Peter Singer and the “Luxury” of Death

In last week’s blog entry, I mentioned that The Vegan Society had interviewed Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and me in its magazine, The Vegan. In his interview, Singer states:

[T]o avoid inflicting suffering on animals—not to mention the environmental costs of intensive animal production—we need to cut down drastically on the animal products we consume. But does that mean a vegan world? That’s one solution, but not necessarily the only one. If it is the infliction of suffering that we are concerned about, rather than killing, then I can also imagine a world in which people mostly eat plant foods, but occasionally treat themselves to the luxury of free range eggs, or possibly even meat from animals who live good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm. (The Vegan, Autumn 2006.)

In Singer’s May 2006 interview in Mother Jones, he states:

[T]here’s a little bit of room for indulgence in all of our lives. I know some people who are vegan in their homes but if they’re going out to a fancy restaurant, they allow themselves the luxury of not being vegan that evening. I don’t see anything really wrong with that.

I don’t eat meat. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1971. I’ve gradually become increasingly vegan. I am largely vegan but I’m a flexible vegan. I don’t go to the supermarket and buy non-vegan stuff for myself. But when I’m traveling or going to other people’s places I will be quite happy to eat vegetarian rather than vegan.

It is quite remarkable that the so-called “father of the animal rights movement”:

  • Is a “flexible vegan”—that is, he is not a vegan when he finds it inconvenient to be one. That means that he’s not a vegan and, indeed, he has characterized being a consistent vegan as “fanatical.”;
  • Thinks that a vegan world is not “necessarily” the solution to the problem of animal exploitation.; and
  • Characterizes it as a “luxury” to consume meat and animal products.

But these comments make clear a position that is central to Singer’s theory and that is absolutely at odds with an animal rights/abolitionist perspective. According to Singer, it is the suffering of nonhumans, and not our killing of them, that raises the primary, and perhaps the only, moral problem.

That is, Singer does not think that it is a serious problem that we use and kill animals; the only problem is how we use and kill them. If animals have “good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm,” then we do not act immorally in using and eating animals.

Why would Singer take such a position? Why does he think that killing a nonhuman does not raise a fundamental moral problem?

Although Singer has stated this position at various places in his writings, his interview in The Vegan contains a recent, brief, and clear reiteration of his view:

I do think that there are morally relevant differences between various species, because the cognitive capacities of beings are relevant to, for example, the wrongness of killing them. I think it is worse to kill a self-aware being, that is, a being who is aware of its own existence over time, and is able to have desires for the future, than a being who may be conscious, but is not self-aware and lives in a kind of eternal present. (The Vegan, Autumn 2006)

In other words, Singer maintains that if a being is not self-aware in the way that a normal human is self-aware—that is, the being does not have what we call reflective self-consciousness—then the being is not self-aware in the morally relevant way that would give rise to that being having an interest in her life and that would make killing that being a significant moral wrong.

As I argued in Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? and elsewhere, Singer’s view is problematic in a number of ways.

First, Singer maintains that there is only one morally significant way to be self-aware—to have the sort of representational self-awareness that normal humans have.

There are many ways to be self-aware. Any being who is sentient or subjectively aware is necessarily self-aware. Anna Charlton and I live with five rescued dogs. When one of our dogs sees another one of our dogs get a treat, the former is aware that it is not she who has gotten the treat, and she comes and sits in front of me until I give her a treat as well. That is self-awareness. She is perceptually aware that it is another dog who has gotten the treat and not she who has gotten the treat.

Humans can look in a mirror and recognize their image; dogs can recognize their scent on a bush that they visited weeks before. Those are simply two different sorts of self-awareness. But it is speciesist to say that one sort of self-awareness is morally better than the other.

Second, Singer seems to think that only humans (and perhaps nonhuman great apes) have desires for the future. Again, Singer’s views are speciesist in that he maintains the only way to have a future desire is to have it in exactly the way that humans do. If a being does not plan things with calendars and clocks, then the being does not have a future desire.

