Thursday evening the Ted Mann Concert Hall was packed – many hopeful attendees had to stand outside the auditorium and watch on monitors. Just as former President Bill Clinton filled Northrop Auditorium last fall, animal rights philosopher Peter Singer, an Australian now settled at Princeton University, filled the hall for his talk on ethics and animals.
Singer’s adamant vegan/vegetarian views on animal rights certainly are not a majority feeling in the developed world, but he presented an argument for his sentiments that, logically, is difficult to penetrate, although many disagree with his conclusions.
Singer began by describing today’s general sentiments on animals: Society senses a duty to be kind to animals and avoid being cruel to them. Their interests count but easily can be overridden by human interests, such as cheaply producing eggs and meat. He then made his own argument based on the idea of “equal consideration”: giving equal weight to similar interests, irrespective of species. In pointing out different species have different interests and “equal consideration” does not mean “equal treatment,” he concluded that pain is equally bad regardless of species, but death can be a greater or lesser loss, depending on many cognitive factors such as self-awareness and the ability to look forward to future events.
To support vegetarianism, Singer pointed out that 10 billion animals are killed each year for food, along with another 20 million to 40 million animals used for research. He showed pictures of animals living in inhumane conditions, including broiler chickens, layer hens in crowded cages, sows confined to concrete and veal calves and beef cattle without shade. It is true there are welfare issues with each of these production areas; he used these issues to make his final argument: It is wrong to cause pain without a good enough reason. Animals suffer in modern meat production. Humans can nourish themselves in other ways, and their enjoyment of the way meat tastes is not a good enough argument to justify the amount of suffering animals are made to endure. Therefore, we should stop eating the products of modern meat production.
While this argument makes several assumptions, it is still valid if one agrees animals suffer in modern meat production. At the end of his talk, Singer showed pictures of a pastoral-looking farm with cattle and chickens in lush pastures from a local producer in New Jersey. Singer conceded that these conditions were outstanding compared to most operations, and if consumers who enjoy meat enough to find out how to get products from these types of farms want to do so, he would understand. He said one could make a better argument for local, sustainable farming rather than factory farming, because while the animals might lead a shorter life than they would naturally, at least it would be a better life.
Singer also addressed come common misconceptions about his views when audience members had a chance to ask questions. Responding to a question about the violent acts of some animal rights groups against research laboratories, he said he considered his views to be “high moral ground” – and that when activists resort to violence, they are abandoning that high moral ground and not helping their cause. This is heartening, as many people view animal rights activists as zealots.
Singer focused almost exclusively on the philosophical arguments for animal rights but did not address the economic issues associated with changing people’s views. The almighty dollar drives the inhumane practices in factory farming; until a demand is created for humanely farmed animal products, no supply will be created. While this is seen in very small markets – some Chipotle chains have gone to using pork products from farms with very high standards of care. This needs to be a much more widespread view before producers will be willing to change their practices. This will be a long road: When consumers are just worried about feeding their families cheaply, they are unlikely to pay extra for cage-free eggs or pork from pigs kept in fields rather than on concrete.
Singer’s talk was not self-righteous or zealous; it was not hysterical or inflammatory. It was simply a presentation of facts and ideas to support his cause. While his views remain extreme to some, at least he is presenting them in a way that makes people think. If more activists would take his approach, they would find they would garner a lot more support in the long run.