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.

May I then suggest that anyone who still thinks that our treatment of animals is basically in the moral clear, especially in the areas of experimentation and food production, sit down and study Peter Singer’s book: then they can come and tell me why a vegetarian diet must have weakened my brain. Is it a deal? The basic argumentative strategy of the book is simple. First, Singer establishes that speciesism is a morally unacceptable standpoint. Secondly, he demonstrates that nothing could justify our actual treatment of animals except implicit adherence to the speciesist attitude. Therefore, our treatment of animals is morally wrong. Speciesism, for those who haven’t heard, is the assumption that a mere difference of biological species is sufficient to warrant differential moral treatment, so that the suffering and death of animals of species other than our own is ipso facto of negligible moral weight. Speciesism stands opposed to the following principle, cogently defended by Singer: indistinguishable suffering should be accorded comparable moral weight, even when the sufferers belong to different species. Thus, speciesism makes moral equality turn upon biological taxonomy, irrespective of a creature’s actual psychological capacities; rather as racism and sexism invoke mere racial or sexual difference (themselves biological distinctions) as a basis for moral discrimination. The speciesist is someone who wants to know what zoological kind a sentient being belongs to before he can decide whether it is right to cause it pain; and if he happens to be a human speciesist, he elevates the human species above all others – biological affinity to him is the decisive qualification for serious moral consideration.

Speciesism as a normative ethical principle is easily refuted. It is palpably absurd to tie moral concern to zoological classification instead of to the capacities and conditions it directly involves – pain, pleasure, freedom, confinement, life, death. Sentience is what matters when it conies to the badness of inflicting unnecessary suffering, not the genetic make-up or evolutionary history of the organism that does the suffering. If this is not self-evident, then consider the following hypothetical cases. Martians invade earth and proceed to enslave and exploit human beings: they do to us all the things we now do to our fellow species on earth. Our lives accordingly become a hell of fear, imprisonment, pain and early death. We protest to the militarily superior Martians, who are clearly an intelligent and compassionate species: we point out that they could get on perfectly well without ruining our lives. They don’t disagree with this and concede that we humans are sometimes a bit roughly handled. However, they insist, we have no good moral argument against their flagrant exploitation of our species, since we are not of the same biological kind, so that our suffering and death don’t count for much as far as they are concerned. Their attitude towards us, they point out, is really no different from our attitude towards species other than our own – and they are, when all is said, appreciably cleverer than us. Thus, thanks to the speciesist principle, they needn’t scruple about brutally killing our factory-farmed children for breakfast, instead of having cereal.

Another case: suppose that in a few million years monkeys have evolved to become as intelligent and civilised as we are now, while remaining of a distinct species from us. Meanwhile human beings have persisted with their monkey vivisection, oblivious to the psychological changes that have occurred in the monkey. Now the monkeys can protest about these human practices: they organise and sign petitions, picket and demonstrate; they even threaten gorilla war unless we set their conspecifics free. We dismiss their arguments for humane treatment with a lofty shrug: we are under no moral obligation to cease our painful and fatal experiments on them, since their species is not identical to ours, no matter that they are our equals in every respect we deem morally significant in our own species.

Or suppose that geneticists discover that there has been a mistake in biological science: we thought mankind a single species, but it turns out that there are genetic or evolutionary variations among us sufficient to warrant dividing us into two separate species. Despite appearances, then, you are not strictly of the same species as me, for your DNA differs crucially from mine in some subtle way. Would such a scientific discovery license a complete redrawing of ethical boundaries, so that I can now treat you the way I have always treated animals of other species? Am I henceforward entitled to ignore or minimise all our other similarities – particularly psychological ones – and use the fact of our different biological grouping to put you beyond my moral consideration? Would cannibalism, for example, become morally licit? Rhetorical questions, surely. Speciesism is therefore indefensible as a general moral principle.

Someone is now bound to object that these examples are unfair, since the species we exploit do not differ from us merely in respect of their biological grouping: they are generally less clever than we are, and have almost no musical appreciation. True enough, but the objector is both missing the point and tacitly conceding that the speciesist position is wrong. The essential point is that a mere difference of species is morally irrelevant in assessing the rightness of violating a given creature’s interests; it is not, of course, being denied that differences of species can correlate with morally relevant differences. And now the antispeciesist argument is precisely that what we do to animals would not he done unless we made their species count in itself, since in other respects, particularly those having to do with sentience, animals do not differ from certain human beings whom we regard as infinitely more morally considerable. Thus, as Singer says, we take the permanently retarded child to be far more worthy of moral respect than the intellectually superior gorilla. In general, we do not rate the severity of an animal’s pain equally with the like pain of a human being: somehow the fact that it is a dog’s pain is supposed to make it less undesirable for that pain to occur – rather as my Martians justify the pain they cause us on the speciesist (and specious) ground that it is, after all, only human pain. The simple point here is that it is the pain in itself that is bad, not the fact that it is happening to one biological kind of individual rather than another. A creature’s interests determine the duties we owe it, not its biological proximity to us.

