was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go."
Elizabeth Bishop, from "The Fish"
There is a book out that purports to demonstrate that fish feel real pain, which is not a mind-boggling surprise. At Salon Linda Kernohan discusses her vegetarian vicissitudes, including occasional ambivalence about fish, experiences that are pretty similar to my 18 years of meat-avoidance. The main difference is that I never aspired to veganism--it always struck me as too fanatical and puritanical and, ironically, as a kind of denial of the intricate web that we cannot help sharing with other creatures.
To live is to do damage, even if it is to the insects trodden unawares underfoot. There is also the fact we all benefit, as eventual patients, from animal-related medical experimentation. We affect animals by doing anything that emits carbon. It is disingenuous to suppose that in any aspect of our lives we do no harm. That is no argument, of course, to abandon harm-reduction.
I think vegetarianism turned me off on pure philosophy forever. Let me explain. When I first encountered Peter Singer's Animal Liberation in my early 20's, his arguments seemed so prodigious, and ultimately so irrefutable, that I was converted and remain so to this day. However, it didn't take long to realize that not only friends and family, but the vast majority of the human race, remain unmoved by such arguments. I am hard-pressed to think of any other routinely accepted behavior that has such little ethical justification. (Friends and family remain non-vegetarian, which I fully accept of course, and I do not foist my diet upon my children).
The only competitor to meat-eating as mainstream ethical violation may be the blithe acceptance of vast swaths of absolute poverty by prosperous first world citizens, of which I am every bit as guilty if not more so than the next person, so my ethical achievement, such as it is, is selective. Interestingly, Peter Singer has written passionately and prolifically about that issue too. At any rate, these examples convinced me of the relatively small role that justified reasons play in human conduct. So much the worse for philosophy, which always sends me back to religion, literature, and psychology, that is, to the constellation of contingent human needs, among which formal ethics constitutes only a minor part.
Kernohan's vegetarian experience is interesting in a couple of respects. She mentions not missing meat, so it's not as if her day-to-day life is some kind of triumph of self-denial. I recall enjoying meat twenty or more years ago, but it does not feel like a privation. Like her, I eat fish rarely, maybe once every month or two, and it's hard to say why. Maybe it is knowingly wicked self-indulgence (vice on a very small scale indeed).
Kernohan also raises the intriguing issue of depression and vegetarianism, in this case wondering whether subtle dietary deficits could affect mood in ways we don't yet fully understand. However, while she acknowledges other factors that of course may be related to depression, I wonder if she has it backwards. That is, could a depressive tendency and a certain moral and emotional squeamishness predispose to vegetarianism? Who knows, maybe not only vegetarianism, but political liberalism as well, could for some be outgrowths of Melanie Klein's depressive position, a morbid intolerance of suffering? As Nietzsche wondered, if one is virtuous at all, is one virtuous from a position of strength or from one of weakness?