Monday, August 16, 2010

What Is a Vegetarian?

Despite the fact that we keep a meat-free home, the shorter of the short people will occasionally say that he is the only vegetarian in the household because he has never had meat in his life. He worries that if he ever accidentally ingests something that has meat in it, he will no longer be a vegetarian. This, of course, is far too strong a definition. One can become a vegetarian and legitimately be one.

But it does raise an interesting question about the definition. What is it that makes one a vegetarian?

Is it the result of what you eat? If someone thinks he is eating meat, intends to eat meat, tries to eat meat, but is fooled by someone substituting non-meat alternatives so that he is, in fact, not eating meat, would that make him a vegetarian?

If it is solely what you eat, how long before it counts as vegetarianism? Surely someone sitting at McDonald's is not a vegetarian in the moments he drinks his large Coke in between bites of his Big Mac. In the same way, it seems absurd to say that that I'll be a vegetarian on Wednesdays. But it does not seem meaningless to say that I'm going to become a vegetarian for a year. What's the difference?

Is it a matter of intent? At what used to be our favorite Korean restaurant, we would order these delicious mung bean and scallion pancakes as an appetizer. It was only years later, just before the place closed down, that we learned they had always had pork in them. TheWife during that period had been a vegetarian and was selecting her foods with the intention of avoiding meat. She failed through no deliberate act of her own. Was she wrong in thinking herself a vegetarian at that point?

Suppose someone fully intends to be a vegetarian, but slips occasionally, say, once a month or every other month into old habits and has shrimp in a Chinese restaurant or a piece of fried chicken. Is this person a vegetarian?

Does it matter if there is a reason for the decision? Whether it is for health or ethical reasons, does a person have to have a purpose or explicitly make the decision? Does it have to be explicitly stated to oneself. Is it something you have to declare yourself or can you unwittingly wake up one day and realize that you have been a vegetarian for the last six months?

What makes someone a vegetarian?