This article is a simple response to the advocates of Singer after having watched a YouTube presentation and reading around a little. This article is also heavily influenced by a debate between Posner and Singer linked to below.
I argue that Singer’s view of animal liberation is such that vegetarianism itself does not help his overall aims. I argue that Singer generally seems to accept this throughout his presentation in a way that the advocates of Singer rarely seem to. I then take this further and suggest that if advocates of Singer dropped their vegetarianism they would be more likely to succeed in improving the lives of animals around the world. I end with how this impacts me and my personal morality (which is at odds with Utilitarianism generally) and a few disclaimers.
- Peter Singer explaining his views on animal liberation on which this article is based on – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHzwqf_JkrA
- Peter Singer debating with Judge Richard Posner about the book that is the basis for the presentation – http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/interviews-debates/200106–.htm
Ways to be moral about animal welfare.
Singer is more in favour of animals having a good life than whether or not they are eaten.
A truly utilitarian viewpoint is to minimise evil as opposed to living according to a strict moral standard. With a Utilitarian view, morality is not binary and Singer demonstrates this by only weakly advocating full on vegetarianism/ veganism. I really liked his response to Roger Scruton’s view that instead of becoming vegetarians we should just aim to improve the lives of animals on farms. Singer was kind of like “yeah fair enough that would be better but I’d just prefer to go a bit further”. Even more consistent was when he basically advocated hunting when it was done by an expert marksman! Singer is very good at taking his philosophical principles to their extremes.
Vegetarians tend to adopt a more binary, judgemental “animal’s have the right to live” stance which is not really in Singer’s philosophy.
However, the reality is vegetarians who advocate Singer’s ideas rarely emphasise this point. When they talk about how they ‘don’t mind meat eaters’ what they will usually do is explain, ‘Don’t worry I’m not judgemental about it”. Unfortunately all this does is imply that they have a right to be judgemental about it but they add a patronising tone on top of that because they are choosing (for the listeners benefit) to not take that right! Very few vegetarians seem to understand that their vegetarianism could be morally abhorrent to others and that they might be on the receiving end of judgement!
What is cool about Singer is he is not taking a liberal moral high ground of saying, ‘Don’t worry I’m not judging you Roger Scruton’. He is instead saying, ‘Actually Roger you, a meat eater who is against the pain animals receive on farms, are morally superior alongside me. Not quite as superior as I am but so close that I’m basically happy if you got your way in society’. This view-point is very judgemental but in a positive direction!
Similarly Singer talks about people whose biology does need some sort of protein found in animal products (particularly when talking about vegans). Here, it is not that he withholds judgement against those people. Instead, alongside his philosophy, he is ok with that person eating animal products because of the pain it would cause them to avoid it. His issue with other people is that for a relatively small amount of pain for a human (not eating meat) you greatly reduce the pain for lots of animals… hence his utilitarianism.
Vegetarians however tend to adopt a more virtue based morality about animals having rights to life or rights over the products they create.
Singer adopts a clearly utilitarian view on animal liberation that says that in the same way we should minimise pain to humans, we should minimise pain to animals. This animal welfare part of the argument is very important as it is the thing that Singer focuses on the most. Whether an animal lives or dies is actually relatively less important compared to the pain they go through in life. A more “Animal Rights” approach could be taken where animals are given the same rights as humans such as the right to life. With this approach Vegetarianism becomes more important as it asserts the animals right to not be murdered. These two approaches to animal liberation are important due to the consequences of how an individual should act.
Ways these distinctions impacts how we treat the subject of animal welfare.
A campaign to minimise the suffering of animals on farms would be more likely to succeed generally and animal farm owners know this but…
Peter Singer’s arguments and examples would increase people’s demand of animal welfare. This is shown in Roger Scruton’s response and Richard Posner’s response. The main aspect of this talk that they appreciate is the graphic detail of what goes on in the farms. Posner particularly seemed thankful because he “likes animals”. This is a position that actually I think the vast majority of human beings share. It’s not that they think animals have intrinsic rights and therefore should also have rights comparable to humans, like the right to life. It’s just they don’t like the idea of animals going through lots of pain and suffering because “they like animals”.
Interestingly in Singer’s presentation he provides further evidence for this because he talks about how animals farms put lots of effort into preventing camera crews getting into the farm. It seems like most people have a morality where:
(A) They want to know the truth of what is happening in the world.
(B) They don’t want animals to go through their lives suffering horribly.
Now admittedly not everyone agrees with A and some might not agree with B. But I think enough people agree with both A and B that a campaign to end the suffering of animals through legal force would actually be possible. The fact that animal farms put so much effort into limiting our ability to film inside the farm suggests that most people agree with A and B and the farm owners know it.
Vegetarianism makes this campaign to reduce animal suffering less likely to succeed for a number of reasons.
The mere fact of vegetarianism can make people who disagree with it question whether animal welfare matters – Philisophical.
One person had a problem with free range eggs. He felt that he was being hypocritical because by advocating free range eggs he was saying the lives of chickens mattered but by eating chickens he was saying that they don’t. This better persuaded him to give up on free range eggs then it did convert him to vegetarianism. Singer’s, Scruton’s and Posner’s moralities all suggest this is a false dichotomy. It is possible to eat animals and care for their well-being in life in a way that is morally better than what is happening now.
