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