Recently, the Canada-based Munk Debates program asked me to debate Peter Singer on animal rights. Munk Debates are cultural-issues-oriented debates, presented two per year.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University who came to fame in 1975 with his blockbuster book Animal Liberation. He’s considered the modern guru of animal rights; his thinking and writing fuel the no-livestock agenda.
The resolution for the debate took a while to hash out, beginning with “Eating animals is always wrong” to the final wording: “Be it resolved that animals don’t belong on our plates.” I deeply appreciated the Munk Debate folks steering the resolution to simplicity rather than wordiness. That added precision and elegance to the arguments.
I’ll recap some of the salient points in the debate and then I’ll offer my arguments against the resolution. As livestock farmers, we must be prepared to offer articulate and credible defenses for not only raising livestock, but also for the necessary slaughter, preparation and eating of these animals.
LIVES TO LEAD
Singer emphasized suffering more than anything. I’m sure that throughout his career he has tangled normally with conventional livestock producers and the confinement protocols that approach entails. To have an adversary readily agree that factory farming was unethical, who loved animals enough to respect their physiological attributes (the pigness of pigs and chickenness of chickens) was surely aberrant.
His overriding philosophy, admittedly not a believer in any religion, was that humans are merely highly evolved animals, that there is no real difference as to kind. That gives humans no right to capture and use animals for our purposes; doing so is akin to slavery and colonialism. He said it was unethical to give less attention to animals’ interests than to human interests. Living without livestock, he said, would end the propensity of humans to exploit things.
“Animals have lives of their own to live and we should not deprive them of their ability to live out their lives; it’s the same as the white race capturing and mistreating Africans,” he said, adding that “we don’t consider them as beings that could have lives that go badly.” When I pushed him about plants being able to respond to each other and outside stimuli, he said those reactions are simply biochemical and not choices the plants make. “I don’t think plants are conscious,” he said, although he admitted that earthworms he accidentally sliced with his potato spade were a gray area he had not yet resolved.
I pointed out that it would be quite difficult for Eskimos and impoverished travelers not to eat any fish or animals. Lentils and tomatoes are hard to transport and don’t grow all over the world. He said the debate had nothing to do with these fringes, but what most people eat. I reminded him that “animals don’t belong on our plate” made no concessions to geography, history, social or economic extremes; the topic he agreed to debate was straightforward and all-encompassing. He accused me of debate trickery when I suggested good-naturedly that obviously I won the debate since he conceded there are places and times where his ethics didn’t apply.
We each had a short rebuttal to conclude the debate, and he summed up his position with this statement: “My major argument is to see animals as having lives to lead that can go well or badly, and we as humans have no right to use them for our benefit.”
Some people might argue that I wasted my time getting sucked into this debate with a fellow who clearly is as intransigent as I am. But I think formal exchanges like this can tease out underlying philosophies that help us understand the underpinnings of how people think. And as we push back in a debate, it forces the other side to admit things they might not admit in normal conversation. Clearly, Singer’s main public position, where he’s comfortable, is in denigrating factory farming.
Presented with a farming system that honors and respects animals, he had to dig a little deeper into his ethics foundations. He did admit that pastured livestock would be a helpful ethical step, but immediately retreated into the stereotypical ignorance of the “can’t feed the world” argument and “cattle burps create greenhouse gases” that will turn us all into crispy critters in a few decades. I assured him he was wrong on both those counts.
That’s a synopsis of the debate. Now let me present the arguments I prepared for the negative side of “animals don’t belong on our plates.”
Numerous essential nutrients come from meat, poultry and dairy. Many studies have been highlighted in books authored by Zoë Harcombe, Diana Rodgers, Robb Wolf, Nicolette Niman, Lierre Keith and many others. If you read all these and still believe animals are not important for human nutrition, let’s talk.
Jews, Muslims and even Buddhists have religious rites and festivities centered around slaughtering and eating animals. The Maasai culture is completely wrapped up in cattle. Taking a blanket, all-encompassing position that animals should not be on our plate disrespects and dishonors historical, religious and cultural beliefs. That doesn’t sound very inclusive to me.
No animal-less ecology exists, and we can’t revert to pre-agricultural ecosystems unless we humans vacate. Since that’s not a practical path, domestic livestock must step in to fill the role once filled by the mastodons, bison, passenger pigeons, beavers and other native herds and flocks. These animals performed essential ecological services—from pruning (grazing) to democratizing fertility (grazing in valleys and lounging on hilltops to deposit manure and urine uphill from gravitational movement).
Many a child has been kept alive with milk and slaughtered animals en route to a new place. Whether the trip is flight from unsafe conditions or simply the search for a new place, animals can walk along with migrating humans. And if the humans need food, the animals offer it in real time, no refrigeration required.
Animals offer a level playing field for every stratum in society. The peasant can have the same nutrition as the king. The Eskimo can have the same health as the sultan. Tofu isn’t everywhere, but animals are. Prohibiting animal consumption is ultimately an uncharitable and elitist position. Adding even one egg to the diet of many African children increases IQ several points. Ditto an ounce or two of meat.
HUMAN RESPONSIBILITIES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Animals are not human, and humans are not simply animals. Animals can’t sin; they can only respond. God did not send a Savior to animals. The scientific amoral classification homo sapiens does a major philosophical disservice to the creation pedestal on which humans stand, with its concomitant responsibilities and opportunities. I’ve never seen big animals make way for smaller ones at a feed trough; all animals are bullies. They don’t create culture with art, music, sports and literature. No, my friend, humans are not animals.
All nature is sentient. What we’ve discovered in recent years about the relationships and responses between fungus and trees is revolutionizing our historically simplistic assumptions about plant life. Sugar maples withhold sap in the spring when a wind comes, knowing that if a branch breaks it needs that sap to heal the broken branch wound. When the wind stops, the tree releases sap. When giraffes eat acacia trees, the trees emit pheromones that travel on the wind to alert neighbors, who then change their leaf chemical ratios to make them bitter and less tasty to the giraffes. If all of this isn’t sentience, I don’t know what is.
Death is the precursor to life. Everything is eating and being eaten. If you don’t believe that, go lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. You cannot have life without death; this is perhaps one of the most profound principles in ecology and life. The life, death, decomposition and regeneration cycle illustrated elegantly in a compost pile is a wonderful object lesson of sacrifice and renewal. You can’t have life without death.
What about wild animals? If no animal belongs on our plates, how do you suggest to deal with wild hogs? Exploding deer populations as hunting goes out of vogue are wreaking havoc with automobile insurance actuaries. Even urban sectors now routinely offer hunting lotteries to keep wildlife populations in check. In human history, we’ve never tried a “no hunting” experiment. Such a notion is truly aberrant.
Pastures have far more life than crop fields. If you really want more life and more diversified beings fulfilling their niche in the cosmos, perennial multi-species pastures support far more critters than a mono-crop corn field. From birds to spiders to moles and grasshoppers, a prairie sward offers home and haven to exponentially more beings than a crop field. Let’s choose life.
What about canine pets? Some 25 percent of all meat consumed in the U.S. is eaten by dogs and cats. If animals don’t belong on human plates for reasons that equate to slavery and oppression, how is it ethical to put them on our pets’ plates? Is that not vicariously exhibiting the same issue? If you’re killing animals in order to keep a pet dog, all the ethical arguments advanced for human prohibition apply to pets. Consistent ethics would then deny the use and ownership of therapy animals. Is this where you want to go in your thinking?
From leather to cosmetics, soaps and pharmaceuticals, the massive list of animal-derived products goes far beyond the plate. If we need animals for all these things, what do we do with the rest of the carcass? And if we don’t create an economic opportunity by eating the rest of the animal, what does that do to both price and availability of all these other beneficial products?
In the end, my position was how aberrant our debate was in light of history. The fact that Singer and I both lived in a culture with the stability and luxury to spend an hour discussing whether eating animals was ethical was in itself evidence that we live in unprecedented times. Throughout most of human history, our ancestors skated close to starvation. If they could catch something, trap it or shoot it, they could live another day.
This debate, in my view, does not illustrate a new awareness or an evolution in consciousness, but a profound devolution into extreme disconnection with our ecological umbilical and an overall decline into spiritual depravity. In your conversations defending the sacredness and importance of pastured livestock, be kind but firm, authentic and respectful. Now go pet your cows.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2022🖨️ Print post