International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.

[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]

[b. Vegetarianism as a United Ideology]

I would like to turn now to the justifications for regarding vegetarianism as a united ideology. There are three elements here: the arguments, the parallel interests and the individuals involved.

Conventional wisdom distinguishes two major arguments for the vegetarian cause: health and animal welfare. They are on the face of it very different types of argument, and I started this study with the assumption that this would be a key division. Closer examination showed however, first that there were in fact four major focuses of the arguments - health; animal welfare and the humanitarian issue; economic/ecological; and spiritual - and secondly that they were in fact closely interconnected.

Fundamental to the humanitarian argument is the belief that it is wrong to cause unnecessary pain to animals, directly paralleling the moral obligation towards humans. Common sense demands that we recognise that animals suffer, and evolution shows them to be no different in essence from us. To animals therefore should be assigned rights. (1) To deny moral obligation towards animals is to deny the force of moral obligation generally within society. (2) The idea of rights may involve the argument that killing animals is wrong since they have as much right to live as we do. Not all vegetarians stress this; many focus on the question of cruelty. Killing involves the infliction of fear and pain ('humane' methods of slaughter have not eradicated this), and animal production, especially in its modern forms, is seen as involving the cruelty of a distorted life. Vegans extend the argument to all animal products on the grounds that even dairy and egg production causes suffering to the animals and is inextricably bound up with the production of meat (cows are kept in milk by regular pregnancies, half of which produce male calves which go to the meat industry). Finally, vegetarians say there is no argument from necessity to put against these arguments from morality and humanity. (3)

The second major group of arguments concerns issues of health. Our physiology, it is argued, was designed, or evolved, for a vegetarian diet, and evidence from our teeth and internal organs and from the fruit-eating habits of our nearest relatives, the higher apes, is invoked. (4) Like other forms of 'unnatural' life, meat-eating causes strain, both physiological and psychological. Health arguments differ as to the degree of harm done by meat-eating, some view meat as positively harmful, almost as a poison, while others concentrate more on the benefits of a vegetarian diet.

The economic arguments have remained a constant, though less central, feature of the vegetarian platform Though there have been slightly different bases for the equations the argument centres on the proposition that meat production is a wasteful way of feeding people. Individuals can feed themselves adequately at a lower cost on a vegetarian diet, and vegetarianism has been recommended to and taken up by people on a limited income. But the economic argument has wider implications than these; it raises issues concerning the relation of people within society and between nations. (5)  ‘There is no shortage of food in the world', Peter Roberts stated in a debate on vegetarianism run by The Ecologist. There is starvation because of poverty and because of greed and because we devote the major part of the world's food resources and its expertise . . . to the feeding of animals instead of children'. (6) Here the economic clearly links with the political and moral. From an environmental point of view, the vegetarian way of life could also halt the large scale clearance of land and destruction of habitat, at least five times more lard is required to produce the same amount of animal as opposed to vegetable protein. (7)

Lastly, there are the spiritual arguments. These are not the most immediately prominent, especially when viewing the ideology from the outside; internally, however, their role is very important. The religious argument is most frequently presented as the simple statement that a vegetarian diet is a more 'spiritual' diet. Vegetarianism has a long history of association with religious or spiritual aspirations, it has been used as part of ascetic discipline, been described as helping to 'cleanse the doors of perception’, (8)  and is regarded as a prerequisite for advanced meditation or yoga. Fruit and vegetable foods are described as having higher 'vibrational levels' than animal food, and eating such food is said to raise your spiritual vibrations. Meat-eating is here seen to stimulate a non-spiritual character; it makes you carnally minded, violent,, and aggressive; furthermore, being involved in killing, even vicariously, militates against the life of the spirit; Killing fractures the harmony of nature and puts 'a veil of blood' (9) between the individual and holiness. Vegetarianism is the true diet of Eden, killing and eating are part of our fallen sinful state, or in other versions are part of the lack of concord in the universe.

 A closer examination of the arguments, shows that they do not exist in isolation. Thus the wrongness of exploiting animals relates to the wrongness of the economic exploitation of the third world. The ecological arguments concerning the devastation of nature and the destruction of animal species relate both to the rights of animals to exist and to 'spiritual' conceptions of the Whole and of the balance of man in nature. Natural balance is central in naturopathic ideas of health. Health in vegetarianism means much more than the absence, of illness; it has a positive sense and includes wide ideas of, mental and spiritual well-being. Spiritual well-being rests upon right action in the world. There is a web of such cross connections. The apparently discrete spheres of reference of the arguments prove in practice to be interrelated, and in fact to draw strength from one another. As the Vegetarian Messenger declared in the 1850's: 'The popular arguments . . . are . . . but individual lights thrown across the path, bespeaking a much higher, and much greater principle than could be contended for any separate line of argument'. (10)

Of special importance here are the key vegetarian themes of the natural, the whole and the pure. (11) As mentioned earlier they play a special role in the integration of the ideology, slipping across, linking and cross-relating the different areas. But they also act more fundamentally, for they form the mediating concepts of the ideology by means of which the, as it were, circumference - made up of the different spheres of argument with, connected to them, the parallel interests - relates to the core. The core is that to which all the parts relate, and it forms what will be called the underlying structure of the ideology. This core of meaning is concerned in some fundamental sense with transfigured well being; and its form and character will be described more fully in part III.

