Animal rights is more than Peter Singer

Tony Jones posted a link to a Peter Singer article arguing, among other things, that animal-welfare concerns should trump claims to religious liberty in cases like humane slaughter laws. Whatever the merits of Singer’s argument (Brandon pretty thoroughly demolishes it here), the post at Tony Jones’ blog provides an example of how Christians often react to Singer’s work. At least a couple of commenters dismiss Singer out of hand because of his views on abortion/infanticide/euthanasia.

Now, as someone who would like animal-rights arguments to get a wider hearing in the Christian community, I’m disheartened by this type of response. It seems that many people–not least Christians–treat “Singerian” views on the status of non-human animals as being of a single piece with his views on issues at the boundaries of human life.

But I think this is a mistake for at least a few reasons. First, it’s not clear that someone who accepts Singer-style arguments against irrational species prejudice (say) is committed to embracing his conclusions about the status of fetuses or newborns. It’s possible to accept Singer’s conclusion that animal interests should be included in our moral calculus without accepting his view that it’s okay to painlessly kill beings that lack certain future-oriented preferences.

Second, even within the world of secular theorizing about animal rights, Singer’s approach is far from the only one on offer. In fact, it’s a bit ironic that he’s sometimes referred to as “the father of animal rights” considering that Singer’s moral theory does not include rights as a fundamental component. But there are thinkers who do put rights into the foundation of their theory (e.g., Tom Regan), as well as those who argue for radical changes to the way we treat animals on the basis of contractarian, feminist, neo-Aristotelian, and other moral approaches. And most of these approaches avoid the implications of Singer’s utilitarian ethic that so many balk at.

Finally, the Christian tradition itself has resources for re-thinking our treatment of animals, as I’ve tried to document on this blog. The works of theologians like Andrew Linzey, Stephen Webb, Richard Alan Young, and Jay McDaniel, to name just a few, deploy traditional theological motifs to support an ethical agenda similar to that proposed by secular animal liberationists. They argue that the gospel, rightly understood, demands that we modify or abandon certain practices (such as factory farming) that do violence to the flourishing of God’s beloved creatures.

My personal view is that Peter Singer’s work has contributed to the way we should think about our obligations to non-human animals (and to other vulnerable groups like the global poor). But I also agree with Singer’s many Christian critics that at least some of his other views are objectionable. Whatever one’s stance on Singer’s work, though, it shouldn’t serve as an excuse for Christians not to engage with the challenges to our traditional ways of using animals.

A simple argument for vegetarianism

The New York Times “Ethicist” column recently challeged its readers to submit essays making the case for why it’s ethically okay to eat meat. The submissions are supposed to offer a pro-meat answer to the question “Whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake.” The essays will be judged by a panel consisting of Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light.

One interesting thing about this contest is that it puts the onus back on meat-eaters to justify a practice that’s usually taken for granted as the normal thing to do. Getting people to question this assumption is a worthy goal in itself.

But for the sake of clarity, let’s flesh out (so to speak) the anti-meat (or pro-vegetarian) argument. Here, in schematic form, is what I take to be a simple, but powerful, moral argument for vegetarianism:

1. It’s wrong, other things being equal, to be the cause of avoidable suffering.
2. Meat-eating causes avoidable suffering.
3. Therefore, meat-eating is wrong.

The first premise is about as close to a moral truism as you could find. It would be a very different value system from any most of us would recognize that endorsed the idea of causing avoidable suffering. Most of us also think, of course, that sometimes there are good reasons for being the cause of suffering (e.g., a painful medical procedure that saves someone’s life). But to cause suffering when it’s not necessary seems like a paradigm case of acting immorally.

The second premise is more contentious. Let’s stipulate, along with the Times, that we’re talking about cases where meat-eating isn’t necessary for human survival. The question then becomes: is the suffering caused by meat-eating justifiable on some other grounds?

For this infliction of suffering to be justifiable, the human interest in meat-eating would have to outweigh the animals’ interest in avoiding suffering. So what human interest is at stake? Well, pleasure is one obvious one: many people really like the taste of meat. There are also cultural and culinary goods associated with the practices of preparing and eating meat which, in a meatless world, would have to be abandoned or at least modified (the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, for example).

Now, the tricky thing is that there’s no mechanical way of weighing competing interests to find out whether the animal’s interest in not suffering should trump the human’s interest in having a tasty meal. That being said, though, I think it’s intuitively quite plausible that an animal’s interest in not suffering is greater than my interest in the pleasure I’d get from eating a steak. Consider the case of a sadist who derives great pleasure from torturing kittens: would any of us say that his pleasure outweighs the kitten’s interest in not being made to suffer? The only way I can see to decisively tip the scales toward meat-eating is if you’re willing to say that animal interests count for nothing, or for so little as to be trumped by even the most trivial human interest.

You could also develop a parallel argument where “avoidable suffering” is replaced with “avoidable death.” That is, even if animals could be raised and slaughtered for food without being made to suffer (a questionable proposition, but let’s concede it for now), they would still be killed, and, other things being equal, killing a sentient being seems like a significant harm. Now, there are some philosophers (including, ironicially, Peter Singer) who say that painlessly killing an animal doesn’t actually harm the animal, because they don’t have a concept of death and thus can’t take an interest in not being killed. This response only works, though, if you’re willing to accept Singer’s particular version of preference-based utilitarianism, and other philosophers have argued (persuasively, in my opinion) that death is indeed a harm for animals.

