home Opinions The Meat of the Discrimination Problem

The Meat of the Discrimination Problem

The hidden discrimination against vegetarians, and why it actually matters

One of the fundamental rights protected by the Charter is the right to freedom of conscience and religion. This right is so important that the Charter also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. And while recent case law has held that these rights do not extend to the more marginal or fringe religious sects and cults, it is not clear that this should make any moral difference.

In other words, if some group’s beliefs are not constitutionally (or otherwise legally) protected, does this give us moral license to dismiss, disregard, and disrespect the genuinely held beliefs of another group?

On reflection, I think the answer is clearly no. Even though an individual is not part of an historically disadvantaged group, she may still be subjected to wrongful discrimination on the basis of some other affiliation or physical characteristic.

This is an obvious point – that South Park episode where Cartman undertakes to commit genocide on “gingers” is a case in point. Having red hair and freckles may not entitle you to special legal protection, but it is clearly wrong to be discriminated against on the basis of these physical features. And unsurprisingly, most people tend to behave in a way that acknowledges the wrongfulness of this kind of discrimination.

Yet there is another form of wrongful discrimination that goes almost entirely unnoticed – not just within Canadian society at large, but also within these halls. There is a form of discrimination that disadvantages a group of people on the basis of their beliefs.

I am referring to the ethical vegetarians/vegans – people who refrain from eating animal products because of their belief that doing so is morally wrong.

You might think this belief is false, grounded on a mistake, or just intuitively absurd. And maybe you are right. But that is completely irrelevant. Because you do not need to agree with another person’s beliefs; you may even openly challenge and reject those beliefs. But it is entirely another matter, and indeed would be morally wrong, to disadvantage or discriminate against them on the basis of those beliefs.

For instance, you may believe that Judaism or Islam (or both) are false. You may openly have religious debates with people who belong to these faiths. But it would be wrong to insult, disadvantage, or exclude Jews and Muslims on the basis of their beliefs.

And yet, ethical vegetarians/vegans face widespread discrimination. A recent survey of omnivores in the U.S. found that “attitudes toward vegetarians and vegans were equivalent to or more negative than attitudes toward groups that are commonly targets of bias (e.g., immigrants, gay men, lesbians), with vegans evaluated especially negatively. The only group evaluated more negatively than vegans was drug addicts!”

There is also growing evidence that vegetarians and vegans are more likely to experience a decline in contact with family and friends, and that they are more likely to be denied a job or a promotion because of their diets. They are often subject to ridicule in popular entertainment and the news media.

These unjustified attitudes and behaviours are not absent from law schools. Anecdotally, I know of law students who have had their beliefs sneered at and insulted by both their professors and their peers. Virtually every law school event excludes vegetarians (and especially vegans) because of their diets.

These attitudes have no place in a tolerant liberal society. If it would be disrespectful to make a joke to a religious Jewish or Muslim peer about sneaking pork into their meal, why would it be okay to make this joke to an ethical vegetarian/vegan?

True, vegetarians and vegans make up only a small (albeit growing) proportion of the population. So as far as discrimination goes, there are other groups to be more concerned about.

And yet, discrimination is morally wrong because it involves drawing morally irrelevant distinctions between groups of people and then providing unequal benefits to those groups – and this is true regardless of which groups it targets. So if we have any hope of eliminating discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, we have to work to eliminate discrimination wherever it occurs.