From Vol. 3, Issue 2, February 2021
Stoicism and Veganuary .1
Ancient Stoics and vegetarianism
As trivial as abstaining or reducing the amount of animal products you eat during the month of January might seem to some people, exploring how a contemporary Stoic might eat is not a trivial philosophical exercise. For one thing, ancient Stoic philosophers were not particularly supportive of a vegetarian (let alone a vegan) diet! Chrysippus (as recorded in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods 2.154–62) remarks that life has been given to the pig, as a form of salt, to preserve it for human use. Likewise, Epictetus asserts that
God created some beasts to be eaten, some to be used in farming, some to supply us with cheese, and so on. - Epictetus, Discourses, 1.6.18.
Furthermore, Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. A coherent vegetarian may put forward a case that, when avoidable, meat-eating (or the use of animal products generally) is unethical because of the harm caused to the environment, a subset of animals, or human health.
The Stoic concept of ‘harm’
A Stoic, on the other hand, cannot use that argument because the philosophy’s principles, state that harm is neither morally good nor bad, but rather an indifferent. To come to a conclusion about whether harm is morally good or bad, we must look at the reasons for it being inflicted. Obviously, if someone purposefully cuts my arm off that will harm me. However, if the person doing it is a trained surgeon and they operate on me to save my life, I could hardly say that their actions are “vicious”.
No universal prescription
Under a purely Stoic framework, there are no invariable universal prescriptions regarding dietary choices. Rather, a Stoic chooses to abstain from a specific type of food or drink if doing so constitutes an appropriate act or intention, i.e., is it courageous, just, self-controlled, and wise?
To answer this when it comes to the “need” for Veganuary, one would have to look into the facts, say, about mass meat and fish production and the associated carbon emissions, biodiversity declines, farming agglomeration take-overs, or labour practices in the sector.
One would also have to be honest with themselves about where they live and the type and quantities of meat or fish they buy. Many of the issues linked to biodiversity declines, farming agglomerations, or labour practices, for example, cease to exist if I am careful to buy my food from local farmers who are interested in their animals’ welfare and are considerate to their workers.
The complexity that comes with appropriate decision-making explains why Seneca (in Letters to Lucilius, 33.11) emphasised that the earlier Stoic philosophers were not our masters but our guides.
Modern conditions are different
Rather than follow their words blindly, it is worth asking whether the current facts surrounding mass meat and fish production ought to lead contemporary Stoics to think and act differently about food than the ancient Stoics, who operated in completely different circumstances. They didn’t, for example, have a fishing sector built on the back of trawlers that cause severe damage to the seabed and kill more than the fish they target. The negative impact of a single trawler is multiple times larger than even the most irresponsible group of Ancient fishermen, who relied on a wooden boat and a simple net. In many respects, the two scenarios are not even comparable!
In the subsequent parts of this miniseries, the question I will be attempting to answer is not whether or not abstaining from meat is virtuous and eating it vicious. Instead, I am interested in answering: “Under what conditions does eating meat (or abstaining from it) make the moral difference?”
Kai Whiting is the author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs at StoicKai.com