Earlier in the week, Grist’s food writer Nathaniel Johnson published an article in which he claims philosophers have failed to even take up, let alone defeat, Peter Singer’s influential arguments against eating meat in Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation.
My enquiries didn’t turn up any sophisticated defense of meat. Certainly there are a few people here and there making arguments around the edges, but nothing that looked to me like a serious challenge to Singer.
I continue to be unimpressed with journalists’ ability to do basic research. (No. A Google search isn’t research) Singer’s arguments in that book are based on utilitarian premises which have been subject to a host of substantive objections raised in the philosophical literature. I don’t have current figures at hand but I doubt that even a majority of moral philosophers today are utilitarian. Thus, most moral philosophers would reject the foundations of Singer’s argument; and indeed his argument is profoundly mistaken.
I don’t want to get to deep in the philosophical weeds here, but essentially Singer argues that any being that suffers has full moral status. And since non-human animals suffer, their interest in not suffering should receive equal consideration to the interests of humans. To fail to give animals equal consideration is to be guilty of speciesism, which according to Singer is as indefensible as racism or sexism. There are many refinements that can be made to this argument but that is the basic idea.
There are all sorts of problems with this argument which I’ll take up in more detail in my 3 Quarks essay next month. But for now I just want to indicate what one argument for eating meat would look like.
Singer’s argument is based on the idea that animals have moral status because they suffer. As a utilitarian he may not be comfortable using “rights” talk but it surely fits here. He thinks animals have a right to equal consideration. But animals cannot have moral rights, simply because the treatment of animals falls outside the scope of our core understanding of morality. Morality is not a set of principles written in the stars. Morality arises, because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust. The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation. That is why morality is a stable evolutionary development. It enhances the kind of flourishing characteristic of human beings.
We are not similarly dependent on the trustworthiness of animals. (Pets are a special case which is why we don’t eat them). Our flourishing does not depend on getting cows, tigers, or shrimp to trust us or we them, and thus we have no reciprocal moral relations with them. From the standpoint of human flourishing there simply is no reason to confer moral rights on animals. Of course, over the last several decades we have discovered that human flourishing depends on taking care of our environment. It might behoove us to confer some moral status on ecological systems. Perhaps it is not too much of a conceptual stretch to argue we should cultivate relationships of trust (or at least non-exploitation) with the environments in which we live. But that does not entail refraining from killing individual animals. There may be environmental reasons to refrain from eating meat but no moral reasons based on the interests of animals.
This is not to say we should be cruel to animals, lack empathy for them, or ignore their welfare, but the reason is not that they have rights but because cruelty is a vice, a character flaw that we should strive to overcome. Note that this is not a speciesist argument. If somehow we became dependent on relations of trust with say dolphins then dolphins would have moral status. It is not being human that matters, but rather being the sort of organism with certain specific needs that requires we live in a moral community.
There is certainly more to be said but that is the basic outline of one defense of eating animals.