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The Ethical Dilemma Inherent in the Weekday Vegetarian Plan

  • by
  • September 20, 2011
  • 1:00 am
The Ethical Dilemma Inherent in the Weekday Vegetarian Plan


At the recent TEDxDirigo conference, we watched a 4-minute TED talk, Why I’m a Weekday Vegetarian, by founder Graham Hill. Hill explained why, despite everything he knows about the cruelty, health problems and environmental destruction associated with meat-eating, he wasn’t a vegetarian. “Why was I stalling?” he asks in the face of the truth that “my common sense and good intentions were in conflict with my tastebuds.”

Hill’s answer is to become what he calls a “weekday vegetarian,” someone who is vegetarian during the week and chooses whatever he or she wants on the weekend. Such a plan, if adopted widely, would dramatically reduce meat consumption and thereby diminish the abuse and death of billions of animals, the environmental harm caused by their production and the number of heart attacks, strokes, cancers and incidences of diabetes.

So why wasn’t I more enthusiastic when I heard his talk? Given the power such a talk has to make a difference (it has been “liked” on Facebook 19,000 times), why didn’t I find myself cheering at the end? I think it’s because, while I realize that Hill’s idea is positive, it still strikes me as a failure of conscience. For Hill to allow his desires to eclipse his values is surprising coming from someone so committed, engaged and active in improving the world. I like his idea; I just wish he would hold himself to a higher standard. I wanted him to advocate “weekday veg” to people as a path on which to begin, but not an end point, and not his own end point.

I began thinking about how we would all react if we heard a talk by an activist working to end slavery who said that during the week she avoided chocolate produced through slave labor, but on weekends ate any chocolate she felt like. Or an environmentalist who said that during the week he only drove a Prius but on the weekend would drive a Hummer. I even imagined a man who spanks his kids, but is unable to resist coming to the decision – surely positive – that he’d only do it on the weekends and become a “weekday good dad.”

For the animals Hill eats on the weekend, life is still brutal and cruel; it is still, as he says, something that would never be conscionable if done to a dog or cat here in the U.S. And sadly, because Hill says that eating cows causes the most environmental destruction, if we “take it to the next level” by choosing a different meat than “red meat” on the weekends, as he advocates, we’re condemning many thousands more animals to suffering and death. Most of the sustainably-harvested fishes he recommends (and all of the chickens and turkeys people might choose instead) are so much smaller than cows, meaning adopters of his approach may eat several animals over the weekend instead of a small portion of one.

I want leaders for a better world, environmentalists and those who are active in the peace and justice movements, to both inspire by example and remind us that living according to conscience is not a sacrifice, but an honor; not a burden but a liberating responsibility. Perhaps others will feel that Hill, in admitting his weaknesses and his failures, paves the way for more people to follow because they will be willing, like he, to give it a try, at least for 5 out of 7 days. Hill’s may ultimately be a very effective approach, but it still rankles when someone recommends what they themselves identify as cruel and destructive acts (albeit fewer of them) because of personal weaknesses cast as too hard to overcome.


Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.


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Image courtesy of Christina Hoheisel via Creative Commons.

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1:27PM PST on Jan 15, 2013

better than nothing... but come on, do what is right.

1:01PM PDT on Oct 2, 2012

If current omnivores want to take a step in the right direction by eating less meat, they shouldn't blame “fanatic vegans” for discouraging them. That is the worst excuse I have ever heard in my entire life. If you want eat less meat, do it. Don’t use what someone says as an excuse to become “discouraged” from eating less eat. How can a comment someone makes discourage you enough to the point that it forces you into eating more meat? I just don’t get how that works. That honestly seems like a weak excuse to continue old habits.

9:50PM PDT on Nov 4, 2011

great article. i love the author's opinion.

4:11PM PDT on Oct 3, 2011

I applaud the author's commentary on this subject, but I do want to present just one point from the other side. Considering that a majority of people in the world are adverse to vegetarianism, is not any positive step in the conscientiously "right" direction, a good one? Any attempts my carnivorous friends and acquaintances make towards cutting down on meat makes me happy. Granted, it is not completely cutting off the support to the toxic and often cruel meat processing industry, however, it is reducing support to these "evils", so I don't wish to completely discount these efforts which may make a bigger impact than a smaller number of people becoming completely vegetarian.

12:10AM PDT on Sep 29, 2011

i think every little bit helps...hopefully there will be the switch from weekday veg to full-time veg.

5:16AM PDT on Sep 27, 2011

Thanks for the article.

2:58AM PDT on Sep 27, 2011

One thing this article misses is that there tends to be two kinds of 'would be' or 'already are' vegetarians: 1) those who believe it is wrong to eat sentient beings and be cruel to animals, and for some environmental protection is thrown in too, 2) those who have no ethical issue with eating animals and believe that eating plants or animals are a part of the natural ecological food chains for all organisms (including humans, who are ultimately animals too), but that do have an issue with cruelty and/or environmental degradation in the process. For those in the first camp, they are either all veggie or infringing on their moral/ethical/religious beliefs. But, for the latter camp, as my husband and I fall into, we just buy free-range organic meet from small local producers, and so there are no ethical dilemmas in eating meat for us.

I also agree with Robin... often people make choices they think are ethical while doing other things that are actually worse. It is, for example, probably better to eat grass-fed beef from New Zealand, even with the transport emissions included, than to buy local meat from a factory that uses intensive pesticide/fertilized monoculture feed/crops for the animals... sometimes the choices are not simple nor clear.

7:16AM PDT on Sep 26, 2011

So the writer is annoyed that she did not have another convert preaching to the choir. That was not the speaker's goal. Speaking to a veggie audience about the benefits of being veggie is pointless. He was introducing omnivores whom will never go vegetarian to lower the amount of meat in their diets. It is culturally productive and diplomatic, it just wasnt the answer she wanted to hear.

4:54PM PDT on Sep 25, 2011

thank you...all any of us can do is our best....

12:27PM PDT on Sep 25, 2011

Thanks for the article. I will the be the first to admit, that I'm not a purist in regards to vegan/vegetarian. I was once when much younger, and lot less health traumas and issues. I'm for a positive change, even though this step is not a 7 to 7 day change, it's a step towards progress. Most of my meals during the week are vegetarian. I would go for a more complete vegetarian switch. With chronic kidney disease that I'm maintaining my diet well at home, low-sodium, has to be low protein, low phosphorous (beans). Due to my thyroid gland, I cannot eat too much soy. I do need my source of protein. I do need my level of calcium, which brings me to dairy products. I try my best, and am still researching what I can implant more into my healthy diet. As for protein, I mostly eat fish and some chicken. As for red meats, I don't. I'm very proud of people who can have no restrictions to being a 100% vegan or vegetarian. Kudos. In the mean while I will continue to do what I can do on my end.

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