Peter Singer: The Ethics of What We Eat
Peter Singer is a professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne and is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest philosophers. In his presentation at Williams College in Massachusetts, Singer takes a hard look at the ethics of what we eat, where our food comes from, and how it is produced.
Singer focuses on (3) ethical issues:
- Using animals for food
- The environmental impact of our food
- The impact on the world food crisis
Using Animals for Food
Animals are conscious beings, they can suffer and feel pain, and they can also enjoy their lives and feel pleasure, just like humans do. Humans and non-human animals come out of the same evolutionary history. The case is overwhelmingly strong that mammals, birds and vertebrates feel pain fairly equal to humans. It’s also probable that invertebrates and crustaceans feel pain but maybe not on the level of mammals and birds.
What Are the Ethics of How We Should Treat Animals?
Singer evaluates philosophers such as Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant that take a more traditional or old historic Western view of the treatment of animals, and compares their outdated philosophies with mainstream or modern philosophy that understands animals are sentient beings with value.
Singer looks at the problem with how we treat animals for food today. He tries to schedule visits to a number of industrial factory farms raising chickens, pigs and cows, but he’s declined from visiting the farms. Singer believes there is a moral concern about the ethics of our food system. He says much of our society has no idea how our food is produced, and if they knew, they would likely not continue to eat the food.
He examines the treatment of industrial farmed chickens and free-range chickens raised for meat, and describes the conditions of farm animals today. Regarding chickens, he observes there’s no individual attention to these birds. They receive no medical or veterinary care, they are genetically manipulated to grow very fast, as a result, their bones are completely underdeveloped. They get so big they can’t carry their own weight or walk to get food and water, and often starve to death. The same thing happens to turkeys. Turkeys have been bred to have such large breasts today, that they too have great difficulty walking and standing up. Today’s sows are basically just considered a breeding machine and milking machine, and she’s considered only profitable when she’s either pregnant or feeding her piglets. It’s a completely unnatural system and extremely uncomfortable and confining for them. Sows are so crowded in these tiny stalls that their legs stick out beyond the stalls. She’s individually confined to concrete floors, stalls barely the size of her body that prevent her from moving freely. Veal calves are taken from their mothers the day after birth, and put into narrow stalls where they are unable to move, walk or turn-around. All of these confinement methods and farm conditions subject animals to extremely unnatural conditions, overcrowding, and pain and cruelty where they are no doubt suffering. And there is much evidence that they are suffering.
Singer says the mainstream view is that we shouldn’t be cruel to animals, and especially without a good reason. So why are we doing it? He argues the largest reason is that people enjoy the taste of meat and dairy, and that this is the cheapest way to produce it. But he warns, “I don’t think enjoyment of the taste is a good enough reason to justify the amount of suffering the animals endure. If enjoyment were a good enough reason to justify making animals’ suffer, then why were we so hard on Michael Vick? People who attended Michael Vick’s dog fighting contests, enjoyed the dog fights. So what then is the difference? Why does this enjoyment of dog fighting not justify the suffering, but the enjoyment of eating meat is somehow acceptable suffering – and the suffering of farm animals is much worse than dog fighting.”
Environmental Impacts of Factory Farming
Factory farming causes severe pollution. Tens of thousands of animals concentrated together produce waste that goes into huge lagoons full of animal feces and waste. But the lagoons break and leak, polluting and poisoning our rivers, streams, lakes and oceans. Pig farms can house up to 10,000 animals in one place, they are enormous concentrations of animals—it’s the scale and concentration that creates the environmental problems.
Cattle are ruminant animals that are major emitters of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas—some say 25x more potent than carbon dioxide—and over a 25 year timeframe methane is said to be 70x more potent than carbon dioxide. Cattle feedlots house enormous numbers of animals confined together, and they produce a great amount of methane gas, a cause of global climate change. Because humanity is eating more meat, we have increased the number of cattle we are raising, which is causing greater methane and carbon dioxide impacting global climate change. But he notes, the animal production debate has been difficult to talk about as a major contributing cause of climate change, as well as its environmental destruction.
Singer asserts, livestock is also wasteful of grain that is grown to feed cows and farm animals, that would normally eat grass and plants. We are feeding most of the grain we grow to farm animals that in turn only produce a small amount of meat, and alleges it’s just the opposite of what we should be doing. A huge amount of energy is going toward growing all the grain that is then extremely inefficiently used to feed cattle to fatten them, producing a very small amount of meat comparatively. The high input of grain, and small output of meat is exacerbating the problem. It’s a very inefficient way to produce protein, with beef being one of the most inefficient ways to produce protein of all. Soy is considered the most efficient way to produce protein.
Causes of the Food Crisis
Singer asserts the amount of grain we’re feeding to animals is causing the price of grain to increase, and now with China following our example and starting to eat more animals, they are requiring more grain, which is driving grain prices higher. And all this grain being raised for animals, is all grain that people could be eating themselves. It doesn’t need to go through animals. He says it’s just not possible for everyone in the world to eat all the animals that the Western nations are consuming. We are clearly living in a way that cannot be equitably spread around the world and sustained.
Can You Eat Humanely Raised Meat?
What about conscientious omnivorism? What if animals were killed painlessly, and could live comfortably, have their needs met, and their rights respected? But he cautions, this is very difficult to find in reality, as animals are considered commodities in commercial business, and not treated as living beings with their rights considered. He said raising them respecting their natural interests and comforts, and killing them painlessly, if it could be guaranteed, might be a step forward away from the worst animal cruelties. But the problem is that it’s very difficult to find these small, humane farms, and the best is to move toward by not eating animals at all.
Video Length: 1 Hour / 13 Minutes
Video Produced: 2008
What Can You Do?
- Avoid eating products from industrial factory farms or CAFOs – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
- Always eat organic
- Become a vegan (best) or vegetarian – move to a more ethical way of eating that doesn’t hurt or harm animals or the environment
- Buy fair trade
- Buy local and eat seasonally
Presentation and views by Peter Singer
Photo by Denise Applewhite