Hypatia 17.1 (2002) 203-205
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From Pythagoras to Peter Singer
Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer. Edited by KERRY S. WALTERS and LISA PORTMESS. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Walters and Portmess present the reader with a valuable collection of arguments that support the vegetarian life as a moral imperative. The book is not intended to be comprehensive because the literature is so large and varied; but, as the editors say, it touches "only the tip of the iceberg" (273). Instead, the editors attempt to bring together commentaries that cross the boundaries of time and literary perspective. Ancient to modern sources are included, but the collection is decidedly Western in its focus, the only exception being one selection from the writings of Gandhi. This volume also omits religious defenses of vegetarianism, and the editors have gathered together a second series of writings in that area, Religious Vegetarianism: From Hesiod to the Dalai Lama (2001). In Ethical Vegetarianism, most of the selections are written by men, as could be expected; but, three defenses from women activists of the nineteenth or twentieth century also appear.
The book is presented in four parts, arranged historically from ancient sources to those that have appeared in the last three centuries. The editors supply a lucid and well-written general introduction to the book. They also [End Page 203] preface each part with an overview and each selection with a brief summary of each author's argument. These overviews are clearly distinguished by italic type and will be particularly useful to anyone wishing to use this book for undergraduate students. Appendices follow with the editors' commentary on a variety of other contemporary articles and books on ethical vegetarianism as well as a list of sources against vegetarianism. Several bibliographies on vegetarianism are mentioned, strengthening this book's contribution as a resource for those interested in further research. Three selections from Aristotle, René Descartes, and Immanuel Kant that generally do not support the vegetarian position are also included. The latter are particularly valuable for the reader because these classical sources are often challenged in the ethical vegetarian literature. The appendices also include a short bibliography on "anti-vegetarian" writings, a list of sources, and an index.
While writings by philosophers account for perhaps half of the defenses that appear in the volume, satirical, persuasive, and didactic pieces also appear. The positions represented range from moderate to extreme (defenses of semi-vegetarianism to veganism), and authors include a poet, a historian, suffragists, physicians, a composer, novelists, scientists, and animal activists as well.
As the editors note, "debates over vegetarianism interestingly mirror concerns of their time" (257). Thus, in the ancient world, purity of the spirit and definition of humans as separate from nature preoccupy the defenders. By the eighteenth century, meat eating is seen as a "fall from innocence," and arguments that it is not natural for humans to eat meat appear. Concomitant with that comes the idea that a more natural, vegetarian diet improves not only one's physical health but one's moral health as well, a strain that persists to the modern day. Humans are being seen as a part of nature rather than separate from it. In the nineteenth century, the selections reflect more concern for the animals themselves, for their suffering, and for the importance of empathy and compassion as foundations for moral concern. The equality of all beings and harm as the basis for moral concern become more entrenched in that time. As the editors note, the twentieth century presents us with a variety of defenses for the avoidance of killing and eating animal flesh. Most of these are philosophical in that they appeal to by then well-established moral frameworks such as rights or utility as well as emerging concerns for the environment and future generations. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of the book is the wide variety of arguments for the ethical vegetarian position that are represented.
The collection has a few flaws, none of which diminish the value of the collection to...