Stoicism and Vegetarianism

Benefits-of-Vegetarian-Diet-2Interesting article by Steven Umbrello over at the Stoicism Today site, entitled Is Vegetarianism Stoic? Here is an excerpt:

“As a student of Stoicism, I began, like most practitioners, by adopting its basic tenets. I learned to practice mindfulness, negative-visualization, acceptance of inevitability and of course emotional control. However, as Stoicism begins to become part of my everyday life I look for new ways to integrate it into my daily physical practices, such as my diet and exercise. But what exactly do the Stoics say about our diet? What do they say we can and cannot eat?

I have been a vegetarian for over a year now after I had an epiphany – there was no good reason for me to support the killing of animals so that I may sustain myself. I realized that I could survive, and perhaps even attain greater health, by avoiding a meat-based diet. I made this decision independently of Stoic ideology, however I’m sure that Stoicism had something subconsciously to do with it. However, after a full year of being a vegetarian I wanted to know if what I was doing is actually aligned with Stoic teachings. Is it Stoic to be vegetarian?”

9 thoughts on “Stoicism and Vegetarianism

  1. I am reluctant to commit the ‘appeal to nature fallacy’, however living in harmony with nature is an important theme multiple Stoic texts. To quote the IEP article on Marcus Aurelius, “It is not enough for the philosopher to know how Nature works; he must train his desires in the light of that knowledge so that he only desires what is in harmony with Nature.” Since humans are biologically omnivores, culturing an aversion to meat would then seem to be contrary to nature, and in turn, contrary to Marcus Aurelius’ concept of an ideal Stoic. While Stoic arguments can be made against certain means by which an animal is killed and brought to the table, I am unconvinced that strict vegetarianism is supported on Stoic principles.


  2. Jonathan, well, some Stoics clearly thought vegetarianism was at the least compatible with Stoicism (Rufus, Seneca).

    More broadly, however, I think it is a mistake to read “according to nature” as an appeal to nature. For the Stoics, Nature was structured according to the Logos, i.e., rationally. So living according to nature is better interpreted as living according to reason. And of course one can bring up good *reasons* for being a vegetarian.

    (Full disclosure: I am not a vegetarian myself, but I do pay attention, from an ethical standpoint, to what I eat. That is definitely a Stoic attitude: be mindful of the ethical dimensions of everything you do.)

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  3. Massimo, this strikes me as an interesting issue, worthy of discussion, so I copy here my comment that I posted over there:


    “I had an epiphany – there was no good reason for me to support the killing of animals so that I may sustain myself. I realized that I could survive, and perhaps even attain greater health, by avoiding a meat-based diet.”

    Doesn’t this way of putting the matter rather stack the deck? It presumes that sustenance and survival and health are the only reasons for eating. And on those grounds, of course, you are correct.

    But of course, the history of culture and cuisine tell a very different story. I can think of all sorts of reasons to eat meat, reasons that have to do with aesthetic and cultural traditions and values. One might still want to try and make a moral argument, but I would then want to know why such reasons should be overriding of other values and valuations.

    In short, I think you rather beg the question with this formulation. Certainly, it doesn’t speak at all to why I prepare and eat my Great Grandmother’s paprikas csirke recipe with my family.


  4. Aravis, well, that’s not *my* way to put it, it is Steven Umbrello’s the author of the linked piece.

    That said, while certainly there are other aspects to eating besides sustenance and survival, mostly aesthetic ones, really, it is hard to say why they would trump ethical considerations. If I gather aesthetic enjoyment from eating meat, but the only way to get it is to make animals suffer horrible conditions for long stretches of their lives, why on earth would my aesthetic pleasure trump their sufferings?

    As for your grandmother’s recipe, again, I get the importance of cultural traditions. But, again, why would they trump moral ones, if they happen to be in conflict?

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  5. Of course, I understand that this is an excerpt from someone else’s post. But I was under the impression that ethical considerations are responsible for your move to a partial vegetarianism, and I assume that your ethics is wrapped up with your Stoicism.

    My reply to your question is meant entirely seriously. I am not being glib: Because I care more about my family’s customs and traditions than I do about chickens.

    Another way of putting the point is that I am not sure that I think that every ethical consideration is overriding of every other type of value. I understand that Kant thinks so — hence his point that moral imperatives are categorical — but I am not a Kantian.

    Here’s another example that might make the point better, for those who are not moved by the value of my family’s culinary traditions.

    If one had to choose between killing a chicken and destroying all of Michelangelo’s existing work, is it obvious that one ought to choose destroying the work? Not only don’t I think so, I think it’s obvious that one should kill the chicken.


  6. Aravis, yes, ethical considerations were at the root of my move toward what really should be referred to as ethical omnivory: I’m not a vegetarian, I eat (almost) anything, as long as its production involved relatively low environmental impact and animal suffering (I say almost because I exclude highly intelligent animals altogether: I don’t eat humans, monkeys, pigs and octopi, among others).

    But this actually happened before my recent interest in Stoicism, so it is not directly related to it. It is, however, related to my long standing interest in virtue ethics.

    “Because I care more about my family’s customs and traditions than I do about chickens.”

    Your prerogative, of course, but I find it hard to justify on ethical grounds, and I find the ethical grounds hardly trumped by family tradition.

    “Another way of putting the point is that I am not sure that I think that every ethical consideration is overriding of every other type of value”

    Doesn’t that depend on the import of the ethical consideration? There surely are minor ethical issues that can be overlooked in favor of other considerations. But in my book subjecting sentient animals to unnecessary pain and suffering isn’t minor. And no, I’m not a Kantian either.

    And yes, I would choose Michelangelo as well. But I’m still not convinced by the valence of your grandmother’s recipe.


  7. But I think I can make a good argument that they shouldn’t be. A Michelangelo is a unique work that is widely recognized to be of high cultural value. Your grandmother’s recipes, with all due respect, ain’t. I’m frankly surprised you are taking such a relativist perspective, do you apply it to morality in general?


  8. My attraction to Stoicism is as a practical method of dealing with “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Part of the method would be the matter of diet, since the body has a way of reacting badly to bad choices of what and how to eat. When it comes to vegetarianism, looking at human anatomy it does not seem to be formed for pure vegetarianism. Nor do I believe it is possible to live entirely without causing harm to other beings. SciSal’s citation of Marcus Aurelius to “be mindful of the ethical dimensions of everything you do” is good advice in this as in other contexts.
    As an economic matter our market does allow us to pay a premium to purchase milk, eggs and meat that have been raised humanely. If that means that I can afford to buy only a third as much of this kind of food as I might esthetically prefer, so be it. I shall be Stoic about it.
    As to the cultural values having to do with food, I would give them a good deal of respect (though not absolute respect). I don’t know if there is any Stoic text on the lines of “Honor thy Father and thy Mother” but it is a consideration to be kept in mind.


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