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.

The ethics of food-5: Pain and suffering

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

Philosopher and advocate of animal rights Peter Singer is sometimes accused of going out of his way to make deliberately outrageous statements. From what I have read of him, this charge seems unjust. He strikes me as a very thoughtful philosopher who is not being merely a provocateur but is skillfully using the argument from marginal cases to show us the consequences of carrying the often glib justifications we use to justify our treatment of animals to their logical conclusion. The end result often makes us uncomfortable, which may explain the somewhat heated responses he generates.
[Read more…]

The ethics of food-4: Are humans privileged in some way?

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

Our current attitudes towards nonhuman animals seem to be based on two assumptions. The first is that all humans are believed to be equal in some sense and one person has no right to exploit another. The second is that nonhuman animals are somehow inferior to humans and thus have lesser rights and can be used for our benefit. But how do we justify this distinction?

Philosopher Peter Singer points out that people are manifestly not equal in all kinds of ways, some important and some trivial, and this realization has important consequences.

Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans; it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings. (Italics in original. From his book Animal Liberation, excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 31)

Of course, meat eaters can always take ultimate refuge by invoking speciesism, by just arbitrarily deciding that other members of our own species deserve more consideration from us than other species.

But this is not a moral argument. It is just as arbitrary as earlier rules that we now despise as racist or sexist, that argued that other races or women were intrinsically inferior and thus did not deserve the same rights. As Singer argues, “To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he’s not human is no different than excluding the slave simply because he’s not white.” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 308)

To avoid pleading guilty to the charge of naked speciesism, those who feel that humans have some property that entitles them to be privileged over nonhuman animals have looked for at least one quality that humans possess that animals don’t (or at least possess to a significantly lesser degree) that would justify such differential treatment.

But finding such a marker proves to be remarkably elusive. Although human beings do possess certain features that are unique it is hard to argue that those features give us the right to kill those animals that do not possess that feature, any more than the fact that the elephant has a unique trunk gives it the right to kill and eat other animals. One has to make the case why that quality matters in a morally significant way.

Animal rights philosophers like Peter Singer have squarely targeted the various candidates proposed for this privileging property and come to the conclusion that no such marker exists.

What about intelligence or language, something that humans undoubtedly possess? The problem is that it is not the case that all humans possess more intelligence or language than all nonhumans. For example, an adult chimp or dog or horse could well have more intelligence, or communicate better, than a newborn infant, and yet we accord the infant full rights while denying them to the animals.

A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility. So if we base the right to life on these characteristics, we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans. . . . What we must do is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 45)

So “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 307)

The argument that the infant has the potential to develop into a fully intelligent human being does not work either because there are a few sad cases where an individual, due to birth defects or injury, is severely retarded and will never develop much. In fact, any quality that we can name that has the possibility of being used to give preferential treatment to humans runs into the problem that we can always find a few humans who, due to a host of reasons, have less of that quality than some nonhuman animals. And yet we always give preference to the ‘inferior’ humans over the ‘superior’ animal.

This kind of argument against giving privileged status to the right of humans is called the ‘argument from marginal cases’ and is a powerful one.

Next: The role of pain and suffering

POST SCRIPT: Pointless

Since I am known as someone who follows politics, I am sometimes asked to comment on who I think will be the likely vice-presidential picks of Obama and McCain. This is a topic about which I feel it is useless to speculate. What’s the point? When the candidates are good and ready, they will pick someone on the basis of criteria that they deem important. Since those criteria are kept secret from us, any name is as likely as any other.

Of course, there are people that I would prefer and whom I think would help the candidate. But those are based on my criteria and there is no reason to think that the candidates are using the same criteria.

So why don’t we just forget about this topic until the candidates are ready to tell us?

The ethics of food-3: Evolutionary implications

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

The theory of evolution has, of course, implications for the question of whether we should eat meat. One popular view of evolution lends support to the perceived superiority of humans over other species. This view sees evolution as a ladder-like hierarchy, rising ever upwards to higher and higher forms: as a sequence: amoebas→ sponges→ jellyfish→ flatworms→ trout→ frogs→ lizards→ dinosaurs→ anteaters→ monkeys→ chimpanzees→ Homo sapiens. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 352)
[Read more…]

The ethics of food-2: Religious implications

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

The role of religious beliefs on the question of meat eating can take people in different directions. As far as I know, Hinduism is the only major religion that unequivocally advocates vegetarianism. Surely it is no coincidence that the tastiest vegetarian meals can be obtained in the homes or restaurants of Hindus. Hindus really know vegetables.

Buddhism seems a little more equivocal because there are many variations of that religion. While it says that individuals should not kill anything, even insects and pests, some Buddhist philosophers assert that it is acceptable to eat meat from animals that were not specifically killed for you for that purpose (Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer (2000), p. 68). In other words, buying and eating a hamburger from a store is acceptable because that animal was not killed specifically to meet your needs, is now dead anyway, and your not eating the hamburger is not going to bring it back to life.
[Read more…]

The ethics of food-1: Confessions of a meat eater

I am an omnivore. I eat everything. Of course, ‘everything’ is not quite as inclusive as it sounds. Like all people, there are some foods that I dislike for their taste and there are others I avoid simply because I have not grown up with them and so they do not form a part of my usual diet. Since I am also not adventurous in terms of food, preferring to eat familiar foods over the unfamiliar, the range of things I eat is rather small. But there is nothing in the normal diet of people around the world that I could not and would not eat in principle.