Assuming this is all correct, or at least plausible, let’s note a couple of things about this argument. First, it doesn’t require accepting that humans and animals are “morally equivalent” or denying “human exceptionalism.” It’s quite possible to hold that humans are more important than animals but that trivial human interests don’t justify overriding or disregarding vital animal interests. Second, it doesn’t rest on detailed claims about the horrible state of factory farming. So long as raising and slaughtering animals for food entails any significant suffering–which includes both factory and traditional farms–the argument can get some traction. Finally, it doesn’t require adopting any controversial ethical theories like utilitarianism or a particular notion of animal rights. All it assumes is that it’s wrong to cause avoidable suffering (or death) and that animals’ interests count for something, even if not as much as comparable human interests. I think these minimalist assumptions help make it a pretty strong argument.

What do you think?

Peter Singer and Christian ethics conference–audio available

I posted the other week on a conference on dialogue between Peter Singer and Christian ethics. I wanted to note that audio of the sessions is available here. I haven’t listened to any of the sessions yet, but the topics suggest that they’ll be very interesting:

–Utilitarians and Christians
–Animals and the environment
–Utilitarianism, Christian ethics, and moral theory
–Utilitarians in church?
–Responding to global poverty

If you listen to any of the presentations I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Peter Singer, utilitarianism, Christianity, and climate change

Here’s an interesting post from Mark Vernon, an English journalist and author (and former priest in the Church of England), reporting on a recent conference at Oxford University on the engagement of Christian ethics with the thought of Peter Singer. According to Vernon, Singer discussed problems that his brand of utilitarianism (“preference utilitarianism”–the view that the right action is the one which satisfies the most preferences) has in coming to grips with the problem of climate change.

Climate change is a challenge to utilitarianism on at least two accounts. First, the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change. This fact sits uneasily for a preference utilitarian, who would be inclined to argue that the existence of more and more sentient beings enjoying their lives – realising their preferences – is a good thing. As Singer puts it in the new edition of his book, Practical Ethics: “I have found myself unable to maintain with any confidence that the position I took in the previous edition – based solely on preference utilitarianism – offers a satisfactory answer to these quandaries.”

Second, preference utilitarianism also runs into problems because climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won’t much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won’t much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one. What this adds up to is that preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.

Christian ethics, Vernon suggest, may be more of a help here because, at least in most forms, it believes that the right and the good go beyond the satisfaction of preferences. For a Christian, the protection of creation can be seen as good in itself, without trying to calculate the balance of preference-satisfaction that would be involved. Or, to borrow the terminology of Andrew Linzey, we might say that God has rights in God’s creation–rights to the respectful treatment of that creation. Christian ethics generally doesn’t take preferences or desires that we happen to have as necessarily deserving fulfillment–those desires are all-too-often warped by self-seeking and self-preoccupation. The Christian moral life is as much about reshaping our desires as satisfying them.

Friday Links

Somewhat abbreviated…

–Here’s the Red Cross disaster newsroom page for donations and updates on today’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

–How climate change can lead to increases in earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic activity.

–The Christian Century responds to B.R. Myers’ anti-foodie polemic, drawing some useful distinctions.

–A study finds that chickens are capable of empathy.

–Lent is for solidarity.

–What’s next for Wisconsin?

–An excerpt from the new edition of Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics on killng animals, with responses by several other philosophers.

Friday Links

–Why Washington doesn’t care about jobs.

–At the Moral Mindfield, Marilyn has more on the question of whether welfare reforms benefit animals raised for food.

–Metallica’s classic album Master of Puppets turned 25(!) yesterday. This was the first real metal album I ever heard, and it’s still one of the best.

–NPR’s “First Listen” is streaming the new REM album in its entirety.

–For all the sci-fi nerd parents of small children out there: Goodnight, Dune.

–David Brooks will decide when it’s time for you to die.

–A lecture from Peter Singer: Evolution versus ethics.

–From the blog Experimental Theology, a series of posts on universalism: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

–How all the extra noise created by human beings affects animals.

–On James Alison and discipleship.

–Peter Gomes, the black, Republican (at least until late in his life), openly gay Baptist preacher who was the long-time minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, died unexpectedly from complications associated with a stroke this week. Michael Westmoreland-White has an overview of Gomes’ life and work.

–Two good ones from Fred Clark at the (newly moved!) Slacktivist: The epistemology of Team Hell and Should I not be concerned?

–In honor of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 9th, Oxfam is “raising awareness about hunger, climate change, and other crises facing women worldwide.”

ADDED LATER: Glad to see Marvin back in action with posts on Christian Taoism, the politics of union-busting, and the Rob Bell-universalism brouhaha.

Some links for the weekend

- Peter Singer on balancing concern for the environment with efforts to lift people out of poverty.

- Kevin Drum on the difference between liberals and libertarians.

- Bob Herbert on Sargent Shriver: “one of America’s great good men.”

- Peter Berger’s blog at The American Interest. (Here’s a piece on recent developments in American Lutheranism.)

- A three-part article from Derek on communing the unbaptized:1|2|3.

- Bls says the church needs a program. (Or does it already have one?)

- How Moby-Dick navigates between fanaticism and nihilism. And a previous piece on a similar topic by the same author.

- A killer new song from the German tech-death band Obscura.