Never ask a vegetarian why he is a vegetarian, especially at the dinner table. Not because he (or she, obviously) is sensitive about the subject, but because it can lead very rapidly into moral arguments about largely subjective issues. For example, although I classify my reasons for vegetarianism as 10% health and 90% ethical - when I started it was about 40% to 60% - I am not opposed to the eating of animals; I am against the mass market meat industry. I do not have problems with genetically modified animals, so long as the genetic modifications do not adversely affect their comfort or life. This post will not contain pictures or facts about the cruelty of the meat industry. This information is readily available on the internet and it depresses the hell out of me. I don't even like to think about it. Instead, this post will merely deal with my own reasons for abstaining from meat.
As I said above, I do not find the actual eating of animals to be morally wrong. I do, however, think that the commercial meat industry is thoughtless and cruel, breeding unhealthy animals to live short and miserable lives that end with terror and pain (I don't know this for sure, but I imagine that any killing floor would be a pretty frightening place for any animal, even if it is not aware of what is happening). There is very little that I can do to slow the juggernaut crawl of this industry, so I speak out about it when I have the opportunity, but for the most part I simply choose to refrain from consuming the products of this process. I recognize that this is far from activism. I do not imagine that any change will be felt by the industry, and the meat that I might have eaten might be simply going to waste. This is a personal choice, akin to refusing to buy inexpensive merchandise that I know to be stolen.
There are some hypocrisies with my position that surface very quickly. For example, I still buy products with leather. I try not to buy too much, but things like belts, shoes, watch bands, etc. are ubiquitous. Also, I am vegetarian but not vegan. I buy soy milk and cage-free eggs, but I am sure that the cheese in my pizza, the eggs in my Break & Bake, the half and half at Starbucks are not necessarily taken from humane situations. Are the chickens who live crammed in pens so full that they live their entire lives without taking a single step or spreading their wings not as worth troubling over as the ones killed to make hot wings? I must shamefully admit that I am often too lazy to make the distinction. I try when I feel that the effort is reasonable, but there are some situations that are just more trouble than they are worth.
I wish that the meat industry was not so enormous, so central to the American economy. I wish that cattle were grown in small, inefficient herds and that the price of beef was two or three or four times higher, good for special occasions but not for every day consumption out of greasy wrappers. I wish that the water and land spent making food for the cows instead produced beans or grain for people, feeding the country with inexpensive yet nutritious and non-fattening food. In the grand scheme of things, producing animals to eat is not a terrible thing to do. In fact, if you subscribe to Richard Dawkins' gene theory of evolution, the fact that chickens and cows and pigs are bred in as large a quantity as they are is an indication that they possess a highly successful set of genes.
In the end, it simply comes down to choices. I was watching the fantastic The Iron Giant the other day and the titular giant reminded me of a vegetarian. He was a gigantic, powerful machine, capable of (and perhaps even intended for) unleashing terrible destruction on Earth. Yet he had an epiphany and made the decision - against his instincts even - to show restraint and act peacefully. Sure, it has been glibly said that 'animals don't respect animal rights,' and although I am opposed to hunting wolves from airplanes (or anywhere, to be honest, but I don't need to cast too wide a net here), I grant wolves the right to kill me if I wander carelessly into their territory (At the same time, if I am attacked by a wolf and have the opportunity to defend myself, I will most certainly take it, even if it involves killing the wolf). The point here is that humans have a special responsibility to respect and care for life. Our power on this earth gives us the ability to take life in large amounts, but our knowledge and technology and ingenuity give us the ability to find alternatives.
I have now been a vegetarian for over a year. It was one of the biggest decisions I have ever made and one of my best. I have no intention of eating meat again. It may be delicious, but since my first day as a vegetarian I have not once felt tempted to eat meat. There have been occasions when I wanted to eat the food in front of me and wished that it did not contain meat, but I have never had a craving for a steak, hamburger or even a chicken sandwich. When I see meat I see dead animal, and when I see a dead animal I see a live one. It's a personal decision, and one that I feel very strongly about. I respect your decision to eat animals. Just don't ask me to explain why I won't share your Thanksgiving turkey with you.