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October 19th, 2013

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I keep discovering that my attitude to animals has never been an all or nothing proposition. That is, I never had one huge epiphany that totally shattered my world view and made me radically change my ways. Rather, I had several small epiphanies, each prompted by a very different event and each leading a step or two closer to where I am now -- a vegan committed to a plant-based life style for the rest of my days.

It all began in my childhood in Poland. For some reason, most kinds of meats looked gross to me, did not taste good, and sometimes even gave me a heavy feeling in my tummy. Since I did not really like meat all that much, I sometimes I skipped over it when my parents put it on my plate. So, jokingly, they started to call me ‘jarosz’ – ‘a vegetarian’. I asked what it meant and they told me that some people do not eat animal flesh at all. I was very impressed by it. Up to this point I had no idea that it is even possible to abstain from eating animals.

In the winter of 1958, when I was four and a half years old, several days before the holidays my parents bought a fish for a Christmas Eve supper. Where we lived, sometimes you had to do this sort of thing if you wanted to eat at all. It was not too long after the WWII. Our city was in ruins, and there was a shortage of everything, including fish, and especially right before Christmas. There was no hot running water at our home and no opportunity to take a shower or even a good bath; this was a frequent condition in Warsaw due to the destruction caused by the war. So, we filled the bathtub with cold tap water and that's where the fish lived for a while, me and my older brother playing with her each day. Then came what I called the "day of execution". I begged my parents not to do it, I prayed to God and all Saints to stop it, and I made every promise I possibly could have trying to spare her life, to no avail. My father killed the carp while I witnessed it, crying my eyes out. And then I refused to eat her body and the flesh of any other animal. It took my parents and my brother many lies, lots of coaxing, and at least 2 or 3 days before I caved under their pressure and abandoned my newly adopted vegetarian path. Looking back, not too bad for a 4.5 years old child under so much pressure.

I think now that some subtle yet fundamental shift occurred right then, through this experience of bonding with the fish and then witnessing what I intuitively felt was an act of murder or wrongful killing. Up to that point I thought that animals are objects, just mere things to be used in this or that way, according to what we wish. Now I started to see them, including even someone as “lowly” as a fish, as members of one community of sentient beings to which I also belong. They have needs and interests just like we do. They fear what may happen to them just like we do. They suffer in many ways in which we suffer, too. True, what is happiness for them may be quite different than what happiness is for us. What they need to be happy may be quite different from our needs. And I am fairly sure they never suffer the existential angst. But there is also no doubt that they can feel joy and flourish in many ways in which we cannot. The rest is just looks and who cares about those. Besides, you do not treat anyone belonging to the same community as someone to be used like a mere thing. Or so I thought or felt even if I was not able to verbalize it in quite these terms. Anyway, that's how I opened up to the idea of solidarity and kinship with all sentient beings; that's how I accepted at some not fully conscious level the idea of respecting them and their needs.

As far as my attitude to animals is concerned, nothing much happened for the next 10 or 12 years. I just adopted the ways of my culture, including eating meat with each and every meal and sometimes for deserts, too, and that’s only a slight exaggeration. But I was also reading voraciously. I do not remember what came first--maybe something by Leo Tolstoy, maybe Romain Rolland’s book about Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of ahimsa (non-harm), maybe Gandhi's own account presented in his ‘Autobiography’, or maybe Mahayana Buddhist sutras putting forth the ideal of Bodhisattvas, deeply spiritually developed beings who postpone their own individual liberation to save all sentient beings. One way or another, I was becoming exposed to the lives and ideas of people who, on the grounds of compassion, had chosen not to cause harm and suffering either to people or to animals.

And then came 1972 and my first vacation away from my family. It was a hot sweaty summer day when I hit the road, in my knapsack a sleeping bag, a rain cover, few clothes, and many books -- Tagore, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Tao Te Ching, and Mahayana Buddhist sutras. I hitchhiked up the Vistula River to the ancient city of Krakow, then further into the mountains, Auschwitz on the way. The iron gate welcomed me with the Inscription: ARBEIT MACHT FREI -- WORK LIBERATES. Inside, several huge rooms filled with belongings of the prisoners -- hair, combs, toothbrushes, eyeglasses, razors, belts, prosthetics, shoes, many of them children's shoes and toys. Then the sister-camp of Brzezinka -- Birch Forest. The forest of chimneys, spread for miles along the railway tracks, welcomed me. Most barracks were burned to cover the crimes. Only a few survived and the dead forest of chimneys. Gas chambers at the end of the tracks, crematoria-furnaces right behind. All is neat and efficient: millions of people were killed here -- their hair used for blankets, bodies for soap, labor to support the war machinery in every possible way.

