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Necessary Suffering?

In response to:

Bandit and Friends from the April 9, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Peter Singer’s interesting piece [“Bandit and Friends,” NYR, April 9] has forced me to consider again what I see to be a ridiculous consequence of the philosophy of animal rights. The economics of omnivorism aside (I accept the claim that it is cheaper and more ecologically sound to be herbivorous) a claim frequently heard (herd?) of vegetarianism is that it’s just plain wrong to eat the flesh of other creatures. All philosophical posturings aside, the argument is essentially this: They suffer; suffering is bad; eating them causes them to suffer; we should not eat them.

The problem is that creatures other than human beings eat other creatures, and inflict considerably more suffering on them than was ever done in the abbatoir. I have seen wolf packs take down moose, and the sight is not for the faint of heart; nature truly is “red in tooth and claw.” If we accept that eating animals is to be avoided because eating them causes suffering, should we not also address the “slaughter of the innocent” taking place between non-homo sapiens?

One might claim that these other animals must eat meat and that they are only following their nature. The former is not true: My dog, descended from carnivorous wolves, is quite healthy on a diet of grain-based foods. The latter, while true, is equally applicable to humans, as we are descended of omnivorous primates. Since the animal rights movement gives our meat-eating nature no weight at all, why should non-humans get off any lighter? Just because the wolf does not choose (in the normal sense of that word) to eat the moose does not in any way diminish the suffering of the moose.

In fact, that the wolf is incapable of choosing not to kill the moose is grist for my mill. Most people are capable of choice, and so we must use moral suasion to get them to change their minds in instances where what they are doing is wrong but not illegal. With people incapable of choice (the severely mentally handicapped, for example) we intervene constantly to prevent them from committing unwise and possibly unethical acts which higher-functioning people are permitted to do (for example, smoking, overeating or promiscuous or unsafe sex). Consequently, we must intervene in the case of the wolf (assuming the ethical claims about meat eating are correct) not only for the good of the moose, but for the good of the wolf as well.

While the logistics of substituting Gravy Train for caribou among the wolf packs of the Northwest Territories are daunting, the point still remains: should not animal rights activists be directing their efforts at eliminating beef from the diets of every creature, not just humans? If the few remaining wild specimens are beyond reach, then surely zoos can be influenced. A logical first step would be a letter-writing campaign to convince zoo directors to have all their lions eating Meow Mix instead of meat.

The point of this reductio ad absurdum is that the ethical claims for meat-free diets for humans are on shaky ground indeed. Much better arguments are to be found in the fact that human vegetarianism is cheaper and healthier on both an individual and global basis.

Michael E. Raynor
Ontario, Canada

Peter Singer replies:

Michael Raynor claims that the ethical case against our eating other animals has absurd consequences when applied to the suffering inflicted by nonhuman animals on other animals. Hence, he says, the argument against our eating animals must be invalid.

The problem with Raynor’s attempted reduction ad absurdum is that the consequences are not absurd, just largely unachievable. Insofar as it is true that we can stop the suffering caused by some nonhuman animals to other nonhuman animals without further harmful consequences, we should do so. If lions in zoos can be kept healthy and active on a diet that is free of animal products, I am all in favor of feeding them on that diet. But don’t tell me that I am being inconsistent if I haven’t yet written to zoo directors about this, because firstly, I don’t know that anyone has done a study of alternative diets for lions, and secondly, the amount of meat consumed by lions in zoos must be tiny compared to that eaten by humans, about whose nutritional needs we know a great deal more and who (as Raynor agrees) are probably healthier on a vegetarian diet.

What about wild carnivores like wolves? Raynor says that nonhuman animals inflict “considerably more suffering on [the animals they kill] than was ever done in the abbatoir.” Three points need to be made here.

First, if one focuses on the killing itself, this is sometimes true. But if one includes the entire process of being transported for long distances in trucks, unloading at the abbatoir, waiting in terrifying surroundings, and then being driven up to slaughter, I think humans generally inflict far more suffering than other animals.

Second, why does Raynor focus on abbatoirs anyway? No doubt because the only suffering that animals inflict on other animals is when they kill them. If Raynor had read my Animal Liberation, however, he would have noticed that I give relatively little attention to abbatoirs, and far more to factory farm confinement systems that inflict misery on pigs, calves, and hens not for a few hours but for the entire duration of their lives. No nonhuman animal locks up other animals for months on end in individual crates so small that the animals cannot turn around, walk a single step to and fro, or stretch their limbs. We are doing this to hundreds of millions of animals, in the United States alone, right now. It is totally unnecessary and ecologically disastrous as well. Stopping this is my most urgent concern, and the highest priority of many other animal liberationists too. The quantities of prolonged suffering here must dwarf the shorter, if more acute, death agonies of animals killed by wild carnivores.

Finally, as far as the wolves and the moose are concerned, it is notable that on all the occasions on which this stale argument has been dragged out, no one has put forward a serious proposal for reducing animal suffering without destroying the delicate ecology of the area involved. The reason that animal liberationists do not try to interfere with predator-prey relationships is that they are not as arrogant or stupid as other humans who, over the centuries, have imagined that they know how to rearrange nature by introducing a few rabbits here, or letting some goats run wild there. The outcome of past cases of human interference has been disastrous for the nonhuman animals, and often for the humans as well. There is no reason to believe that the kind of interference Raynor appears to have in mind would turn out differently.

But Raynor knows all this. That is why, in his penultimate paragraph, he switches from wolves to the trivial issue of the diets of lions in zoos. That Raynor should resort to such an obviously frivolous example shows that he is not really serious about exploring ways of reducing animal suffering at all.

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