Ethics: Food and Animal Rights

Controversial bioethicist Peter Singer, the distinguished speaker in the humanities, has definite ideas about our diet.   by Liz Getman ’09

Around noon each day, parking lots of fast food restaurants and mini-marts are filled with people looking for a quick and inexpensive meal. For many, convenience is a primary factor in food choice.

 “We don’t think about issues involved in how our food is produced,” pointed out philosopher and author Peter Singer during his December visit to campus as the distinguished speaker in the humanities, hosted by the School of Humanities and Sciences. “What we eat is still, for many people, on the periphery of ethics. There is something seriously wrong with this attitude.”

Singer, who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the Center for Human Values at Princeton University, delivered a lecture, “The Ethics of What We Eat,” to a full house in Emerson Suites. A controversial ethicist known for his human and animal rights activism, Singer discussed common immoral practices of industrial farms and the effect of food choices on animals, humans, and the environment. “If the average U.S. consumer switched from a typical American diet to a vegan [pronounced VEEgun]* diet with the same calories, it would save 1.5 tons of carbon emissions each year,” he said. “Seventy percent of U.S. grain is fed to animals. This wastes food [for people], rather than producing it.”

Singer recently released his book The Way We Eat, but is perhaps best known for his now-classic 1975 book Animal Liberation. He argues that although differences exist between nonhuman animals and humans, nonhuman animals should not be mistreated by humans and should not suffer because of human interests. Humans, he maintains, are guilty of “speciesism,” a form of discrimination similar to racism and sexism. Singer believes humans should liberate animals by freeing them from confining farms and processing plants, and refusing to slaughter them for food.

Craig Duncan, assistant professor of philosophy and religion, uses Singer’s works in his ethics classes because his arguments are relevant to controversial issues of today. “He’s a proactive thinker,” Duncan says. “He gets people to reconsider beliefs they might have taken for granted until they’ve read his work.” Duncan admits that while they spur discussion, Singer’s ideas are sometimes “hard to swallow for students. They tend to find his demands [concerning food choices] excessive.” Singer suggests the simplest way to become a more ethical eater is to eliminate meat and dairy products from one’s diet and live a vegan lifestyle. “If you’re not prepared to take time to examine [food] labels,” he says, “then give up animal products altogether. It’s simple: our diet should no longer be reliant on the exploitation of animals.”

Frederik Kaufman, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, says becoming vegan may not be so simple for people. “There are easier ways we can make better food choices,” he says, such as eating organic foods, eating less in general, refusing to buy factory-farmed or processed products, and buying fairly traded goods — all ethical choices, which Singer encouraged the College audience to adapt at least.

Kaufman, who first proposed Singer’s visit in 1999, says he wanted to bring him to IC because he is one of today’s most influential philosophers. “He’s an academic celebrity,” Kaufman says. “He’s as much a part of moral philosophy as Plato or Aristotle because he shows you the deducible course of action and proceeds by rational analysis.”

Alejandro Chavarria ’11 says Singer’s lecture influenced him to become a vegetarian and think more about where his food comes from. “We think humans — who are also animals — deserve to be treated equally,” he says. “But somehow that goes out the window when it comes to nonhuman animals, and it shouldn’t. I’ve held that view all my life, but it took Singer to make me realize my hypocrisy in still eating meat.”

Singer, who is vegan and says he always tries to make conscientious choices, points out that he is “not fanatical about it. I don’t think it’s a matter of personal piety. It’s saying I don’t want to give my money and support to something that hurts animals.”

* One who consumes and uses no products issued from animals, including eggs, dairy, honey, fur, leather, wool, down, and products tested on animals