Right there and then it hit me. The methods used by Nazis to gather and kill humans were not so different than the methods used to slaughter animal; in fact, even the train carts used to transport people to the concentration camps were originally used to transport animals. But, if what they did to humans was profoundly wrong, does not it follow that what we do to animals is just as wrong?

I tried various objections to this hypothesis beginning with the most obvious one: we are humans and they are animals. But being a human is just a matter of certain genetic makeup. So, why should it matter at all? Generally, we do not base ethical principles on genetic differences. That’s exactly what Nazis and all other kinds of racists do. This is why we reject racism. Besides, if we were to encounter a friendly extra-terrestrial, would not we treat such a being with respect, no matter his or her genetic makeup? Clearly, morality cannot be just about the genes.

Then I tried an idea borrowed from Immanuel Kant; namely, morality is a matter of respecting someone’s autonomy and his or her rational consent. But I already knew that Nazis were killing infants, too. My mother, herself a survivor of the camp, told me the sometimes they would throw the babies alive into the flames of crematoria. And I know that some of the victims were so severely mentally handicapped that they would never be able to give, or refuse to give, a rational consent to anything. The Kantian idea would imply that, since they were unable to rationally consent to anything, there was nothing there to respect and hence there was nothing wrong about torturing and murdering such children… with obviously unacceptable implications. So, clearly, morality cannot be just about respecting someone’s consent.

And, furthermore, morality cannot be just based on what our culture permits, either. If it were, we could not rationally argue against Nazism and other cultural perversions. Any way I looked at it, my initial insight seemed correct. But if what the Nazi did was wrong, and what we are doing is so similar to their actions, does it not follow that our ways are wrong, too?

Later on I learned that several people saw a connection between what we do to animals and what the Nazis did to us. Jewish Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer mentions it in several places speaking through the mouths of his protagonists that, from the point of view of animals, we are all Nazis and what we do to them is ‘an eternal Treblinka’. J.M. Coetzee, also a Nobel laureate in literature, compared the Nazis' treatment of Jews to methods used to herd and slaughter cattle.(1) Similarly, Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, a Holocaust victim sent to Dachau for “being a strong, autonomously thinking personality” wrote in his “Dachau Diaries” what follows:

I have suffered so much myself that I can feel other creatures' suffering by virtue of my own. [...] I believe as long as man tortures and kill animals, he will torture and kill humans as well -- and wars will be waged -- for killing must be practiced and learned on a small scale.(2)

It seems to me that this first trip to Auschwitz forced me to see this connection. For when I returned home I told my family that I decided to become a vegetarian.

My mother, herself a survivor of Auschwitz, has never recognized the connection nor did she accept my decision. On the contrary, when I told her about my it she flipped out and spearheaded the offensive: "Why are you doing this? This is not the way to do things. We do not live like this. You are harming yourself. You are destroying your life. God gave us meat to eat", and so on and so forth. And when she stopped my father would take over, then my older brother, then my friends at school, one after another feeling it was a badge of honor to take a crack at someone attempting to live in a compassionate way. I do not know why they were doing it. Maybe they were genuinely worried about my health, maybe some cultural pride was at stake, maybe they felt I was going against their religion. The fact is that no one was willing to help me with either cooking or even explaining how to design a balanced meal. Frankly, I was not eating in a healthy way at all and did not feel very well, either; essentially, too many home fries and not enough greens. I was the only vegetarian around (all others I heard about being long-gone ancient sages). I was surrounded by the sea of omnivorous people going out of their way to destroy my resolve. I withstood for more than a year. Then I broke down and backslid, for a few weeks, into eating some meat.

