Right reason discusses Singer in eating our friends
With my principles in mind ***** I will have a look at Singer's arguments, nitpicker and bullet biter that I am.
Peter Singer is considered the leading contemporary advocate of extreme preference utilitarianism (sonthing that will come up in my analysis). He is also an animal rights supporter and is active in debating the vegetarianism. One of the main points that come up in vegetarian debates is the "animals eat animals" conundrum.
A person, having accepted the basic assumptions of Peter Singer regarding animal rights (at least for the sake of argument) will ask "if animals eat animals in nature then we should be able to too" Peter Singer
insists this is hypocrisy it is odd that humans, who normally think of the behavior of animals as 'beastly' should, when it suits them, use an argument that implies we ought to look to animals for moral guidance.
And furthermore rejects the argument to the superiority of nature that there is a natural law according to which the stronger prey upon the weaker, a kind of Darwinian 'survival of the fittest' in which by eating animals we are merely playing our part.
... An error of reasoning in the assumption that because this process is natural it is right. It is, no doubt, 'natural' for women to produce an infant every year or two from puberty to menopause, but this does not mean that it is wrong to interfere with this process. We need to know the natural laws which affect us in order to estimate the consequences of what we do; but we do not have to assume that the natural way of doing something is incapable of improvement.
This is a good refutation (given the assumptions we are working with) but it is easy to forget the counter is not a defence but a counter attack (ie reductio ad absurdum), this knife cuts both ways. In his defence Singer says a start, most animals that kill for food would not be able to survive if they did not, whereas we have no need to eat animal flesh.
Now if he is a true utilitarian this is not a sufficient argument. This argument is one people learn when talking to humans - you don’t propose a solution you know they can’t accept - but in this case the animals are not decision making agents. So if you think of a dog lets say as a murdering inducing animal (via dog food or whatever) and that eating dog meet is equivalent to killing a horse (or whatever) then meat eating animals are like some sort of mass murderers or "cannibals" and other animals would have a “right” (in the way rights exist under utilitarianism) to be protected from them.***
Furthermore humans may live longer with some meat in their diet (debatable fact) does he consider that relevant?
He could argue he is being prudent by not making rules here because the cost is potentially starvation BUT
A) The same is applicable to all his arguments - why not be so prudent you never took a position?
B) We are generally talking about ideal worlds here - i.e. in an ideal world no humans would eat meat*, well in the same ideal world no animals would either. How such a world is created is left for another debate and that might revolve around very slow and careful change or radical change with consideration to the facts.*** The decisive point, however, is that nonhuman animals are not capable of considering the alternatives open to them or of reflecting on the ethics of their diet.
This is also not a utilitarian argument - it is a moral fetishist’s argument.
Peter Singer in a sense excuses a cannibal who eats other people as long as he doesn't think about what he is doing. Or in a sense - the non utilitarian as long as they don’t believe animals have rights. Worse yet I dispute his factual assumption (and probably the factual assumption of almost every reader, that animals don’t have "ethics". **
A pure utilitarian stops the cannibal because he wants to prevent the ham to the victim regardless of what he is thinking. there would still be an error of reasoning in the assumption that because this process is natural it is right. It is, no doubt, 'natural' for women to produce an infant every year or two from puberty to menopause, but this does not mean that it is wrong to interfere with this process. We need to know the natural laws which affect us in order to estimate the consequences of what we do; but we do not have to assume that the natural way of doing something is incapable of improvement.
The bottom line is that utilitarianism where we see animals and humans as more or less equal leads to the conclusion that you should - protect the herbivores from the carnivores (I'm sure you can imagine how that would work). ******
If Singer asks us to bite the bullet and support the animal protection proposal (with consideration to point 4 I will raise below) OR he needs to confront the fact that his fundamental assumptions are rights based (just a very non conservative type).
Now with that addressed what is the solution if we want an excuse not to protect these herbivores?
1) Well one option is the "very steep gradient" hypothesis.
In this one we propose that each higher life form is orders of magnitude more important than the one beneath it. This means that, in general, eating a lower life form can be compensated for (although you would be exceptions) by the benefit to the higher animal. A human might be considerably higher than a cow but a problem arises when a dog kills a cat since it is unclear which is higher, or if a wild cat kills a deer.
2) Another is the you are only responsible for positive actions (i.e. you are responsible for murder but not for watching a man drown when you could, with minimal effort, have saved him)
This, I think, is profoundly anti utilitarian but it could be held.
3) Another is the humans are responsible for humans actions
this seems profoundly speciest (to use singer's term) it is a bit like proposing starving in Africa is "Africa’s problem".
4) sophisticated utilitarianism (probably combined with the steep gradient hypothesis)
In this theory one proposes that although animals may be worthy of consideration but whether they get rights or not is still a debatable issue.
This sounds like self justification and from many people would be – but it is just a statement of principle saying that the question can be debated and that one could win or loose the debate depending on the facts****. The possibility is left open that a world where animals have very many rights is dysfunctional and thus should be avoided.
This is what people end up trying to argue in a round about way without realizing that they are doing it. I.e. “but it just wont work!” What this relies on is a VERY difficult call regarding very long term effects of massive changes to society… and so we throw it back to the politicians and philosophers again…
So what does this prove? Maybe you will say that philosophy is useless? Well maybe you could say that – or you could take one of a couple of consistent positions, but deciding that can be left for another post.
* I'm simplifying here for the sake of argument
** I separated this out because it would disrupt the flow (much as we might wish thy were) My suggestion is that ethics are NOT high evolutionary traits
Now by ethics I means beliefs about what is right and wrong.
Let's say you teach a dog not to steal food from your table by hitting him every time he does it. does the dog think
(1) "if I do this you will hit me"
(2) "I shouldn't do this" [because it is bad/evil]
Which is the more complex thought?
I would say by far (1) is. As soon as it was possible to have connective thought processes the first would have been this sort of unanchored connections involved with the learning of behavior (which doesn’t waste brain space remembering WHY). The addition of "because it is bad/evil" adds nothing of substance to that sentence so they are equivalent.
*** Now we could say that right is reduced by the fact you need to starve a tiger to save a deer – but it’s a few hundred deer and only one tiger…
**** Thinking that (4) allows you to reject the animal protection argument out of hand is self justification
***** I like to explore concepts regardless of where the logic leads me. Evidence should create the conclusion not be formed by it. This is one of the extremely rare times Singer has been critiqued by someone willing to bite even more bullets than he is.
****** If your worried about the loss of carnivorous species or genome note that unless you are using point (4) this is "specisist".