BOOKS: To Eat Flesh They Are Willing: Are Their Spirits Weak?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1997:

To Eat Flesh They Are Willing: Are Their Spirits Weak?
Vegetarians Who Return to Meat
by Kristin Aronson, Ph.D.
Pythagorean Publishers (159 Easton Parkway, #2-H, Brooklyn, NY 11238), 1996
335 pages, paperback, $18.95.

Kristin Aronson, a philosopher of ethics
and ethical vegan, who teaches at Western
Connecticut State University, recently undertook
a philosophical enquiry into why people
who have been vegetarians return to eating
meat. She asked questions that vegetarians
often don’t want to ask, and probed where it
hurt, to find out how come even some once
ethical and passionate vegetarians sometimes
give up their vegetarianism and become
“lapso vegetarians.”

Her book is organized around interviews
with 25 men and women who range in age and
occupation, and background.
The most often cited specific reason
why vegetarians return to eating meat,
Aronson found, is poor health. Ironically,
surveys indicate, improving health is also the
reason why about 80% of vegetarians give up
eating meat in the first place. Most do not
resume regular meat consumption, but some
succumb to symptoms of weakness, apathy,
loss of interest in life, and other such vaguely
defined ailments, which purportedly disappear
after they return to eating meat––a return that
some claim to have resisted for two to three
years. Then, even light and occasional meat
consumption seems to cure them.
These stories should be examined in
the light of our growing knowledge about
nutrition, which is only just beginning to take
the shape of factual science. We do not know
who diagnosed these respondents, nor do we
know whether a more sophisticated knowledge
of nutrition might have discovered a food
which could have taken the place of meat.
Many “lapsed vegetarians” gave up
meat in their search for a “higher” spirituality
or meaning in life. These former vegetarians
often embraced vegetarianism as a part of
experimentally taking up an eastern religion,
as part of a broad quest for spiritual rejuvenation.
That quest frequently failed, in part,
they claim, because vegetarianism led them to
the unexpected moral failure of feeling superior
to people who ate meat––a trait they rightfully
felt compelled to reject.
In the tradition of the maxim, “Hate
the sin, not the sinner,” Aronson believes vegetarianism
cannot be chosen as the sole criterion
for personal virtue, nor can meat-eating be
condemned as a moral failure for itself alone.
Through her interviews, Aronson
sought not only to understand why vegetarians
return to eating meat, but also whether a particular
philosophy underlies the choice to
become and remain vegetarian. However, the
motivations of vegetarians are as various as the
reasons people become anything else. People
change religion and nationality, for instance,
for a variety of spiritual, religious, political,
practical, and purely personal reasons. I suspect
we will discover the same for why people
become vegetarians.
Yet among the multitude of reasons
Aronson’s interviewees cited for becoming
vegetarian, one conspicuous absence was concern
that killing animals for food is cruel.
Many spoke earnestly of their spiritual quest,
but none spoke with equal passionate horror of
the abuse of animals, nor expressed the insight
that to end an institutionalized evil, one must
first stop participating in it, whether it makes
one feel spiritually elevated or not. Personally
I missed the mention of simple moral horror as
a motivation, the same moral horror we feel
about a massacre or a government deliberatly
starving its citizens, or about parents abusing
an infant. It may be that persons who give up
meat for this reason simply do not lapse, and
that those who do lapse are those whose spiritual
dimension is founded on concern for the
self instead of empathy toward other beings.
To Eat Flesh They Are Willing i s
important for vegetarian advocates because its
candid interviews provide a basis for further
inquiry. But it has failings. It is overwritten,
often repetitive, breathless and exhausting in
an effort to be witty. Discipline and a firm editorial
hand would have helped. But the failings
are failings of style, and the substance is
too important to overlook.
—Roberta Kalechofsky

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