, especially in cuisines where meat is used in small amounts, basically as a seasoning, much like vegetables are in the standard western diet. Being vegetarian is like not eating wheat or something. It may have a large impact on the taste of your dinners and your choice of entrees at restaurants. In that sense it is different than a standard omnivorous diet. But ethically? Nope. No difference at all. Either way, you're killing animals. Whether you do it sooner or do it later and then make someone else eat the evidence makes no difference to how dead they are.
The frustrating bit is that I know several people who are vegetarian for ethical reasons. I was. And the fact that this is even possible speaks to the frightening level of misinformation about animal use and treatment, as well as to the strength of denial and degree of cognitive dissonance that people live with.
1. Milk and eggs are no less cruel than meat. Leather is no less cruel than meat. We all know this if we do even a tiny token amount of poking around on teh Internetz on sites that are not directly funded by the dairy and egg industries. Dairy cows are killed when they don't produce milk anymore. No mammal should produce that much milk anyway (mammals lactate only to feed their young, so dairy cows have to be repeatedly impregnated). Half of all calves are male, and since males don't produce milk, they are used for meat (veal). Same goes for chickens. Show me the "happy chicken retirement home" for the spent egg layers and the "foster care" where all the male chicks are reared with adequate space and food and opportunities to act like actual birds despite being useless in terms of egg laying (hint: slaughterhouse and garbage bin, respectively).
Leather is not a byproduct of the meat industry. It is important in of itself, and is part of the reason that we slaughter animals. "Meat" is only part of the money value of an animal body. The demand for leather and other "byproducts" is just as important as that for meat. Plus, what could be better advertisement for endorsing killing than wearing a dead skin out in public?
2. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that milk and eggs are actually worse than steak. If someone was going to kill me horribly, I'd rather they just do it, rather than rape me repeatedly and force me to bear several children first, which would then be taken away from me and either killed or sold into the same horrific "life" that I was leading. I would find it laughable (though I can't picture myself laughing under those circumstances) that people who only benefited from the part of my "life" that preceeded killing me were considered "kinder" or "more ethical" than those who also benefited directly from my death. Of course, I'd rather not be owned and killed at all, horribly or otherwise, which brings us to...
2.5. Empathy. If you thought that point 2. was a bit over the top, stop and ask yourself why. Our idea that it is wrong to kill (assuming you think that it is) is based on empathy. We understand that a cow wants to live. All I did there was to follow that empathy through rather than cutting it off where it would have been convenient to do so if I had a leather fetish or a deep and meaningful love of cheese pizza. It requires doublethink to say that killing is wrong but a little torture is okay. It requires turning off empathy when it interferes with our selfish wants or with our image of "who I want to be". If one wants to be caring, then the way to do that is to look at our actions and see if they actually reflect that, changing them when they do not. Realizing that I am doing something wrong doesn't make me uncaring. We all fuck up, and we all sometimes make decisions based on incomplete or untrue information, peer pressure or habit. However, realizing that I am doing something wrong and subsequently doing nothing to change it makes me uncaring. It also makes me a hypocrite.
Ethical vegetarianism goes about this whole "I am a caring person" business ass-backwards and says that instead, we first define ourselves as caring, and since we are caring, our actions are de facto caring because they are motivated by this, no matter what the actual consequences of these actions are (also known as "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"). So yes, I think that ethical vegetarianism is uncaring. It can be so because the actual person is uncaring or in denial, or because of wrong or incomplete information, peer pressure etc. But the reason doesn't change the action itself.
And actually, it's not about us. It's about whether or not one species is soooo important that it gets to own others. Even the gentlest, kindest farm where the cows are cuddled constantly, allowed to frolic through the cow-friendly fields and given handjobs every day is still us owning them. If you can't see why this is wrong, think about the recent property status of women. I'm sure that some women were happy in marriages where they were the legal property of their husbands. I'm sure that many of these men were nice and kind and let the women do pretty much what they wanted. But that ultimately doesn't matter, because women shouldn't be property, no matter how nicely you treat them. The fact that you can make the best of a terribly, terribly wrong situation does not make the situation itself right. We, and cows, exist for our own sake. Okay, that's a whole other post on abolitionism vs welfarism, and we may get there eventually, but not today.
3. Free range is just greenwash to make us feel better. You cannot purchase a clear conscience, no matter what the glossy green recycled paper adds with a Prius in the background tell you. You still kill animals. If you don't look too hard, you can pretend like it's a slightly less horrible way to treat them, and then indulge in killing without guilt. However, happy meat is about people feeling good, not animals feeling good. And again, there's still that nasty killing. When you look at what "free range" actually means, it isn't usually all that wonderful in terms of treatment. For chickens, free range just means theoretical access to the outdoors. So to put this in perspective.... if we put several hundred children into a small classroom with no room to sit or move and then opened a small window at one end that they could theoretically get out of, that would be "cage free". And free range stuff can be more profitable for the meat and dairy industries than conventional farming because they can charge higher prices that more than compensate for any extra cost incurred. This supports the meat and dairy industries, which don't care about the health of animals (or of people, really), but are industries like any other, with the primary goal of turning a profit by telling you what you want to hear.
4. As a certain little wrinkled jedi master has pointed out: There is no try. In kindergarten, there is a gold star for effort, but that's because in kindergarten, the point is to learn how to make an effort. However, the reason we learn to make an effort is not merely to expend energy and accumulate gold stars, but to actually *accomplish something*. I shit you not. That's the point. And in some cases, such as ethical vegetarianism "trying to be more vegan" is code for "I want credit for being ethical but do not actually want to bother being ethical. Give me a gold star." Vegetarians who tell me that they "try" to be vegan or are "moving towards" being vegan (often for years... sheesh... how slowly do you move?!!) make my head spin. If you think you are acting immorally, than fucking change what you're doing! Do you really expect me to respect someone who has just flat-out TOLD me that they're unable to act in accordance with their own morals on something this simple? Being vegan is easy if you are not dependent on parents or such and can afford access to the internet or a library. There are books and websites. There are a kazillion blogs. There are vegans who would be bloody delighted to help you and cook for you and cheer you on. Hell, I would not only help with cooking and finding vegan replacements for household stuff and some clothes (and the all important sex toys etc.), but I would do little dances of encouragement complete with cheerleader skirt and pompoms! So no, I don't think trying or "moving towards" is enough. If you think it's okay to kill animals, then say so. If you don't, then act like it. Would you respect someone who told you that they were "moving towards" being okay with homosexuals, but "occasionally" indulged in a few rounds of gay-bashing or homophobic slurs when it was just too hard to hold back or when they would feel left out because everyone around them was doing it? Or someone who was only racist on thanksgiving because of tradition?
Just to be clear, I respect ethical vegetarians as people (just as I respect Republicans or those who drive SUVs), but that doesn't mean that I agree with or will pretend to ignore their inability to act in line with their own stated morals. Just because something is legal and done by the majority of people, that does not make it morally okay. You can respect someone without condoning their behavior.
Much as I disagree with meat eaters, I find that I can handle them better than ethical vegetarians. At least there is some level of consistency in saying "I have no problem with killing" and then acting accordingly. While I find it terrifying that most people don't have a problem with killing, and that we have stunted our ability to empathize so fully that this is "normal", at least it is consistent. You can disagree with consistent. You can argue with consistent. You can at least see where consistent comes from and where it's going. Whereas when somebody tells me that they're an ethical vegetarian, all I can think is "that's an oxymoron". Either you lack information or you lack balls. I have enough for both of us, so tell me what you need, and if I can help, I will.