Peter Singer – A Case For Animal Rights
1.Is Eating Meat Wrong?
TV programs by celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall have introduced a new generation to the concept of animal rights and made the public reflect on eating meat and their relationship to animals in general. Academic philosopher, Peter Singer is one of the most high-profile contributors to the ‘animal liberation’ debate and the question we are initially posed is “Does Peter Singer show that eating meat is wrong”? This essay will give reasons why the answer to this question is “yes, for most people, most of the time”. The first part of this essay will look to clarify the question in order that we can subject Singer’s position to greater scrutiny. In the next part I consider Singer’s argument much like a kitchen table with the table top being his position of “Most of us should be vegetarian most of the time”. This is supported by four legs or premises which are:
Premise 1: We should aim to minimize suffering.
Premise 2: We should give equal consideration to the suffering of animals.
Premise 3: Animal suffering is involved in enabling us to eat meat.
Premise 4: For most of us, the minor ‘suffering’ involved in our becoming vegetarian is outweighed by the suffering of the animals involved.
2. Clarifying The Question
Firstly the question of “Does Peter Singer show that eating meat is wrong” is worded too vaguely to allow us to make a wide-ranging and a general statement on Singer’s positing. Immediate questions that arise include:
- Does Singer feel that just eating meat is wrong or does his objection also extend to killing what is to be eaten?
- How do you define the word “meat” which has a dictionary definition of “the flesh of an animal that is considered edible, especially that of a mammal or bird”. Does Singer also feel that eating human meat is wrong and are his arguments for this the same as other animals such as pigs or cows?
- The word “wrong” alludes to moral absolutism but is this wrongness on moral, environmental or health grounds?
I will now go on to answer these questions and also outline the premises underlying Singer’s argument.
3. Minimising Suffering
Singer’s argument against eating meat is based on the utilitarian principle that ethical actions are those which create the most utility (pleasure, happiness) or to be more precise in the case of Singer (who is working from a negative utilitarian position) those which reduce the total amount of suffering in the world. As a negative utilitarian he follows in the footsteps of Karl Popper and arguably The Buddha who felt that “The Greatest Happiness” was achieved by minimising suffering.
The negative utilitarian will regard an action as right if it produces less suffering of all affected by it than any alternative action and wrong if it does not. This means that a utilitarian will judge eating meat bad in some circumstance and good in others, depending on its consequences. This results in not all vegetarians being utilitarian’s and vice versa, because many vegetarians would be appalled that a utilitarian could rationalise eating meat in some circumstances simply because the end justifies the means.
So to clarify Singer opposes eating meat in general because of the suffering it causes and not for any environmental or health reasons.
Critics of utilitarianism such as Regan are quick to point out its flaws. Utilitarian’s don’t believe that individual humans, or animal for that matter, have any inherent value or worth. So I shouldn’t eat that chicken sandwich not because the chicken has a right to life but because it will reduce the total amount of suffering in the World. Although Regan agrees with Singer’s position he disagrees with his premise regarding suffering and instead argues that both humans and animals have intrinsic rights. However Regan does not give any reason, other than his intuition, to believe that inherent value exists. Likewise many Christians would argue that God put animals on this planet for the benefit of humans and that minimising suffering is a false premise. Singer could argue that until the existence of God is proven then the National Enquirer proclaiming that “aliens say it’s OK to eat cows” could have as much validity.
4. Equal Consideration
The second premise that supports Singer’s argument is that we should give equal consideration to the suffering of animals. In the eyes of many this is a controversial stance to take because the absurd consequence of this would be that a mother should care as much about the suffering of the mosquito buzzing around the cot as her baby within it.
Singer fundamentally believes that the principle of equality that we use to relate to other human beings such as not discriminating on sex, race, religion etc should also be extended to non-human animals. This principle means that the fact that a sheep is not a member of our species or as intelligent as us does not entitle us to exploit them. The rationale for extending equality to other species is not answered by asking the question, Can they reason? Nor can they talk? but Can they suffer?
Singer then argues that our killing and eating of meat is nothing but blatant speciesism, where we give greater weight to the interests of members of species “homo sapiens” than any other. Singer makes a direct relationship between speciesism and racism by arguing that in the future scenes of factory farming of animals will be as repulsive as the images of black slaves shackled in container ships that we look back on today.
How can Singer compare the whipping of a horse by its jockey with a child being beaten? Singer accepts that the child would suffer more than the horse due to the child’s more acute awareness of the suffering but argues that this should not undermine the equal consideration of interests to non-humans. Instead we must compare the interests of the different species with the aim of relieving the greatest suffering.
