Last month I went to a fantastic talk at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with a friend who is a student there. The talk, by Paul Harris (a professor of education), was on independent vegetarians and morality. Harris defines independent vegetarians as children with meat-eating parents who become vegetarians between the ages of 6 and 10. I became a vegetarian when I was 5, and have meat-eating parents. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for a lecture.
Harris wanted to know: To what extent are children capable of making autonomous moral judgments? He looked at independent vegetarians, family vegetarians (same as independent vegetarians, but have vegetarians parents), and non-vegetarians, all between the ages of 6 and 10.
All 60 independent vegetarians in the study said their reason for not eating meat was animal welfare. But lots of children care for animals and don’t become vegetarians. Why do only some become vegetarians? Harris thinks for some reason independent vegetarians look at meat and instantly see an animal being slaughtered, yet for most children this does not happen.
An overwhelming majority of the independent vegetarians and family vegetarians did not think it was morally wrong to eat meat. But most did think it was wrong to commit to being a vegetarian, and then renege on that promise. Harris is not sure why the vegetarian children did not see eating meat as an absolute wrong.
My issue with this talk stems from the discussant’s comments and my personal experience. The discussant, an independent vegetarian from a young age, said she became a vegetarian when she realized that meat was from an actual animal. This was my experience as well, according to my parents. One day I asked whether tuna fish used to be an actual fish. When my mom said yes, I was grossed out, and stopped eating meat permanently. I have no recollection of it being an animal welfare issue. I wonder if children in the study had been socialized to understand their vegetarianism as an animal welfare issue, when in fact it was more of a “being grossed out” issue. This could explain why they do not see eating meat as an absolute wrong.
Are you an independent vegetarians? If so, why did you become a vegetarian? Lately I’ve realized all the things about myself that I thought were unique are in fact not that unique. There’s even a person in the cohort below me who became an independent vegetarian at the age of 6.