I’ve been a vegetarian for about six years now, and like any vegetarian, I’ve been asked numerous times why I decided to take on that identity. For me, a number of different motivating factors were in play. One, I must admit, was my fondness for, and my desire to be like, some vegetarians I knew at the time I made the switch, which was when I was an undergraduate. (Some of these vegetarian role models were graduate students, and I thought that graduate students were pretty much the coolest people around. Maybe I was a unique undergraduate.) But there was also another, more substantive reason.
As anyone who is even vaguely acquainted with me could probably tell you, I adore cats. My cat, Little Boo, is my purr-ide and joy, and I obsess over her health and well-being. I recently talked to a fellow cat person about how hard it would be for me to articulate exactly why I find Little Boo specifically – and cats generally – so wonderful. Part of it is their unique combination of power and grace and agility, and there’s also the idea that cats’ notorious aloofness means that their love carries more weight than that of a dog. But there’s also a major component that can’t be made any more precise or scientific or rational than “they’re just so adorable and cute!!”
And so with that in mind, as I contemplated a move to vegetarianism, I asked myself how I justified the implicit double standard in how I approached animals – adoring a cat but eating a pig or a chicken or a cow. Should pigs and chickens and cows be made to suffer for coming up short, relative to cats, in my subjective and irrational ranking of animal adorableness? A chicken can hardly control the fact that it doesn’t have whiskers or an adorable little snout or any of the intangibles that give cats their status in my eyes. If I were forced to bracket my personal, irrational love of cats, I would be forced to admit that, at the end of the day, all four of the animals I’ve mentioned are sentient organisms. Humans are also sentient organisms, and of course neither I nor most other people have eaten a human. Eating cats isn’t entirely unheard of, but I’ve never done it and certainly never will. So what exempts them from the fate I used to assign to chickens, cows, and pigs? At the time, I surmised that one possible response to such questions might point to a religious notion of humans as having been created in the image of God and therefore being special, but having never been particularly religious, I rejected that idea then and still reject it now. The only rational response to this moral dilemma, I concluded, was to refuse to eat any sentient organisms, regardless of cuteness.
But in the years since I’ve become more involved in sociology, another possible response to these musings has occurred to me. Perhaps my inner search for some sort of “rational” distinction between sentient organisms I would never consider eating (humans, cats) and those I did eat (pigs, cows, chickens) reflects the scientism and the privileging of rationality that it so widespread in modern society. I’m not claiming that every meat eater could give you a justification for their actions that’s straight out of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and in any event, none of my reconsiderations have encouraged me to abandon vegetarianism. Rather, I bring this up to suggest that perhaps rationality is not quite as ubiquitous in our society as sociologists often assert, at least in terms of our choices regarding food (though none of this would be news to Marshall Sahlins). Perhaps, then, those postmodern sociologists who critique the scientific method should embrace cattle ranchers in Texas as kindred spirits. On one issue, at least, they’re on the same side.