|"My compassion for someone is not limited |
to my estimate of their intelligence."
“Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.
This scene – from Douglas Adams’ The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – sowed the seed, about 30 years ago, that led to my first step on a bumpy journey into the often ignored world of the conscience. It’s an unsettling world we perhaps spot out of the corner of our eye but pretend not to see, or an inconvenient world we may rail against rather than sit with the discomfort of being able to help, but unwilling to do so.
We are not saints, and we don’t have to be. But I believe it does serve us well to consider, at least now and again, the potential consequences of our beliefs and actions.
The conscience is not an overbearing morality with which to beat ourselves or others, but a way of discovering the extent of our ever-evolving compassion, to be awake to the moral challenges as they present themselves. Each moment offers us another opportunity to test our beliefs and assess, to the best of our ability, which actions will do the most good and/or cause the least suffering to all concerned. It’s not always an easy judgment, and we won’t always get it right, but it’s much easier if we have a caring relationship with our conscience, and are patient when we (or those around us) trip and graze our moral knees.
The scene mentioned above features a bovine animal who wants to be eaten and enthusiastically introduces itself as the Dish of the Day to diners at the restaurant at the end of the universe. When I saw this episode, I recognised that, like Arthur Dent, I too would probably have recoiled at the prospect of eating a creature that was willing me to do so, and yet would, without a second thought, chomp my way through a steak from one that had no choice in the matter. This made me question my ethics. I did not become a vegetarian overnight, but gradually, as my awareness grew of the cruelty endured by the animals, the damage done to the environment and the suffering caused to people by eating something for which I could easily find a substitute.
“Do as much good as you are able, and cause as little suffering as you can.”
This advice from the Dalai Lama has helped me greatly in my stumbling efforts to live as a humane being. It has encouraged me to do my best, while understanding that I am a human being, not a saint.
As long as we are motivated by selfless kindness, any act of compassion, however small, is good for us as well as those whom we seek to help. Each small act of compassion strengthens our hearts so we can, in time, engage in bigger and bigger acts of compassion, just as if we were weight-lifters training our muscles to carry heavier and heavier loads. No effort in developing our heart muscles (spiritual or otherwise) is ever wasted.
Living as a vegetarian is a very easy way to cause as little suffering as we can. It’s not the answer to everything and there are many other ways to keep the harm we do to a minimum. But cutting out, or even just cutting down, our meat consumption is one small way to make a big difference.
There is a scene in StarTrek IV (wisdom can be found in many places!) in which someone says of a couple of whales who are about to be thrown to the mercy of hunters: “They're not human beings, you know. Their intelligence has in no way proven comparable to ours.”
Whale expert Dr Gillian Taylor replies: “I don’t know about you, but my compassion for someone is not limited to my estimate of their intelligence.”
Being a vegetarian is, for me, as much about people as it is animals. Studies on world food security estimate that an affluent diet containing meat uses up to three times as many resources, and twice as much land, as a vegetarian diet, and causes far more long-lasting environmental damage and pollution.
These factors all impact on people, especially the world's poorest and future generations, and the Earth's ability to provide for all her children. And the links between meat consumption and health problems such as heart disease, cancer and aggressive behaviour have been well-documented by scientists.
Humans are omnivores – this does not mean we have to eat meat; it merely means that, biologically, we are able to do so (though it is not necessarily good for us): we – especially those of us who live in countries where fruit, vegetables and cereals can easily be grown – have a choice.
“The earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed,” said Mahatma Gandhi. Becoming vegetarian is just one small (and cheap and tasty!) way to help make sure there’s enough food to go around.
Put simply, a vegetarian diet is healthy for people and planet, and it stops our conscience from feeling starved of attention.
If you would like to find out more, visit the Vegetarian Society’s website at www.vegsoc.org or call 0161 925 2000 for advice and recipes.