Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Eating Peter Singer


Lately I've been rereading Peter Singer, a bioethicist and philosopher who argues, along with a good many pet owners, that animals are people, too. But once you accept animals as persons, Singer tests your commitment to the idea. Animal persons have full rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Humans, Singer notes, use sentient beings for food, and in doing so we cause terrible suffering.

Singer says moral behavior requires that humans become vegans, given that animals don't want to be killed for their meat, at least if you judge by the way they act as they're being herded into slaughterhouses. It causes more unhappiness for animals to give their lives to become meat than it does for humans to quit eating meat.

If you accept Singer's greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number philosophy, it's hard to argue with him, especially if your mouth is full of bacon.

In other essays, Singer looks at people who live a life of plenty in a world where others starve. He suggests a catastrophic moral failure occurs when $40 buys a bottle of restaurant wine instead of feeding three or four hungry Ugandan children for a month.

I'm not going to take on Peter Singer logically or morally. That's Bambi versus Godzilla territory, and I would be Bambi.

But there is some utility in asking what kind of culture produces a Peter Singer, and if he isn't a symptom of inordinate luxury himself. In blunt terms, ethical behavior toward animals is possible on a full stomach.

Get really hungry, and you start thinking that a pig really isn't as smart as your average 6-year-old human, or that horsemeat does go rather well with Burgundy sauce, or that Thumper, the bunny the kids got for Easter, looks plumper and tenderer than a pet has any right to look.

I've just come back from a trip to the Boise Costco, and from the looks of the people in its aisles, it's going to be a long time before calorie restrictions trump ethics in Idaho. But there are famines occurring in other places in the world right now, and not from any failure of the free market. Some communities just can't sustain a Costco.

Furthermore, population biologists (William Catton, the author of "Overshoot," is representative of the breed) are crunching the numbers stemming from the imminent end of cheap oil and fertilizer. They are forecasting a massive die-off of humans by mid-century. A world without industrial agriculture might support a billion humans, which means that 6 billion of us have to go.

The murder of 6 million European Jews has been the accepted benchmark for evil for the last 65 years, but these projected 21st-century deaths will be a thousand times greater. The resultant evil will be a thousand times greater, too.

Or so Peter Singer would argue, if I read him correctly. Those 6 billion are sentient beings, he would say, able to anticipate their deaths and suffer all the more as they starve.

As for guilt, he's just trying to get people to see the consequences of their actions. In the end, it matters little whether you're an SS colonel consciously ordering the murder of Jews or a wealthy American unconsciously choosing to have three or five or nine children in a world already overgrazed by voracious capitalist-consumers.

Peter Singer may be right, but just as his well-crafted arguments haven't produced a world of sexually abstinent vegans, his concern for sentience and suffering won't have much effect on how animals or humans are treated in the decades ahead. As in past periods of scarcity, humans will try to stack the odds in favor of their own tribe.

In practice, this means the slaughter of the weak by the strong will continue. Famine and disease and borders will be used as weapons of war. The lines we draw between ourselves and animals so we can eat them will be extended to apply to humans. Some tribes may be driven off their land so that other tribes can avoid cannibalism, but it's hard to be on the winning end of that equation and not be practicing the moral equivalent of eating people.

I think it's lucky for Peter Singer that he looks tough and stringy in his author's photo, and that the look on his face suggests that he wouldn't taste anything like chicken.

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