Nov 22, 2006

On "Meeting Peter Singer" [LINK]

Aaron Swartz recounts his brief encounter with the animal rights theorist and medical ethicist Peter Singer at a vegetarian gathering, in a post that prompted a few thoughts:

  1. To be "dragged to the Boston Vegetarian Festival," I have to assume a girlfriend is in some way involved.

  2. In the sentence after Aaron describes Singer's "thoughtfulness and clarity of mind," we learn that he wears "thoughtful glasses," kind of like those of Noam Chomsky. How do the glasses you wear affect the quality of your thought? Unfortunately for me, I don't even wear glasses, so I have to do other things to make myself seem intelligent!

  3. I'm not sure if the term "vegetarianism" (as Aaron uses it) matches the simple practice of not eating meat, which does not imply an endorsement of animal rights. There are of course other reasons for adhering to a vegetarian diet, such as health concerns and religious-inspired self-abnegation. What I find most interesting is that no culture (that I know of) enforces a taboo against eating meat. Thus to be a vegetarian for any reason is to consciously join a subculture.

  4. While not intimately familiar with Singer's work, I tend to doubt he adheres to the idea of "animal rights" as such. Could be wrong, but I understand his stance to be more along the lines that if you detect a choice between killing an animal and not killing an animal, choosing the latter means less pain and suffering overall in the world, and is thus preferable. Whatever the merits of that idea, it entirely concerns the motivations and choices of humans and does not require recognizing independent "rights" on the part of animals.

  5. I'm deeply amused that members of the audience at a vegetarian gathering would be "scandalized" at the thought that Singer would consume non-vegan food under certain circumstances, but that (at least in Aaron's account) there was no mention of Singer's approval of targeted infanticide. Similarly, when Aaron says "the one thing bugging me about Singer" was his "Darwinian Left stuff," I assume he's aware of that controversial stance as well.

  6. I believe Aaron was entirely on the right track with his devil's advocate argument: Should we also stop animals from eating each other? (I've asked much the same question: if animals have rights, does that mean I'd frequently need to bail my cat out of jail?) Unlike Aaron, I'm utterly unimpressed with Singer's answer: We would if we knew how to do so without making things worse and disturbing the ecosystems and so on.

    Dwell on that confounding bit of nonsense for a moment. Regardless of how cruel we humans are to livestock and animals used in medical tests, it is insignificant in the face of the cruelty animals constantly inflict on each other in nature. Singer would have us exert effort to protect animals from one another, but only if we had the required knowledge to do so. That's disingenuous: no amount of knowledge on our part would maintain a vegetarian diet among creatures like sharks to begin with, so clearly we are deep in the realm of fantasy. That aside, even if we were somehow able to keep them from eating one another, it would be undesirable because it would damage "ecosystems."

    Either that means such an effort ultimately hurts animals, or that these abstractions we call "ecosystems" enjoy their own independent set of rights, including the right not to be disturbed. The latter is too wacky for even me to contemplate; ecosystems not only don't have rights, they perpetrate unthinkable cruelty, so maybe we should be disturbing them in the interest of animal rights. But if we did, we would cause a cascading series of problems, not the least of which would be extinctions on a massive scale, perhaps including our own. So instead I have to conclude that taking animal rights seriously runs contrary to animals' overall interests. Fancy that.

    I've long been fascinated at the argument by animal rights adherents that animals should be treated just like humans. It's ironic that in practice, this means grafting anthropocentric notions onto them. The debate about animal rights takes place solely among humans, and that should tell you all you need to know. A cat shows no sign of believing the mouse she is tormenting has any rights, or that she herself has rights, so who are we to insist otherwise, contrary to nature... er... the "ecosystem"? Singer's suggestion that we should even entertain the fantasy of protecting animal rights in any coherent way has more to do with his own moral vanity than with any real appreciation for these creatures.

With that off my chest, I must now assist in preparing turkey.


AaronSw said...

1. Not sure why my love life is relevant.

2. I wasn't making a normative point, just an observational one.

3. OK.

4. Singer does believe that, but he also seems to believe in rights. He is the leader of a project to get the UN to issue a declaration on the rights of Great Apes, for example. (See Great Ape Project.)

5. OK.

6. Why do rights imply jailtime for cats? I don't think Singer was suggesting independent rights for ecosystems; just noting that messing with them could cause additional unintended harm to animals. You don't really provide a counterargument; just the usual mockery.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

1. It's not; just an observation. ;-)

2. Regardless of what you intended to express, it's a rather confounding use of language. In one sentence you're saying he's thoughtful, and in the next sentence you're saying his glasses are also thoughtful.

4. OK. The argument I read from him expressed one stance and not the other.

6a. Regarding the cats-in-jail reference, I'm assuming that there's no particular point to having rights if there's no mechanism to protect them, and that such a mechanism is rendered impossible if one doesn't recognize concomitant responsibilities.

For example, assume we have a right to both life and liberty, but that someone comes along and kills me. What do we do? At the very least we throw the killer in jail. Through his actions he has demonstrated that he lacks the capacity to respect the rights of others, therefore he relinquishes his own claim on rights. Even if we judge him insane and lacking in such moral capacity, we still jail him to prevent harm to others. That's analogous to the situation of the cat, who demonstrates no moral qualms about killing mice.

Perhaps we can entertain the notion that cats can enjoy the benefits of rights without any responsibility to respect them in others, but that's essentially the same as saying that, along with the right to life, cats also possess the right to kill. It's also the same as saying that while the mouse may have some theoretical right to live, we have no basis on which to punish the cat. And it would beg the question: why should animals' relationship to their rights be any different than that of humans, for whom the requirements are more stringent?

6b. Regarding the "ecosystem," clearly I was being facetious in suggesting it may itself enjoy rights. But that's the only way I can justify ignoring any would-be rights on the part of animals, whose routine slaughter perpetuates it. Otherwise you're in the situation of asserting that while animals have rights, any sustained effort to respect their rights will get most of them killed, thus depriving them of their rights.

6c. You can offer rebuttal and mockery at the same time. ;-)

AaronSw said...

6a. I don't think it punitive jailtime makes sense for cats or humans. If we can reasonably do things to save the lives of either we should do them, but putting cats in jail doesn't seem particularly reasonable.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

My point exactly: for cats it's not reasonable. But in the case of humans, if even jail is inappropriate for murderers, then is any form of punishment? To the point in question: whatever the punishment, it's bound to abridge the murderer's rights, if ever so slightly. Would it be appropriate to administer a similar punishment on a cat for killing a mouse?

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

Forgot to mention: while I don't agree, I grant that it may be possible to craft a punishment for humans that reforms them, develops their empathy for others, and makes it unlikely they'll commit further murders. Is the same possible for cats? If you keep letting them out of the house, I don't think you can be serious about animal rights.