Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Anti-vegetarian argument #2: Tradition

In a discussion about vegetarians and Thanksgiving, an AskMetafilter commenter said this:

Food isn't just fuel - it's a whole lot of what symbolizes who you are and where you come from. One of the problems with giving up meat, especially if it's not by your own choice, is that you're giving up pieces of culture, heritage, family traditions, ties to your childhood memories, ties to the way your great grandma cooked for her children...

For some reason that's an aspect of vegetarianism that isn't often addressed.
More recently, in a personal essay in the current New York Times magazine, Jonathan Safran Foer says:
When I was young, I would often spend the weekend at my grandmother’s house. ... We thought she was the greatest chef who ever lived. My brothers and I would tell her as much several times a meal. And yet we were worldly enough kids to know that the greatest chef who ever lived would probably have more than one recipe (chicken with carrots), and that most great recipes involved more than two ingredients. ...

In fact, her chicken with carrots probably was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. But that had little to do with how it was prepared, or even how it tasted. Her food was delicious because we believed it was delicious. We believed in our grandmother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God. ...

My wife and I have chosen to bring up our children as vegetarians. ... [M]y choice on their behalf means they will never eat their great-grandmother’s singular dish. They will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the greatest chef who ever lived. Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have to change.
That sounds like Foer basically agrees with the AskMetafilter commenter. But he has a second thought:
Or will it? It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood my grandmother’s cooking. The greatest chef who ever lived wasn’t preparing food, but humans. ... [S]he would tell me about her escape from Europe [in World War II], the foods she had to eat and those she wouldn't. It was the story of her life -- "Listen to me," she would plead -- and I knew a vital lesson was being transmitted, even if I didn’t know, as a child, what that lesson was. I know, now, what it was.
Foer explains the lesson at the end of the essay.

It's actually not the kind of essay that most appeals to me. I prefer to read writing that gets straight to the point instead of taking extra time to build up characters who gradually embody that point.

I also find it unfortunate that Foer puts down the role of "reason" in decision-making, saying that "stories" are more important. Of course, this is a self-serving view for a professional storyteller. But he himself relies on reason when he says:
A vegetarian diet can be rich and fully enjoyable, but I couldn’t honestly argue, as many vegetarians try to, that it is as rich as a diet that includes meat. (Those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure.) I love calamari, I love roasted chicken, I love a good steak. But I don’t love them without limit.

This isn't animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Yet taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.
But none of that gets to the heart of the "tradition" argument. I would argue that tradition simply isn't as important as numerous other factors -- but that's not likely to be satisfying to those who raise the tradition concern in the first place.

Perhaps it is better to use "stories" rather than "reason" to respond to that concern. That's what Foer does in this essay -- to chilling effect in the final section.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Superstition almost killed her.

"Non-kosher food may be eaten under the following circumstances:

* If no kosher food is available to the person, and failure to eat the non-kosher food may result in starvation.
* If a non-kosher food product specifically is needed to cure an illness.

"If necessary for recovery, a patient may eat non-kosher foods. In the Babylonian Talmud, Chapter 8 of Tractate Yoma mentions pregnancy cravings for non-kosher food (the passage discusses a pregnant woman who craves pork on Yom Kippur) as the paradigmatic example of a presumed life-threatening situation where a person is allowed to eat non-kosher food (and is permitted to eat it on Yom Kippur)."
--"Pikuach nefesh," Wikipedia

Sure, something ought to matter, but why that? And what if you can't find what matters unless you live to find it?

John Althouse Cohen said...

Well, yes, on a rational level, her behavior in that situation was absurd. If someone who keeps Kosher has to eat something non-Kosher to save their life, they should do it. If a vegetarian has to eat meat to save their life, they should do it.

But as I said -- "on a rational level." If we're talking rationally, it also doesn't make sense to make tradition-based arguments along the lines of "We should continue eating turkey on Thanksgiving because that's what our grandparents did."

Jason (the commenter) said...

JAC: If we're talking rationally, it also doesn't make sense to make tradition-based arguments along the lines of "We should continue eating turkey on Thanksgiving because that's what our grandparents did."

Sounds rational to me. It wouldn't be rational if you were making a tradition-based argument and then claimed we *shouldn't* eat turkey on Thanksgiving because that's what our grandparents did.

Here's how I would have handled the tradition-based anti-vegetarian argument: hand the person who made it over to a family of cannibals.