The ethics of food-6: Against speciesism

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Peter Singer opens his 1975 book Animal Liberation with this statement:

This book, Animal Liberation, is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals. This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which has resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white human over black humans. The struggle against this tyranny is a struggle as important as any of the moral and social issues that have been fought over in recent years. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 21)

Equating the present treatment of animals with the horrors of slavery is strong stuff. It is important to realize that by doing so he is not in any way minimizing the horror of slavery. In fact, one thing that shines through in Singer’s writings is his deep abhorrence of all kinds of exploitation. On the contrary, he is trying to make us view our treatment of animals with the same horror that we rightly view slavery. His rhetoric is being used to shock us into a realization of how barbaric is our present-day treatment of animals.

Is it possible that future generations will look back in horror at our current treatment of animals and wonder how we could have been so blind to the barbarity of our actions, the way that we now look back at slave owners?

[C]ould it be . . . we will someday come to regard speciesism as an evil comparable to that of racism? Is it possible that history will someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka? The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee posed precisely that question in a lecture at Princeton not long ago; he answered it in the affirmative. If the animal rightists are right, then “a crime of stupendous proportions” (in Coetzee’s words) is going on all around us every day, just beneath our notice. (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 309)

The problem in a nutshell is this: A bedrock assumption is that we as humans should extend our full consideration to other humans. We think it is wrong to exploit them for our own ends, and would condemn the killing and eating of other humans. Even if someone had ceased to be of any value at all to society, we would consider it wrong to devalue that person’s life.

So what gives us the right to devalue the lives of members of other species?

It is important to realize that Singer is not an absolutist. He does not condemn all killing and eating of animals. Even if we do not give the interests of animals the same full consideration we give to the interests of humans, Singer argues that at the very least, what should drive our decision making is the desire to eliminate, or at least reduce, pain and suffering. And one of the things that we should target is the present day industrial farming model that treats animals unbelievably cruelly. This is a clearly avoidable evil that even meat eaters could and should embrace.

Only the tiniest fraction of the tens of billions of farm animals slaughtered for food each year – the figure for the United States alone is nine billion – were treated during their lives in ways that respected their interests. Questions about the wrongness of killing in itself are not relevant to the moral issue of eating meat or eggs from factory-farmed animals, as most people in developed countries do. . . . In the light of these facts, the issue to focus on is not whether there are some circumstances in which it could be right to eat meat, but on what we can do to avoid contributing to this immense amount of animal suffering. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 70)

Whatever one’s views on eating meat, I think most people would agree that animals should be treated as kindly and humanely as possible. We rightly react with horror to stories in which animals have been treated badly and look upon with disgust the perpetrators of such acts.

This may be why it is that many of the darker aspects of our industrial food production system involving animals are kept away from public view. Michael Pollan found that he could not get to see the places where beef cattle are slaughtered or where layer chickens are kept. In fact, he argues that one of the best ways to improve the conditions of animals in the food chain might be to legislate complete transparency in all aspects of the production line, to the extent of requiring the walls of the facilities be made of glass, open to the public, and easily visible to anyone who wants to see exactly how their meat and eggs get to their supermarkets. This is not an absurd idea. Pollan reports that one company (Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota) “is so confident of their treatment of animals that they have walled their abattoir in glass.” (p. 333)

Pollan also describes his experience on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm where people are welcome to visit and see how the animals live and how they die. Pollan himself took part in the process where he personally killed chickens, watched by members of the local community who had come to buy chicken. While there is no doubt that such an experience might turn someone off meat eating forever, Pollan reports that having lived on the farm and having seen how well the animals were treated in life and how humanely they were killed, the experience did not turn him off meat as he had expected it to.

Somehow, for reasons he could not quite explain, the fact that the animals had led a good life and had what seemed like a quick and painless death made the situation acceptable to him.

POST SCRIPT: Now, this is the ‘on’ switch . . .

John McCain apparently does not know how to use a computer, even to surf the net or get email. This has caused some snickering but Jackie and Dunlap have some advice for him on how to deal with this issue.


  1. Rian says

    One thing though that comes to mind is this: Americans will not tolerate a reduction in their level of consumption and go well out of their way to ignore unpleasant facts that would pose ethical barriers to that consumption. In effect, we ignore how overseas workers are treated so that our consumer goods can be cheaper.

    Will farms utilizing humane treatment of animals be able to reach the same productivity levels at the same cost? That’s what’s going to be required to overthrow the current industrial farms paradigm. Dollars and cents trump right and wrong. However, if the business model for a humane farm is equal to the business model for an industrial farm, I would surmise that the humane farm would be the one most likely to be followed -- if nothing else for public relations reasons.

  2. says


    It is true that price is a dominating factor but that is because presently consumers have nothing else to go on. Chicken is chicken, beef is beef, and so on.

    The issue of productivity is an interesting one that I will be addressing later. The short answer is that humanely produced food has greater direct cost but not much more.

    Pollan argues that if we had more transparency and truth in labeling and awareness of the history of our food, people would weigh ethical issues as well as price in deciding what food to buy. After all, I might choose to buy meat that has not been treated with antibiotics even though it costs more because the indirect costs of factory farm meat to my health outweighs the savings in direct costs.

