I am probably the first person in history to pack two boxes of shotgun shells and a copy of Peter Singer’s seminal work on animal equality, Animal Liberation, in the same bag for a road trip, but as a thoughtful hunter and a writer, I thought it important to get to know the philosophy of people who oppose eating meat. To my surprise, I found in Animal Liberation an extremely compelling and logically sound argument in support of animal equality—one which, in many ways, agrees with my own philosophy about how we should interact with animals.
Singer’s primary argument is that it is morally wrong not to consider the suffering of nonhuman animals in the choices we make in our lives. He makes a particularly strong case against animal experimentation and factory farming, in which animals are simply a means to human ends and suffer greatly, sometimes even for trivial benefits to humans. His call for concern over animal suffering has indeed become mainstream since the book was first published in 1975, evidenced in part by the labeling of beauty products as not having been tested on animals and the ongoing movement toward ethically raised animal products.
Singer illuminates for the reader that the same reason why racism and sexism are immoral is also the reason speciesism, “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of another species,” is immoral. The principle of equality applies to all nonhuman animals in the same way it applies to humans, and does not “depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact.” It is this equal consideration of interests that, in Singer’s view, must define our relationship to other animals, because regardless of their abilities, all animals have an interest in avoiding suffering.
My question, then, is what about the cases in which human beings have a genuine conflict of interest with other species? Singer acknowledges this question in the book, but I think he underestimates the extent to which we are actively in conflict with other animals, and the consequences of truly equal consideration. We compete with wildlife for food, shelter and water. He doesn’t appear to consider things like the fact that when any new development is built, animals are displaced. It seems to me that equal consideration would mean a permanent moratorium on all human developments, because by his line of reasoning, it would be unfair to expel the resident fauna for human expansion.
He cites as an example of conflicting interests the damage that rodents can do to to crops, but fails to comprehend the scale of the conflict, especially from big animals like deer. Wildlife damage to American agriculture is estimated to be $4.5 billion annually. Deer also cause $1.6 billion of losses each year in vehicle collisions. Without hunting, deer in good habitats like farmland can double their population every two years. One of their favorite crops is soybeans. Imagine what would happen to the price of soy-based vegan foods if we suddenly stopped hunting deer.
Singer appeals for us to find nonlethal solutions like birth control for these problems, but even if he’s right about this as something we have an imperative to strive for, what should we do in the meantime? This technology does not exist in a way that is either effective or affordable. Regardless of its possible moral superiority, birth control is not currently a viable solution to the problem of crop degradation and property damage resulting from our genuine conflict of interest with other animals.
There are parts of the book I disagree with outright. For example, Singer claims that humans are the only animals that kill for nonessential reasons and sometimes “torture . . . their fellow animals before putting them to death.” With regard to killing, this assertion is in direct conflict with the well-documented fact that male lions will sometimes kill and eat the former patriarch’s cubs when they take over a pride, or that chimpanzees conduct warfare against neighboring communities. With regard to torture, cats and killer whales are both known to toy with their prey for extended periods of time before killing them. In another section, Singer writes that “killing animals for food (except when necessary for sheer survival) makes us think of them as objects we can use casually for our own nonessential purposes.” While I agree and have witnessed that this can be the case, this correlation is not evidence of causation. I know from personal experience that killing animals for food does not cause objectification in everyone, and that one’s emotional relationship to the act of killing changes over time. In my many years of hunting, I’ve learned that killing animals and taking their suffering into consideration are not mutually exclusive ideas, but the author does not fathom this as a possibility.
To his credit, Singer acknowledges many of the challenges presented by his argument and shows himself to be much more reasonable than I had assumed he would be based on the self-righteous zeal I’ve seen from some animal rights advocates. As strongly as he feels about reducing animal suffering, he concedes that determining “the wrongness of killing a being is more complicated,” noting the “widely different views about when it is legitimate to kill humans” in cases of capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion as reasons he can’t come to a conclusive opinion on the matter. He also explains that, while he thinks it is best for us, the environment, and animals for all of humanity to become vegetarians, he “can respect conscientious people who take care to eat only meat that comes from” animals that have lived a “pleasant existence” and are “killed quickly and without pain.”
Like all ethical hunters, I take great pains to ensure that I do not cause unnecessary suffering in my prey. Like Singer, we find the act of wantonly or deliberately causing animals to suffer needlessly to be reprehensible. I love the challenge of pursuit and am often thrilled by its successful conclusion, but I do not take some kind of psychopathic pleasure in the killing itself. I am in complete agreement with Mr. Singer that “if a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration,” but I think we have to make our final choices based on the realities of the world in which we live. It seems to me that he’s right about the fact that all of the planet would benefit if humans became mostly vegetarian, mainly because of the large volume of greenhouse gasses emitted by animal agriculture and the inefficiency of its land use. It takes a lot of land to raise the crops needed to feed our livestock, not to mention the land they require for themselves, and the effect of shifting this land’s use to other crops could be large.
Still, even if we stopped buying meat in grocery stores, I think we are a long way from removing hunting as a means of effectively managing our conflicts with wildlife, and it would be wasteful not to eat animals we’ve killed in the process. Singer doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the kind of hunting I practice in his book, but I’m convinced that, upon careful consideration, this practice would fall within the range of “conscientious people” whom he can respect for eating meat from animals who’ve lived “free range” lives. I am already committed to cooking only with meat I’ve hunted myself, and while convenience has stopped me from taking the leap to vow never to eat factory-farmed meat when I’m out of the house, Singer has convinced me that most factory farming is immoral.
All in all, Animal Liberation is an exhaustive and well-reasoned piece of philosophy that is worth reading. Whether or not you agree with its conclusions, it will force you, as it forced me, to reconsider your choices as they relate to animal welfare—and I think we can all agree that thoughtful consideration of other beings is a good thing for the world.
- Conover, MR. Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts: The Science of Wildlife Damage Management. Lewis Publishers, 2002.
- Stoll, RJ, Parker WP. “Reproductive Performance and Condition of White-Tailed Deer in Ohio.” The Ohio Journal of Science. 86.4 (1986): 164–8.
- Singer P. Animal Liberation. HarperCollins, 2002.
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