I could not reconcile it, however, with the principles of universal compassion and ahimsa. And the argument I considered shortly after my trip to Auschwitz were haunting me every day. So, I tried again in 1974, right before summer, and this time I did it right. I started with a book that contained lots of good science about nutritional value of vegetarian cuisine and good tips about designing balanced meals. Then I went vegetarian and I never looked back, basically happy that I was doing my share in contributing to a healthy environment and avoiding causing harm. I believed (and maybe still believe, though I am less sure about it these days) that, provided that all of us were to become vegetarians, dairy and eggs could be had without causing animals any harm or suffering. Yes, I read about billions of male chicks being destroyed at birth (frequently just buried in the ground and suffocated or just ground alive) because they are useless to the meat industry. Yes, I heard about calves raised for veal in small stalls constraining their each and every movement. Yes, I knew about cows forcefully inseminated a year after a year, so they produced milk, and then slaughtered as soon as they could not continue doing it. But I thought those were excesses that could be eliminated if enough of us adopted a vegetarian lifestyle.

Someone pointed me to the documentaries “Meet Your Meet” and “The Earthlings”, each full of the footage of tortured animals (both available on the web). Somewhere I came across a clip showing a cow crying just seconds before being slaughtered which haunts me until now.(3) The fact is, this is not an exception, this is a standard for the food industry, and my eating dairy and eggs was indirectly contributing to causing someone excruciating suffering and harm.

In addition, I started to realize more vividly how devastating meat industry is and not just for animals and environment but also for workers who make this industry possible. As one of the slaughterhouse workers noticed

Every sticker [slaughterhouse killer] I know carries a gun, and every one of them would shoot you. Most stickers I know have been arrested for assault. A lot of them have problems with alcohol. They have to drink, they have no other way of dealing with killing life, kicking animals all day long. If you stop to think about it, you’re killing several thousand beings a day.(4)

In the summer of 2011 I had to revisit the whole issue again. At that time I was working on an academic paper on the implications of consequentialist theories like one developed by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, and in his other writings.(5) Generally, theories of this sort allow for some tradeoffs. In particular, they imply that one may be allowed to cause some suffering provided that this suffering is minimized, that it leads to something important (such as the protection of our lives or health), and that there is no other (less painful) way to achieve this important thing. I preferred this approach to more absolutist theories that disallow similar tradeoffs, e.g., to the theory put forth by Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights.(6) The open question was what kinds of tradeoffs might be morally justified?

It seems to me that, when we make decisions of these sorts, we must consider several factors. One of them is the importance of someone’s interests for his or her survival and well-being: one thing is to sacrifice someone to protect something as basic as someone’s life or health but a completely different thing is to sacrifice someone to get something as trivial as new fancy clothes, or shoes, or a new toy. Thus, an Eskimo hunting seals, because his life depends on it, is in a very different situation from a person engaged in trophy hunting or raising animals for leather and fur (provided there are reasonable alternatives). It is also important to consider characteristics of those whose interests are at stake: it is one thing to unavoidably destroy an ant colony when we build a hospital; it is a very different thing to kill a pack of wolfs who live on the grounds where the hospital is to be built; and it is yet another thing to kidnap a fully developed person and use her organs to someone else. In the first case, it may be justified to sacrifice the ant colony because the important interests of persons trump the important interests of ants. In addition, arguably ants are much less mentally developed than wolfs or normal human beings. The second case is quite different. Yes, our important interests are still at stake in this situation. But, on the other hand, wolfs are much more sophisticated than ants. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, there is no necessity to sacrifice the lives of wolves at all as it is not prohibitively hard to find a new home for the wolves and relocate them. (It would be yet another thing to destroy an ant colony simply because someone is too lazy to walk around it; this would be clearly unjustified action, too.) Finally, in the third case, we go against the will of fully rational person. Perhaps Kant was correct that these kinds of cases require the most stringent constraints. As he said, in his famous categorical imperative, we must never use humanity and rationality in ourselves and in others merely as a means but always also as an end. But perhaps he overstated his case while thinking about animals and claiming that, in the cases like 1 or 2, no constraints are needed because we do not deal with rational beings. It seemed to me more plausible to maintain that some limitations are still at place even though, perhaps, they are less stringent that the limitations applicable in the 3rd case, the case where the interests of fully developed persons are at stake. But what follows from this sort of reasoning for the cases of using animal products.

I knew that my actions contributed, at least indirectly, to great harm to cows, calves, pigs, birds, and many other animals. It was less clear whether they also bring about something of importance to me. Yes, I loved dairy cheese and I thought it will be very difficult to continue without it. But, on the other hand, I did not know for sure how much I would really miss it. There was only one way to find out. And so, to discover it, I made a decision to switch to a fully vegan life style, on a trial basis, for just one month. This seemed to me enough time for my body to adjust and for me to learn enough about the plant-based life style. This should allow me, I thought, to be able to start making rational decisions for the future. This seemed to be fair both to animal interests and to my own well-being.

