On the 5th of June 1993 I lost my temper with Peter Singer in a public discussion about his approach to the inclusion of animals within the moral sphere. He was a guest speaker, and I was just a member of the audience, so this was ungrateful and very rude. I felt bad it about then, and in retrospect a little worse. But the palpable dishonesty of his talk really got under my skin. He was presenting as objectively reasoned a position that was plainly self-serving. My quarrel was not with the conclusions, but with the bogus arguments in their favour. By all means serve your self, but don’t pretend to be doing something else altogether.
The problem is this: In his Animal liberation (1975), and Practical Ethics (1980), Expanding Circle (1981) Singer’s general argument states that to qualify for moral treatment an organism must be able to suffer. We must, he says, and on reasoned moral grounds extend human standards of morality to all creatures that can suffer. This leads him to a number of recommendations with regard to factory farming and human diet, uncontroversial ideas I think, and probably sensible. However, the criterion of ‘suffering’, on which these recommendations are based, is fallacious and will:
a. Impair the enactment of these principles
b. Discredit them
c. Lead to the proposition of inappropriate recommendations.
Moreover, the flaws in the foundations of his moral system are so grave that no corrective tinkering is possible; instead we must abandon that whole line of thought and start building up from a different location. (I won’t explore that here, but it is fair to admit that I would ground my position in an evolutionary theory of moral intuitions that sees them as arising from self interest, not reason.)
The main problem with Singer’s criterion is that it draws lines that cannot be maintained or defined with any precision: We cannot decide definitely if another person is suffering, though we can make a reasonable guess. In the case of animals we cannot even make a guess. What is necessary to “suffer”? Singer would reply “consciousness”, but what is this, why is consciousness necessary for an animal to suffer, and how do we decide whether other creatures have it? None of these questions are easy to answer, and some are impossible. Singer rejects the idea that simple creatures such as shellfish can suffer, but on what grounds? One begins to wonder whether his definition is any more tenable, indeed any different, from the criterion of rationality, the ability to reason, which he rejects.
Furthermore, Singer talks of the “interests” of hens, and the need to respect them, but this term is not given any precision beyond that implied in the suffering criterion; i.e. that the only interests to be infringed are those connected with the right to avoid suffering. This is open to criticism as a totally inadequate definition of “interest”. From a molecular biological perspective, all organisms have interests with the same fundamental character, the replication of genes. From that view Singer’s proposed limitation of the definition of “interest” simply to animals capable of suffering seems narrow, and unjustified. One could very reasonably say that at a deep level all life forms have interests that can be infringed, even viruses.
Thus Singer’s criterion is inadequate because it simply doesn’t lead us to any useful principles. We are left wondering where to draw the lines to mark the boundaries of our moral responsibility, and, since the purpose of the criterion was to redefine this boundary, it fails in its own terms. It’s no good saying that in the future the criterion might be workable; we need something now. The consciousness of animals, the capacity of animals can suffer are questions to which we can give no precise answer, and perhaps in principle cannot answer. Since these questions remain open, Singer’s criterion turns out to be no criterion at all.
However, Singer does draw lines, yet his theory does not, and I say cannot explain why he chose those places. We are justified therefore in assuming that the location was decided in advance for other reasons, reasons which go undeclared, with the argument making an appearance after the fact to provide justification.
Overall, I could not avoid the conclusion that the criterion of suffering appealed to Singer because it left him something to eat. Indeed, his lines of division are suspiciously convenient in other ways for human beings. Most of the hostile life forms we encounter, from viruses to mosquitos, are creatures that Singer’s line excludes, but which, as I have remarked, could with as much reason be said to be within his line rather than beyond it. In short what really annoyed me in 1993 was that Singer appeared to be a Pecksniff of the first water. While claiming to be at the very tip-top of the moral high ground he was in fact pushing a slightly revised, indeed a concealed form of anthropcentrism. I had no wish to deny him his dinner (of mostly herbs), but I resented, and still resent the fact that he was telling cold-blooded lies to put it on the plate quite free of guilt.