This brings us to the question of the wider ideological context. It is significant that the focus of dislike of the word vegetarian has been that it is too narrow and too negative. It fails to convey what is experienced by vegetarians as a central reality, that vegetarianism is not just a particular prohibition but an attitude to life. There are vegetarians who attack the association of it with all sorts of other causes, and this has been a constant issue in the life of the societies; however, it is probably true that the objections arise largely from the association of the particular society with specific causes that the objector disagrees with; few vegetarians see their vegetarianism as an isolated and unrelated part of their lives. The attitude that: 'it is an integral part of one's whole view and way of life . . . It is not a mere hobby like stamp collecting or model making' is the one that predominates. (12)

It is one of the most characteristic features of vegetarianism that it rarely occurs alone, but comes in conjunction with a complex of other beliefs, attitudes and parallel movements. What vegetarianism as it were 'goes with' is as important in any understanding of the movement as its more intrinsic features. For these reasons I have extended the general use of the adjective vegetarian to embrace associated beliefs, attitudes, life styles; and the word is therefore of necessity, used as a fluid and inclusive term, intended to encompass this unity as much as to fix a category. Any attempt to define a clear ideal type, in particular one regulated by a rational development of central premises, could not cope well with these optional associations or tendencies towards sympathy with, and the failure would only serve to underline the point that these diversities are linked by an affinity at another level.

This brings us from the arguments and the associations to the individuals involved, and here there is further support for regarding vegetarianism as a united ideology. My initial assumption was that vegetarians would be grouped into different types, roughly according to motivation. This proved not to be the case, and I had difficulty in finding many who could safely be so allocated. Care is needed in making such a judgement, since it could result erroneously from the effects of the individual promoting a cause, particularly in print where one would naturally want to include all the possible arguments; thus over-all surveys, as for example Anna Kingsford's The Perfect Way in Diet cannot be safely used in the context of assessing an individual's approach. The need to present a united front and avoid weakening contentions has no doubt resulted in the playing down of individual disbelief in certain forms of argument and types of benefit; however it would be fundamentally wrong to regard vegetarianism as a pragmatic alliance of a variety of essentially different approaches. Those vegetarian biographies that can be pieced together suggest that the reasons for being a vegetarian are rarely single. This again became clear when talking to vegetarians. Many have developed, in response to frequent public questioning, a quick and acceptable explanation of their beliefs, which they produced when first talking to me, but further conversation revealed that the initial explanation was only the beginning - many other factors, feelings and beliefs were involved, and the immediate answer did not wholly reveal the true character of the belief. The experience also demonstrated the difficulty of secure attribution of motive.

Becoming and then being a vegetarian is an educational process. You may become a vegetarian for reasons of health, like Francis Newman, who first contacted the Vegetarian Society as a result of chronic dyspepsia and an addiction to 'dinner pills', (13) but then come to a fuller understanding and commitment to the other issues; thus in Newnan's later writings the greater emphasis is placed on the humanitarian arguments. Individuals may 'enter' the ideology at one particular point of its circumference, and as they move further into it, they become involved in the cross-linkages of the structure and come to understand the larger whole.

I do not want to be over-dogmatic in this question of the unified nature of vegetarianism; the comparative rarity of people who disregard all other aspects should not disguise the fact that one can have a general orientation that gives an emphasis to one vegetarianism. Those centrally involved in the animal rights movement naturally put their emphasis there, and some regard the health claims as unreal. This is even more true of the parallel causes; thus although there is a general connection with the political left, there are also examples of the strongly conservative.

A segment theory best describes the relationship. The vegetarian ideology forms a whole which radiates around the central focus. Not all people need take up all aspects, for it can be a question of embracing or giving a pre-eminence to certain segments; (14) but these segments are heavily over-lapping and, superimposed on one another, unite to form the whole, The whole is there, in abstract at least, for people to call upon. There are parallels with the way Lévi-Strauss represents the working of myth: though the encoded message concerning the fundamental structure comes only in parts – the segments here - they can be 'added up' in such a way as to reveal the whole. Vegetarianism is not just an unrelated assemblage, and the interconnection of the parts is fundamental to its operation as an ideological structure.

  1. 11.See p373 for modern development of the concept of animal rights.
  2. 12.See Brigid Brophy, Alive, Aug 1978, p26.
  3. 13.Vegetarians like Brigid Brophy point out that while the more widely opposed practice of vivisection can be seen as presenting a moral dilemma, with one evil being set against another, no such conflict applies in the case of meat-eating. See her article in S. Godlovitch and others, Animals, Men and Morals, 1971
  4. 14.This is an area of scientific controversy, though orthodox scientific opinion seems to incline towards the omnivore view.
  5. 15.For a good brief resumé of the economic arguments see Jack Lucas, World Food Production in the Balance, nd, see also p379
  6. 16.Quoted in New Vegetarian, Feb 1977, p12
  7. 17.Lucas p2 and p5.
  8. 18.P.A. Wilson, Food Fit for Humans, 1975, though frequently used as a term.
  9. 19.The phrase is Edward Maitland's Vegetarian Review (hereafter VR), Feb 1895, p48.
  10. 20.Vegetarian Messenger, Feb 1852, p10.
  11. 21. Pure has the same kinds of multiple meanings as the earlier example of whole; it can be pulled out in many directions and yet still draws the parts together. Thus a vegetarian diet is said to be a 'pure' diet; it avoids the toxins of meat; it is free from additives and. chemicals; it purifies the body by encouraging elimination; it cleanses the blood; it is pure morally in that it is not stained, with blood or implicated in cruelty; it is Pure in that its effects on temperament are conducive to a higher, purer life; it is pure ethically in that it is not based on the deceits of meat culture.
  12. 22.New Vegetarian, Apr 1977, p11, letter from David Mundy.
  13. 23.Dietetic Reformer, April, 1868, p36
  14. 24.Not always the most obvious segments; thus, Anna Kingsford’s central preoccupations were with the occult and the spiritual and with animal welfare.

Previous: Definition | Thesis Index | Next: Meat and Blood