I agree with the central premise of Peter Singers’ talk Thursday. The factory farming of animals is deplorable, and this issue should be the focus of the animal rights movement. With that said, we have drawn somewhat similar conclusions through very different philosophical underpinnings.
Singer essentially says you can’t prioritize life based on a species concept. He comes to this conclusion because the “consciousness” that he believes traditionally has been used to separate humans from other animals is not present at a high enough level in the severely mentally challenged or newborn infants as compared to other animal life forms. Therefore, he feels that “consciousness” itself and the ability to feel pleasure and pain should take priority over the species distinction. He also believes that since some people have a greater capacity for higher thought over any other animal species, that the loss of these lives is more tragic than others.
These arguments are essentially a perversion of logic. If you would apply his logic broadly, you would say that within the gradation of consciousness in people, which you could easily try to equate to intelligence, people with a greater capacity have more value than people with a lower capacity. This could have very disturbing consequences if you think about the potential implications in eugenics. I’m just not willing to accept that some people are more or less worthy of living than others.
I don’t think the species concept applied to morality is antiquated philosophy. An infant might not have the immediate capacity for higher “consciousness,” but the “potential” is there. Furthermore, people with severe mental disabilities have a common genetic makeup to the rest of us and must be treated with the same principals regardless of what we perceive their consciousness to be. I’m comfortable with this argument not necessarily fitting a rigorous philosophical ideology. Life isn’t that easy.
In my opinion Singer’s philosophy almost worships “consciousness.” He even put up a slide where he showed how humans were more conscious than invertebrates, which were more conscious than clams and mussels. His whole value system is based on maximizing the system to accommodate the most “pleasure” for the gradation of “conscious” creatures. I think this is flawed.
I actually think the polarity between “conscious” and “non-conscious” life, which the extremities in the animal-rights movement try to draw, will be seen as a major downfall in late 20th and early 21st century philosophers like Singer. With that said, just because all life should be valued without such a drastic duality doesn’t mean the application of this value won’t manifest itself differently, including a “conscious” component.
Just by saying a fish has more value than a tree because it feels more like we do is a very anthropocentric viewpoint that potentially could lead to very flawed policy making. A tree doesn’t have a “consciousness” in the way we have defined it, but it can sense and respond to gravity, light (different spectra) and wounding (on both a systemic and local level). Furthermore, it does something that animals can’t and that’s turn light and water into a sugar and oxygen. Placing such a high value on the “consciousness” that we ourselves are familiar with has the potential to really put the balance of the ecological system out of kilter. I believe wasting life for any reason is wrong, but using life in an “ethical” way for many reasons is not necessarily easy but can be justified. I don’t think the average person really has any idea how profoundly different their lives would be without the use of animal testing for medicinal purposes and basic science research. I should I’m not talking about animals used for cosmetic testing, which is purely a vanity-based use of life that I find disturbing. As Singer points out, the scientific use of animals only accounts for a very minute percentage of the animals raised and killed every year in factory farms for human consumption. Singer, in essence, has come to many logical conclusions through a nonlogical philosophy.
I do agree with Singer that with our increased “consciousness” comes an increased obligation. I would just expand this moral principal to include all life. It is unethical to treat any “conscious” or “nonconscious” being without respect. How you define respect is obviously contentious, but it certainly has crossed the line when you talk about many aspects of factory farming meat. I would just also argue that some intensive crop farming practices, in which the land, water and plant life are being mistreated, also is equally mistreating life. I choose to not eat meat because it magnifies the problem because energy gets lost when it moves through the food chain. In other words, it takes a lot more unethically grown crops to feed an unethically raised and killed cow than for me to just eat the unethically grown crops myself. However, I don’t think it is wrong to eat meat that has been raised and killed in an ethical way.
I have come to many similar conclusions as Singer using different logic. I believe we still must prioritize humane life equally while having a profound respect for all other life forms. The application and balance of this respect should not be so dualistic with a dominant focus on “consciousness”, but rather a pragmatic holistic approach that includes “consciousness”. Factory farming utilizes many deplorable techniques, and I support the work that many people who I only partially agree with are conducting.
Brian Piasecki is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]