Q&A with Peter Singer
Peter Singer interviewed by Kathleen McGinn
U.S. 1, November, 2006
Princeton's Peter Singer is no stranger to controversy. The Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Singer routinely receives packages addressed to him after they have been sent through an airport-like scanner. On occasion the university has posted guards in his classroom. When Singer came to Princeton in 1999, 200 protesters showed up at his first lecture, and he has been confronted on campus by wheelchair-bound people enraged by his views on euthanasia.
The author of the 1975 "Animal Liberation," which made him the leading light of the animal rights movement, Singer is currently involved in a campaign to grant personhood to great apes.
A mild, soft-spoken man, Singer is outside of mainstream thought - or perhaps ahead of it - in views such as the ones he discussed with the Princeton Alumni Weekly in January, 2000.
During that interview, he stated that religion has a major impact on people's ethical reasoning, "basically in stopping people from thinking." Also, asked when a baby becomes a person, and therefore has a right to life, he responded that "babies become persons when they develop some kind of awareness of themselves as existing over time. That is, when they can grasp that they are the same being who existed previously and who may exist in the future."
Attacking capitalists where they live, Singer, who gives 20 percent of his salary to relief organizations, has written that a person who buys a luxury car, rather than giving the cost of the car to an organization dedicated to saving the very poor from starvation, is committing murder.
At the same time, he believes that euthanasia can be a morally correct choice, particularly at the beginning and the end of life. The issue hit home when his mother, Cora, became ill with Alzheimer's disease and deteriorated to the point where she was no longer able to recognize him. After her (natural) death, he admitted that the decision to end a person's life is "different" when it's your mother. Singer's parents were Viennese Jews who escaped to Australia in 1938. Three of his four grandparents died in the Holocaust.
He draws intense reactions - not all of them negative - from all quarters.
"You could make a case that Peter Singer has done more good than anyone else alive," wrote Mark Oppenheimer, author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door," in the Christian Century magazine in July, 2002. "Singer didn't give us cruelty-free cosmetic production or vegetarian restaurants, but he has done more than anyone to popularize such ideas. What's more, by writing persuasive articles about people's moral obligations to give away money, Singer has caused tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars to be donated to famine relief organizations."
As plans were unfolding for the major conference on ethical eating being organized in part by Singer, U.S. 1's Kathleen McGinn Spring and Singer discussed his views on the ethical consequences of our food choices in an E-mail exchange:
U.S. 1 Newspaper: How did you decide to organize your book, "The Way We Eat," around the stories of three families?
Peter Singer: We were looking to make the connection between the way the products are produced and what our readers are buying and eating. Going shopping with three different families, eating with them, and then tracing the products they bought and ate, seemed a good way to do it.
U.S. 1: It seems that a lot of the concern that ecologically aware people have about what to eat revolves around vegetables. People are willing to go out of their way to buy local produce, even when it is inconvenient, but there doesn't seem to be a similar concern about choosing grass-fed meat or free range poultry, or foregoing meat and poultry altogether. Do you see a similar pattern?
Singer: At the moment, organic fruit and vegetables are probably easier to obtain, and often they taste better. (In New Jersey, they are only local during the season, though.) There isn't as much local and organic meat around, as yet. But that will come.
U.S. 1: Is the moral status of a throw-away animal, such as a pig raised for slaughter, different from that of a cherished animal, such as a pet dog?
Singer. No. It is indefensible that farmers can lock a sow in a crate so small that she can't even turn around - and keep her there for months on end - whereas no one would tolerate that treatment of a dog.
U.S. 1: Given the factors of car culture, long commutes, two working-parent families, and the "how can it be wrong if everyone does it" attitude toward the standard American diet, what hope do you have for substantial change in American eating habits? In what time frame?
