Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Practical Ethics

Salon.com has published an excellent interview with Peter Singer, conducted by Oliver Broudy. Here are some excerpts:

Peter Singer is a professional ethicist. Best known for his 1975 book "Animal Liberation" - a canonical text of the animal rights movement and the inspiration for untold thousands to take up vegetarianism - Singer, in the last quarter-plus century, has published a string of books on everything from test tube babies to the ethics of George W. Bush. Considered fearless by some, and dangerous by others, virtually all agree that he is among the most influential philosophers alive today.

Singer's ethics are strictly utilitarian. In his view, all actions are judged by the objective measure of suffering they cause; there's little place here for subjectivity. In his essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," for instance, he argues against the injustice of some people living in comfort while others starve.

We have a moral obligation, he says, to do all we can to alleviate the suffering of others up to that point where the suffering of our sacrifice is equal to the suffering of those we are trying to help. (Singer himself donates 20 percent of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF.) When confronted with the question of whether it's justifiable to save the life of one's daughter at the expense of the lives of two strangers, Singer's response is even more matter of fact. The choice, he would say, is a foregone conclusion: Two lives are better than one.

Singer's new book, "The Way We Eat," co-written with Jim Mason, looks at the eating habits of three different American families: vegans, "conscientious omnivores" and a family eating the "standard American diet." The elements of each diet and the production chain that brought it to the table are then carefully considered in light of environmental impact, fair trade, the organic movement, the grow-local movement, genetically modified foods, animal rights and the depredations of agribusiness.

You mention in your book that cows today produce three times as much milk as they did 50 years ago. That's a great advance, isn't it?
It is an advance, but you have to consider how this has been achieved. Fifty years ago, cows were basically fed on grass. They walked around and selected their food themselves, food that we can't eat, chewing it up and producing milk that we can eat. Now cows are confined indoors, and a lot of their food supply is grown specifically for them, on land that we could have used to grow food for ourselves. So it's actually less efficient, in that we could have gotten more food from the land if we didn't pass it through the cow.

Most of us have an idealized notion of what an organic farm is like. You visited an organic chicken farm in New Hampshire. Did it meet your expectations?
I have to say that it didn't. I guess I was expecting some access to pasture for the hens. When I got to this place, although it was in a beautiful green valley in New Hampshire, and it was a fine, sunny fall day, there were no hens outside at all. The hens were all in these huge sheds, about 20,000 hens in a single shed, and they were pretty crowded. The floor of the shed was basically a sea of brown hens, and when we asked about access to outdoors, we were shown a small dirt run which at the best of times I don't think the hens would be very interested in. In any case the doors were closed, and when we asked why, we were told that the producer was worried about bird flu. So, yes, it was not really what I expected. It was still a kind of a factory farm production - although undoubtedly it was much better than a caged operation.

What if it were possible to genetically engineer a brainless bird, grown strictly for its meat? Do you feel that this would be ethically acceptable?
It would be an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling. That's the huge plus to me.

What if you could engineer a chicken with no wings, so less space would be required?
I guess that's an improvement too, assuming it doesn't have any residual instincts, like phantom pain. If you could eliminate various other chicken instincts, like its preference for laying eggs in a nest, that would be an improvement too.

It seems to come down to a trade-off between whether the bird has wing space or whether you can fit more birds in your shed, and therefore have to pay less heating costs. How does one go about weighing these alternatives? How does the ethicist put a price on the impulse of a chicken to spread its wings?
We recognize the chicken as another conscious being. It's different from us, but it has a life, and if something is really important for that chicken, if it would work hard to try to get it, and if we can give it without sacrificing something that's really important to us, then we should. If it's a big burden on us, that's surely different, but if it's a question of paying a few more cents for eggs, when we pay just as much if not more for a brand label we like, then we ought to be prepared to pay more for eggs so that the chicken can enjoy its life, and not be frustrated and deprived and miserable.

