Nearly fifty years ago, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer attracted global attention for his forceful arguments against meat eating. A well-known writer and teacher, Singer is considered a founding father of the movement to stop the pain and suffering endured by animals in factory farming, and has influenced many of its leaders. His book, Animal Liberation, published in 1975, has been cited as one of the 100 best nonfiction books ever published.
Singer is still trying to make the world see the error of its ways, convinced that some decades hence, people will be astonished that people still ate meat in the 21st century, which he compares to slavery. Animals feel and they sense, he writes, and so they suffer when we crowd them into factory farms, or jam them into trucks taking them to slaughter. This month, a collection of his essays on animals, with some new entries, is being published under the title Why Vegan? I caught up with him on Zoom in Australia, where he is living and teaching virtually at Princeton. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Ever since I read Animal Liberation, I’ve felt guilty for eating animals. For a while, I was a vegetarian, but that didn't last long. Now I tell myself it’s okay because I eat grass-fed, humanely raised animals, and not a lot of them. What do you think of that? If an animal has a pleasant life and is killed without pain, why would that not be ethical?
What you’re talking about is such a small percentage of meat production. And even if you say you are buying locally procured and humanely raised meat, what are you doing about dairy? I doubt that you can find any dairy products from farms that don’t separate the mothers and the calves within hours of birth. That causes significant suffering for them. I only know of one dairy farm here in Australia that allows calves to continue to run with their mothers -- and the milk costs four times as much as supermarket milk.
So it’s theoretically OK to kill an animal?
I don’t really think it’s the killing that’s the problem. It’s the suffering. But I agree that there are some animals who live good lives and are humanely killed and I do have much less of a problem with that. The most famous person to make that argument is Michael Pollan. That’s a serious argument and if everyone who now eats meat were to be genuinely conscientious, I would feel my battle on behalf of animals was 80 to 90 percent won. That would be an immense improvement.
So you’re giving me permission to eat meat sometimes?
Not completely. I still think that it’s something that reinforces an attitude that they are there for us to use as we wish. I'd rather have a complete break with the idea that animals are there for us to rear and kill. But I’m less troubled from the animal point of view. However if they are beef or lamb, they are making a significant contribution to climate change. There is some evidence that grass-fed beef is even worse, and produces more methane, than feedlot-raised beef.
What do you think is the strongest argument in persuading people to give up meat?
Enlightening people about the way we treat animals is the most important. Pigs are just as smart and sensitive as dogs are and you can’t really justify loving and petting one while you are sticking your knife and fork into another.
Do you have friends who eat meat?
I have lots of friends who eat animals. They know my views. And they’re familiar with them and I don't want to harangue them about this. You’ve got to accept that some people will be persuaded and others will alter their consuming habits to some degree but not as much as I would like. I don’t want to live in the ghetto of only people who think and act exactly like me.
“I don’t really think it’s the killing that’s the problem,” says Singer. “It’s the suffering.”/Leif Tuxen
What do you think is the very worst part of factory farming? I mean , if someone was having to make a choice between a piece of beef and a piece of chicken, what would you say?
Eating chicken is worse. You would have to be complicit in the suffering of 100 chickens to get the amount of meat yielded by one cow. Also chickens are subject to the worst kinds of factory farming. They are far more crowded, and are treated worse than steers, because an individual chicken doesn’t matter much in the producer’s profit and loss. An individual steer does.
Would you kill a mosquito?
There are animals that aren't capable of suffering. I think it’s likely that mosquitos do not suffer. I am willing to eat oysters or clams or mussels, because I don’t think they are capable of suffering.
You stopped eating meat a very long time ago, when you were in college. Do you ever miss meat? And what do you eat?
I’m really very happy with the food I’m eating. I always try new and different foods. Last night I had a stir fry with mock abalone, bok choy, snow peas and noodles.
Do you have any pets?
When my children were small we had a cat who was given to us by a friend who attracted stray cats and when she got up to her limit, the kids said yes, yes. We’ve also had ex lab rats we have been looking after. They are very friendly and affectionate. They love to run up your sweater and sit on your shoulder. Cats cannot be vegan. But rats can be.