Singer also makes another important distinction, namely that all persons are human beings but that not all human beings are persons. That is that a new born baby or someone that is intellectually disabled is not a person because they are unaware of their own existence over time. He argues therefore that some animals have a higher moral status than some humans.
Those that then go onto criticise Singer for this argument by pointing out the absurd consequence that it would be morally right to eat the flesh of a new born baby but not that of a chimpanzee miss the point. Singer was not arguing for downgrading babies and the intellectually disabled but rather to upgrade animals to an equal status in their ability to suffer and therefore be treated equally.
Another objection to Singer’s position is that by the laws of Darwinian evolution human beings are justified in eating meat because we are the top of the evolutionary tree and it is only natural. This argument has two flaws; firstly it may natural for an Inuit to hunt seals but one thing that factory farming cannot be described as is natural. Secondly just because an action is natural doesn’t mean it is right. It may be natural for a girl to have a child immediately upon reaching puberty but it doesn’t mean it is right.
5. Animal Suffering
The third of Singer’s four premises is the one that many meat-eaters would be willing to accept. Singer argues that a clear cut case of suffering created to allow us to eat meat is in relation to factory farming. We do not need to eat meat for our health and so meat eating is a luxury, consumed because people like the taste. Our ancestors have had meat as part of their diet for millions of years but it has only been relatively recently that it moved from being a “special occasion” or once a day food. It is now not uncommon for someone to have a bacon sandwich for breakfast, a chicken salad for lunch and steak for dinner. This has moved us from traditional farming and animal husbandry to more intensive factory style means of meat production. At one time it would have been the norm for pigs to be raised on the land, slaughtered either on the farm or close by and then sold locally. This is now the exception with the rule being that most pigs are “grown” intensively in sunless sheds, fed food to make them add meat mass, crowded together in crates just big enough so they can stand, driven hundreds of miles for slaughter and their meat shipped around the World. In the process the animals involved suffer miserable lives so that their meat can be consumed by humans for the lowest cost possible. The animals suffering and distress is treated as a necessary bi-product simply because we like the taste of its meat and we want to pay as little as possible for it.
Singer’s position is if eating meat isn’t a necessity then unless we know an animal hasn’t suffered to be on our plate we shouldn’t eat it. So we should assume that Singer would be in favour of animal rights group PETA’s prize of $1million to the first company that produces a commercially viable “test-tube” meat – real meat grown through a lab process, not from a live animal. If suffering is removed in enabling us to eat meat then Singer would have no problem with it.
6. Balancing Suffering
Singer’s last premise is that for most of us, the minor ‘suffering’ involved in our becoming vegetarian is outweighed by the suffering of the animals involved.
The ‘no woman is an island’ objection to this is that unless you live on your own, adopting a vegetarian diet imposes it on those around you. If there is a vegetarian at a dinner party they could be said to be imposing their vegetarianism on the host and the other guests. However as Singer is interested in reducing suffering and not with rights he would argue that the slight suffering that the host must undergo by preparing a vegetarian dish is greater than the suffering of the animal that would have been killed for the meal.
Likewise critics of Singer could argue that if we all stopped eating beef tomorrow or even chose to only eat organic beef then cattle farmers would suffer immensely. However this argument is easily despatched because slave dealers would also have suffered upon the banning of slavery.
Using Singer’s premise Inuit and aboriginals would not be wrong to eat meat because their environment means that crops are too difficult to cultivate and without meat they would suffer with starvation. As an indirect utilitarian Singer must accept that these people must eat meat and cause animal suffering because the alternative would be even greater suffering.
7. In Conclusion
So does Singer show that eating meat is wrong? Yes, for most people most of the time. He shows that the average person living in the UK today should cut down on eating meat and favor free-range products, encourage those we know to do the same, and eventually become vegetarian. He does this by arguing that we maximize our own happiness by reducing suffering and if we are not to be accused of speciesism then we should also ensure our actions reduce the suffering of anything that has the capacity to suffer.
Critics of Stringer often use the “straw man” argument that his position devalues human life but that is to misread him. Instead, he looks to elevate the position of animals to that of humans and use the yardstick of suffering to judge how we deal with animals and each other.
Personally, I have been a vegetarian for 20 years because like George Bernhard Shaw I felt instinctive that “animals were my friends……and I don’t eat my friends”. Singers’ work has made me re-evaluate my reasons for being vegetarian and strengthened my argument for this way of life.