Peter Singer – Vegetarianism and the Scientific Outlook

November 14, 2008

One of the most controversial and influential philosophers alive today, Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne. He writes a regular column for Free Inquiry magazine, and is the author of dozens of books, including Practical Ethics, Rethinking Life and Death, Animal Liberation, and Writings on an Ethical Life.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Peter Singer defends vegetarianism, arguing that we should give equal consideration to all “beings who have interests.” He draws ethical distinctions between human fetuses and animals, such as dogs and cats. He argues against “dominionism,” which is the idea that humanity is special, and that other animals were made by God for humanity’s benefit. He attacks “speciesism,” and explains why he did not sign the Humanist Manifesto 2000. He describes factory farming, and the commercial imperatives that he says cause animals to be treated as mere property. He talks about the decision to become a vegetarian, and what keeps secularists and scientists from making the decision, in terms of the question he posed to Richard Dawkins at a recent Center for Inquiry conference. And he considers how working with the religious may advance vegetarianism in society.

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Peter Singer is joining me again this week. He’s one of those controversial and influential philosophers alive today. He’s decamp, professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor in the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He writes a regular column for Free Inquiry magazine and is the author of dozens of books, including Practical Ethics Rethinking Life and Death. Animal Liberation and Writings on an Ethical Life. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. Peter Singer, thanks. 

Good to be back with you. 

In the conversation that we recorded for last week. You argued that a fetus doesn’t have moral status, but then in your writings, you go on and defend the moral status of a chicken or a cow or a chimpanzee that seems so backward of people like your pro animal. But antihuman, in a sense, at least that’s the caricature of you. 

Yeah, it is a caricature. I would say that I treat animals and humans the same. It’s not that I give preference to one or the other. I think we should give equal consideration to the interests of all beings who have interests. So where a fetus is not even conscious. It doesn’t have an interest in not feeling pain. And in those circumstance, I would say that an animal, whether it’s a dog or a cat or a pig or whatever it might be, has interests that are significant. And we must take into account particularly the interest in not being made to suffer. But, of course, where we have human beings who are conscious as humans generally are, once they get beyond a certain stage of development, then their interests do have as much as those of of animals. And if the interests are similar, they can’t the same. At a later stage, you might argue that humans have all sorts of more complex interests that animals are not capable of having. And then we could argue that perhaps those interests outweigh the interests of animals in some circumstances. Perhaps when it comes to a question of life or death, you might say that a normal human has interest in continuing to live, that because of that normal human’s awareness, self-consciousness actually are greater than that of non-human animals. That that human is a person in the sense in which perhaps no non-human animal is or perhaps only some non-human animals like chimpanzees and other great apes might be. So I you know, I think you have to look at what the circumstances are and what the interests are that is at stake. But it doesn’t depend on what species being is. I think that that’s a prejudice to just say if being human. His or higher interest cut. And if the being is not human, they don’t. We have to look at what the interests are in education. 

For you, this speciesism is for every bit as unjustifiable as racism or sexism or homophobia. It’s another inexcusable kind of prejudice. 

It is. I think it’s it’s somewhat similar to those prejudices. And it’s based on saying, well, we’re a certain kind of group. Where are they, the whites or the males or the straights or whatever. And those who are outside a group don’t count in some way. And we say that, of course, on the basis of species as well. We say perhaps more blatantly on the basis of species because the other animals can’t argue back with us. But unfortunately, some animal advocates are now arguing back on on their behalf. I think it is in a fundamental way, it’s a similar kind of prejudice to those other prejudices that we’re familiar with. 

I want to talk a little bit more about speciesism by kind of more broadly. You said that people who are persuaded that Darwin was right and that there’s no reason to believe in the supernatural to account for the origins of life, that you’re kind of puzzled that they don’t seem to have fully comprehended the implications of a fully naturalistic ethics when it comes to our relationship with other animals. 

That’s right. 

I mean, I think that once we get rid of the idea that we’re a special part of God’s creation, that everything was created for our purposes, then we don’t have any basis for elevating ourselves above the animals in terms of thinking that our pains are more important than theirs. We may be the most, you know, far sighted species. We may be the only species that can make technological progress because we can learn from previous generations. There’s all sorts of differences that are significant, but they’re not going to be differences that apply to every member of our species because not every human is a rational, self-aware beings. And they’re not going to be differences which allow us to say that my pain is more important than a dog’s pain just because I’m a human and the dog isn’t. 

Let’s get back to this notion of speciesism. Most people object to the notion that. Animal does have moral status. When a fetus doesn’t, you know, that’s your argument and that’s what most people object to. Well, that objection already kind of admits a bias that we can see is pretty much inherited from religion, from some religions. The bias that says human beings should be our sole focus. Because God created us, we’re created in the image of God, that God gave us dominion over the animals of the earth, that they’re kind of just tools for our uses. And that’s what your arguing against this kind of view that is a leftover from religion. 

Yes, that’s right. I exactly, I am arguing against this idea that somehow we’re special and that everything else was made for our benefit and that gives us the right to use animals. And if you look at it historically, you find that that’s been a very powerful justification for the last couple of thousand years for our use of animals. You find a number of philosophers who say, well, we’d be very difficult to justify what we do to animals if it wasn’t that God had given us dominion over them. And I think indeed we we would have to rethink and we should we should rethink, because I don’t think that there is a God has given us dominion over the animals. So we should rethink the that automatic assumption that they’re just ours to use as we please. 

Do you see the same bias, this kind of speciesism also inherent in something like secular humanism? I’m reminded that you didn’t sign the widely endorsed Humanist Manifesto 2000 because you thought it was too speciesist. 

I think that’s true. I think that some humanists have not sufficiently liberated themselves from the relics of a religious viewpoint that although they, of course, reject belief in God and are wanting to develop a a secular ethic. And some of that humanist manifesto had language in it that I just couldn’t accept because it was putting humans up there as if somehow they were the apex of creation. Still, if the human don’t believe in creation, that they still were seeing the center of all our ethical concerns as necessarily being about humans. I think that that’s a mistake. 

If we’re not the apex of creation, at least were literally on the top of the food chain, and that gives us certain rights. 

I guess some have argued, well, I don’t really know. This idea of the food chain is a bit of a so-called. You can say that the worms that will lead us after we are buried are at the top of the food chain. 

They the ones who are going to finish up eating us. But that at all, because then it does go go right in a circle. I mean, as I said, we are the species that has most power on the planet. In that sense, you could say we have dominion that God gave the terrorists, but we have grasped that because of our technological superiority. We have the ability to destroy every other species on this planet. And we’ve already wiped out a number of them. But that doesn’t give you any kind of moral license to do this. On the contrary, I think that the way we have behaved with other species and are still behaving is a terrible moral black stain on our character and one that religion has just reinforced and done very little to combat. 

So this speciesism has kind of led to this black stain, you’ve called it. You just said it kind of comes mainly from Christianity or at least, you know, the system of Judeo Christianity. You’re rejecting that. But it’s not just an intellectual exercise. You’re not just an armchair moralist saying, oh, how bad for us to have these views. 

You see this religious view that puts human beings on top leading to a really horrible industrial carnage of animals. I’m talking about things like factory farming. We discuss that the first time you were on the show. Is it basically just the way that we kill animals that you object to or the fact that we kill animals to eat them that you object to? 

It’s actually it’s the way we treat animals throughout their lives that I most objected because factory farming confines animals so closely, so tightly that they often can’t even turn around or stretch their limbs. And that’s permissible in this country and in most states because we just allow the commercial imperatives of farming to drive everything. 

And the animals don’t really count. They’re just property. So in a competitive market economy, if you can produce harm a little bit more cheaply by locking up the animals so they can’t turn around, that’s what you do. And that’s a completely immoral way of treating animals, I believe. But it’s a consequence of this idea that the animals themselves don’t come across. It’s true that we do then kill them and often we kill them in ways that are, you know, again, because of the commercial imperatives that are cruel and don’t give them the kind of humane death we would like to believe they have. But but I’m really more concerned about the way they live in a way than about the way they die. 

You’re concerned more about the suffering they experience while they’re alive than the suffering they experience in their violent deaths sometimes. That’s correct. 

Do you think that if more people knew about factory farming and and how the steak on their plate got there, would it lead to more widespread vegetarianism? 

Oh, absolutely. I think that people are still very ignorant about how. Food is produced. Sometimes when I talk to students, a quote from a book by a professor of animal science called Peter Cheek, who is the author of a textbook that is used by people who are training to become animal producers. So it’s not at all a kind of animal rights person. But he admits that there is no transparency about the way food is produced, that most Americans don’t know how their meat is produced, and that if they did know, it would put some of them, perhaps many of them, off eating meat altogether. 

It basically grossed them out as opposed to convincing them that it’s unethical to to kill animals at all. It would just gross them out in terms of the way that the meat they’re eating right then was harvested. 


I think I think there are a lot of people who could live with the idea that, you know, you have animals who are out there in natural conditions and on pasture or a free to move around to be part of a kind of natural social group. And then at the end, they get killed. But but their lives are good until they get killed. I think a lot of people would probably accept that, but I don’t think they would accept the idea of just dealing with animals as production units if they would watch what happens to these animals from from birth to death in terms of the way they’re treated and the way they’re locked up in sheds where they can find the way they’re often mutilated, castrated or branded or have their tails clipped without any anesthetic. 

I think all of those things people would really say, hey, wait a minute, that’s not the way you should treat Ascendiant be your objections to treating these Santillan beings, the the waves that you’re describing, you know, chickens with their beaks cut off. You go to the PETA Web site and you see all these gory pictures. And and I know that’s one of the ways that people get shocked into vegetarianism. Sometimes they don’t often always sticks. But it’s it’s gross stuff to look at. That’s right. Well, your objections to treating sentient beings in that way really gets back to this notion of persons that we were talking about earlier. Fetuses can’t be persons, but some non-human animals can be persons. So tell me what a person is as opposed to a human. 

When I talk about a person, I’m using a definition that goes back quite a long way. 

John Mark or something? 

Yeah, it certainly goes back to John Locke in the 17th century. But you can actually trace it to some of the early Christian discussions, interestingly enough, about the nature of the Trinity, because Christians needed a notion of a person because they say that the Trinity is three persons in one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So you have to say, well, what’s the person then? And one of the early Christians both is define the person as a rational substance, which is then Locke talks about this as a thinking being that is aware of itself as the same thinking being over time. 

So in the Trinity, two of them were non-human. Right. The Father and the Holy Spirit. And only Jesus was the human. But all three were persons. 

Exactly. So. So the Christian orthodoxy has to accept the idea that you can be a person and not be a human. They just don’t accept that any animals, the person they think the only non-human persons of is a divine or spiritual entities. Whereas I would say if we take that definition of a person as a sort of thinking substance in some way or put it another way, a continuing center of consciousness that’s aware of itself as the same conscious being over time, then it’s clear that not all humans are persons because the fetus is not like that. And I would say even a newborn infant is not like that. And some humans with very severe intellectual disability may never become like that. On the other hand, there’s a good case for saying that some animals are persons, that chimpanzees, for example, can think of themselves in this way, and maybe elephants or whales or some other creatures can, too. To be sure. But there’s some evidence that they might not. 

So a brain stem. Terry Shavuot was not a person, although. Yes, a human, but a chimpanzee or an elephant. Are persons with more kind of moral rights. We have more moral duties to them than we do. A person whose brain stem is is damaged beyond repair. 

Well, yes. I mean, a person who actually only has a brain stem, let’s say maybe the brain stem is fine, but there’s nothing more than the brain stem. 

So that was the case with Shavuot kits. Yeah. 

Yeah, that’s that’s right. The cortex, the part of the brain that we think with responsible for consciousness was essentially destroyed. So in that case, you don’t have a this kind of awareness. And I would say that, yeah, such a being has a lower moral status than a chimpanzee because chimpanzee is much more aware of itself of what’s going on, can feel much more and much more sensitive to surroundings, has much more of a kind of an inner mental life than the human being who only has the brainstem. Mm hmm. 

Last year, Peter, at the Center for Inquiry’s conference in Manhattan, you created something of a stir when you asked Richard Dawkins a question after his conversation about science and Athie ism. Basically, you asked him why he wasn’t a vegetarian, if he was a Darwinian who didn’t make Homo sapiens as a species anything sacred or special created in God’s image. In other words, you were saying if he could draw a line connecting our species and other species because of his Darwinian view, how could he eat other animals? I was really impressed that in his response to you, he pretty much agreed with you that he was inconsistent on this ethical question. Do you find that most others in the sciences, others who advance a naturalistic view of the universe? Are they equally inconsistent? 

I think that a lot of people are I think Richard Dawkins was was really very honest in his response. As you say, he basically agreed with me and said, well, he just hasn’t been strong enough to give up meat for the difficult in his. He finds in his social and family circumstances to do that. And I think a lot of people are like that, actually. But that’s generally because they haven’t made a serious try at it. I mean, I I did it 35 years ago and I didn’t find it difficult really at all. But, you know, before you do it, you sort of think about this thing. Oh, really? Could I live without meat? I mean, I know at that time I’d lived whatever it was, 25 years or something. Eating meat every day. And it was hard to think what it would be like not to do it. And in fact, there were there were far fewer vegetarians then and there were far fewer choices, vegetarian choices at restaurants and so on. So, know, I I guess I had some concern when I did it. But it turned out to be not that difficult. And I think there’s a lot of scientists who perhaps recognize that they should not be participating and supporting the abuse of animals that goes on to produce meat through commercial farming methods. But they just have haven’t sort of summing up the will to actually do something about it. 

