Peter Singer, Happy Meat, and Fanatical Vegans

Dear Colleagues:

In a recent interview, Peter Singer makes a number of statements that, in my view, indicate just how sharp the difference is between the new welfarist or protectionist approach and the abolitionist approach.

First, he states:

I’m very pleased to say that there have been a lot of changes, especially in Europe, but also some in the US and other countries. In Europe, all the worst and most abusive forms of factory farming are being modified.

I disagree with Singer’s claim in several respects. It is not accurate to say that there have been a “a lot of changes” and that “all the worst and most abusive forms of factory farming are being modified.” As I pointed out in at least two other essays (1,2) on this site, and in my 2008 book, Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, the supposed welfare improvements in Europe about which Peter is so excited are worse than useless in that they provide little if any increased protection for animal interests and they make humans feel more comfortable about consuming animals, which facilitates continued consumption.

Second, on veganism, he states:

The vegan diet, especially buying organically produced plant foods, does solve more of the ethical problems about eating than any other. But I admit that it is not for everyone, and it will take a long time before it becomes widespread. So I don’t want to give the impression that it is the only thing one can do to eat ethically. Just avoiding factory farmed products is a big step in the right direction, even if you continue to eat a moderate quantity of organically produced, pasture raised, animal products.

Once again (see, e.g., 1,2), Singer repeats the notion that being a “conscientious omnivore” is a “defensible ethical position.” If the so-called “father of the animal rights movement” (supported by almost all of the large new welfarist groups) claims that it is a morally good thing to consume “happy” meat and animal products, that is likely to become the moral baseline. And that is precisely what has happened. Veganism is viewed as “extreme” precisely because of comments like this; “happy” meat is considered the “ethical” choice.

To see the speciesism here, substitute some form of human exploitation. If someone said that a “moderate” amount of “humane” rape was a “big step in the right direction,” we would be outraged. But Singer tells us that eating a “moderate quantity” of “happy” meat and animal products is a morally good thing. It may be good in the same way that beating your slaves 5 times a week is better than beating them 10 times a week, but it ignores the fundamental moral question at stake.

Asked about whether it is possible to be ethical without becoming “fanatics,” he states:

It is absolutely possible! The thing to remember is that the world is imperfect, and we want to make it better, so any changes in the right direction help, and the more we do, the better it is. But this is not a religion, it is not a question of personal purity, so we do not have to worry about our own moral perfection. We just have to do our best to minimize the adverse impact we are having on animals, the environment, and workers. And then, enjoy our food!

Once again, Singer equates the abolitionist approach, which has veganism and nonviolent vegan education as its moral baseline, as “purist” or “fanatical” because abolitionists maintain that we cannot justify any animal use. Does Singer regard as purist an absolutist position on issues such as rape or pedophilia? That is, is the position that we cannot justify any rape or pedophilia, irrespective of the circumstances, purist or fanatical? If not, and if he regards it permissible or even obligatory to take an absolutist position on those issues, is he not merely begging the question about the abolitionist approach as applied to nonhumans and assuming that animal exploitation is less morally problematic than human exploitation?

I suppose that he is making that assumption, which is not surprising given that he regards nonhumans as having less moral value than humans.

In any event, it is very disappointing that Singer is telling people to go and enjoy their happy meat. But then, despite the notion that “animal people” are one monolithic group, there are very distinct differences between the abolitionist approach and the new welfarist approach. Singer’s interview illustrates just a few.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione