Suppose that you believed that animals’ utility counted for more than zero. If an animal suffers, that matters more than just because it makes people upset that that animal is suffering – it would matter even if nobody knew it was happening. An animal’s suffering would count for less than a human’s in almost all cases, because a person has greater awareness. But, all else equal, less suffering is better.
If you start from that position, as Peter Singer does, can you ever defend eating animals?
In September, the Christchurch Word Festival invited me to chat with Peter Singer about his new book, The Most Good You Can Do. I had a ridiculously good time. But this is the bit about which I’m most happy. I gave Singer the example of Canterbury lamb, which is raised out on the paddock and generally seems joyful barring the bad day at the end. Isn’t it good that that lamb gets to exist because I eat it? Singer’s reply:
“I think that there is a defensible argument for saying that if the purchase of Canterbury lamb is a necessary condition for lambs to have what is for 99% of their existence a really good life and even the bad days are not like a day of being tortured for 24 hours… I do think that that … would be a defensible diet.”
I put more of it, and the full podcast, at Offsetting Behaviour. But I’m pretty happy that I got the world’s foremost animal rights ethicist to agree that I can eat Canterbury lamb. If anyone’s ever heard Singer on this point before, let me know. It would be fun, but a bit surprising, if this were a first.
I succeeded that night in really really annoying the two main groups of Peter Singer fans in attendance. The first group are the campaigners who want a lot more transfers to help the poor in New Zealand; I had Singer highlight that we should be cutting budgets here to send more to poor people abroad. And the second group of animal rights activists did not seem at all happy about the “it’s ok to eat free range lamb” part. So very very much fun.