Animal-rights activist Peter Singer explains his views
March 23, 2006
By
JP Leider

Earlier this week activist Peter Singer spoke with the Daily about his views on animal ethics. He will be presenting these views and others at 7 tonight in Ted Mann Concert Hall.

How does your idea of ethical animal treatment differ from what we see in practice today?

I think it differs in a lot of ways. The largest is, of course, that we regard animals as things to use for our purposes. The biggest of those is using those animals for food — we have commercial raising of animals for food; basically, people trying to produce animal products more cheaply. I think that is incompatible with an ethical attitude to animals.

Why is that?

Because it regards them as things. It fails to take into account that they are sentient beings, that they can suffer, that they can enjoy life. It just ignores all the major interests in living a good life in order to provide for us something we only eat because we like the taste of it. We have no nutritional requirement to eat animal products.

What is important for a nonphilosopher to know about commercial/factory farming?

What’s important is that right now, just to focus on the United States, there are hundreds of millions or billions of animals including all the chickens that are confined indoors, that are deprived from leading any kind of normal life, that basically are reared in whatever way will produce the cheapest flesh or eggs.

We’d need to go into specifics, talking about pigs being kept in stalls so they can never walk or turn around. We’d need to talk about chickens being kept in cages so they’re unable to stretch their wings. We’d need to talk about how their beaks need to be seared off with a hot plate because the crowding they experience causes such aggressive behavior that otherwise they would kill each other. We’d need to go into a lot of details really about what is being done to animals in order to produce animal products more cheaply.

There is an ongoing debate on this campus about using eggs from cage-free versus caged hens. What is your take on this issue?

I certainly think that anyone who eats eggs ought to be supporting the move to get eggs from cage-free hens. The cages that hens are in prevent them from stretching their wings; they are incredibly crowded. Standard U.S. cages are at a level that is illegal in Europe now. Europe is actually moving to still higher standards, so we’re way behind what European minimum standards are. It’s perfectly clear that hens suffer, and they’re there for virtually all their lives. Cage-free production is not perfect, but it is a huge improvement over caged production.

Some opponents of cage-free eggs say people treat animals like products. Therefore, they argue, we shouldn’t be concerned about the quality of life of the animal, otherwise we wouldn’t kill it. How would you respond to that?

The question about whether killing is wrong is a different issue than whether infliction of suffering is wrong. You could argue, and some people do, that if animals are well-treated and lead decent lives, if they are humanely killed at the end of those lives, it’s not such a terrible thing. At least they’ve had some sort of decent life.

It’s absurd to say that because we do one thing that is arguably bad for them therefore it doesn’t matter what else we do to them and can just treat them as things. You might as well have said in the debate about slavery that we shouldn’t have had laws to prevent masters beating their slaves because as long as they are slaves they are just things and you might as well beat them as much as you like.

Is there a morally significant difference between eating an egg from a caged versus cage-free hen?

Oh definitely. I think there’s a significant moral difference because eating the egg from the caged hen, you’re contributing to and supporting a much more extreme form of animal suffering than when you’re only eating eggs from cage-free hens.

What is the end goal for which you are advocating?

The end goal is that we seriously apply the principle of equal consideration of interests. That’s a very general goal, but I think it would certainly lead us to phase out all forms of factory farming and perhaps would lead us to be completely vegan in the end if we feel we can’t justify any use of animals.

But I’m prepared to leave that as a somewhat open question — whether it requires a completely vegan lifestyle or whether it simply requires us to ensure animals live good lives and have their interests reasonably provided for, and whether we nevertheless make use of some animal products in that process.

Some people might reject your characterization of the pleasure or pain animals experience in relation to human beings and for that reason don’t feel the need to become vegan or vegetarian. How would you appeal to such people to change their lifestyles?

I’m not sure why they’re rejecting what I say about animal pleasure and pain. Pretty much everyone agrees animals can feel pleasure and pain. It’s hard to find anyone, scientists or anyone else, who would deny that animals can feel pain. The only real issue is how much pain can they feel and is the pain of being at a somewhat lower cognitive level to be taken as seriously as the pain of beings at a higher cognitive level.

But I would ask them to think about humans at lower cognitive levels, whether they’re newborn babies or humans with serious intellectual disabilities and say, do we really want to ignore and overlook their pain just because they can’t use language or are not able to tell us about their pains in detail? I guess I would try and convince people by asking them to get over their bias against nonhuman animals and treat nonhuman animals at least as well as you’d treat humans at a similar cognitive level.

How do you respond to those who argue that since humans are still animals in the biological sense of the word, it doesn’t make sense to make an "unnatural" switch to becoming herbivores, especially given the omnivorous nature of our genetic relatives like many of the great apes or other mammals?

What is wrong with that argument is the fallacy that you can argue what is supposedly natural to what is right. All sorts of things may be natural if you look at human evolutionary history. You could say war is natural, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to prevent war. You could say that male dominance of society is natural; you could possibly even argue that slavery is natural. But none of these things are right. We intervene in nature all the time, and the question is when we’re justified in doing so.

This is one case where even if it is natural for us to be omnivores, we know we can live very well without eating animal products and that’s a better thing to do. Incidentally, for those who do talk about what’s natural, of course, factory farming is totally unnatural by any stretch of the imagination. It’s contrary to the nature of animals, it’s unnatural to take animals off grazing land and then have to grow grain to feed them.