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Peter Singer, March 2009 Interview

Thought for food
Bioethicist, Peter Singer, speaks at Guelph's inaugural philosophy lecture series
Jonathan Gates

"I might have resolved not to eat fish, but if I go surfing and the shark doesn't know that, he's just as likely to eat me as any other surfer" –Peter Singer

Famous bioethics philosopher and author of Animal Liberation, Brian Singer visited the University of Guelph last Saturday during College Royal for the inaugural Guelph Lecture in Philosophy. Speaking in one of the large Rozanski lecture halls, all seats were filled and people stood and sat cross-legged in the front to hear Singer speak.

Singer began his speech by remembering Henry Spira, an animals rights activist. When Spira was asked what he wanted on his epitaph he replied 'He pushed the peanut forward'.

"Making a little bit of progress as long as we all make some progress and eventually we'll get there was Henry's view," Singer said.

Singer began by looking back to some of the major touchstones of the western philosophical tradition with Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant.

"Animals are simply part of a chain which exists for the purpose of human beings," said Singer of Aristotle's beliefs. "Human beings are the most rational creatures in Aristotle's view and therefore the sum of creation. The more rational man is better ... Aristotle also justifies slavery on the same basis. Since Darwin, we understand that things don't come into existence to serve purposes, at least in that way."

Singer spoke briefly on Thomas Aquinas' theory that an animals place in the universe as servants provided by god under humanity's dominion.

"The only reason we have duties to animals is because they have duties to humans. If you harm the animal you harm the human, you damage his property."

Singer said that Kant believed this was so because life existed only for those creatures that were self-aware.

"If self-consciousness is the key, some humans are not self-conscious. None of us are born self-conscious," Singer said, bringing up concerns raised by Kant's theory.

Singer defines the mainstream view of animals as: we have duties to be kind to animals and not to be cruel to them but we do not provide their concerns with the same weight as human concerns. Regarding these concerns, Singer gave examples of cruel farming practice such as sow stalls, veal stalls, and factory egg units for chickens (all cruelly restrictive living situations all of which are being objected to in various states and countries around the world, all three of which have no initiative against them in legislative stages in Canada.

"Most people don't know how their food products are produced. If they did no more they might be put off of what they're buying," he said.

Singer suggests that people set aside the social contract reasoning for being kind to animals; the suggestion that we can be kind to animals out of a common understanding.

"I might have resolved not to eat fish, but if I go surfing and the shark doesn't know that, he's just as likely to eat me as any other surfer," he said.

Singer holds these beliefs on a similar grounds by which we do not consider race or sex to be morally significant points of division.

"It tends to be a division of 'us' and 'we're the ones who are really morally important'."

Beyond the moral ambiguity of how we justify our treatment of animals, Singer addressed inefficiency of feeding animals versus eating plant matter saying that even in favorable scenarios cattle consume approximately ten times the amount of their food value produced while raising them. The most efficient comparatively is poultry at three times their caloric value lost.

Singer was sure to point out that the moral justification more than the inefficiency of the practice was his concern. However, he was looking to push the peanut forward. He does not expect everyone to stop eating meat, but rather expects that they stop and ask themselves why.