Review of “Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger?” by Sherry Kolb.

In our discussions concerning morality, ethics, the battle between good and evil, the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, we can often find ourselves becoming terribly bogged down in the realm of intellectual quicksand. One moment we’re simply taking an academic stroll down the pathway of general ethics, and the next moment we’re quickly sinking into complex theory, grandiose abstractions, and obtuse projections of a heavily philosophical nature. I’ll be the first to admit: I love this. Studying the finer points of philosophy, ethics, and the grand tension between the dichotomy of good and evil is a personal favorite of mine, throughout my undergraduate years and my current post in graduate school. Indeed, during conversations with my deeply intelligent partner, she is quick to remind me just how in-depth I have allowed myself to sink into this particular bog at times.

While it can certainly bring professional students such as myself a great deal of satisfaction to cover themselves up to their noses in abstract theory while performing any number of mental gymnastics, the population at large regards this sort of behavior with a great deal of suspicion (and rightly so, in many cases). Yet, for those who are doing their best to better the world for all earthlings by being a proponent for a vegan lifestyle, we often have difficulty explaining certain topics of ethical importance in a manner by which everyone can connect with. Allow me to take the opportunity for a clarification: the statement “It’s morally reprehensible to cause harm to a living being that can feel pain and suffering for the purpose of pleasure or personal gain” is not particularly complicated, not is it one that is necessarily hard to understand (unless your salary depends on not understanding it, a la Upton Sinclair). From an anecdotal perspective, the vast majority of individuals that I have a chance to discuss veganism with are more than capable of understanding (and generally agreeing with) the above statement.

That being said, it can be supremely helpful for an author, speaker, or educator to bring these ideas to the forefront in such a way that no one from the audience (or readership) feels as if they are being left behind in the philosophical dust. Sherry Kolb, author of “Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger?”, performs this task very admirably. The manner with which she begins her text is incredibly refreshing; she acknowledges that when vegans and non-vegans (or as I prefer to call them, pre-vegans) have conversations concerning the various elements of the vegan lifestyle, both parties may feel as though the other person doesn’t take their arguments seriously. With the notable exception of the “deserted island” scenario, many non-vegans may have serious questions to pose towards vegans that some vegans may perhaps consider to be ludicrous. Kolb gently reminds us that it is critical to take inquiries seriously, and handle them with care. If the question involves the supposed suffering and death of plant matter involved in a plant-based diet, vegans may be tempted to laugh this question off (does anyone actually believe that broccoli can experience life in the same way that a cow might experience it?!), but Kolb presents a powerful, yet straightforward explanation, beginning by taking the question quite seriously and eventually coming to the conclusion that if a self-identified omnivore is truly concerned about minimizing suffering to as many plants as possible, they must commit themselves to a vegan diet, for in the production of animals for food, there are tremendous amounts of grain used to feed the animals.  This example hopefully highlights Kolb’s disarming method and manner of approach, a pattern which she continues to practice throughout the many examples of questioning she explores in her work.

I deeply appreciated her chapter entitled “But What about Pleasure?”, which included a perspective that I’ve occasionally found lacking in a number of books concerning veganism. Kolb restates the obvious, for clarification: Is someone’s pleasure gained in causing suffering to a sentient being more important than the life and well being of that creature? As an ethical vegan, people who have insisted that their pleasure is more important (on grounds that are fundamentally speciesist) have deeply and inexorably baffled me over the past few years. Yet Kolb somehow manages to remind me that I, too, was once deeply opposed to living a compassionate life on the grounds that any pleasure I could gain from life was justifiable by some measure. Admittedly, I had no idea at the time that vegan cuisine could be just as good or better than any carnivorous fare I’d once dined upon, and once I found out the truth behind my meals, they no longer held any appeal whatsoever. Yet, vegans must be cognizant of the fact that unless they were raised vegan, they too once believed that the ultimate (or the only) form of dietary pleasure and enjoyment must be built of the backs of dead beings. The vast majority of non-vegans are simply unaware of the vegan delights and pleasures that await them; it’s not that they reject these pleasures out of hand, but rather due to the fact that they simply have no idea that an alternative exists.

Kolb’s style is absolutely free from any pretentious attitudes or lofty speech is is often more alienating than helpful. Her message of compassion is timely and desperately needed, and I could not recommend this book more highly than I already do. It’s a wonderful text for exploring the general themes of veganism with your non-vegans friends or family members. It it without hyperbolic overtones that I say that “Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger?” is one of the most straightforwardly helpful texts on the compassionate lifestyle that I have ever come across. Enhance your non-violent advocacy and purchase your own copy as soon as possible.

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