The flexitarian diet is a model for moral progress

Our politicised age is one of black and white thinking, deeply felt tribals loyalties, and hunting traitors who denounce the faith. As with previous eras of sectarian strife, there is a fixation on purity of actions, speech, and even conscience.

This does not sound like something that can be solved by taking inspiration from a faddish diet with a cumbersome portmanteau name. But flexitarianism may be the model we need to pursue moral progress sustainably.

Moral imperative

For the uninitiated, a flexitarian can be described as a part-time vegetarian or vegan – or perhaps a part-time meat or animal product eater.

The aim is usually to reduce meat consumption, for instance by having regular meat free days. It could be compared to diets that have “cheat days”, where general rules are broken every so often. A similar concept with an equally clunky name is “reducetaranism”.

Motives for going flexitarian are as mixed as those for going vegetarian or vegan. Some do it for the health benefits linked to eating less meat, which include a lower risk of some cancers and heart disease.

Others abstain because of the environmental damage from producing meat. Joseph Poore, an Oxford University researcher who published a paper in May 2018 on the impact of animal farming, said at the time: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”

But the starkest reason for not eating animals is that farming them for meat or other products is itself immoral.

The cruelty of the huge industry that produces animal products is well known, even by those who continue to eat meat. The global meat sector was valued at US$945.7 billion in 2018, according to Research & Markets, to take one estimate that excludes eggs and dairy production.

To make this money, animals are kept in cramped and unpleasant conditions, their social and psychological needs ignored. Frequently they are bred and fed to maximise their usefulness to humans. Some studies claim that chickens have quadrupled in size over the last 60 years, with modern chickens sometimes struggling to support their own weight on their spindly legs.

At the end of a brief, painful life these animals are slaughtered, either for the flesh on their bodies, or because they’ve outrun their usefulness as producers of milk, eggs or whatever else. Comparisons with human slavery are obvious, and hard to dispute.

Going without turkey

The philosopher Peter Singer probably overstates it in his 1975 book Animal Liberation when he says that turning vegetarian “is a highly practical and effective step one can take toward ending both the killing of nonhuman animals and the infliction of suffering upon them.” One person refusing to buy meat or other animal products will have a negligible impact on how much the industry produces.

But a vegetarian or vegan’s refusal to financially support the animal industry, depriving farmers of the incentive to continue, is a positive moral stance given the suffering involved in producing animal products. Refusing to partake in an immoral activity is good even if it continues.

If you take it as read that the industry for producing animals products is hideously cruel, on its face flexitarianism and even vegetarianism are ethically ridiculous. It is akin to a pledge to commit a bit less murder – and many advocates of veganism would say eating meat or animal products is an endorsement of animal murder.

Variations of being flexitarian, for instance choosing to eat fish rather than meat, are also inconsistent, or at least dubious. Why is the life of a codfish worth less than that of a pig? The blogger behind Fat Gay Vegan has even argued that “the dairy and egg industries are responsible for much more harm and suffering than raising and killing animals solely for meat.”

However, following a flexitarian diet is a compromise between our higher moral aspirations and our squalid origins. It is also a reflection of the fact – to quote a meme – we live in a society. And it could be a model for moral progress.

Cutting back

Animal products are embedded in human culture, economies, and much else besides. Even if humans all decided to stop eating animals and their products, and to stop using animals products in clothing and other items, the change would be hard to make overnight.

Indeed, if it was done overnight it would likely require one final slaughter of animals once destined for human use, who are now an economic liability for their farmers. Or perhaps they would be turned loose on local ecosystems, creating another kind of carnage.

All of this is hypothetical and unlikely, but veganism is gradually rising, at least in the UK. Mainstream restaurants like Pizza Express, Wagamama’s and Wahaca’s now offer vegan menus, and plant-based restaurants are popping up in urban areas. Beers like Guinness once made with fish bladders have even gone vegan of late. In short, it is much more convenient to be vegan in the UK than even five years ago.

Waitrose, a supermarket, believes that 3% of Brits are vegan, with 9.5% being vegetarian. But these figures include those who dabble in meat eating, with 60% describing themselves as vegetarian or vegan sometimes eating meat. While the reasons for doing so vary, with 20% eating meat at the weekends and 5% “if there’s no other option”, it’s clear that meat can be a hard habit to kick.

As anyone who has dieted or given up anything could attest, sudden prohibitions can give things an allure that is hard to resist. And once people have failed to meet exacting standards they can revert to type, much like a relapsed drunk binging after a single pint breaks five weeks of abstinence.

But just as an alcoholic can celebrate each booze-free day without castigating themselves for a lapse, flexitarians can see reduced meat and animal product consumption, and therefore reduced cruelty to make those things, as little victories. Doing less harm is preferable to doing more of it. This applies, to be obvious about it, beyond what you eat.

Puritan impulses

As alluded to previously, Westerners have lately become preoccupied by questions of personal identity, with trans-oceanic spats taking place over whether a university professor will refer to someone by their preferred pronouns – to take one silly example.

Without diminishing the importance of respecting people’s sense of self, if humans are able to tolerate differences of opinion over the justifiability of mass animal slaughter, it is possible to do the same for some of the more abstract conflicts embroiling our society.

An important part of this tolerance is allowing the kind of ambiguity, perhaps even hypocrisy, seen in a flexitarian diet. Flexitarians may acknowledge that meat is murder, to quote the old Smiths’ album, but find themselves unable or even unwilling to fully commit to abstaining from that.

Today’s political movements, much like their religious forebears, often impose ever-stricter norms. Where once being pro-gay rights meant preventing the state interferring with gay people, it has progressed to supporting gay marriage, and more recently hounding every opponent out of their job, as evinced by the brief tenure of the Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich.

The problem is a lack of tolerance. A desire for moral goodness is proper in all humans, but intolerance of any deviation from that is polarising Western societies – and not for the first time. A minority of the devout criticises anyone who objects to or rejects their ideas. This is bad for society, but it is also counter-productive much of the time.

A flexitarian diet respects where humans have come from, what we are as animals, and yet still strives for ethical progress. It accepts that more immorality is inevitable, and that failing to accept that is a recipe for unhappiness, and more immorality.

Right now the West could learn a lot from such pragmatism – even if the clunky name could use some work.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact

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