“I am a Vegetarian”: Reflections on a Way of Being
People have many different motivations for being vegetarian, and there are different trajectories through which people transition from being omnivores to vegetarians. This study looks at the experience of being vegetarian, and, through a phenomenological approach, seeks to better understand how vegetarians see themselves, the world around them, and their relationship to other people. The paper describes some of the various phases that vegetarians go through, and looks in detail at how vegetarians relate to others in terms of “spreading a message.”
For many vegetarians, being vegetarian is not just a “diet” or a certain set of nutritional principles they follow – it is a manifestation of a deeply held belief in certain kinds of animal ethics. These beliefs are reflected in many different ways through the vegetarian’s relationship with themselves and people around them. Of course, there are many different variations on the vegetarian diet (and associated lifestyle), and this study addresses these variations largely “in the context of the process of becoming vegetarian — from an initial phase in which an individual explores the possibility of vegetarianism to one in which he or she makes a commitment to a vegetarian lifestyle.” Author Kenneth Joel Shapiro approaches the subject using a phenomenological method, looking at “the vegetarian experience” in a holistic way, from “relation to self, to nonhuman animals and the natural world, and to other humans.”
The results show that vegetarianism is complex, and the motivations for being vegetarian are fluid and often changing. The relationship to health is a particularly complicated one: “many [vegetarians] initially were motivated to adopt a vegetarian diet for its health benefits and eventually find that motive insufficient to maintain the move. For some, a vegetarian diet is not found to be or perceived to be healthful.” Social / ethical motivations can also be complex and at times contradictory: “some are discouraged by the lack of social support from family, friends, and professionals. Others are put off by their view that vegetarians are morally smug or self-righteous. Even for those whose initial motive was ethical, it may become morally acceptable to eat flesh from animals that are treated well — for example, free-range chickens.” However, the author contextualizes these findings in terms of “phases,” different stages in a veg “life cycle,” and makes a point of differentiating vegetarianism as a “way of being,” versus simply a “way of doing.” “From the point of view of the present thesis, that vegetarianism is a way of being, I would argue that some of these lapsed vegetarians never got past the initial phase. They adopted a vegetarian diet but did not achieve a vegetarian way of being,” says Shapiro.
Overall, the study finds that among many vegetarians, there is big difference between simply adhering to the diet (doing) and being more committed to a lifestyle (being). When vegetarians do achieve a “way of being,” the author notes that there is a shift that happens where the subjects not only adhere to the diet and principles themselves, but also show a strong desire to spread the message of vegetarianism to others. For advocates, this study offers further research aimed at profiling and understanding the complex motivations behind vegetarianism and veganism.
Employing a qualitative method adapted from phenomenological psychology, the paper presents a socio-psychological portrait of a vegetarian. Descriptives are a product of the author’s reflection on (dialogue with) empirical findings and published personal accounts, interviews, and case studies. The paper provides evidence for the hypothesis that vegetarianism is a way of being. This way of experiencing and living in the world is associated with particular forms of relationship to self, to other animals and nature, and to other people. The achievement of this way of being, particularly in the interpersonal sphere, comprises an initial, a transitional, and a crystallizing phase of development. The paper frames contrasts between vegetarianism and carnism through the phenomena of the presence of an absence and the absent referent, respectively.