ad astra per alia porci

its hard to be right sometimes

Ethical positions are often maintained because of intense vested interests that its holders have, even though their weak underlying moral justifications are exposed upon deeper cogitation. This is particularly evident in the area of animal rights and the moral justifications of eating meat. We probably all grew up eating meat, like the taste of flesh and have diets which centre around meat. It is easy to see why most of us persist in holding and defending the position that meat eating in its present state at least is correct, even though a closer examination suggests otherwise.

I just finished Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, the book that launched the animal rights movement and is labeled as the Bible of the movement. Singer argues for and advocates proper regard to be given to animal rights. His main thesis is that a subject can meaningfully be said to have rights and interests only if it has the capacity to suffer. Animals, like humans, have the capacity to suffer, and hence animals should have rights. Current farming techniques are cruel, and treat animals like commodities instead of beings with interests that should be respected.

Singer deplores the prevalent attitude of speciesism: treating organic beings differently on the basis of differing species membership. Humans as a species are given different rights and treatment from other animals and conversely animals are denied similar rights that humans have on the basis that they are of a different scientific genus. To Singer, treating animals differently on the basis of differences in species is untenable and arbitrary; it is no different from racism and is morally deplorable. The proper and moral basis for deciding whether one should treat an entity in a certain manner is not scientific class, but rather the capacity to suffer. In other words, the orthodox view has drawn the line at the wrong place.

The practical consequence of accepting Singer’s approach is that prevalent practises towards farming and animal testing must be altered to be more humane and sensitive to the suffering of animals, or abolished altogether. Humans do not like to be coped up in cramped cages and have affective requirements; concomitantly animals should not be kept in such conditions too and should be allowed to run free and socialise with other animals.

Due credit must be given to Singer for writing about philosophy and applied ethics in such an accessible manner. It is not often that one can find an academic, much less a philosopher, that can reach out to the layman without too much resort to jargon and technicalities.

There are however loopholes and inadequacies in Singer’s thesis. Before writing more about them, I find it appropriate to declare that I personally am a meat-eater. However, I have always had the niggling feeling that somehow it was morally wrong to breed, slaughter and eat animals, and somewhat inconsistent to say that it is not morally wrong to eat meat and it is morally wrong to eat one’s pet and human flesh. The thought of pigs squealing hysterically and cows bleeding to death after their throats are cut gave me the intuitive feeling that there is just something fundamentally wrong with killing another for sustenance.

My motivation for picking Animal Liberation off the library shelf was to find material that rationally explores and elucidates the issues surrounding the ethics of nutrition and enlighten me on the ethics of meat eating such that I can formulate my own position on this issue rationally instead of resorting to mere intuition or emotions.

The first criticism is that drawing the line at capacity to suffer requires further explanation and justification. One can argue that capacity to suffer is as arbitrary a basis as say, race, sex and species. In this sense Singer falls into the same problems as the speciesists.

The principle of minimising or eliminating suffering for those with capacity to suffer is itself not an absolute value. One can easily think of examples in practise where we do not eliminate suffering, and in fact actively encourage it. Boxing, sports, corporal punishment and criminal punishment are good examples of these. Indeed, we have no qualms about taking life when the situation calls for it; think of wars. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that wars are always morally just; the point I am trying to make is stated in the first sentence of this paragraph.

What is so intrinsically wrong with suffering? Suffering builds character, although this is not directly applicable to the rearing and slaughter of animals. The gist is that suffering requires further unpacking, and needs a proper justification. Singer seems to merely assert that capacity to suffer as the determinative golden factor.

It can even be argued that suffering may be trumped by other considerations and moral values. The drive to self-sustenance, which is self-interest or self-preservation in the most fundamental sense, may override the need to minimise or eliminate the suffering of animals with the capacity to suffer. It may be morally justified for humans to farm and eat animals in order to provide nutrition for themselves. This is analogous to the individualistic ideal that an individual is morally justified in preferring his interests over that of another person. We can, without contradiction, say that animals have the capacity to suffer and hence should be treated on the same level as humans generally are, and that humans may be put their interests over that of animals on the issue of self-sustenance.

One of Singer’s rebuttal would be that humans can equally sustain themselves on non-animal food sources. However my discomfort with this is that animal sources of nutrition may not be replaceable with plant sources. A good example is omega-3 oils in oily fishes; there are no readily available and substantial plant sources of such oils. Another point is that dietary sciences have not fully unravelled the mystery of food chemistry, and indeed it has been discovered that foods contain countless different elements which we are yet to understand. So there may be nutrients in animal meat that humans need which are not discovered yet. Hence to continue eating meat would be to err on the side of caution in obtaining vital nutrients in one’s diet. Till science proves that humans can stay healthy without eating meat, it makes sense for humans to err on the side of caution.

An interesting point is that Singer’s thesis might allow animals to be eaten nevertheless, should science progress to an appropriate state. If a new scientific technique allows animals to be breed without the capacity to suffer (e.g. desensitising the nervous system), technically speaking it is neither correct nor wrong for us to breed such animals for food. Such animals have no capacity to suffer, and we cannot, as Singer would hold, intelligibly speak of them as having rights. We can breed them in horrible conditions and than eat them because they feel nothing.

Despite some loopholes, Singer ‘s work is important. It subjects the topic of animal rights to philosophical scrutiny, and draws much needed attention to this neglected area of philosophy and indeed general thought. It traces the history of anthropocentrism in philosophical and religious thought, and subjects the beliefs of the related philosophers and philosophies to rational scrutiny. As Singer points out, Judeo-Christian thought places Man at the centre of the universe and the Bible states that animals are subject to the dominion of man. Similar is state in the Koran. Even the rationalist philosopher Descartes opined that animals are automatons with no consciousness and no consequent ability to feel and understand pain. Singer very credibly opens up our eyes to our unstated assumptions and the history of misapprehension in relation to animal rights.

In my view, Singer exposes a tendency to bend backwards and invent reasons to forcibly and artificially support a anxiously-held conclusion that Man is superior to all other living things and should be granted superior rights and considerations, instead of finding reasons from the ground up to see if Man should be treated differently from animals. In short, we make up stories to justify why we are special and can dominate and unfairly treat other living things. What should be done is to construct rational grounds for our moral positions, instead of blindly assuming and (even worse) scrambling for reasons to support an emotive and selfish conclusion. While Singer himself tries to prove a new basis for determining animal rights and what we owe to them, his thesis is still incomplete and not totally convincing.

My personal response to Animal Liberation is not to change completely into a vegetarian or vegan, but to eat much less meat. Two of my three meals each day are vegetarian, and I am trying to wean myself off red meat. I am yet to pinpoint the philosophical basis of my decision, since the capacity to suffer basis is not totally convincing, and I have to say that my position remains largely based on emotive and intuitive grounds, that it is just wrong to eat so much animal meat. It is somehow just profoundly wrong to pet cows, rabbits and goats in a farm and squeal over how cute they are, before slitting their throats so that we can put them on our dinner table. That at least I know in my heart.