We live with a border collie whose favorite pastime is to ride around in the car. If she sees my car keys anywhere, she will grab them in her mouth and come and place them by my feet and look up at me. There is no other way to interpret that behavior except as an expression of desire to do something. The fact that she does not wear a wrist (or paw) watch and think, “I’d like to go for a ride in 15 minutes” is irrelevant. She is expressing a desire about something that she wants to do.

Third, even if one’s consciousness is rooted in an “eternal present,” that does not mean that the being is not self-aware in a morally relevant way. Consider a human who has transient global amnesia, a form of amnesia in which the person has a sense of herself only in the present, and has no recollection of her past and no thoughts about her future. This is more or less how Singer views the minds of most nonhumans—as rooted in a continuing present. Can we conclude that a human with this sort of amnesia has no self-awareness? Of course not. Such a human is self-aware even though she is aware of herself only in the present. Similarly, even if nonhumans have a sense of themselves only in the present, we cannot say they do not value their lives and are concerned only with how we treat them. That is speciesist.

Fourth, and most important, there is simply no logical relationship between differences in cognitive characteristics and the issue of animal use. Differences in cognitive abilities may be relevant for some purposes. Consider the case of a severely mentally disabled human. We may not want to give such a human a driver’s license because of her inability to drive. But is her impairment relevant to whether we use her as an unwilling subject in a biomedical experiment or as a forced organ donor? No, of course not. Indeed, many of us would argue that her particular vulnerability means that we have a greater moral obligation to her, but it certainly does not mean that we have a lesser one. Similarly, the fact that a cow may have a mind that differs from ours may mean that we do not give the cow a driver’s license, but it does not mean that we may use the cow for purposes in which we would use no humans.

For Singer, veganism is simply one way of addressing animal suffering but, according to Singer, “not necessarily the only one.” We might also continue to allow ourselves the “luxury” of eating eggs and meat from animals who have had “good lives” and are “humanely killed.” Given that Singer actively promotes retailers such as Whole Foods, whose animals certainly have not had “good lives” or “humane” deaths, what he is really saying is that it is acceptable to consume animals who have (perhaps) been tortured slightly less.

And if we are vegan most of the time, we can even allow ourselves the “luxury” of eating conventionally produced flesh and animal products when we go to a “fancy restaurant.” Does this excuse apply only to people who have enough money to eat in “fancy” places? Are occasional hamburgers always wrong because McDonald’s is not “fancy” enough? Or are McDonald’s hamburgers always OK because McDonald’s has, with Singer’s praise, adopted Temple Grandin’s slaughter and handling guidelines?

It boggles the mind.

Moreover, if, as Singer maintains, his concern is the suffering and not the killing of animals, then his own behavior is inconsistent. Singer claims to be a vegan when he shops for himself: “But when I’m traveling or going to other people’s places I will be quite happy to eat vegetarian rather than vegan.” So when he is traveling or eating at another’s home, he will eat animal products but will not consume flesh (I assume that this is what he means when he refers to being a “vegetarian”).

But why would Singer distinguish between flesh and animal products? Although flesh involves killing the animal, Singer does not think that killing an animal is morally significant, or at least not significant enough to make veganism a moral imperative. If it is suffering that matters, dairy products and eggs certainly involve as much suffering as flesh products do, and dairy animals and laying hens end up in the same slaughterhouses as meat animals anyway after they are “spent.” Indeed, as I have said many times, there is probably more suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak. So it would seem that if suffering is Singer’s concern, he would not be “flexible” about non-flesh foods.

If Singer’s views were merely the musings of a confused academic and without consequence in the real world, we might be tempted to ignore his elitist notions about what counts as morally significant self-awareness for the purpose of justifying the “luxury” of eating meat and animal products. But, unfortunately, Singer’s views, as absurd and speciesist as they are, are the foundation of the ubiquitous “happy meat” movement that is seeking to work with institutional animal exploiters to make animal exploitation more “humane” so that we can increase the opportunities for people to be “conscientious omnivores.”

