If eating more plants and fewer animals has so many benefits for the body and for the world, wouldn’t it make sense to encourage people to try to eat this way at least some of the time, even if they still eat some meat and dairy? Why do people tend to talk about “being vegan” and “being vegetarian” as if these must be rigid, all-or-nothing stances? I’ve often thought the vegetarian ‘movement’ (if that’s the right word) would get more traction by overcoming this notion of inflexibility. If everyone could be encouraged just to strive to do a little better without being told they need to adopt some new identity label, it would make people less afraid of trying, less afraid of slipping up, it would meet people where they are, it would help combat some of the stereotypes of the excessively fussy vegan… in short, it would make things easier. Right?
But now I’m starting to think about the utility of the all-or-nothing approach. Of course there’s a moral argument that could be made here—you might say it is just as unethical to kill one cow as it is to kill a billion cows—but let’s leave that aside for the moment. Let’s just talk about the utility of maintaining a very firm stance that says ‘I will not eat x, not even a little bit, not even sometimes.’ When you think and talk this way, you’re taking your commitment seriously, and you’re inviting other people to take that commitment seriously too.
But when you imply that there is some room for flexibility, you start having to justify not your larger commitment to eating vegan, but your situated commitment to being inflexible at any given moment. If it seems like the rules apply only sometimes, you have to convince yourself (or convince the people you’re with) in any given situation that this, right here, is a time when the rules apply. The very existence of exceptions in some situations means that every situation is undermined by the possibility that it, too, might be an exceptional situation. So when you find yourself at a steakhouse, it’s hard not to reason, “Well, if ever there were a time for exceptions, it must be now.” And that reasoning would be, well, reasonable. Sort of.
This is what I’m getting at: While I think there’s a lot to be said for doing things in moderation, for making big changes by taking small steps, for leaving aside the all-or-nothing fussiness, for not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, etc…. I’m beginning to see how the ‘flexible’ approach may actually make it more difficult to make any progress at all.