Meat-eating vegetarian?

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There can hardly be a thinking person in Britain who has not, over the last few weeks, thought again about eating meat, For me the pause for reflection began when, after penning for the Times a rather gushing lament for the ascending souls of the hundreds of thousands of 'culled' animals which were dying all at once, I heard on the news that this total, though huge, was dwarfed by the numbers of animals who die every week as a matter of course in slaughterhouses, bound for the butchers.

The intention of the politicians in disclosing these figures was to persuade us that the cull wasn't quite as ghastly as the raw numbers might suggest. The effect on me was the opposite: I wondered again, and more urgently, whether it is acceptable, for us who do not need to, to eat meat.

And then all the arguments the other way, the arguments I know so well and have repeated to myself so often, came trotting back. I wear leather shoes and belts. I buy a bewildering variety of products whose ingredients include animal matter. I travel to places where a vegetarian would starve. I hate to be a nuisance. I couldn't bear to sound self-righteous at dinner parties. Fish may also feel some pain.

And, most of all, I love meat.

All these arguments, none of them trivial, I considered again. But then a new thought struck me. I have never believed that life is sacred, only good. I have never believed that the infliction of suffering is wholly avoidable, only to be avoided where conveniently possible. I have never believed that we must not kill, only that we should restrict our murders to the minimum.

I am no Brahmin. Why then was I entertaining the argument about vegetarianism as though it were a clash of absolutes: as though, if one believed it was a pity to kill other animals, one must so organise one's life that in no circumstances and however peripherally was one involved in their death?

From whom, after all, do we most commonly hear vegetarianism examined as though it were a claimed absolute? From scornful meat-eaters who wish to ridicule vegetarians. And why do those carnivores urge what they say are the logical conclusions to a vegetarian's claims? To push him into stricter vegetarianism? No. They want to insinuate that if you can't go all the way, then it isn't even worth setting out.

And all at once it was obvious. There is no need to stop eating meat to start becoming a vegetarian. The beginning of wisdom on this question is the recognition that `vegetarian' is a word like 'disciplinarian' or, 'agrarian': you can be more or less of one. It is not a word like 'octogenarian' -- where you are or you aren't.

The way forward for me was suddenly clear. I shall eat less meat. When it is served to me by hosts I shall gratefully accept, because I like meat and don't want to spoil the party. But I shall stop buying meat myself, and in restaurants where there is an alternative I'll order the alternative. And if many others begin to do the same, then more restaurants will offer more alternatives, and more supermarkets will stock less meat and more vegetarian food. The market for meat will shrink, the economies of scale disappear and the shift will gather pace.

It is under way now. A tide of moral sentiment is slowly turning. It turns first in the unconscious mind. We feel - not opposed to something, but vaguely uncomfortable about it.

When a practice, such as killing animals for our table, is moving into the realms of those things we will no longer contemplate anyone doing, a reliable early warning is when we start preferring not to do it ourselves. For most folk that point was passed centuries ago. The next landmark comes when not only would we rather not do it ourselves, but we would rather not even see it done. Today, I doubt whether one in 100 of our citizens could with equanimity spend a morning in a slaughterhouse (note, for it is notable, the arrival of a French euphemism for 'slaughterhouse').

Finally comes the landmark which signals an imminent shift in behaviour. We would rather not even think about it being done. Were I to dwell, here, on the details of how animals are slaughtered for the table, you - for whose table they are slaughtered would rightly fault me for lack of taste.

I could press this argument, but do not need to. Eating our fellow-mammals, now that we no longer need to, isn't especially nice, and in our hearts we know it, every one of us. This truth, far from being undermined by the anger carnivores feel towards vegetarians, explains the anger.

Further argument is unnecessary, not least because I am not proposing that anyone should be forbidden to eat meat. This thing is going to happen without anybody being deprived of anything they strongly desire. You and I can help make it happen without any serious disruption to our lives. We need make no sweeping resolutions at all. We can be part of an incremental switch.

Painless programmes for self-improvement should normally be treated with suspicion. Suggestions that we could lose weight without ever feeling hungry, give up heroin without going cold turkey, chuck smoking without withdrawal symptoms, or become teetotallers yet never crave a drink, rarely amount to more than hype. To stress, to a person anxious to quit a pleasurable but unwelcome habit, that iron discipline will be required and the experience may hurt, is a useful thing to do because that is no less than the truth, and helps the individual prepare himself mentally for the struggle.