All or nothing approach makes people want to do nothing – emotional.
This is similar to the above approach but less philosophical and more emotional. I’d suggest that most people agree with the moral statements of A and B above but feel that B can never be solved… animals will always suffer horribly and therefore A is the only option (to try to avoid thinking about it whilst you eat your chicken). I think Singer, Scruton and Posner present a moral way out of this. You can make yourself feel better about eating chickens by campaigning and succeeding at making their lives better. The other advantage is that you’ll probably have to do this through paying more for your food which actually makes the farmers happier too. Vegetarians by their very existence encourage the myth that either you have to stop enjoying meat or allow animals to suffer. The feeling they create is, ‘If vegetarians have reasons to do what they do then maybe I’ll become a vegetarian if I investigate animal welfare claims’. The reality is that an individual can care about the welfare of animals and still enjoy meat.
Vegetarianism is alienating to meat eaters – societal.
However amount they try to be non-judgemental it marks you off as different. When I went university I was going to try to be tee-total but my dad intervened. As a Christian I wanted to show that I lead life differently but by abstaining I couldn’t enjoy alcohol with the people in my community. Eating with other people is another very important social function which is negatively impacted by vegetarians. Meat eaters can’t easily share things they enjoy unless it’s on the vegetarian’s home ground. This concept is parodied in the Mitchell and Webb look and in Scot Pilgrim with the Vegan having super powers because he is “just better”. This makes meat eaters less likely to accept the moral imperative to improve the lives of animals because we are “just different from vegetarians”.
Vegetarianism does not give animal farms any economic incentive to listen – economic.
This is a problem with boycotting things in general. Merely not buying something from an organisation is not good enough to change an organisation, as they need to provide some method for the organisation to change their ways to end the boycott. As more people become vegetarians it merely makes the current animal farms less profitable meaning they are more likely to cut costs in ways that negatively impact animal welfare. However, if meat eaters chose to eat from ethically sourced suppliers, this would give farms a financial incentive to improve animal welfare. For example with free-ranged eggs verses battery chickens if all people who cared about animal welfare refused to eat all eggs then there would be no reason to produce free-ranged eggs.
By taking an all or nothing approach that animal right rhetoric tends to demand it can make people less likely to care about animal welfare for philosophical, emotional, societal and economic reasons. However, if people were to drop vegetarianism as a requirement for advocating Singer’s views then those same philosophical, emotional, societal and economic issues can be used to encourage people to care about animal welfare and implement real change.
Therefore if advocates of Singer want to push his views forward they are better off eating meat! And organising around an organisation similar to PETA but with meat-eating included as both acceptable and a done thing.
Now my views are hardly the same moral views everyone shares but from a Hedonistic point of view I care selfishly about my own pain and suffering. As a Hedonist I want to eat meat because I enjoy it and as a Hedonist, like Posner, I don’t want animals to suffer because I like animals. I am not a Utilitarian. I can’t stand a “Lesser of two evils approach”. There are so many aspects of Singer’s views that I find abhorrent. Yet despite this, I could be persuaded by arguments along the lines of Scruton and Posner and would possibly even join in helping that out.
If you can get support from people who don’t fully agree with you on everything that is powerful. Advocates have a genuine chance at changing the world for the better (in their view) but almost no chance of converting everyone to vegetarianism. Therefore they should eat meat and eat it in public.
- Whilst I think advocates of singer ought to eat meat, Singer himself doesn’t necessarily need to. I think the advocates of Singer have more political power than Singer himself and so if most of the people I met who care about animal welfare and were organised to help animals, also ate meat. That would be enough. I think it is enough for Singer to simply publicly state that aspects of Scruton and Posner are acceptable without himself actually having to eat meat.
- Upon further reflection it appears that Vegetarians are suffering from a conflict between applying Animal Rights in a similar way to Human Rights and Singer’s Utilitarianism. This problem is the same problem that John Stuart Mill faced with his On Liberty compared to his (and Bentham’s) Utilitarianism. Therefore after reading this article I found everything I had written was philosophically dull! It may or may not be interesting that the same issues about Animal Rights vs Animal Utility are the same issues as Humans Rights vs Human Utility but that’s it.
- I’m still happy I published this article because whilst it is philosophically dull, as Posner points out, the philosophical angle on this whole presentation is the most dull part of it. What Singer does very well is tug on emotional heart-strings with new data on how animals are treated. This article is then suggesting what direction those tugs should be aimed at and the arguments of this article still stand.
- I think I would possibly advocate some kind of ethically sourced supplier of food that is similar to Tradecraft and their Fair Trade brand but for animal welfare.
- The motivation for writing this article is due to having an increasing number of close friends turning to vegetarianism. Biblically speaking there are verses specifically saying to essentially leave vegetarians alone! (Although for different reasons) and so I kind of take that attitude towards it. But personally there is something that makes me uncomfortable with vegetarianism in a similar way to being uncomfortable about most moral systems and so I thought I’d try and put some thought it to the subject. Here it is!