Peter Singer, eating meat, and the ethical treatment of animals

Peter Singer has an op/ed piece over at the Guardian today about the changes (for both good and bad) in the world's consumption and treatment of animals since he originally published Animal Liberation in 1975:

In 1971, when a few other students and I set up a display in Oxford to show passers-by how their eggs and veal were produced, people asked if we really imagined that we could win against the political and financial might of the agribusiness industry. But the animal movement has challenged that industry with success, achieving reforms across the entire European Union that require farm animals to have more space and better living conditions, and similar changes have now become law in California as well. Admittedly, these changes are still far from giving factory-farmed animals decent lives, but they are a significant improvement on what was standard practice before the reforms came into effect.

Perhaps even more satisfying is the number of people who have abandoned eating animals entirely, and the others who have cut down their meat consumption for ethical reasons. In the 1970s, to be a vegetarian was to be a crank – a thought reflected in the self-mocking name of what was then London’s best vegetarian restaurant, Cranks. If you used the term “vegan” you invariably got a blank look and had to explain what it meant.

Singer is an interesting guy, and while he can be rather strident, I largely agree with a lot of what he has to say. Animal Liberation spends a good deal of its time and space presenting an uncompromising picture of the generally terrible conditions and treatment suffered by animals at the hands of humans in the food and other industries. In Singer's conception of utilitarianism, this widespread mistreatment of animals outweighs any conceivable good outcomes.

This particular op/ed is short and does not go particularly deep. It did, however, cause me to stop and think a bit about my own habits.

I used to eat meat. I rarely eat it any more. Six or seven years ago, I had entirely stopped eating meat at home, due to having a vegan family member. I like to cook, and learning to cook tasty food that didn't involve meat was an interesting challenge. However, I continued to eat meat of all kinds when I was traveling or when we went out to eat. Then, one Thanksgiving, I was watching one of those videos that periodically circulate, wherein someone has snuck a camera into a turkey factory. Watching conveyor belts full of baby turkeys being dumped into industrial grinders, I found myself thinking "I need to stop eating meat."

I still occasionally eat some fish when I'm traveling for work, but that's about it. It was and remains a personal decision for me. I'm not comfortable with the manner in which a meat-based diet at scale requires us to treat animals. Beyond that, while feeding millions of people is always going to involve trade-offs, regardless of diet, it does not make a lot of sense to me that we grow a bunch of plants, feed them to animals, then eat the animals. It seems like a lot of waste, and I question its environmental sustainability.

I tend to think that personal choices and behavior like this exists along a spectrum. Ideally, I'd be vegan, but while that is easier than it used to be (depending on where one lives), it is still pretty tough. I still eat cheese and the very occasional egg, and as I stated above, sometimes fish. On the whole, it is a balance I can maintain, and I feel better about it than I would about not having made any change to my traditional diet at all.

People get really crazy about this kind of stuff, though. If I click publish on this post, I imagine some will take it as judgmental, so sort of "Look at how I'm better than you" sort of announcement. Personally, I don't really care what you choose to eat. Everyone makes their own choices for their own reasons. I may or may not have my opinions about that, but I don't need to beat anyone over the head with them.

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