When you became a vegetarian 35 years ago, did you do it because of this philosophical or if this kind of ethical argumentation or did you do it because you have a big heart? You’re very empathic and you and you just didn’t like the idea of these poor animals suffering in the way that they do when we harvest them for our food. 

No, it was really for philosophical reasons that I had worked at, that we were not entitled to treat animals as we do. I didn’t want to participate in supporting a system that treated them so badly. I think before I guess, I considered myself a God, a compassionate person who didn’t want to be cruel, the animals. But I hadn’t thought about it systematically enough to get to actually connect. That was what I was eating. I mean, it’s pretty amazing. But that’s true. I hadn’t really put it all together at that stage. 

You know what we’re talking about right now? Really brilliant people admitting they’re inconsistent in their ethics regarding vegetarianism. It doesn’t make me really optimistic. 

Let me ask you why you think it’s so hard to adopt the kind of naturalistic ethics that you espouse, even if you’re a thoroughgoing naturalist. It doesn’t follow that you’re going to be a vegetarian or something. For example, my spouse, the first time he heard your arguments for vegetarianism, he simply stopped eating animals, became a vegan. Right. This was years ago. It’s not like he wrestled with it had big philosophical arguments. He was persuaded and it was a done deal. But I couldn’t exactly say that. I’ve been consistent about it. Okay. I’m more in the Richard Dawkins camp. And, you know, maybe I should be ashamed, but I have had a good steak now and then. Is it just a matter that some of us are more selfish? Some of us are more uncaring than other people. 

Some of us are more committed to acting ethically, perhaps, than to being consistent in our ethics. That could be part of it. 

Why do you think there’s so many atheists and secularists and Darwinians who really think they take Darwin seriously, have not adopted your full set of ethical proposals for how we should be living? 

You know, human beings are very good at thinking of rationalizations for what they want to go on doing. And if they think they’re going to be worse off, are they going to really miss eating meat? Then they can think of some reasons that to them justify continuing what they’re doing. 

Mm hmm. Do you think that if Darwin were alive today, he did off the ethics that you’re propounding? 

I think he would. I mean, he wrote some things about vivisection, which, of course, was practiced in his day as it is on ours on a much larger scale. 

This is just cutting up animals for scientific experimentation. 

That’s right. Yeah. And he took a critical stance. I wouldn’t say he was completely opposed to it, but he certainly took a stance that was more advanced. I would say more humane than the typical stance of scientists in his day. So I think that had he been alive and seen the way we treat animals today to produce food and the massive amount of abuse on a scale that he would have taken the stance against. 

Mm hmm. Do you see at a time when more people than not are going to be ethical in the way that you want them to be? I guess what I’m asking is, do you think argumentation is paying off? I mean, you writing these books and these public awareness campaigns. Is that the trick or do we need to actively work to diminish the role of these old world views, religion, the supernatural that you’ve argued actually make it harder to be ethical in the ways you’re talking about? 

It’s hard to say. I mean. 

There are two possibilities here we could work against religious belief to try to get people to see the world differently. But as you just pointed out, there are some people who are atheists, Darwinist, you know, who are still involved in supporting the exploitation of animals. So maybe we just need a more compassionate view generally. And, of course, there are some Christians who are vegetarians for compassionate reasons. Not all Christians follow this Orthodox view that says that we have dominion over animals and that that means that we can do what we like with them. Some people think that means we have to be stewards of them and that we shouldn’t abuse them. Some, like Matthew Scully, who’s a Christian and the author of a book called Dominion, who think that we have an obligation to show mercy to them and that we should be vegetarians for that reason. So, you know, I’d be prepared to work with compassionate Christians on this and join forces against those who are either the old fashioned kind of Christians who think that we have. Can do what we like with animals or for that matter, those who, even though they’re not Christians, not caring enough to actually take the steps that need to be taken if we’re going to end this kind of animal abuse. Jim Underdown. 

Thank you very much for continuing the conversation with me, Peter Singer. 

Thanks, T.J.. It’s been good to be with you again. 

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Of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.