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Vegetarianism is a traditional ethical stance and practice that has been influenced around the turn of the twenty-first century by science and technology. Strictly speaking, vegetarianism is a way of life in which one abstains from eating meat including fowl and fish. The vegan (pronounced "veegan") diet excludes all animal products, including eggs and milk. Lacto-vegetarians include milk products in their diet, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians, both milk and eggs. In the techno-scientific culture, a vegetarian diet may also be conscientious in other ways, such as by taking into account agricultural and food production methods, transportation distances, and the fairness of trade.

History of Vegetarianism

The history of vegetarianism began around the same time in the Mediterranean area and India. In Greece, Pythagoras (circa 569–475 b.c.e.) and his group were the first known to profess vegetarianism programmatically. Later the philosophers Epicurus, Plutarch, and some Neoplatonists recommended a diet without meat.

In India, the newly born Jain and Buddhist religions initiated the practice of vegetarianism in the fifth century b.c.e. Soon their idea of nonviolence (ahimsa) spread to Hindu thought and practice. In Buddhism and Hinduism, vegetarianism is still an important religious practice.

The religious reasons for vegetarianism vary from sparing animals from suffering to maintaining one's spiritual purity. In Christianity and Islam, vegetarianism has not been a mainstream practice although some, especially mystical, sects have practiced it. Monasticism in both East and West has often promoted vegetarianism.

In European and North American culture, vegetarianism witnessed a revival beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and especially during the nineteenth century in part as a protest against some aspects of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Well-known vegetarians include Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851), Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), and Albert Einstein (1879–1955).

Contemporary Issues

In contemporary culture, individuals have various reasons for pursuing vegetarianism. Although religious and spiritual arguments continue to be made, scientific research has also provided new justifications for vegetarianism. First, there is clear evidence that, contrary to early modern scientific theories that animals were like machines, animals in fact feel pain, anxiety, and other forms of stress. Thus it appears that breeding and killing animals for food causes them suffering. Moreover, some nutritional research indicates that a vegetarian diet is healthier than a carnivorous one. Finally, meat is ecologically more expensive to produce for food than vegetables: On average, the input ratio of units of proteins and energy fed to livestock to produce one unit of meat is ten to one.

Technologically enhanced food production has raised other concerns. For instance, it is highly questionable whether animals live in sufficiently humane conditions on contemporary farms. Indeed, the movement to promote the humane treatment of animals in the 1970s was extended from pets to other animals, and has had an influence on contemporary vegetarianism, as well as on the treatment of laboratory animals. Additionally, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics involved in raising livestock have caused uneasiness. Similarly, the huge transport distances and the questions of global justice have encouraged people to think about what they eat, since food often is produced in Third World countries for wealthier nations.

The most common rejoinders to such vegetarian arguments are as follows: The ills of meat production do not directly imply any moral obligation for vegetarianism; meat has been a traditional part of human diet for thousands of years, hence it is not clear whether a vegetarian diet really suits everyone; and it is possible to arrange farms so that animals do not suffer unnecessarily. Moreover, often vegetarians have been accused of fanaticism and moralism; one common view is that they are just unbalanced people. In fact, it has also been noted that Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian.

The question of animal rights may also be related to vegetarianism. Just as racism involves one race oppressing another, it can be argued that speciesism involves one species oppressing another. Those who argue for the existence of animal rights commonly use their view to support vegetarianism. However, acceptance of the idea of animal rights immediately raises problems of the depth and extension of these nonhuman rights. Do animals have more than rights to life? Do all living creatures, including bacteria, have such rights? Usually only moral agents have rights, and duties as well; how does this apply to animals?


SEE ALSO Animal Welfare; Food Science and Technology; Nutrition and Science; Organic Foods.


Dombrowski, Daniel. (1984). The Philosophy of Vegetarianism. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press. Provides a historical perspective into the philosophical ideas behind vegetarianism.

Singer, Peter. (1990 [1975]). Animal Liberation, 2nd edition. New York: Random House. A contemporary classic on the animal rights (first edition was published in 1975). Has had an important role in both vegetarian and animal liberation movement.

Spencer, Colin. (2002). Vegetarianism: A History, 2nd edition. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows. A historical account of vegetarianism, both from practical and theoretical points of view.

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