Within two weeks some new calm, beautiful gliding energy kicked in. I had not expected it at all, I had not felt like this for years, and I loved it. But I also discovered that one product I was using had some dairy ingredient in it. So, just for an even measure, I extended the trial period for another 6 weeks and I have never looked back, staying vegan since then.

So, what I have learned through following my meandering path of little steps? The benefits for animals and environment are so great and obvious that there is no need to discuss them here. So, I will focus purely on the matters of my health. Due to sports injuries in childhood, I miss anterior ligaments in both knees, which has caused arthritis. Some 6 years ago my doctor discussed with me the possibility of two arthroscopic surgeries, one for each knee. The measure of success would have been an ability to walk for about 1 mile at one stretch. Since even then my daily roams with my dogs were much longer, I smiled and rejected the option. Since then, I lost close to 100 pounds, the last 20 after shifting to a non-inflammatory plant-based diet. Arthritis and pain receded to such an extent that I frequently forget to take my anti-inflammatory medication (meloxicam 15 mg, taken daily). In fact, after the consultation with my doctor, I decided to take it only as needed, usually twice a week 7.5 mg. In terms of energy, I have never felt better. I will continue on the vegan path for the rest of my life.

Few years ago I could barely walk and almost always it was a walk with pain. These days I am mostly pain-free. Since my doctor suggested, several years ago, that after arthroscopic surgeries walking a mile in one stretch would be a measure of success, I was curious haw far I can go by just shifting to a plant-based life style and paying a close attention to my health. On the September 07, 2013 I did my first half-marathon (just me, and my dogs who are also vegans). I did it to prove to myself that one can resolve so much by simply adopting a healthy and ethically sound life-style. That's the next small step.

What now? I am not sure, perhaps another small step. Maybe I will go vegan-raw on a trial basis, just for a few weeks to see how I will feel. One way or another, I decided to do another half-marathon this winter. This time I treat it as a stepping stone, or a training run, before going the whole distance next year. I have been inspired by many beings, both humans and non-humans. I hope this story will help someone, too.

When people learn I have been vegan for a while, and vegetarian for most of my life, one of the first questions they ask is about how I get my proteins. My answer, there is a myth of "proteins", namely that we need to eat meat and animal products to have enough of them. In fact, according to the contemporary research, if you have enough calories and most of them come from fresh vegetables (and, also, you use beans, legumes, tofu, nuts, etc.) you will automatically have enough proteins. Here is a good essay about it: http://www.tcolincampbell.org/courses-resources/article/muscling-out-the-meat-myth/ .

Also, I would suggest "googling" "The China Study" (which is a very thorough book the book by the same author based on many decades of study) and read about what they have discovered (wiki has a great write up). Here is a wiki summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_China_Study. The whole book is available as a free download.

Finally, there are many world class athletes who adopted the plant based life, including the best ultra-marathon runner of our times Scott Jurek (please, google his name for more information).
Finally, if you are interested in my own experiments whit vegan cuisine, I post photos and recipes of my dishes on my Face Book, in the photo-album entitled “Food”.


1) J.M. Coetzee, "Exposing the beast: factory farming must be called to the slaughterhouse”, The Sydney Morning Herald, February 22, 2007, http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/factory-farming-must-be-called-to--slaughterhouse/2007/02/21/1171733846249.html.

2) Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, Animal Brothers: Reflection on an Ethical Way of Life, 4th ed.Mannaheim, Germany: Warland-Verlagsgenossenschaft eG Mannaheim, n. date. Translated by Ruth Mossner for Vegetarian Press, Denver, CO.

3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLzBvT2v3PM

4) Gail A. Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U. S. Meat Industry, Amherst: Prometheus, 1997, p. 87

5) Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, New York: Avon Books 1990, New Revised Edition; and Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1993, 2nd ed. My paper, “Utilitarianism and Replaceability Revisited or Are Animals Expendable?” appeared in Between the Species, Vol 14:1, August 2011. http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1176&context=bts

6) Tom Regan, The Case For Animal Rights, University of California Press 1983.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:October 21st, 2013 01:29 pm (UTC)
Many thanks!

I do eat legumes too, and indeed am almost vegan. It's only a little step to go the whole way, and makes lots of sense to me.

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