Meat and Morality: A Critique of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation

There is a vegetarian anecdote that implies that a human baby (presumably weened) will chose to eat an apple over a live rabbit every time, thus “proving” that we were meant to be vegetarians.  One thing that this anecdote fails to take into account is the fact that carnivorous (and omnivorous) toddlers of the animal kingdom rarely do their own hunting and killing.  In nature, more times than not, the carnivorous youth are provided with their meals (dead and ready to consume) by their parents.  If this anecdote is making an argument on behalf of human instinct, then I suggest a control group of  baby’s who are provided with a choice between an apple and a dead rabbit that has been cleaned, cooked and covered in barbeque sauce…

In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer argues against the cruelty of “nonhumans”, to which I offer no debate.  Clearly, cruelty of any kind to any living thing carries a moral weight that I for one, am not willing to assume.*  Singer offers a pointed argument regarding medical testing, harsh farming practices and humankind’s arguably excessive dietary habits, to which, again, I offer not debate.

I must, however, call into question the so-called moral argument he makes against the use of animals for food.  Further, I question his habit of comparing animals to human babies, in their language skills and their ability to suffer, while making said argument.  This comparison may serve as a successful appeal to one’s maternal instinct regarding animal testing (and perhaps rightfully so) but it falls short as a tool for vegetarianism.  I won’t bother arguing whether or not animals are capable of suffering or communicating based on such contrived comparisons and philosophical rhetoric.  Rather, I will make one point that I feel justifies meat eating as a continued dietary practice for all of humankind.

Firstly, I agree with the author’s implication that humans and “nonhumans” are equal in more ways than many people like to recognize.  One thing the author fails to acknowledge in this text however is the fact that our common threads include a shared instinct for survival.  Many animals (including humans) eat other animals and have been doing so for millions of years, all in the name of survival.  Humankind undoubtedly began eating meat out of necessity, as it was the only way to survive as individuals and as a species.  My first question to Mr. Singer is, why now, after all these millions of years, do we suddenly feel the need to beat ourselves up for something, instinctive, inborn and arguably necessary?  As I see it, our relatively newly acquired intellectual superiority evolved long after our canine teeth and complex digestion systems.  Has our capacity for reason come to cloud our understanding of what it really means to survive as a species?

I feel as though Singer demonizes humankind by making statements about our utilitarian regard for nonhumans as a food source or a “means to an end” but I think he neglects the fact that humans themselves have served as the “utility”-meat in the middle of many means-to-an-end sandwiches for nonhumans throughout our early history.  And I have no problem regarding those unfortunate humans much in the same way I regard a medium rare steak.  Singer calls it a means to an end; I call it survival.  Could I survive without eating meat?  …Certainly.  But could we all?  Could a killer whale?  Should we convert the killer whales with tofu missionaries?  Of course not.  That would be absurd.  But why is it absurd?  Because killer whales very likely lack the intellect to ponder such concepts as morality?  Perhaps the missionary’s first chore should be to educate the killer whales.  …Educate them sufficiently that they should come to feel guilty about their crimes against sea lions.  Then, of course, we would be tasked with manufacturing alternative and morally acceptable food sources that could sustain a race of whales.  Obviously a silly argument but I only use it to illustrate the problem of guilt verses survival.  Nobody cares if killer whales eat sea lions because they don’t know any better?  And if they did “know better”, would their survival as a race play into the equation?

Another comparison that feels one dimensional to me is Singer’s association between racism and what he refers to as “speciesism”.  He suggests that putting our own personal interests (our own “personal interest” in surviving) ahead of the welfare of animals is on par with acts of slavery and the like.  Again, at first glance, this analogy may hold some water, but it breaks down upon the following consideration: Humans have been eating other animals since the dawn of humankind, just as cougars have been eating deer, penguins have been eating fish, and owls have been eating mice…  The point is (yes, there is one) that cougars have never oppressed other cougars.  They’ve never enslaved them.  They have however, always eaten other animals (or races).  Is a cougar a speciest?  Is a cougar putting his own race above another?  Of course he is -however consciously or unconsciously, a cougar is absolutely putting his own interest in survival ahead of the welfare of other animals.  This comparison breaks down further when you consider the fact that “race” when referring to Black, White, and Hispanic etc is a misnomer of sorts.  Whites are, in fact humans.  Blacks are humans.  Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Italians, Inuits… all human.  Humans, while they have committed great acts of atrocity on other “races” of humans, have never hunted them for food to survive**.  Humans eat other animals excluding humans, just as black bears eat other animals excluding black bears.  It seems that most every meat eating animal in nature (human and/or nonhuman) has drawn the same line.  So in accordance with Singer’s label of “discrimination”, one must consider that all carnivorous animals discriminate (by definition).

The real issue, as I see it, is the fact that we won.  Humankind evolved in such a way that we surpassed our contemporaries and gained distinct advantages.  Perhaps there is something that I am missing in this text, but it appears to me that Singer’s argument is largely that we should stop eating animals because our intellectual advancement as a species has been disproportionate to that of our nonhuman counterparts and it simply isn’t fair.  Consider this: had we not learned  to fashion tools, hunt, protect ourselves from the elements and natural predators etc, would a hungry (and superior) black bear stop to ponder his place in the universe before devouring you and your child?  Absolutely not.  Black bears are speciests (whether consciously or unconsciously), cougars are speciests (whether consciously or unconsciously) and humans are speciests -with one important distinction; we, unlike other animals are absolutely conscious of the fact.

As I see it, Singer is clearly more motivated by guilt than piety.  -Guilt for the fact that we, as humans have what he and others would surely describe as an unfair advantage, and guilt for the fact that we (generally speaking) have come to enjoy eating meat.  To the former I can only say that I appreciate the unfair advantage that nature has afforded us and I am glad that our early ancestors hadn’t the intellect to ponder such arbitrary labels as “speciest”.  If our ancestors had not eaten meat very early in humankind’s evolution, it is very likely that we would have never evolved brains capable of forming complex thoughts, thus rendering this entire discussion moot.  Meat eating was essential to our development as a species, and it is essential to our continued survival on this planet (not necessarily as individuals but as a species).  And to the latter, I assert that we are under no obligation, morally or philosophically, to avoid sweet-and-sour sauce.  We must eat in order to survive and it may as well be palatable.

Post Script: Finally, and conversely, I must concede that if Animal Liberation has acted as a cautionary tale for me in any capacity, I would note one point specifically; it has given me renewed reason to reconsider eating veal.  Naturally, in this day and age, it is no secret as to how calves are raised, fed and slaughtered but I have generally always held a fairly detached –if not, arrogant view of the matter.  Upon reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, I can honestly say that it’s given me cause to reevaluate my position on the subject and it’s very real implications of cruelty and excess.

Also, I would add that it has renewed my sympathy toward farm animals and the harsh conditions that many of them endure.  However, as I do not believe that a world-wide vegan movement is realistic, possible, or even wholly beneficial to humans or nonhumans, I fail to see any easy answers at this point.

*The “cruelty” I refer to here includes not only drowning puppies for pleasure but also animal testing for cosmetics and a great deal of poor farming practices.

**Yes, various primitive cultures have committed acts of cannibalism but these instances are generally associated with abstract religious/spiritual customs, -not survival of the species.

UPDATE: As a direct result of Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, this author has been a vegan since February of 2013.  Equal consideration of interests trumps anything and everything noted above.


One Response to “Meat and Morality: A Critique of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation”

  1. I… I just want to eat meat.

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