Re: What do you think about Peter Singer's animal rights movement?
I got the question in the title via an email. Below is a copy of my reply.
I do now know who Peter Singer is and what that movement stands for. I will thus remain generic in my answer and trust you to connect the dots.
I treat animal rights through two distinct lens: (i) politics, (ii) philosophy.
Insofar as politics are concerned, I agree with the notion that animals have rights and am an ally of veganism. The established food industry contributes to the destruction of the planet and causes suffering on a monumental scale. By reducing global meat consumption, we at least minimise the damage.
There are other benefits to a deliberate plant-based diet which have political implications, such as an overall more healthy lifestyle that effectively reduces the strain on health services, thus diminishing the relative power of big pharma, junk food industries, and the like.
Veganism, however, cannot escape from the all-too-familiar fate of capitalist appropriation simply by virtue of its own lofty ideals. It too can become a lucrative industry that ultimately does more harm than good. To truly enact sustainable reform, we need to introduce thoroughgoing changes in the three pillars of political-economic organisation: production, consumption, and ownership. The end-goal is a concerted disinvestment, to abolish human imperialism over the planet, and revert to a more honest and humble way of living.
Right now every industry revolves around the core idea of pursuing year-on-year fiscal growth. It all comes down to profits, which inevitably introduces perverse incentives to do the egregious thing in order to conform with the demands of investors. Think about planned obsolesce, for instance: it is an indirectly malevolent scheme to make products perishable and thus boost their sales in regular intervals. The cost is not accounted on the annual balance sheet, since it is “hidden” as an externality that harms the planet’s ecosystems long-term.
The collective madness of sacrificing everything to the altars of growth is not just damaging “the environment” in some vague sense. It also has direct pernicious effects on human wellness. Think about cutthroat labour markets, the erosion of labour rights, so-called “austerity” that governments impose on people which undermines social services, “quantitative easing” (another euphemism) which channels oodles of de facto free money to the coffers of the biggest actors in the financial sector, and so on. For example, you might be a sports fan and are into association football (soccer). Have you noticed how many games elite players are asked to play nowadays? The sheer number is astonishing, but also the conditions under which they are expected to put their longer-term health at risk to contribute to the team (i.e. business), such as by playing through injury (you often hear veterans say that their knees/ankles are knackered and they can barely walk/jog).
You might think that none of this pertains to veganism and I have run off on a tangent. After all, what is the connection between a footballer’s health, the rights of a labourer in some sweatshop, and the food we eat? They are all industries which are underpinned by the same ruthless practices of profiteering. You err lamentably if you only ever see things in a vacuum.
Veganism will thus be inwardly corrupted if it remains limited to a food-only, purpose-specific initiative that has nothing to say about the magnitudes that define our world (not just veganism, by the way, but let’s stay on topic). It will avoid the deadly embrace of capitalism and succeed in its stated ends once it becomes part of a wider movement that aspires for the abolition of capitalism and the prioritisation of practical ethics of cooperation and sustainability over unbridled material gain at every level of interpersonal relations.
To offer an example of an all-too-real scenario where veganism may, perhaps unwittingly, undo the good outcomes it brings about. You may have heard how bee populations are in danger as their hives are collapsing. In my experience as a farmer in a remote mountainous region, I have noticed that bees collect their food all-year-round and store a part of it for the winter (honey is not produced for us). In a place where there are lots of different types of vegetation, bees can find food all the time. Lavender, for instance, blossoms in my parts at around November-December, which is a great boost for bees before they enter the harsh winter. If, however, vast expanses of land have only one type of plant, such as soy culture, bees will not find food reliably and thus die (there are other reasons as well, specifically pesticides). Monoculture, especially at the “economies of scale” that capitalism engenders, is the longer-term bane of every plantation (in part because it requires aggressive practices, such as pesticides). Farming for vegan customers is no exception. We need polyculture which, again, links back to the notion of reasoning about the core idea of animal rights in light of the bigger picture.
This brings me to the philosophical part. I already explained that I am an ally of veganism, wish to bring about systemic change, and encourage people to be considerate about their life choices (e.g. parts of what I wrote in Re: suggestions to stay focused?). I also am of the view that any system of morality becomes impossible to conform with once totalised. This includes animal rights and veganism.
If we generalise veganism as a view that basically argues not to eat meat on the premise that animals are alive, then we must ask the hard question of whether all forms of life are covered by this assertion. Do plants have a life of their own? Or are they just raw material that exists solely for our sustenance? And what does it even mean for something to be objectified as “raw material”? I think plants are forms of life. They have societies of their own, engage in cooperation, and deal with competition, among many others. Taking it a step further, I even hold that everything is alive on the grounds that life cannot originate from nothing, exist in nothing, and move towards nothing (for an introduction to my views: Cosmos, Logos, and the living universe).
If everything is life, then the totalising morality of not eating presences that are alive is impossible to conform with: we will only be ethical if we die from starvation. And why would our self-destruction be moral—or more moral (whatever that means)—if we too have a life akin to the animals and plants? Why would our collective self-annulment be better if we too end up suffering from it?
This is a nuanced point and I hesitate to press on with it. I fear the kind of backlash that does not understand fine points and what philosophy is about. To re-iterate: I am supporting the cause of veganism and animal rights at-large, but I cannot afford to ignore the fact that any totalising morality is untenable.
Does this mean that because we cannot have a perfect moral disposition that we should go to the other extreme of “anything goes”? No, we just need to apply our principles in accordance with practical reasonableness. Stop virtue signalling and the kind of grandstanding that accuses others of not living up to unrealistic standards.
A general remark about political action: if you wait for the perfect ideology to reveal itself or some ideal moment where everything aligns neatly, you will simply suffer the consequences of your inertia and unreasonable expectations, as others will act and will impose conditions upon your quotidian life, whether you like it or not.
Finally, I close with a comment on Christian theology, at least as it is popularised in my part of the globe. I once asked a monk whether dogs go to heaven. He answered negatively, as they “do not have a soul like ours” (Prot edit: added “like ours”—its omission was mistake which changes the meaning). You may argue that this particular monk was clueless, which may be true as theologians can come up with varying interpretations, though it is indicative of a widespread belief in anthropocentrism (human-centrism) or else the notion that humankind has some special value or purpose in this world. Human is, after all, supposed to be created in the image and likeness of the Christian God (which sounds quite the privilege if you ask me—in case it is not obvious, I am not religious). The Enlightenment, whose very name is a euphemism writ large if taken holistically, also laboured under this anthropocentrism though it framed it in secular terms. We thus live in a modern political reality, whose historicity is informed by those traditions, where we need to fight against the view that only humans matter. To argue for ecology is to dethrone Human and dismantle the concomitant imperium over nature, to ultimately bring back value systems that ancient peoples upheld; systems which respected nature and did not assign some special role to humankind in the grand scheme of things.
Will we have the perfect polity? No. Though that is no reason to refrain from implementing what is good within the confines of practical reason. The ideal is our guide, not our enemy. Some progress is better than none.