Why go vegan? Peter Singer answers

Posted on : 2022-08-09 16:50 KST Modified on : 2022-08-09 16:50 KST
Hankyoreh 21 spoke with the utilitarian philosopher about the foundations of his animal rights advocacy
Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer (courtesy Singer)
Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer (courtesy Singer)

Peter Singer, the renowned utilitarian philosopher from Australia, has drawn global attention for approaching the relationship between animals and human beings from a new perspective. He touched off a debate over animal rights with his 1973 essay “Animal Liberation,” which he published when he was 27 years old, and his book of the same title released two years later.

Singer’s argument for animal liberation is that if animals experience pleasure and pain equivalent to what humans do, then their pain should be considered equal to that of humans — meaning that we should not discriminate against animals. On that basis, he opposes all forms of exploitation that inflict suffering on animals for the sake of human profit and pleasure, including meat consumption and animal testing.

Singer has published numerous books on applied ethics and animal liberation, and he has been a practicing vegetarian for over 40 years. The New Yorker wrote that he “may be the most controversial philosopher alive; he is certainly among the most influential.”

In October 2021, he published “Why Vegan?” a collection of nine essays about animal liberation. The Hankyoreh 21 spoke with Singer via an email interview in July 2022 to learn more about the philosophy that underpins his veganism and opposition to animal exploitation.

Utilitarianism that includes animals in the equation

Hani: You said that you went vegetarian when you were 24 years old and you have been maintaining the diet ever since. What joys do you get from being vegetarian and what difficulties have you encountered being vegetarian?

Singer: I feel better without meat — lighter, fitter, healthier. My digestive system works better. In addition, of course, I know that I am not supporting factory farming, which is terrible for animals, for the climate of our planet, and for the local rivers and the air around them. That produces a harmony between my diet and my values. Apart from that, it has been a joy to explore new ways of cooking.

In 1970, when I became a vegetarian, there were some difficulties in going out to eat with friends, because most restaurants had very limited offerings for vegetarians. But not anymore.

Singer isn’t an all-out vegan. He says that he became a vegetarian because he didn’t want to support any act that would inflict suffering on animals. On occasion, he will consume oysters, mussels, and other sorts of clams because of the low likelihood of them being able to feel pain on account of their lack of a central nervous system and brain. Singer will from time to time dine on eggs provided by the free-range chickens that he raises. The thinker has described himself as a “flexible vegan.”

His most important standard for choosing what to eat is whether whatever is on his plate can feel pain. Singer’s animal advocacy has its foundations in utilitarianism, which suggests that we must maximize pleasure and minimize suffering, and his dietary standards naturally follow this guideline. In his 1983 book “The Case for Animal Rights,” American philosopher Tom Regan criticized Singer’s calculations of interest and put forth an argument that all subjects of a life, whether human or animal, have equal inherent value. The debate between Singer and Regan has broadened the horizons of the discussion of animal rights.

Hani: Can “sentience” be the only criterion for determining what to consider morally equal? Human beings are obligated to behave ethically with each other. But animals can only feel pain. Is there a need and obligation for human beings to have moral considerations for animals that cannot think or act ethically?

Singer: The capacity to feel pain is the basis for equal consideration of interests. Of course, there are differences between most humans and most animals. Most humans can think about ethics and act ethically, but not all (for example, not infants or those with severe cognitive disabilities). Most animals are incapable of acting ethically (but perhaps a few can, like great apes or elephants).

If we want to include infants and humans with cognitive disabilities within the sphere of equal consideration, then we cannot exclude nonhuman animals who can feel pain but cannot act ethically. To do that would be speciesism — to discriminate against animals simply because the humans who cannot act ethically are members of our species, but the animals are not.”

Understanding speciesism through other paradigms of discrimination

“Speciesism” is a term used critically to refer to the belief that humans are superior to animals and that the interests of humans should be prioritized over those of animals. The term was coined by the English thinker Richard D. Ryder and was popularized by Singer in his work. Singer suggests that those who believe humans to be superior to animals try thinking about how a similar logic functioned to uphold racism. There is no debate over whether racism should be wholly abolished. Singer argues that we must get to the same point when it comes to our ethics regarding animals.

Hani: Do you think it would be permissible to consume animals if genetic manipulation technology progresses to a point that we can make livestock such as chickens and pigs feel no pain even when being slaughtered?

Singer: First, let me say that the pain we inflict on animals is not only when they are killed. I am in fact far more concerned about their lifelong suffering in factory farms, which are designed only to produce the animals as cheaply as possible, and not to avoid giving them miserable lives. But if we suppose that animals could not suffer at all — that they had no consciousness — then they would be more like cabbages, and they would have no interests that we could harm. So then the only objections to raising, killing and eating animals would be because of the environment, or our own health.

Hani: According to your theory, isn’t it acceptable if the total amount of utility that animal testing brings is greater than the total amount of pain?

Singer: Yes, as long as we give full weight to the suffering of the animals, and do not treat it as less significant than similar pain inflicted on a human being.

The cover of the Korean edition of Peter Singer’s “Why Vegan?” a collection of essays written about animal liberation between 1973 and 2020.
The cover of the Korean edition of Peter Singer’s “Why Vegan?” a collection of essays written about animal liberation between 1973 and 2020.

In the introduction to his book “Animal Liberation,” Singer wrote the following: “A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons. Practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable come to be seen as the result of an unjustifiable prejudice.”

Singer underscores that when humans become accustomed to the logic of what is “natural” and inured to the suffering of other groups, it will ultimately lead to oppression and violence. The question is then how to use this line of thought to change how people think and encourage them to engage in more ethical actions.

Decide what works for you

Hani: Many people still eat meat and don’t think it’s unethical. At the same time, there are many people who think factory farming is a problem, but it’s not easy for them to give up eating meat. So isn’t your theory of animal liberation limited in inducing people to practice ethics?

There are many reasons why people still eat meat. Some are ignorant about how bad factory farming is, and they need to be educated. Others already know that it is wrong, and they need to be persuaded to live more ethically. Neither of these things is easy to do.

Hani: There is criticism that radical veganism movements such as Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) do not use effective or desirable tactics to get people to give up meat. These sorts of movements use tactics that instill excessive guilt in meat eaters, which can backfire and cause resistance to vegetarianism. What is your opinion on this, and what are some desirable methods and strategies for animal liberation movements to pursue?

The research group Faunalytics came out with some research on this quite recently, and it does give rise to concern about this kind of protest. Specifically, instead of leading people to support animal welfare reforms, it may even have the opposite effect. You can find the research here: https://faunalytics.org/relative-effectiveness/ 

I think trying to educate people about factory farming and about living ethically are desirable methods for animal liberation, and so is promoting the development of plant-based or cellular alternatives to meat from animals. But I encourage people to look at the research and decide for themselves what seems most likely to work.

The COVID-19 pandemic that is now in its third year has sounded the alarm about humans’ excessive consumption of meat. In his book “Why Vegan?” Singer stresses that if humans are to avoid even greater threats to our collective humanity, we must move away from our meat-based diets. He writes: “The pandemic appears to have come to humans via the so-called ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, China. They are hell for the animals, and as we know now, a major health hazard. But Westerners who blame China for allowing markets in wild animals need to look at what they are eating themselves. [. . .] Moving away from meat, whether from wild animals or from factory farms, would reduce the risk of another pandemic that could make COVID-19 look like a minor problem.”

For Singer, animal liberation is not just for animals — it’s also a path to human liberation and human happiness.

By Lee Kyung-mi, staff reporter

Read the original article in Korean: https://h21.hani.co.kr/arti/society/society_general/52395.html 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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