Hypocrisy on the High Seas
In a new article published by the German newspaper, Die Welt, Australian philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer attempts to shift the international debate over whale hunting and slaughter from protecting an endangered species to protecting whales as “social mammals with big brains, capable of enjoying life and of feeling pain – and not only physical pain, but very likely also distress at the loss of one of their group.” In doing so, he turns the tables on Westerners who condemn whale hunting while continuing to support other forms of hunting, and to consume the bodies and secretions of other morally relevant ‘factory farmed’ beings. However, it is odd that he narrows the hypocrisy to consuming factory farmed beings. After all, animals bred, confined and killed in non-intensive conditions have as much an interest in avoiding pain, suffering and death as factory farmed animals, much less free-swimming whales.
Singer’s basic assertion in this piece is that it is impossible to humanely kill whales, and thus whaling is unethical. It’s hard to disagree with this statement, though whaling is unethical even if suffering could be eliminated, and it begs the question of whether it is possible to humanely kill other beings. Later in the article, Singer refers to sentience as a basis for extending moral consideration to other beings (“the wrongness of causing needless suffering to sentient beings is not culturally specific”) but, unfortunately for some animals, he does not seem to view sentience as a sufficient characteristic for protection from being unnecessarily treated as a means to human ends. When it comes to the wrongness of unnecessarily killing sentient beings for our purposes, presumably without causing them suffering, Singer looks to their cognitive capacity, a characteristic that is irrelevant to whether or not they deserve moral consideration.
Are some animals more equal than others?
While Singer maintains that an animal’s sentience is sufficient for us to avoid unnecessarily causing him or her any pain or suffering, it is conceivable under his theory that unnecessarily killing certain animals could be justified. One gets the impression from his work that it does not harm some animals to be killed, assuming it is done painlessly. In his book, Practical Ethics, he states that there is
no single answer to the question: ‘Is it normally wrong to take the life of an animal?’ The term ‘animal’–even in the restricted sense of ‘non-human animal’–covers too diverse a range of lives for one principle to apply to all of them.
Here he determines quite arbitrarily that sentience alone is insufficient for determining whether or not it is acceptable to kill animals in the normal course of events. For Singer, there must be some criteria other than sentience we must take into account when giving equal consideration to their continued existence:
Some non-human animals appear to be rational and self-conscious, conceiving of themselves as distinct beings with a past and a future. When this is so, or to the best of our knowledge may be so, the case against killing is strong, as strong as the case against killing permanently intellectually disabled human beings at a similar mental level.
Singer basically layers cognitive capacities over sentience in order to determine whether or not it is morally acceptable for us to (painlessly) kill other beings. For Singer, the wrongness of (painlessly) killing animals derives from the loss of pleasure that it may involve, not ignoring an individual being’s interest in continuing to exist. So, even if a whale could somehow be killed painlessly, it would still be wrong to kill her because she presumably has a sense of self, a sense of the future, and because any calves she had might suffer psychologically (and even physically) from the loss.
This theory is all well and good for cetaceans, primates of all species and probably most mammals, but what of beings with diminished, indiscernible, or simply no higher cognitive abilities? Do they not have an interest in continuing to survive? We can’t say that they do, for that would be biologically and evolutionarily counterintuitive, regardless of their ability to conceive of themselves, the future, or any other cognitive characteristics. All sentient beings have an interest in survival, so any additional criteria are irrelevant.
Sentience: The basis for animal rights
Apparently Singer believes that non-rational, non-self-conscious sentient beings do not have an interest in continuing to exist, which justifies taking their lives for our benefit so long as it is done painlessly and so long as we replace such beings with new ones to continue experiencing pleasure in their stead, as if individual beings are somehow replaceable. He asserts that a “wrong done to an existing being can be made up for by a benefit conferred on an as yet non-existent being.”
First of all, if killing a being is wrong, as Singer states it is, shouldn’t we avoid committing that wrong in the first place? Second, this statement suggests that the individual matters less than that individual’s capacity to sense. As long as the sensations continue, the individual sensing them appears to be totally interchangeable.
How might we replace individual beings with like beings? Animals are not inanimate, insensate household furnishings you can replace at will with a quick trip to IKEA. In fact, it is this attitude toward animals that leads to problems like overpopulated shelters and rampant animal cruelty. Unlike furniture, sentient beings have a demonstrable interest in continued existence, whether or not they are rational and self-conscious, and so it harms them to end their lives, regardless of whether or not they are killed painlessly, much less “replaced” by someone else.
Even if we were able to find a suitable replacement, we would not permit the slaughter and consumption of a human being who lacks self-awareness and is irrational. This is not simply out of concern for such a person’s familial attachments, nor is it due to species bias, though that may well be the rationale some individuals use. Ultimately the reason that we do not as a general matter permit the slaughter and consumption of such mentally incapacitated human beings is because we recognize that depriving them of further existence would harm them irrevocably.
By the same token, there is no justification for slaughtering and consuming nonhuman animals. As with human beings, their sentience is a sufficient criterion for us to also protect their interest in continued existence with a legal prohibition, or the basic right to not be treated as a means to our own ends.
Rights? What rights?
Of course, Singer rejects the existence of rights, beyond the term’s rhetorical usefulness, so how are we to protect whales under his theory, much less any other beings? He does not prescribe any remedy, other than perhaps an intimation that a morally wrong activity such as whaling ought to be rejected by those in the society that perpetrates the activity, such as Japan. In turn, anyone who objects to whaling would be hypocritical not to reject the killing of any other rational, self-aware beings–such as pigs, cows and, yes, chickens–even if it were done painlessly. But what of those that continue to accept whaling or steak-eating as morally acceptable? Without prohibitions that ban the use of nonhuman animals as a means to our ends, such practices will continue, however unpopular various types use may become.
Many countries provide basic rights for humans to avoid this very problem. Most of us agree that it is wrong to treat humans as a means to our own ends. But because some people do not agree with us, we have passed laws as a means of protecting humans from such people. Any justification for failing to extend similar basic rights to any sentient nonhumans is arbitrary, as they too have a demonstrable interest in not being used as a means to human ends.
If basic rights are legislated on behalf of any beings, they must be legislated on the basis of their sentience, not their cognitive capacity. Otherwise the law(s) would unjustly exclude morally relevant sentient beings. By focusing on whales–and on their cognitive capacity in particular–we risk seeing such laws passed, creating a new, arbitrarily-derived hierarchy under which some sentient beings could legally be harmed.
Certainly we should not ignore the plight of hunted whales. But we must encourage people to see whales as representative of every sentient being, and to encourage an attitude toward all beings that is consistent with their attitude toward whales. We should be asking that every sentient being is accorded the right not to be treated as a means to human ends, not just those with big brains. Otherwise, we too are hypocrites.
 The point of this entry is not for me to sit behind a computer and take potshots at Peter Singer, but to critically assess his argument, as everyone should. Because this site aims to promote animal-friendly living, in particular living a life that is consistent with respecting the interests animals have in not being used as a means to human ends, it is my goal here to further clarify the positions animal advocates ought to be taking publicly if they intend to abolish animal exploitation.
I appreciate that Singer and others are attempting to turn the international debate over whaling into one that focuses on the moral problem of unnecessarily harming animals for our benefit, rather than merely the conservation of “natural resources”. However, I am concerned about the repercussions of his exclusive approach. If we base our attitude toward animals on their intelligence, and not on their sentience, we risk leaving morally relevant beings out of the discussion, and that would merely perpetuate the speciesism we are attempting to end.