Skip to main content

Peter Singer and the ethics of food

In the 1970s Peter Singer challenged thinking about animals in his seminal book ‘Animal Liberation’. It changed the debate about the use of animals from an emotional issue to one of practical and reasoned ethics. Peter Singer is a utilitarian philosopher and the use of animals had usually been justified on utilitarian grounds. But Peter Singer threw out a challenge. He pointed out that for a utilitarian justification an equal consideration of interest had to be given to all parties involved in the utilitarian balance. It was clearly not in the interest of animals to be harmed. In the first chapter of his book he argued that ‘All animals are equal’. His second challenge was to ask the question on what grounds we could make a moral distinction between species in the ethical balance.

In a discussion with Sung Hee Kim for Voices from Oxford, Peter Singer reveals what he calls the ‘decisive formative experience of my life’ at a lunch with a fellow student at Balliol College, an experience that led him to completely alter his views on the use of animals for food.

Faced with the choice of a plate of spaghetti with some ‘brown sauce on top’ or a salad, his friend asked if the sauce contained meat. It did, so he chose the salad. Peter Singer chose the spaghetti with the meat sauce.

Intrigued, he asked why his friend had avoided the meat. He expected an answer about his health or some religious reason, but his friend told him he didn’t think it was right to treat animals in the way they were when turned into food. This experience set Peter Singer to begin thinking about the moral status of animals and it led to the writing of his book ‘Animal Liberation’.

“I don’t think we can justify participating in a practice that is exploiting animals in the way it does.” Peter Singer became a vegan. But for Peter Singer it is not simply an emotional issue about the love of animals. It is an issue of practical ethics and morality. It was, he says, the “first real issue in applied ethics that I took up, not merely as an academic question, but that I wanted to change the world about.”

“We are talking about literally billions of animals being treated in ways that are not really defensible from an ethical point of view.”

It was at that time, in the 1970s, he reminds us, “a neglected issue”. Other issues dominated ethical discourse such as the war in Vietnam, Civil Rights and Civil Disobedience. The use of animals for food wasn’t an issue that was widely discussed. Peter Singer’s book helped to change that.

In looking to the future Peter Singer considers the issues of climate change need urgent attention. But, he reminds us, it “requires cooperation” between nations. If future generations could vote for drastically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, then Peter Singer has no doubt they would do so. But they can’t, so it is this generation that must do it, and we have to make some sacrifices to do it. 

watch the video of Peter Singer's interview

Ray Noble is News Editor for Voices from Oxford

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ian Duncan-Smith says he wants to make those on benefits 'better people'!

By any account, the government's austerity strategy is utilitarian. It justifies its approach by the presumed potential ends. It's objective is to cut the deficit, but it has also adopted another objective which is specifically targeted. It seeks to drive people off benefits and 'back to work'.  The two together are toxic to the poorest in society. Those least able to cope are the most affected by the cuts in benefits and the loss of services. It is the coupling of these two strategic aims that make their policies ethically questionable. For, by combining the two, slashing the value of benefits to make budget savings while also changing the benefits system, the highest burden falls on a specific group, those dependent on benefits. For the greater good of the majority, a minority group, those on benefits, are being sacrificed; sacrificed on the altar of austerity. And they are being sacrificed in part so that others may be spared. Utilitarian ethics considers the ba

Keir Starmer has a lot to offer

The Labour Party is in the process of making a decision that will decide whether it can recover from the defeat in 2019 General Election.  All the candidates have much to offer and are making their case well. No doubt for some the decision will be difficult.  Others may well have made up their minds on the simple binary of Left-wing-Right-wing. The choice should be whoever is best placed to pull the party together.  Someone who can form a front bench of all talents and across the spectrum in the party. That is what Harold Wilson did in the 1960s.  His government included Roy Jenkins on the right and Barbar Castle on the left; it included Crossman and Crossland, and Tony Benn with Jim Callaghan.  It presented a formidable team. Keir Starmer brings to the top table a formidable career outside politics, having been a human rights lawyer and then Director of Public Prosecutions.   He is a man of integrity and commitment who believes in a fairer society where opportunities are more

The lion and the wildebeest

Birds flock, fish school, bees swarm, but social being is more than simply sticking together.  Social groups enable specialisation and a sharing of abilities, and enhances ability, learning and creating new tricks. The more a group works together, the more effective they become as a team.  Chimpanzees learn from each other how to use stones to crack nuts, or sticks to get termites.  All around us we see cooperation and learning in nature.  Nature is inherently creative.  Pulling together becomes a rallying cry during a crisis.  We have heard it throughout the coronavirus pandemic.  "We are all in this together", a mantra that encourages people to adopt a common strategy. In an era of 'self-interest' and 'survival of the fittest,'  and 'selfish gene', we lose sight of the obvious conclusion from the evidence all around us.   Sticking together is more often the better approach.  This is valid for the lion as it is also for the wildebeest.   We don't