Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 40 odd years, you’ll probably be familiar with Peter Singer and his work on animal equality. Roughly, Singer argues animals are, by and large, treated unfairly simply due to the species they belong to. That is, humans give greater weight to humans – and less to animals – because of an unethical (and therefore morally unjustified) bias towards their own species. He believes (whether rightly or wrongly) that our belief humans are more important than other animals is a predjudice we can call speciesism: “[…] a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species,” (Singer 2009, p. 6).
And, Singer suggests, speciesism is not different than any kind of prejudice –ism, such as racism (the bias towards a particular race) or sexism (the bias towards a particular gender). Racism and sexism are, obviously, unjustifiable – morally or otherwise – and so too, Singer contends, is speciesism.
The argument he presents is simple and straightforward.We start with the principle of equal considerations of interests; that interests, preferences, etc. count equally, no matter how those interests (preferences, etc.) were generated. My preferences do not count more than yours – and nor do yours count more than mine. But whose preferences? Here, Singer turns to widely cited passage by Jeremy Bentham (1791): “the question is not, Can they reason? Can they talk? But, can they suffer?”
In other words, the only morally relevant input into whose preferences/interests matter, are those beings that can feel pain (or suffer). But why think this? For Singer (at least at the time of writing, I understand he has changed his mind on this in recent years, but I do not have a reference to support this claim) is that “the capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way,” (Singer 2011, p. 50).
His point here is that, the interests which are to be considered at all are those of sentient creatures – those capable of feeling pain and pleasure, as things like inanimate objects do not have preferences (nor do we feel we owe them morally) because they do not feel pain, such as rocks and stones. This is why, according to Singer, we can draw the line at sentience, as it is “the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others,” (Singer 2011, p. 50).
But if we accept this proposal, it is immediately obvious that there are other beings that are sentient, can experience pain and pleasure and, therefore, have interests and preferences. These beings are, obviously, other animals other than our own species.
And, clearly, animals have an interest in staying alive and not being placed into tight confines, force-fed gruel tortured or slaughtered. And when we measure our interests in consuming meat against those interests of being not killed or being kept in conditions tantamount to torture, it seems our interests are not as important than the animals themselves. Indeed, our preference to eat meat at all, when considering what the animal must go through, seems almost trivial.
Whether we are speciesist or not does not, I think, matter so much as whether we are, at least in some sense, permitted to consume animal flesh. And, if so, how much and how often?
The answer to the first question, I think, is yes; we are permitted to eat animals. But – and this cannot be stressed enough – the amount we consume, how often we consume it and, more importantly, how we source this food are definitely less than what the average layperson might think.
Meat is consumed often and usually for the simple fact that it tastes good. Worse, the quantity of meat consumed in one sitting is often greater than is necessary for the person who is eating. Meat does taste good – I can’t deny that. But there are clearly alternatives, that are just as delicious. I don’t think we need to take the taste good argument particularly seriously.
The problem, really, is consumption. And the reason this consumption is beyond what it ought to be, is simply for the fact that we have forgotten what role meat plays in our lives. Meat has played a significant role in the development of tradition, both social and religious, and often given a kind of reverence, or at least brought out only on the proper occasion.
However, due to the easy accessibility we have (at least in the first world) to meats of all varieties has made us forget the importance it had with the family, with the neighbourhood, and with society. But what has accessibility have to do with the importance, or lack thereof, of meat?
Meat, for much of human history, has been resource intensive: financially, time-wise, effort, etc. Meat was (and still is) expensive because it is both rare and requires significant work to rear the animals. There is the land it requires – the space it needs to graze upon – the food it eats itself – and other things that it requires to live. It therefore is a big deal to kill this animal – to take its life – as the loss of life itself is recognized as a serious moral loss, but additionally it is the final ‘cashing-out’ of resource investment.
Meat is the centre piece of any meal, and it is often hard to conceptualize a meal without it. But due to the mass production of it, the competitiveness of its pricing, and its availability, meat has lost its importance – how it brings people together on special occasions. Roger Scruton makes much the same points I have tried to raise here, and he says the following:
“The lifestyle associated with the Sunday roast involves sacrifices that those brought up on fast food are largely incapable of making – meal times, manners, dinner-table conversation, and the art of cookery itself. But all those things form part of a complex human good, and I cannot help thinking that, when added to the ecological benefits of small-scale livestock farming, they secure for us an honourable place in the scheme of things, and neutralize more effectively than the vegetarian alternative, our inherited burden of guilt,” (Scruton 2004, p. 90).
Of course, this has only made meat eating permissible under certain, particularly niche, circumstances, and Singer (and the like) can easily retort that appeals to how things are in a tradition is certainly not a good moral reason for why we ought to keep a behaviour. After all, can we not just replace meat with some sort of meat-tasting/looking alternative perform the exact same function? Surely it can, but it seems the importance of meat is the fact that it was alive and now it is not.
Indeed, if we grew meat in a laboratory instead of rearing an animal for slaughter, this ‘lab-meat’ still does not perform the function of bringing us together as meat from a once-living animal can. We recognize in the meat of a once-living animal the sacrifice that has been made, the loss of life to continue and celebrate life with friends and family, as being why meat matters.
But the way in which meat is produced on the mass-scale ought to revolt us – for it is not just ‘inhumane’, so to speak, but robs us of the kinds of sacrifices made when the animal is killed for food. We deeply care about where our food came from, how it was raised, what it was fed, because we recognise that these things inherently add value to the meat itself. And – importantly – is that we ought to.
The solution, to me at least, seems something like this. We must severely reduce the quantity of meat we consume, both in terms how often we eat it, and portion sizes when we do, as well as how the livestock was raised. Meat ought to be preserved for special occasions, for family and friends, so that we may appreciate what we have and who we have it with.
Bentham, J. (1781). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
Scruton, R. (2004). “The Conscientious Carnivore,” in Steve Sapontzis (ed.) Food For Thought, pp. 81-91.
Singer, P. (2009). Animal Liberation.
Singer, P. (2011). Practical Ethics, 3rd edition.