Singer: As Yogi Berra said, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. So let's focus on the present. Things are changing already. Many people realize that the standard American diet is a disaster, that it leads to increasing obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. It is also environmentally unsustainable, because it relies on oil, and taxpayer subsidies for corn. Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the American food industry. The sales of fair trade products are also increasing rapidly. None of this is mainstream yet, but let's see where they are in another decade or two.
U.S. 1: Do you think that pressure for legislation regarding regulation of factory farming practices will grow?
Singer: I'm sure it will. It's going to become an issue in New Jersey, where the legislature, back in 1996, required the Department of Agriculture to set "humane standards" for farm animals. The Department set standards that suit agribusiness very well, but are grossly inhumane. They failed to have any beneficial impact at all on the welfare of animals in New Jersey. Under these standards, pigs can still be kept in crates too narrow for them to turn around, and hens live out their entire lives in cages that would be too small for them to stretch their wings in, even if there were only one bird per cage, rather than the 6 or more that most American egg producers cram into each cage. I hope your readers will let Governor Corzine know what they think about that.
U.S. 1: Michael Pollan, acknowledging that eating meat is not necessary and that many animals raised for food endure a life of suffering, tries out a vegetarian diet, but finds that it gets in the way of social relationships and traditions - dinner parties and Thanksgiving dinners, for example. Have you found a way to lessen any strain that comes from being alienated "from a whole dimension of human experience"?
Singer: I'm not alienated. I go to lots of dinner parties, and we have Thanksgiving with friends and cook and eat splendid vegetarian feasts. There's lots of wonderful meals that don't have a piece of dead animal at the center of them.
Of course, moral progress does involve abandoning some traditions. We don't put people in stocks, or have or public hangings in the town square any more. No doubt some regretted abandoning those traditions, too.
U.S. 1: What response do you have to Michael Pollan's assertion that the domestication of animals has, right up until the advent of factory farming, been a good thing for them?
Singer: I don't know how he does that calculation. It may have been good for those that were reared by farmers who really cared for them, but we shouldn't romanticize "the good old days." There was a lot of cruelty then, too. Still, I'll grant Pollan this - before factory farming, a significant proportion of farm animals probably had lives worth living. Since factory farming became dominant, the overwhelming majority of farmed animals have lived miserable lives.
U.S. 1: Do you ever indulge in what you refer to in your book as "the Paris exemption," the loop-hole that some vegetarians allow themselves when eating in extraordinary restaurants?
Singer You mean eat meat when I'm at a gourmet restaurant in Paris? No, I wouldn't even enjoy that. But I might not be a strict vegan when traveling. It's not a matter of purity for me, it's a question of not supporting producers who abuse animals. If occasionally, when it is difficult to do otherwise, I eat something that has some animal products in it, I'm not going to fret too much about that.
U.S. 1: Where do you like to eat in Princeton?
Singer: I like Tiger Noodles, it's good value, and they have some excellent vegetarian dishes. Masala Grill has very good Indian food.
U.S. 1: Where do you like to shop for food in Princeton?
Singer: Whole Earth is my favorite store, but Wild Oats is very close, and since I'm either on foot or on my bike, I go there too.
U.S. 1: Do you think that in some cases Whole Food, and stores like it, lull consumers into complacency by putting "organic" and "humanely raised" labels on eggs and milk that have been obtained in a way that a fully-informed consumer, going out of his way to ensure that no harm is done, would find repellent?
Singer: It's not Whole Foods that is putting these labels on - if consumers have complaints, they need to take them up with the US Department of Agriculture, for the organic standards, and whoever is responsible for the "humanely raised" labels. But yes, you are right, they can be misleading. I'm hopeful that when Whole Foods introduces its own standards, they'll be better ones.
U.S. 1: Do you think that one or two or three generations down the line treatment of factory farmed animals will look as appalling to our descendants as human slavery now looks to us?
Singer: Yes, exactly. Children will look back in horror and ask their parents: "How could you turn a blind eye to a system that inflicts suffering on animals on such a vast scale?"