Singer’s views are being implemented by a number of welfarist organizations from PETA, which gives awards to Grandin and to “happy meat” hucksters, such as Whole Foods; to the Humane Society of the United States, which promotes welfare reforms that will increase the productivity and profits for animal exploiters and sponsors the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label to assure consumers that they acting in a morally superior way by buying only certain animal corpses and body products; to Vegan Outreach, which maintains that veganism “is not an end in itself. It is not a dogma or religion, nor a list of forbidden ingredients or immutable laws—it is only a tool for opposing cruelty and reducing suffering.”

Singer and these welfarist organizations that have adopted his approach have become partners with the institutional exploiters and serve as a marketing arm for the meat, dairy, and egg industries. The welfare reforms that they support do little, if anything, to help animals. And these reforms, when coupled with the praise and support of Singer and the “happy meat” brigade, most certainly make people feel more comfortable about continuing to eat animal products, or to return to eating animal products that they once avoided.

To see the problem with Singer’s approach (if it is not already crystal clear to you), slot your principles about racism, sexism, or homophobia into Singer’s framework. How does it sound if you try to justify “falling off the wagon” on occasion with respect to these forms of discrimination? Is it okay to engage in the “luxury” of a bit of sexism on a Saturday night? Is it okay to indulge in the “luxury” of attending a Klan rally? Is there “room for indulgence” if we limit our homophobic slurs to one day a week?

Here’s another quote from Singer’s Mother Jones interview:

I do want to emphasize that I don’t think eating ethically, particularly from a utilitarian point of view, is a matter of saying, ‘Here’s this strict law that I have to do everything possible [to] comply with.’ I think we can be ethically conscientious and recognize that sometimes there are going to be compromises. Sometimes it’s going to be very difficult, very inconvenient, to get the best choice, so we’ll settle for something else.

Substitute in your views about rape. Would it be acceptable to say that we do not have to comply strictly with the prohibition against rape? After all, there may be times when it will be “very difficult, very inconvenient” not to engage in rape.

Animal exploitation is so deeply embedded in our society, culture, and history that we are not used to viewing it as on the same level as other forms of discrimination. If anything is ever to change, we are going to have to think our way out of this mess and be clear we cannot justify the use of animals—however “humane” our treatment may be. As long as we are not recoiling from characterizing animal corpses and animal products as a “luxury,” or accepting that we do not have to be vegan when we find it “very difficult, very inconvenient,” we have not even started the process.

In closing, I want to share a story with you about something that happened to me last weekend. We had a warm Saturday and I went over to Whole Foods to buy some organic vegetables. I was wearing a denim shirt over my fantastic new Vegan Freak T-shirt that Bob and Jenna Torres had just sent me.

I was standing in line behind a woman who had a cart full of food, including a fair amount of meat and cheese. She saw my shirt and asked me what “Vegan Freak” meant. I explained that it was a website and podcast devoted to vegan education. She asked me if I was a vegan. I replied that I was and had been for 25 years.

She said that she was a vegetarian a few years back but her husband and kids liked meat so she had gone back to eating meat but she added: “I only buy my meat here. I am a member of PETA and they gave this store an award for how well they treat animals.” She asked me if I had seen the signs back by the meat case and egg case that said Whole Foods only bought from producers who raised their animals “humanely.” I replied that I had. Whole Foods does, indeed, have such signs—large ones, actually. I told her that I did not think that the lives of Whole Foods animals were really any different from the lives of other animals and that they’re all still killed in the end anyway. Her reply, “Yes, but I hope they suffer less.”

And that is where Peter Singer has brought us. Veganism is not necessary. The “father of the animal rights movement” is not even a vegan and regards being a consistent vegan as “fanatical,” so why does anyone else need to be a vegan? We can enjoy the “luxury” of eating meat and animal products from animals who have been tortured less than others and, if we are vegans most of the time, we should feel okay to treat ourselves even to conventionally tortured animals when we splurge at a “fancy restaurant.”

We can allow ourselves to indulge in the “luxury” that is made possible only by death.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione