Several months ago I started the search to buy a piano. I'm not a very good musician, but I love to play, and I figured what the heck, the time was right to go from my little plastic keyboard to a real instrument.
I looked at a bunch of pianos and quickly found one I really, really liked. That was when the salesman spoiled my excitement by saying, "You know, this is a truly fine instrument. It has leather key bushings!"
"Uh oh," I thought, glancing down at my vegetarian-approved canvas shoes and nylon belt, "Here's a problem."
The Moral Dilemma
Like most vegetarians I've made a conscious effort over the years to try to avoid animal suffering in other areas of my lifestyle besides just my diet—and I think I've been moderately successful. I've decried animal testing, generally avoided silk and wool, and haven't bought a pair of leather shoes in a dozen years. But I wasn't prepared to face the fact that an otherwise perfect piano would have offending substances hidden deep in its bowels. I knew I needed help with this one, and I decided to query some of my super-proper, ultra-vegetarian friends. They're smarter than I am. They'd know what to do.
Susan Says No
"It's out of the question."
I looked at Susan incredulously and tried to gather my thoughts. I was afraid she would have this reaction. "But it's only a tiny bit of leather. I could give away the old shoes in the back of my closet and put more leather than that back into circulation. I could make a simultaneous donation to an animal-rights cause and everyone would be better off. And anyway, my organ donor card is signed—I'm planning on passing on a little skin of my own for a good cause!"
"You could do all that stuff without buying this piano," she said. "You're just rationalizing."
"Sure. But everyone rationalizes—it's practically required for human beings. You, for example, take photographs even though you know film has animal ingredients. And you feed meat to your cats."
"That's different," she said quickly. "I don't have a choice there. I'm not going to let my cats starve. If all pianos had leather in them the situation would be different."
"It would?" I thought about that comment for a long time, but couldn't quite see the logic. In any event, this wasn't helping my quest for the piano of my dreams.
Kristin Says No
"How could you, a vegan, even consider such a thing?"
I hadn't expected such a strong response from Kristin. After all, she's a college professor who teaches ethics and animal rights, and by profession she has to consider both sides of every argument. "But you sometimes buy leather shoes yourself!" I countered.
"Yes, but I thought you were more ethically consistent than I am on this issue."
"Me??? How come I have to set the example? I just want a decent piano to play."
"Well, buy a different piano then."
"Would it matter if all pianos had leather in them?" I asked.
"Sure. That would be different."
I still didn't understand this logic, but she was the professor. She must know.
Peter Says Maybe
"It wouldn't bother me. …But then, I'm not you."
Peter was being diplomatic, but his approach was helpful.
"We can't do everything," he went on. "The important thing is that we do what we can."
"But how do we know when we've reached the point where we've done all we can? Animal exploitation is involved in so many products, there's always something else we can eliminate from our lives. And there are always ways we can improve our lifestyles. For example, if we stopped using cars in the summertime we'd save the lives of a gazillion bugs who end up smashed on windshields and radiators—but I've yet to meet an ethical vegetarian who's willing to go that far."
"Exactly," Peter agreed. "You have to lead your life—and nobody expects it to be a life of sacrifice. You can only do what you can do."
The Plot Thickens
After talking with Peter I resumed my piano search, still pondering the moral question, but with a better sense of perspective. It was only when I did more research, though, that I discovered a new and tragic fact—all pianos have leather in them. All pianos??? All acoustic pianos, anyway. Little bits of leather get stuck into the action and the trapwork (that's piano lingo for keys and pedals). Nylon or plastic or rubber would probably work just as well, but leather is traditional, and in the piano business that seems to be pretty important. Now my dilemma had expanded from which piano to buy to whether I should buy a piano at all. Maybe I should even refuse to play anyone else's piano.
Casting the 'Net
It occurred to me that I probably wasn't the first vegetarian piano player to have this problem, and it turns out I'm not. On the Internet I found a vegan discussion group that had dealt with the issue. Unfortunately, they didn't reach any conclusions. There were comments everywhere from "it feels like I'm playing on a corpse" to the sarcastic "do you walk on the ground, or do you hover, to avoid causing needless pain to ants?"
If you're looking for a resolution to this question, you've come to the wrong column. It seems to me, though, that Peter has a point—in a world that exploits animals at the slightest provocation, we just can't do everything. So maybe the trick is for each of us to find that combination of things (being a vegetarian is a really great start!) that minimizes our guilt, but still lets us lead an enjoyable and meaningful life. Rationalization is nothing to be proud of, but in a society where animal exploitation finds its way into tires and postage stamps, it may be necessary if a sensitive person is to keep his or her sanity.
No, I still haven't bought a piano. But I probably will at some point. When I do I'm sure I'll be making a little "extra" contribution to an animal rights organization for the privilege. Come to think of it, I probably won't be buying much film for a while either.