Having argued against speciesism as an ethical principle, Singer goes on to detail the facts of animal life under human domination, focusing on animals as experimental tools and as sources of food. I do not think it is possible for a normal person to read these two chapters without wanting to weep, and without an accompanying feeling of impotent fury at the moral violations so richly documented. If you don’t know the grim facts of animal experimentation and modern factory farming, you should scan these pages: you will never be the same again. Singer reports these facts soberly and unemotionally, generally sticking to the words of those who most directly carry out the practices we as a society permit and endorse: the scientists and the farmers.

The chapter ‘Tools for Research’ is a litany of more or less pointless acts of gross speciesism: millions of animals, often monkeys and dogs, are routinely electrically shocked, irradiated, nerve-gassed, poisoned, maternally deprived, sliced, starved, force-fed, drowned, heated to death, frozen, crushed, shot, strangled, burned, drug-addicted and otherwise tortured and maimed. We may safely assume that none of this would he perpetrated on members of our own species, however comparable to the animal subjects they might be: except, of course, for the notorious (and instructive) examples of racially-based human experimentation. Animals are simply assumed to be means to our ends, morally negligible in themselves, just so much apparatus.

The chapter on farming and meat production is scarcely less disturbing. Here illusions flourish and wishful thinking holds sway. Chickens: crammed together into massive windowless sheds, their environment artificially controlled so as to get more meat, they develop the ‘vices’ of feather-pecking and cannibalism, so surgical ‘debeaking’ is employed. Laying hens are confined to tiny cages in which they cannot even stretch their wings, and in which sloping wire floors give them severe foot trouble and thwart their nesting instincts. Pigs: highly intelligent, active and social by nature, these animals are kept bored and frustrated, and take to biting their fellows’ tails. Solution: cut their tails off – without anaesthetic of course. Stress-death from overcrowding is common. Foot deformity from slatted floors is standard. Veal calves: separated from their mothers, tethered by the neck, these animals are confined for their entire lives to a strawless stall in which they can hardly move, while they are fed an unnatural liquid diet expressly designed to produce anaemia. They chew the stall in an effort to satisfy their craving for roughage; they suffer chronic digestive problems; they lick anything metal to make up the iron deficiency; many of them perish before slaughter. And the sole purpose of this regime of torment is to produce pale soft flesh for well-off humans to bite into. The veal calf is perhaps the purest illustration of the orthodox human attitude towards food animals: nothing is to be spared the animal if it caters to some trivial taste on our part.

If speciesism is manifestly absurd as a moral principle, and if our entire relationship to other animals is riddled with speciesist bias, leading to systematic oppression and cruelty, why are we so ready to tolerate these unjustified moral asymmetries? Why don’t we recognise what we are doing for what it is and then just stop doing it? What holds the evils of speciesism so firmly in place? At this stage of the debate this is the question that most needs to be addressed. Exposing the basis of animal exploitation may help dislodge the evil, revealing it for what it is. What we have here, I suggest, is an old enemy bolstered by a peculiar feature of interspecies concern. The old enemy is the First Law of Power Relations: the more powerful will always tend to oppress the less powerful, if they can get away with it. Where there is vulnerability, you will find that vulnerability exploited and magnified. Violence is invariably the ultimate means of subordination. This law holds historically for races, children, women... and animals. Domination and enslavement are regularly visited on the relatively helpless: and animals are just one more powerless group which has fallen victim to this law. Nor can they so much as speak out against their exploitation (though they are quite capable of making their feelings known to their exploiters). Of course, it is common to find some religious or other ideology invoked to legitimise this kind of naked exercise of power: but we are not now so easily duped by this ploy in cases other than that of animals – we are wise to the ways of ‘false consciousness’. In the case of animals, people still feel in their bones that their exploited position is somehow written into the order of things, that this is what the universe intends – instead of recognising it for good old-fashioned power-mongering. We do it because we can and we like it, and that’s really the end of the matter. Conjoin this with the sadistic impulses that are never far away from the abuse of power, and you have a profoundly satisfying state of affairs for the human species: we get to fuck animals up royally and they can’t so much as talk back to us – not even a stray rebel or terrorist to handle. Perfect! We can then flatter our vanity with the delicious thought of how much they have to sacrifice in order to gratify our trivial fancies. ‘I must be very important because my coat took ten tormented rare wild animals to make it. As I am lord of all creation, it is my God-given right to use animals in any fashion I see fit. Why, it’s the next best thing to being God!’

