Yesterday the Bay Citizen ran a story about Marin County prison official's decision to let an inmate starve rather than serve him vegetarian meals. Since 70-year-old Mill Valley, CA, resident Dave McDonald didn't cite religious or medical reasons for his avoidance of meat, they couldn't provide him with vegetarian fare because "accommodating a multitude of diet demands from the facility's 300 inmates was problematic."
A vegetarian for over forty years, McDonald lost nearly 50 pounds during his 99 day incarceration. (The article begins by noting that the majority of the drug-related charges have since been dropped.)
Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, argues that denying meatless meals to an (almost) life-long vegetarian is cruel and unusual punishment (the end result, starvation, most definitely is). The muddying factor, according to prison officials, is that his diet is a moral choice and not a religious imperative.
Michael Risher, a staff lawyer with American Civil Liberities Union of Northern California, said that an inmate’s "'spiritual world view' not associated with an organized religion were often disregarded in prison."
There are many, many issues and devices that this article problematizes: the need to legitimize a prisoner's desire for fairness by noting how he was (probably) unfairly incarcerated; nutrition disparities and funding for food in our prison system, for example. But for now, I want to talk about morality and religion and the misleading phrase: "moral choice." While this discrepancy isn't the real concern of the article, I think it is indicative of a larger cultural phenomenon; confusion over the difference between morality and religion and why that distinction is useful in understanding how we value our own beliefs in relation to others.
So what is the difference between morality and religion? Anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes that religion is a desire to understand and order that which we can't overtly explain. Religion is the "formulation, by means of symbols, of an image of such genuine order of the world which will account for, and even celebrate, the perceived ambiguities, puzzles and paradoxes in human experience. The effort is not to deny the undeniable-- that there are unexplained events, that life hurts, or that rain falls upon the just-- but to deny that there are inexplicable events, that life is unendurable, and that justice is a mirage." Religion exists as symbols, rituals and rules which reinforce this understanding of our existence.
Morality, on the other hand, is an ideology, or a set of social instructions. It’s a code of conduct, which separates the responsible citizen from the undeserving undesirable and encourages individuals to evaluate their actions based on larger, socially agreed upon "truths." These truths can be based on religion or politics or history.... regardless they help guide the actions of the individual in terms of their society's agreed upon ideas of right and wrong.
Although culturally, many view religion as immutable, anthropologically, it is viewed as a set of symbols which help us order and understand our world. Morality helps us live virtuously in that world. To assume that a diet based on morality is any less important to an individual is to deny the importance of our social ordering of right and wrong (and in a prison, no less.) The confusing (and sometimes anger inducing) part of a diet based on morality is that many still view it as a choice, an action which can be just as easily be ignored. Religious diets, on the other hand, are viewed as immutable edicts, with far harsher ramifications for deviation.
The article alludes to a fear on the part of the prison administrators that all inmates will now claim moral necessity for whatever dietary fancy strikes them (and it would not be the first or last time that someone used a claim of morality for individual gain). However, while there is clear evidence that vegetarianism (for some) is a moral issue, there is little research that chocoholics are feeding some fundamental social truth. In light of the growing number of vegetarians in the United States, it seems disingenuous to keep arguing that it is not a moral issue for many Americans and that morality isn’t as important as religion .A more nuanced (and anthropologically informed) understanding of dietary choices will lead to more equitable treatment among inmates and could help us expand our own dinner tables for our kosher, vegetarian, vegan, pork-avoiding neighbors, as well. While we may not personally feel as if we have a choice in whether or not to follow our moral compass or religious edicts, we do have a choice in how we treat others who don't follow the same systems we do.