SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA, September 19, 2013(Pacific Standard): Why does someone voluntarily refrain from eating meat? Newly published research suggests the likely answer will depend on whether you ask a vegetarian in Minneapolis or Mumbai. It finds vegetarians in India and the West are both guided by deeply felt ethical considerations. But the moral codes that lead them to avoid meat are, in many ways, radically different.
"The psychological associations of vegetarianism are more nuanced than has been previously theorized," says a research team led by Matthew Ruby of the University of British Columbia. "Although Western and Indian vegetarians arrived at the same moralized behavior, their motivations are based on very different moral principles."
Ruby and his team note that, in the West, vegetarianism has been linked with "broadly liberal world views." (According to estimates, 20 to 42 percent of Indians are vegetarians, compared to three percent of Americans and eight percent of Canadians.) Their research found out that among Westerners, vegetarians (compared to meat-eaters) were "more concerned about the impact of their daily food choices on the environment and on animal welfare, more concerned with general animal welfare, more strongly endorsed values of universalism, and less strongly endorsed right-wing authoritarianism," the researchers report. However, among Indians who responded to those same questions, there were no significant differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. The assumption that a vegetarian is more likely to have socially liberal attitudes holds true only in the West.
The second study "Vegetarians more strongly endorsed the belief that eating meat pollutes one's personality and spirit than did omnivores, and this difference was especially pronounced among Indians," the researchers report. They note that in Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, "the aim of vegetarianism ... is to keep the body free of the pollution associated with meat."
According to another survey the differences between Indians and Westerners were striking. Indian vegetarians were more likely than their meat-eating counterparts to endorse not only values related to purity, but also those supporting traditional authority and in-group loyalty. Conservative values, in other words. This was not true among meat-avoiding Westerners. Indeed, American vegetarians actually placed less value in traditional authority than meat-eaters.
"Most vegetarians in the West were not raised as such, but made a decision at some point to convert from the meat-eating diet followed by the majority of people in their culture," they note. In contrast, "vegetarianism has been firmly established in India for centuries, and is associated with tradition, power and status," the researchers write. "Most Indian vegetarians are raised as such by their families." The findings are a reminder that "a similarity in behavior across cultures" does not necessarily reflect a similarity in thinking. In avoiding meat, diners from Calcutta to California are making a statement about their values. But that tofu represents different things to different people.