I’ve just been on hols with my kids to (aaahhh!) the Gold Coast. We visited Dreamworld, Sea World and, in the middle of the renamed ‘Steve Irwin Way’, the Australia Zoo where Terry Irwin impersonated the late Steve in a croc show and Bindi Irwin sang with the Crocmen and otherwise embodied the corporate PR plan to imitate the Wiggles’ road to stardom.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help noticing something. We visited three ‘animal shows’ and all had a strong conservation message and all were in aid of raging carnivores. Tigers, Dolphins and Crocs. Dolphins go through 12-15 kilos of fish a day we were told. It hit me that the enthusiasm for conservation raised a point I tried to raise on Troppo a while back – pretty unsuccessfully judging by the comments thread on that and other posts.
It is something that has always surprised me. It is this.
In doing more than anyone else to spur the modern incarnation of the animal welfare movement into action Peter Singer says he argued – and still argues – his case for ‘animal liberation’ on utilitarian grounds. As I understand it, the utilitarian case for ‘animal liberation’ is that suffering is bad, that (in principle) it’s as bad for animals as humans and that therefore we should not inflict suffering on animals (anything other than this is ‘speciesism’). Despite my sympathy for the sentiments, I find this argument deeply unsatisfying for a range of reasons. The purloining of lingo from human liberation movements – ‘animal lib’ and ‘speciesism’ seems deeply misguided to me.
Now at the outset (and to try to allay some of the misunderstandings that occurred last time), I should say first that I’m very sympathetic to the argument that we should try to minimise the suffering we inflict on animals.
But what troubles me is that I regard this as a kind of aesthetic argument. I don’t mean by that that it’s not an ethical or moral argument. It is. But I think of it as an argument which relates more to our own image of ourselves and our relationships and how we want to think of them. The idea that we can make any sense out of some mission to minimise animal suffering seems hubristic and self-evidently absurd to me. I think the idea of us trying to be ‘rational’ in minimising animal suffering mocks our reason. It seems to me to lead directly and immediately into a bunch of dilemmas which would commence any genuinely utilitarian treatment of the issues. The fact that such questions barely get raised at all and when they do receive short shrift leads me to think that Singer’s analysis is far from utilitarian despite his claims for it and apparent belief that it is.
To quote an earlier post.
The basic idea of utilitarianism is that we think of moral questions by doing some economic style accounting against a pleasure/pain calculus. The standard economic questions arise here like ‘are we getting maximum effectiveness in achieving a better pleasure/pain optimum for our efforts?’
If you’re not doing that at some level (even after one has taken the step back required by ‘rule utilitarianism’ and asked what rules might optimise pleasure and pain) then I can’t see how you sensibly say that you’re being a utilitarian.
So consider non factory farming. Are animal lives good? How does the badness of the death of an animal detract from the goodness of its life? If its not a cruel death say they don’t even know they’re dying does it detract at all? Say an abattoir death does detract from a life, but a good healthy life is better than the death (leaving a net positive in terms of animal welfare) then farming and killing for meat is good right?
There then arise a whole lot of further questions. Leaving aside hugely imponderable questions like what other things might have happened on the land if it didn’t grow meat (and the other things that might have grown there – including insects parasites etc) the main one seems to me to be that if we think mammals are by and large equivalent to each other, then farming sheep to eat is better than farming cows (more happy lives per acre). Of if death outweighs the benefit of a life (perhaps because it was a short one for instance) then the reverse holds and you grow beef not lamb.
Now its quite true that I find this stuff pretty absurd, but that seems to me to be the very first place utilitarianism takes us. Maybe I’m wrong, but wouldn’t you expect it to receive some useful treatment perhaps for the sake of refuting my claim that it’s a necessary part, indeed a prerequisite of any utilitarian analysis?
These concerns are really illustrative and the tip of the iceberg. Because a properly utilitarian approach would (surely) ask optimising questions like ‘what kind of expenditure of effort or money gives us the maximum reduction in animal suffering’? Who knows where that would take us, but our own diet and even our farming practices seem small beer. What’s an insect life worth next to a mouse? Should we be optimising the number of insects in the world – at the expense of mammals – or vice versa?
Then as I thought about these carnivores cavorting before us it all came flooding back. Conserve them by all means. But I think our conservation of them is really about us and our imaginations. About the fact that animals have always inspired all sorts of fantasies. We relate to animals like tigers, dolphins and crocs at a mythic level. So we’d be concerned about their suffering – because we relate to it. But this is precisely the kind of irrational connection that Singer is disposed to critique when it is applied for instance to the right of a very deformed and not very self-aware baby to live. Please don’t read this as particularly sympathetic (or unsympathetic) to Singer’s arguments on that score – it’s not. But I am making one strong claim and that is that I can’t make head or tail of the real philosophical underpinnings of Singer’s writings on what he calls ‘animal liberation’.
As these animals rampage through nature and inflict untold suffering on their fellow creatures – we are invited to loosely associate their conservation with ‘animal liberation’. I wonder what Peter Singer would recommend regarding conservation of tigers, dolphins and crocs? I wonder why he doesn’t (I’m assuming this and am happy to be proven wrong) devote some serious discussion to it in the hundreds of pages he’s written on suffering, our relationship with animals, and what that relationship should be.