In my experience, most omnivores, when they even bother to give any real thought to their diet and alternatives to it (eating less meat, vegetarianism, veganism etc.), start with the conclusion “it’s okay for me to eat animals.” Then from there, they start looking for evidence to support the conclusion that they already have. I believe I did the same thing prior to becoming vegetarian. But this is a fundamentally different approach from what most people think of as real ethical reasoning. It’s what I call working backward from a conclusion. We start at the end and then try to piece together the explanation for how we got there. It’s like watching a movie where we watch the detective solving a crime that we already saw the criminal commit. We know who did it and how it’s going to end, but we’re not entirely sure how it’s all going to come together.
Over four years ago, for various reasons, I made a conscious decision to treat the “should I eat meat?” question as an open one. Instead of looking for evidence for an existing conclusion, I decided to start with a question, look at my options, weigh the pros and cons of each, and then come to a decision. I know that this is pretty rare in my own personal history and I think it’s pretty rare for most people to take this approach. After all, most people want to have some sense that they’re doing the right thing at any given time. Even though most people go through at least a couple drastic changes in their way of thinking in some area at some point in their lives, most people take comfort in the fact that, at any given time, they pretty much have their shit all figured out and that’s that. It’s understandable. I know that being in a sort of ethical limbo is an uncomfortable position because I’ve experienced it a number of times myself.
Starting with a blank slate (or, tabula rasa “scraped table” for you smarty pantses out there) can be a very daunting proposition, indeed. But this is when true breakthroughs happen. When one sets aside their preconceived notions and lets the facts/arguments take them where they will, that’s when people can allow themselves to come to new conclusions.
So, to try to bring this back to veganland, is there a way to try to persuade omnivores to look at the topic from a tabula rasa point of view? Is there a way to persuade them to at least temporarily give up the comfort of the moral certitude that it’s okay for them to eat animals? If there is, I don’t really know what it is, other than just encouraging open, honest discussion where both sides freely admit the shortcomings of their own positions/arguments.
One thing that I’ve felt has value is trying to get people to commit to a temporary cessation of meat-eating. Complicity breeds rationalization, so if you can temporarily stop complicity, if you can convince them to stop doing the thing that causes them to start with the conclusion and then work backward, you have a window where different ideas can be considered with less pressure from one’s moral self-defense mechanisms. And that might just be enough to cause an ethical limbo. But that’s a post in itself.
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