On the backchannel we’ve had a bit of buzz going about our diets: who’s veggie, who’s vegan, why, what we feel bad about, what we wish we did better, and what tips we have to make lives easier. There’s a lot to talk about and we’ve covered a wide range of topics, but the underlying message that I took from this conversation is that nearly everyone feels guilty. We feel guilty about when we eat meat, about not being able to spend more time on food and food ethics, or we even feel guilty about the needs of our minds and bodies. All of us is a pro at beating ourselves up about not being a perfect vegan with no impact on any creatures whatsoever.
I’m here to say STOP.
Now I’m not about to deny that food ethics are important. I’m not going to deny that we have a long way to go before we have an ethical and sustainable food system. I won’t deny that we should all be working to improve our own little corner of the world in whatever ways we can. What I will say is that feeling guilty and beating yourself up over your food choices almost never does anyone any good, and feeling horrible because you aren’t perfect really doesn’t align with the facts of how ethics works. And in addition, food ethics seems to be somewhat different from many other areas of ethics in that it makes sense to have different expectations of different people. There are a number of reasons food ethics is unique in this way.
Changing diet is a major choice. It can affect nearly every element of your life, from finance to health to social life. That means it’s a serious commitment to make changes to diet. And because it affects so many areas of life, there are many problems that can get in the way of making changes. There are numerous examples of this. I have an eating disorder, which means that my mental health is intricately tied up in my food choices. I don’t want to put myself in danger of a serious relapse with more food rules. Just from the conversation on the backchannel I heard people explaining that they are feeding families with a variety of dietary restrictions and already spend many hours a week planning their food. They wouldn’t want to have to decrease their food variety and increase time and money spent to add veganism into that list of restrictions. There are people with health restrictions, or others who can’t afford to change their diet, or who stretch their veganism and vegetarianism when they are a guest. Each of these examples shows how another element of life intersects with food, and how complications in that other area can get in the way of perfect food behavior.
Unfortunately many of us view these perfectly legitimate reasons to continue eating meat as excuses. It’s easy to see it this way: we’ve come to the ethical conclusion that eating meat and animal products is wrong, so we are being wrong by continuing to enact those behaviors. However we know that life is more complicated and sticky than that, so it might be time for a reframe. I often find analogies helpful in these cases, so let’s try one of those.
My boyfriend often feels that he should visit his parents more often. I see my parents far more often than he does, and he sometimes feels guilty that he doesn’t make time to see them. Abstractly, it seems that he probably should see his parents as often as I do: it hurts them when he’s not around, he’s come to the ethical conclusion that family is important, they need his help around the house, etc, and yet he is not acting in accordance with that conclusion. However when we move beyond the abstract and look at the actual experience, it’s obvious to me that visiting his parents is draining for my boyfriend. He comes home hurt and frustrated, he often feels attacked, they expect a lot of him and give very little in return, and it’s a long drive out to see them. So should he still feel obligated to see his parents as often as I see mine, when I feel rejuvenated and safe after visiting them? I don’t think anyone would say yes, as his well-being is an important part of the equation. Depleting those resources makes him a less effective and less ethical person in the long run.
So let’s move back to eating. From this analogy we can see that not every abstract ethical conclusion demands perfect compliance because our own well-being should be part of our ethical calculations. Each of us has a finite amount of time, money, and energy, and we have to decide which arenas to focus those resources in. There are an amazing number of things we could do to improve ourselves and our communities, and we simply cannot do all of them. If changing our diet deeply depletes our resources, it may hurt us, or leave us anxious, angry, unhappy, and incapable of acting ethically towards the people around us (as an example I know that I am a cranky bitch when I don’t get adequate protein). If one particular ethical choice leaves us without anymore energy or resources, it may not be the most effective way of improving the world.
In addition, many of us have chosen other arenas in which to push ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on rape prevention instead of food ethics. Again, every time we choose to throw ourselves into one cause, we are taking away resources that could be spent on another. That doesn’t mean that focus is wrong or makes us bad people. Each cause is important, but it’s nearly impossible to be fully dedicated to both rape prevention and food ethics in such a way that your behavior always perfectly matches with your ideals. Values are aspirational: that means that they are things we will likely never be able to live out in real life, but we keep striving for them. This means that there’s no reason to feel guilty that we can’t solve every problem and act perfectly in accordance with our values every day, particularly when we have many values that ask a lot of us. No one is capable of perfection.
When we feel guilty about doing the best we’re capable of, we increase the number of shitty feelings in the world. This, in my humble opinion, is a net negative. While we should be aware when we wish we could do better, we don’t need to beat ourselves up about it. Of course this is easier said than done, but reminding yourself over and over that there are many things you do right, that you’re doing the best you can, and that there are always barriers can help. Remember that your well-being also counts, and it should be part of your considerations when you’re choosing your behaviors.
EDIT: I am not trying to assert that veganism is perfect nor that being vegan is the only way to improve one’s food behavior. All of these concerns about guilt would apply to any ethical conclusion an individual makes.