I was interested in the responses to my earlier post on Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Perhaps it’s understandable given that it’s a highly contested area, and I was making a kind of methodological point that some will regard as obscure. I expect I could have expressed myself better.
But no-one seems to have addressed what I was trying to get at.
Most commenters took me to have various views on animal welfare. Why else would I be interested in Singer’s book on it? Of course, if I didn’t feel strongly about the issues themselves, it would odd to post on Singer’s book. I do have views on them. But I didn’t put them prominently in the article because I was trying to address an antecedent point about how we think about them.
Note that the heading was “Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation”. The post was principally about the viability or otherwise of Singer’s approach and, not being in the foreground I didn’t outline my views on animal welfare with any great clarity or prominence.
I think most of the commenters on my thread took me to be making much more direct comments on vegetarianism and animal welfare than I was. I am not unsympathetic to Singer’s vegetarianism. I just think what he says about it is very confusing.
Because I wanted to extend the discussion further I asked John Quiggin if I could do a guest post on Crooked Timber. He suggested that CT wouldn’t be too keen but kindly put up his own post on the issues linking to my original post and cross posted to CT.
The problem for me is that John has (mis)interpreted me in just this way. John writes that
[A]s Nicholas points out, there’s no reason to think any non-human animal is self-aware in the kinds of ways that would make it wrong for us to (for example) painlessly kill them for our own purposes.
I can’t find any claim by me to this effect, but it is suggested as one of the multitude of questions that Singer’s framework doesn’t help us with. The point of the commentary on Singer was to argue that Singer’s arguments seemed to me incoherent in an almost trivial way. If you’re being utilitarian, then (as I understand it) by definition you’re a consequentialist – you think consequences matter more than intentions and sentiments. You want to maximise happiness and minimise pain.
But if that’s really the case, then it seems to me there are a whole lot of antecedent questions before you get to vegetarianism and farming. These questions are dealt out of the discussion by way of a deus ex machina which arrives on the scene unexplained.
Singer’s book focuses essentially on animals under human care. I don’t have any problem with the idea, it’s just that its as far from a utilitarian perspective as I can imagine. We get to this position via an argument from sentiment, from an argument that both Edmund Burke and Adam Smith would have shared, that proximity matters in ethics. I can’t see how utilitarianism can get us there, let alone consequentialism.
It gets worse (or so it seems to me). Even for animals that are not cruelly farmed, or those we’ve caught from the wild (in which case it’s a moot point whether they came to a stickier end than they would in nature), Singer’s argues for vegetarianism. Now as a matter of fact I’m quite sympathetic to this idea. But it’s not utilitarian. If it were, a whole host of questions arise.
On enumerating some of them, commenters said that these questions were ‘absurd’ and (I think) they thought that I was arguing absurdities, or that I was trying to use them to justify omnivorousness. I wasn’t in the slightest. I was asking why Singer doesn’t go down that track. I was suggesting that Singer’s argument reduces to absurdity.
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 for instance 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 it’s 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 other 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) 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 I can see why people recoil from these arguments – why they think they’re silly. It’s just that, it seems to me that they’re 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 of any utilitarian analysis?
My point was that I think what’s going on here is really a different style of analysis. The only way I can make sense of what Singer doesn’t argue about in defending his vegetarianism is to say that before we even get to any utilitarianism in his book, the question has been decided according to other standards.
Using the word somewhat loosely, I’d call those standards aesthetic. They relate to our sentiments. It’s not a very nice thing to go munching through our fellow creatures. It’s an affront to our fellow-feeling with them.
I think the ‘better angels of our nature’ whisper into our hearts that eating meat is wrong. I don’t know any kid who hasn’t asked pretty sceptically whether it’s really OK to eat meat and large and ancient civilisations are given over to the idea that it is definitely not OK. And all societies (I think) are very thingy about eating some kinds of meat and not others.
If that is right, I think we need to acknowledge a much more human and modest style of moral reasoning more based on sentiment and local experience and feeling rather than utilitarianism which (at least in this case) is an enormous Heath-Robinson machine that goes in all the wrong directions – a tank when we need a bicycle.
(As an aside and to try to head off other possible misunderstandings, I’m a fan of utilitarianism as a way of thinking about questions of public policy, but I think it has much more limited use in our private judgements of right and wrong).
I argue that if Peter Singer the philosopher and hander out of advice doesn’t know that his vegetarianism has very little to do with utilitarianism and descends into incoherence almost immediately we try to apply it, then his tome of advice to people who want to understand the issues better is not much chop (as it were).
Perhaps you’ll think this is a rather arcane point and perhaps it is. But that was the point I sought to make. And for me it is not arcane, because the issues are of importance to me. And for that reason I want to think about them more constructively, and in a way that is more sympathetic to what I think are the underlying issues than it seems to me Singer has been.