What constitutes a big burden? Doubtless the chicken farmer would say that building a larger shed or paying a bigger heating bill is a big burden.
It's only a burden to him if it harms his business, and it only harms his business if he can't sell the eggs he produces because other producers who don't follow those standards are selling eggs more cheaply. So, there's two ways around that: Either you have ethically motivated consumers who are prepared to pay a somewhat higher price for humanely certified eggs, or you cut out the unfair competition with regulations. Prohibiting cages, for example. And that's been done already, in Switzerland. And the entire European Union is already saying you can't keep hens as confined as American hens; it's on track to require nesting boxes, and areas to scratch, by 2012. So you can do it, and it doesn't mean that people can no longer afford to eat eggs.

Could you explain your position on "speciesism," and what this has to do with your call to "expand the circle"?
The argument, in essence, is that we have, over centuries of history, expanded the circle of beings whom we regard as morally significant. If you go back in time you'll find tribes that were essentially only concerned with their own tribal members. If you were a member of another tribe, you could be killed with impunity. When we got beyond that there were still boundaries to our moral sphere, but these were based on nationality, or race, or religious belief. Anyone outside those boundaries didn't count. Slavery is the best example here. If you were not a member of the European race, if you were African, specifically, you could be enslaved. So we got beyond that. We have expanded the circle beyond our own race and we reject as wrongful the idea that something like race or religion or gender can be a basis for claiming another being's interests count less than our own.

So the argument is that this is also an arbitrary stopping place; it's also a form of discrimination, which I call "speciesism," that has parallels with racism. I am not saying it's identical, but in both cases you have this group that has power over the outsiders, and develops an ideology that says, Those outside our circle don't matter, and therefore we can make use of them for our own convenience.

That is what we have done, and still do, with other species. They're effectively things; they're property that we can own, buy and sell. We use them as is convenient and we keep them in ways that suit us best, producing products we want at the cheapest prices. So my argument is simply that this is wrong, this is not justifiable if we want to defend the idea of human equality against those who have a narrower definition. I don't think we can say that somehow we, as humans, are the sole repository of all moral value, and that all beings beyond our species don't matter. I think they do matter, and we need to expand our moral consideration to take that into account.

So you are saying that expanding the circle to include other species is really no different than expanding it to include other races?
Yes, I think it's a constant progression, a broadening of that circle.

But surely there's a significant difference between a Jew, for instance, and a chicken. These are different orders of beings.
Well, of course, there's no argument about that. The question is whether saying that you are not a member of my kind, and that therefore I don't have to give consideration to your interests, is something that was said by the Nazis and the slave traders, and is also something that we are saying to other species. The question is, what is the relevant difference here? There is no doubt that there is a huge difference between human and nonhuman animals. But what we are overlooking is the fact that nonhuman animals are conscious beings, that they can suffer. And we ignore that suffering, just as the Nazis ignored the suffering of the Jews, or the slave traders ignored the suffering of the Africans. I'm not saying that it's the same sort of suffering. I am not saying that factory farming is the same as the Holocaust or the slave trade, but it's clear that there is an immense amount of suffering in it, and just as we think that the Nazis were wrong to ignore the suffering of their victims, so we are wrong to ignore the sufferings of our victims.

But how do you know at what point to stop expanding the circle?
I think it gets gray when you get beyond mammals, and certainly it gets grayer still when you get beyond vertebrates. That's something we don't know enough about yet. We don't understand the way the nervous systems of invertebrates work.

After reading this interview, some readers might be inspired to change their diets. If you could suggest one thing, what would it be?
Avoid factory farm products. The worst of all the things we talk about in the book is intensive animal agriculture. If you can be vegetarian or vegan that's ideal. If you can buy organic and vegan that's better still, and organic and fair trade and vegan, better still, but if that gets too difficult or too complicated, just ask yourself, Does this product come from intensive animal agriculture? If it does, avoid it, and then you will have achieved 80 percent of the good that you would have achieved if you followed every suggestion in the book.

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