The special feature of animal exploitation, which makes the law of power so ingrained in their case, is that the countervailing force of empathy is so much weaker here than elsewhere. Because other species live lives which differ in various respects from ours, and because they look different and make different noises, it is less natural for us to enter into their point of view and appreciate how things are for them. It takes an imaginative effort to see the world as a turtle does – indeed, to recognise that a turtle sees the world in any way. Just so, my invading Martians may have limited empathy when it comes to understanding how it is for us to be locked in tiny stalls, malnourished, experimented on, hunted, killed. Empathy is the chief foe of discriminative harm, and human empathy can be withheld from an exploited group if that group differs from us in some salient (though superficial) respect. In the case of animals, our capacity for empathy tends to be fitful and arbitrary, sentimentally selective where it is not barbarically absent. Here, the moral bridge of identification is apt to be shaky at best. Accordingly, if speciesism, as a reflexive attitude beyond rational critique, is to be effectively undermined, it will be necessary to extend and deepen our capacity for interspecific empathy: we need to be able to look upon animals with fresh eyes, unconditioned by the role in which we have historically placed them, thus to engage more fully with their distinctive ‘forms of life’. And the key to this is not some willed increase in the amount of affection we feel for other species: it must come, rather, from a respect based upon impartial appreciation of their intrinsic nature. It is a cognitive change more than an affective one that we need. In my view, fully absorbing the idea that we are all contingent creatures of Darwinian evolution, subject to its laws and constraints, is the best way of attaining the right perspective on the lives of other animals: we are just one species among others, making our way in a not terribly sympathetic world. There is no sense in which other animals were made for us (pace Genesis). What distinguishes us from them is our ability to inject a moral dimension into these natural facts: and so not go right ahead and exploit whatever we can at whatever cost to our victim. Animals are not inherently our tools, and we have the moral capacity to recognise that they should not he reduced to that status. Instead, think of other species as existing independently of our species, and as having their own enormously long evolutionary history; then remember that they have a mode of sentience that goes with their biological nature, just as we do. Don’t think of animals as convenient natural artifacts whose existence is exhausted by their relation to us: they are autonomous beings. We once gave up a geocentric conception of the universe, in which we sat at the cosmic centre; now we need to complete the Darwinian revolution and accept that the animal creation is not fundamentally anthropocentric. Speciesism will end only when this kind of informed modesty has been properly achieved.

Singer completes the argument of Animal Liberation with a telling chapter on the history of animal abuse and the gradual recognition that the law should prohibit at least some of the grosser forms of human cruelty. He deals also with all the counter-arguments to his position that he has heard, however fatuous these may be. He concludes with a challenge to the reader: ‘throughout this book I have relied on rational argument. Unless you can refute the central argument of this book, you should now recognise that speciesism is wrong, and this means that, if you take morality seriously, you should try to eliminate speciesist practices from your own life, and oppose them elsewhere.’ I can only reiterate this challenge.

What does the future hold for animals? Twenty years ago I was very pessimistic about the possibility of fundamental change, because at that time even morally alive people found the very idea of animal rights merely quaint. Today this is a respectable part of the political agenda. It is nice to be regarded no longer as a naive eccentric, a squeamish sentimentalist with mystical leanings (me, mystical!). Perhaps the progress that has already been made, such as it is, will continue and accelerate, leading to radical improvements for animals. It is arguable that we are now in a transitional period, in which old prejudices and ideologies about the cosmic place of animals have crumbled, yet our moral reactions are lagging behind; that it is only a matter of time before we wake up ethically to what we already implicitly believe about the biological world and our position in it. Old habits and powerful vested interests will thus eventually succumb to moral common sense, and one of human kind’s greatest tyrannies will collapse like so many others before. As a bonus, there will be enough food to feed the world’s hungry, once plant protein is no longer wasted on fattening unnecessary food animals for the better-off. The deepest form of exploitation and institutionalised death in human history will have been eradicated, making other forms of oppression psychologically harder to bring about, because less built into our daily lives.

I suppose such a rosy future is not impossible, though in my experience we shouldn’t bank on ordinary civilised adults to bring it about: we need to appeal to the natural moral instincts of the pre-indoctrinated. As Peter Singer remarks, children very frequently express their horror at the origin of their dinner and wish to become vegetarian; it can take a lot of adult cajoling or worse to wean them off their sound moral standpoint. Children are the natural friends of animals, and paying them more respect might be the best way to get animals liberated. Put more practically: animal activists should work to ensure that the facts of animal life under human dominion are taught in schools and made generally available to the young. Put speciesism on the curriculum. To parents I say: do you really want your children to blame you for keeping them in the dark about all the rotten things we do to animals? Wouldn’t you prefer to be able to boast to your grandchildren that you were in the vanguard when animals were given their freedom?