Eating animals is wrong

Colin McGinn

  • Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
    Cape, 320 pp, £15.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 224 03018 3

I have been persuaded of the rightness of the moral position advocated in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation for the past twenty years. There is, in my view, no moral justification whatever for the human exploitation of animals. I was convinced of this principally by reading the path-breaking book, Animals Men and Morals (1971), edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris. Singer acknowledges his debt to this pivotal work as well as to personal contact with some of the contributors, and his own 1975 book, of which there is now a welcome second edition, is largely a sustained working-out of the moral perspective developed by these earlier thinkers. I have to declare that, in my opinion, the arguments Singer mounts, and the facts he marshals, constitute a definitive and unanswerable case for the thesis that our treatment of animals, in every department, is deeply and systematically immoral. Becoming a vegetarian is only the most minimal ethical response to the magnitude of the evil. What is needed is a complete revolution in the way we deal with other species. Do not expect, then, to find me in any way ‘balanced’ on the question: this is not really an issue on which there are two sides. It’s a won argument, as far as I’m concerned – in principle if not in practice.

If I had written that twenty years ago, I would have been accused either of shocking moral arrogance or of mild insanity. Even now I am sure that I shall be charged with exaggeration and hysterical extremism. Extrapolating from the changes of moral outlook that have occurred in the last two decades, however, I predict that 2010 will most likely see me accused of euphemistic soft-pedalling. Why wasn’t I more scorchingly critical of the countless animal abuses that scar the moral record of homo sapiens? Why did I hold back from pressing the historical parallels with more widely conceded forms of violent oppression? Where was my moral rage? The reason, future reader, is that an air of moderation is prudent when your audience still thinks that eating the dead bodies of intensively reared animals is quite okay morally, really not such a had thing at all. You have to sound as if you take this to be a matter for serious moral debate, even when you know very well that the opposition doesn’t have an ethical leg to stand on. Abortion, capital punishment, drug legalisation – these are genuinely debatable questions; not so the kinds of exploitation of animals that human beings take for granted. So, present reader, he warned: I am even more extreme than I sound.

Actually, the whole issue of the human use of animals has undergone a sea-change during the last two decades. From being disdained as the crackpot preserve of cat-crazed grannies and soppy misanthropes, animal liberation has become a respectable political movement, founded on an articulated moral system and capable of effecting real change in the treatment of animals. People don’t look at you in the funny way they used to. They are now more shiftily defensive than smirkingly condescending. Animal sentience has taken its rightful place in human consciousness. Animals get on the News.

This is not to say that sticking up for animals isn’t still a real family-splitter, friend-loser and spouse-excluder. You are in a restaurant with some people you really get on with quite well. Noting that you are ordering a flesh-free dish, some sheepish meat-eater decides to interrogate you about your food preferences: she wants to know why you will have only your own blood inside you. You have been dreading this moment, familiar though it is: either you stand up for your principles and tell her, or you try to brush the question aside. Is she perhaps secretly sympathetic? Foolishly, you reply that you think it’s morally wrong to raise animals for food in the conditions they are raised and anyway you don’t see why their lives should be deemed less important than our palates. Silence. There then ensues a vituperative two-hour row, which follows a depressingly predictable course: the more the assembled diners see that they cannot refute your arguments, and the more their own rationalisations are swiftly and humiliatingly exploded, the angrier and more resentful they become. You, in turn, grow contemptuous of their moral myopia, their evasiveness and conformity. You leave the restaurant with fewer friends than you went in with – and forget arranging a date with the initial interrogator.

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