  3. Josh Friedman says

    Forgive me if I am guilty of speciesism here, but my personal opinion is that people are different from everything else because of possibility, because when you kill or enslave a person it’s not merely physical -- you also destroy a future of dreams and ideas that could effect us all, for better or worse. It’s hard to think about the great ideas that were lost or suppressed by our physical and mental enslavement of Africans or our slaughter of Native Americans. The loss of an animal is purely physical.

    Does that make it right to kill or enslave animals, or even mentally deficient humans? No, but it doesn’t make it wrong either. It’s simply a gray area. I don’t know if there is right or wrong answer.

    What I do know is that the problem with Singer’s argument is that he chooses an arbitrary stopping point. What reasoning does he have for stopping at animals? What about insects? What about plants? Studies have shown that harming plants causes a chemical reaction within them similar to animals, that they do have some rudimentary nervous system. Can we say that it is not pain? How can Singer stop at animals and not continue his reasoning to plants? Is it wrong to weed our gardens?! We can make arguments about how our eating habits effect each other and our Planet, but as far as ethical discussions involving non-human life, all is see is one big gray area.

  4. says


    As you point out, we cannot avoid making an arbitrary cut at some point demarcating between what we can kill and eat and what we can’t. I think that Singer and others use a certain level of cognitive awareness or sentience, say at the level of the scallop, as the demarcation line.

    I don’t want to speak for Singer but I think he would respond to your point by saying that it is not the drawing of such lines that causes the ethical problem but that we draw lines based on preference for our own species as opposed to more general criteria. He says doing so is similar to drawing lines based on race or gender.

  5. Cindy says

    A series of thoughts: (Pardon the long post, I’m also posting on my blog)
    I would rather live in a world where people lived to be a hundred on average, rather than one with the same population, but faster turnover so people died around 50. The reason is that people have qualitatively different experiences at different ages. We go from an extended childhood to extended adolescence to career development to being a parent to retirement and so on. We also pick up skills over time, like the piano, or a PhD in something. These are both things that aren’t true of cows or fish.
    Take cows. The average American will eat two cows in their lifetime. Say they do the right thing and buy meat from cows living in spacious pleasant environments, presumably experiencing cow happiness. Say it costs twice as much, so they eat half as much, and it’s only one cow. Imagine that the cow is killed quickly and painlessly in a way that it can’t anticipate. Dying makes up a vanishingly small percentage of that cow’s life, and there’s the same number of cows every year on those fields experiencing cow happiness. If we stopped eating cows altogether, they can’t exactly live in the wild, being domesticated, so there will be dramatically fewer cows in the world. I don’t really think that not eating beef is necessarily better for cows in general. I think we should define what we’re trying to achieve on their behalf if it’s not maximizing cow-years of cow happiness.
    If I had to guess, and presume optimistically that the world will be less religious in the future, I think people as a whole will care a lot more about suffering and a lot less about death. So cows will live on luscious green pastures, but we still won’t find it appalling to eat beef occasionally. (Though fish are better for us and less intelligent.) As for humans, hopefully we will find it appalling that people didn’t always have health insurance. And similarly, I think we’ll be more reasonable about death. For example, if someone wanted to die six months earlier to save their family (or society if it’s socialized) large sums of money that they’d rather see spent somewhere else, that’d be fine. Also, do we really see society becoming more and more pro-life? An early fetus is very similar to a tadpole, complete with the tail, and my pro-choice stance is based on the same arguments as how I feel about simple animals.
    A word on the intelligence argument, that we treat severely retarded humans better than animals: I personally think that it’s a matter of having a convenient place to draw a line, and I do think that a chimp should have more rights at some point, but it’s really a matter of how disabled, since a severely retarded or senile human or can still think circles around a cat. Animal level intelligence is truly severe brain damage. You can probably get a better idea about what people think about this not by asking about another person, but about themselves. A lot of people, if they were to end up in a vegetative state, would be horrified and want to be humanely euthanized rather than be a burden. But out of respect for personal beliefs (particularly religious ones) as a society we feel it’s better to consume the resources and let people live on in however limited a capacity. Though I think hospitals can draw a line at some point once most of the brain is dead.
    I agree that people get offended too often in general, but there is a point where the holocaust/slavery arguments become threatening, as soon as you look at any quantitative application of that mindset. Should we really dedicate equal resources towards preventing and opposing such things? Should we hold Nurenburg trials for butchers? The only animal rights activists I think really believe in their heart that these things are equivalent end up like the ones who set fire to a professor’s house in Santa Cruz last weekend, while he, his wife and two kids were asleep.
    I hope my arguments are making sense and not coming off as too emotional. I feel pretty strongly about this since one of my biggest worries is that healthy people will one day manage to shut down medical research, as well as pure neuroscience, which is very important to me. Besides the human suffering and death that would not be prevented, I think it’d be pretty sad to hardly ever learn anything new about the brain. I could live in a country where it was illegal to eat mammals (though at shell fish I’d be protesting since my laptop computer NEURON simulator is probably more sentient, thus my problem with the scallop argument), and we can do an awful lot of research with very little suffering (seriously, neuroscience labs can be nice environments for people who like animals) but I realize that most people see more value in tasty meat than in science and I find that alarming.

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