A real philosopher of vegetarianism

June 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm (thinking) (, , , , , , , )

I was very excited to discover the work of Peter Singer, a philosopher and vegetarian who has been very active from the eighties till the present day.  Everyone with an interest in the subject should read his interesting article Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism, a good discussion piece that engages with the philosophical arguments both for, and against, eating meat (although Singer has very clear views).  It is a response to criticism of his earlier philosophical look at the Animal Liberation Movement. The most gratifying thing for me is that is argument is almost identical to my discussion on the subject, which were not based on any philosophical tradition but formed simply from an attempt to be rational, honest and consistent in my moral viewpoint.  The essence of both arguments is utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that argues that we have a moral imperative to maximise the total “utility” in the world.  Each person gains utility from things they like or want, such as food, money, happiness, fulfillment, comfort, pleasurable company, etc, and how important each thing is obviously depends on what else you have.  Books and art are no good if you are starving, but are important once your tummy is full.  Utility is of course a fuzzily defined thing, and could alternatively be called “value”.  Importantly, utilitarianism acknowledges that not all people view all things as equally important – each will have preferences, and these should dictate how things should be shared out.  For example, if me and a friend have two apples and two chocolate bars, and I like apples and he chocolate bars, then we should not share them equally – I should get two apples and he two chocolates.  If only all moral problems were this simple.

For the utilitarian, how something happens doesn’t explicitly matter – only the end result counts.  An example may help distinguish utilitarianism from competing philosophies at this point – let us consider the hero/villain problem.  In scenario 1, imagine you are faced with a burning building and have two options: to save three children from one room, or to save an old man from another.  Almost everyone would agree that the correct “heroic” thing to do is to save the children.  Now in scenario 2 you are a prisoner, and your captors insist that you either shoot three children, or an old man.  If you do not, they will kill all four.  Many people will see this as a true moral dilemma, because you are a “villain” no matter what you do. You have moral responsibility for their death, even though you couldn’t prevent it.  Yet isn’t the outcome exactly the “same” in both scenarios?

Such an argument has no doubt been used to undermine the utilitarianism philosophy, but the analysis is not complete.  The outcome only the same if we count only deaths at the end; it does not take into account the whole of the utility function.  We often “value” (gain utility from) taking a positive action to help others, and additionally we lose utility when forced to hurt others. So the two scenarios are not the same because the total utility in both is different.  Although my example is unambiguous enough so that most people would still spare the children, some people would refuse to kill anyone, therefore removing the blame of the deaths from themselves.  More people would die, but the total utility might still be higher because the blame for the deaths falls squarely on the captor, rather than with yourself.

So this brings me in a roundabout way to the point of this post – that we need to view utility in a very inclusive manner.  Both Singer, and myself, argue in detail that all beings that are capable of having goals, motivations, happiness or discomfort should be part of the equation.  We do not claim that all opinions are equal – just that all are there for consideration.  As Singer puts it, “many nonhuman animals can experience pain and pleasure… in this respect they are like humans and unlike rocks”.  We don’t have to care about rocks, buildings or ice sheets.  But we do have to care about all animals and plants and people, and weight their preferences accordingly.  (Note that this results in having to care about rocks and buildings and ice sheets, but for different reasons).

Singer puts the point across very clearly, in conjunction with some contemporary objections. Central to the argument is that we move away from a “rights” based view of morality towards one that balances all preferences fairly.  I still need to delve further into the literature to expose this fully, but the logic seems sound: rights only place rough bounds on what people can and can’t do, whereas utilitarianism allows for a much more detailed resolution of conflict.  It also allows (he argues that it insists) for varying degrees of importance to be placed on different individuals, therefore allowing animals to be protected on the same basis as people, but to a lesser degree.  I think almost everyone will agree that some account should be placed on animal preferences; that some attempt should be made to prevent them suffering and to have some degree of comfort and freedom; the only issue is how much.

We both agree that utilitarianism implies that circumstances should determine what is OK; there are no absolutes.  Eating meat is fair enough if you are on the brink of starvation; the line moves and is more blurry in normal life.  He is usually vegan but will eat vegetarian food at others houses, for example.  Presumably for Singer the social discomfort of making others cook completely out of their comfort zone is too much when balanced against eating dairy produce.  I tend to agree; such issues can in some cases result in weaker friendships.

As far as I can see so far, the debate hasn’t moved on much.  Read his work, and the responses to his work, and try to place your own views in the argument.  I will try to do so and I’ll post back here with my conclusions.

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