Eating animals is wrong
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 13 No. 5 · 7 March 1991
Colin McGinn’s uncritical adulation of Peter Singer’s revised treatise on ‘animal rights’ (LRB, 24 January) reminds me of G.B. Shaw’s dismissal of someone who sounded ‘like a hysterical woman fawning on a fiddler’. Consider those tear-splattered, indignant lines on fur coats: ‘I must be very important because my coat took ten tormented rare wild animals to make it … Why, it’s the next best thing to being God!’ For wild fur, I recommend beaver or raccoon: warm, light, good for twenty or thirty years, biodegradable afterwards. Beavers are now more abundant in Canada than in the days of the first explorers; my farmer friend’s trees are being mown down, his fields are flooded. He has beavers like a dog has fleas. Raccoons are hardly rare: coming home at 4 a.m. a year or so ago, I counted 11 of them between my office and home (both in the middle of this small town).
A vegetarian diet and dress is possible in the tropics of New Jersey, but not in the North. Our native peoples cannot raise cotton or citrus fruits – not even apples grow up there. A brief season of berries, then it’s grass and hark and the flesh of those who can survive on that diet. If the world stops eating fish, what happens to the Icelanders? Their chief crop is hay; Iceland isn’t even self-sufficient in potatoes. The sale of fish makes possible the purchase of equipment and materials to drill the earth for heat (from volcanic action) and the purchase of vegetables and fruit from abroad (expensive luxuries). Meat, fish and dairy products are the staple items of diet.
Peter Singer thinks children are coerced from a ‘sound moral sense’ that rejects meat. Some urban children get a shock when they find steak comes from killed cows, milk from live ones. But children who grow up on farms – or in hunting and gathering cultures – know the truth from the first; their ‘sound moral sense’ accepts the death of animals like the death of plants. What is this moral nonsense that rejects killing an oyster but accepts uprooting a carrot? To claim that conscious creatures have rights unconscious ones have not is another speciesism. Buy a beaver coat and save a grove of trees; the dryads will bless you. So will the trapper. Do Singer and McGinn swat flies, crush mosquitoes, exterminate termites and squash spiders? Are they at peace with the death-watch beetle? Do they apply poisons to their roses?
Colin McGinn failed to emphasise the vast difference between rearing animals intensively and non-intensively. What matters, according to Peter Singer, is how well the lives of animals go for them. The life of a non-intensively-reared animal, I think, is almost certainly better than no life at all. But that of an intensively-reared chicken, pig or veal calf will be much worse than nothing. Asking people to boycott intensively-reared meat is asking them to become ‘demi-vegetarians’, and I have found it much easier so to convert others than to persuade them into full vegetarianism. Colin McGinn is no longer in the UK. But those of us still here, if we are demi-vegetarians keen on chicken and other meats usually produced intensively, can now buy ‘real meat’ – from humanely-reared and slaughtered animals. Anyone interested should contact the Real Meat Co Ltd, East Hill Farm, Heytesbury, Warminster, Wiltshire BA 12 OHR.
University College, Oxford
Colin McGinn’s vigorous advocacy of the case for vegetarianism fatally simplifies the issues and underestimates the difficulty of reform. Horror at the cruelties licensed by an immoral speciesism does not necessarily entail giving up eating meat. It is equally consistent with a resolution only to use free-range produce (although I acknowledge that there are difficulties of definition and availability in such a stance). The case for vegetarianism needs an argument to show that we should not use animal products at all, no matter what the conditions of their lives. Even if a convincing, non-mystical, argument of this sort were available, however, animal liberationists would still need to confront the loss in some aspects of human lives which would result from the abandonment of meat. Eating, including conventions about what is eaten, is part of a nexus of traditions, rituals, memories, folk knowledge, family and communal pleasures which many people would not give up without a great deal of regret, even while they might acknowledge the benefits of vegetarianism. This dimension is entirely absent from McGinn’s polemic and leads him to treat the issue as a much more straightforward one than it actually is. Unless these wider moral issues arc tackled, his optimism about the prospects for a thorough revolution in our attitudes to animals will seem naive indeed.