In particular, I eat all kinds of meat. At the very outset, I might as well admit that I feel guilty about this aspect of my diet. The moral and ethical case for vegetarianism has for a long time seemed to me to be unassailable, and the fact that I have not adopted this diet can be put down, at least partly, to addiction to the taste of meat. Human beings have been carnivores for a long time in our evolutionary history, and our bodies seem to have evolved to both like the taste of meat and be able to absorb animal protein and make it a part of our diet.

Meat eaters who worry about this try to find ways to justify the practice. One argument for justifying meat eating is that we are who we are because we ate meat for so long in our history. Thus eating meat is an important part of our heritage as it were, and is thus ‘natural’. To abstain from eating meat is to deny our essential nature as carnivorous animals. After all, other species of animals also kill and eat other animals, so that way of life is part of nature. If eating meat is an important part of how we came to be, why should we deny that heritage?

But that evolutionary history does not justify the practice. There are many things in human evolutionary history that we share with other animals and though many animals do kill other animals and eat them, that in itself is no justification for us doing so since there is no imperative that we must take our moral cues from other species.

This is especially true now, since we know so much more about food and have available so many nonmeat alternatives to our diet that can provide us with the same nutrients that meat does. Not eating meat does not pose an insurmountable hardship for people in the developed world where a variety of food is available in abundance.

Another reason that I eat meat is sheer laziness. Being a vegetarian takes more effort than being a carnivore. The buying, preparing, and storing of vegetables, fruits, and cereals for a balanced diet that gives the same range and amount of protein as a meat-based diet takes more thought and effort. But laziness is hardly a noble reason for continuing this practice.

So vegetarians win the moral case over meat eating quite easily. The argument for veganism (avoiding even dairy products like milk and eggs and other foods that can be coaxed from animals without killing them, and avoiding the use of animal hides such as leather) seems to be more debatable. If you are not harming the animal, is there anything morally wrong with eating what it produces?

The argument can be made that even with milk and eggs we are still exploiting animals, using them for our own ends irrespective of their own needs. That is true, but one wonders how far one can take that exploitation argument. Is the use of animals for labor also a form of exploitation to be condemned? Is the keeping of animals for pets for the pleasure that gives us also exploitation?

It is sometimes argued that to be a true advocate of animal rights and avoid any form of exploitation, then one should also avoid the use of all animal products, such as wool amd leather, not use any pesticides, and not use animals and animal products even for research.

This argument is sometimes used against vegetarians and vegans, to suggest that to be fully consistent as demanded by them is to be unrealistic, that in the normal course of our lives that we cannot avoid killing animals. It is pointed out that all agriculture, especially modern large scale agriculture, cannot take place without the killing of animals, either directly because they are considered pests that destroy crops or accidentally by ploughs and combines running over small animals that happen to get in the way, or indirectly by commandeering the habitats used by them causing them to eventually die from lack of food. And what about killing vermin that cause disease?

But this is a weak argument, pitting the perfect against the good. To accuse vegetarians and vegans of hypocrisy because even they cannot completely avoid some complicity in the killing of animals is an ad hominem argument that merely seeks to avoid conceding to them the moral high ground, and serves as a device to assuage the meat-eater’s guilt and to avoid feeling morally inferior. The fact that vegetarians and vegans may not be able to live up to the extremely high standards that they themselves set does not lessen the force of their argument that eating meat seems like an avoidable wrong. It cannot be used to justify the deliberate killing of animals to satisfy our needs. Even if we cannot eliminate animal killing, at least reducing the scale of it is a good thing.

But while the case for veganism is debatable, there was no question in my mind we can all live without killing animals for meat and would probably be much healthier to boot. But while that conclusion still holds true in almost all cases, I have come across other arguments (to be discussed later in this series) that suggest that under certain very limited conditions eating meat might be morally justifiable.

POST SCRIPT: Health care in Europe

Last week, NPR ran a good series of stories comparing the health care systems in individual countries in Europe with what is offered here. It is incredible to me that Americans put up with such an awful system whose main beneficiaries are the health insurance and drug companies and select physicians.

The Language of God-10: Bioethical dilemmas

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007.)

In the Appendix of Francis Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), he tackles the difficult ethical issues raised by advances in science and medicine, especially in the field of molecular biology. His own major contributions to the human genome have undoubtedly made him acutely conscious of these issues. Collins’s describes the science and the issues arising from them very clearly and this Appendix is well worth reading.

Having mapped out the entire human genome, scientists are now in the position of being potentially able to identify the presence of genes that may predispose people to certain diseases or behaviors long before those things have manifested themselves in observable ways. This ability has, of course, some obvious advantages in the prevention and treatment of diseases.
[Read more…]