Singer's argument, as first laid out in an essay in 1971, isn't hard to follow. "If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it ... If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing." As he added, however, the "uncontroversial appearance" of this argument is deceptive. Considerations of distance, or of how many potential rescuers there might be, are irrelevant to Singer: the child you see dying of malnutrition or a preventable disease on the foreign news has as much of a claim on you as the child in the pond. Spending your surplus income on consumer treats rather than efforts to end extreme poverty, he concludes, isn't greatly different morally from leaving the toddler to drown.People in rich countries who wish to act decently should, this implies, be giving away a much larger share of their earnings than almost any are willing to contemplate.
Singer says: When I published Animal Liberation, I thought - and I still think - that the argument was completely irrefutable, rationally, and that people should have just said, 'Oh, yes, well, this is obviously true, we've got to become vegetarian or vegan and change many things.' Well, some people have done that - I have no idea what the tally is, but it must be tens or hundreds of thousands of people. But, you know, it's still a minority view.
That actually is the effect the book had on me. I bought a copy for 10 cents at a tag sale in Townshend, Vermont, while visiting my father in Newfane; read the book overnight; realized my only justification for eating meat was philosophically ludicrous; became a vegetarian overnight.
My justification for eating meat, since you was ask, was (this embarrassing): Non-human animals kill other animals for food. Humans are animals. So why shouldn't we eat meat? (Or rather, strictly speaking: why shouldn't we kill for meat? Why shouldn't we let other people kill animals for us and sell us the corpses?)
Non-human meat, presumably, but this was more in the way of a latent assumption than something I had ever spent much time analysing. Which was exactly the point. When we think about moral questions, we don't normally ask whether something is right by observing behaviour of non-human animals; while a great many people were outraged by a woman who had octuplets she could not afford to rear, no one suggested she should eat 6 or 7 of them ("Nature's solution"), and we can easily multiply types of behaviour we shouldn't dream of taking as models. So what made eating meat a special case? Well, um, the fact that I had been brought up from childhood eating meat and had never bothered to think about it.
The question that let me to file this in the drafts folder, though, was: all right, but why is it that simply seeing that this was a bad argument was enough to make me change? The force of the argument has had no effect whatsoever on any member of my family; my mother, father and sister went on cheerfully eating meat, the arguments as presented by me carried no weight, and to the best of my knowledge none ever bothered to read Singer.
It's not that they thought they had good arguments; arguments are not the kind of thing that matter in my family. All were animal lovers, but love of animals was also not the kind of thing that carried through. The power of convention took precedence over all other considerations - and here we come, really, to the crux of the matter. My family are not people with a deepseated horror of being influenced by mere power of convention; they do not look at each common assumption in the light of millennia of oppression of women, or the longstanding claims for "naturally inferior races", or the still widespread prejudice against homosexuals; their heroes are not people like Socrates, Mill, Shaw, Russell, people with the courage to think through an issue without regard for the habits of their society, the ridicule of their contemporaries.
John Lanchester (yes, it's Lanchester week) recently spoke of René Girard's theory of desire as imitation: we don't simply desire something for itself, but in imitation of a model who desires it. I should like to think I had a love of rationality for its own sake, but that love of reason is indissociable from my love of persons who have loved it and shown courage and resolution in acting upon its dictates.
Mill was brought up by a father with an extensive knowledge of philosophy and commitment to rational argument. (Amartya Sen has pointed out that the rationalism of Mill père did not extend to the use of evidence, hence of primary sources, in his assessment of the peoples of India; as a rationalist, however, Sen is in the happy position of being able to feel that the principles of argument are not discredited by a flawed authority.) Mill's education makes his indifference to conventional wisdom understandable. But Russell!
Russell was born in 1872. His parents were Utilitarians (J S Mill was his godfather). Russell's mother died of diphtheria in 1874; his father died in 1876. His father's will - I am now relying on memory, since I don't see the details online - assigned guardianship of Russell and his older brother Frank to two Utilitarians; one, his brother's tutor, was an avowed atheist. Russell's grandmother, the Countess Russell, was a devout Christian (a Presbyterian acc. to Wikipedia); she succeeded in having the will overturned and getting custody of the children. And Russell - I suppose it helped that he had an extraordinary gift for mathematics - somehow reasoned his way past the mass of ill-founded, inconsistent, generally accepted beliefs, with nothing in the early years but Euclid, as far as I can see, to stand by him. (His grandmother did give him a Bible with this verse from Exodus inscribed on the fly-leaf: Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; it may have had consequences she did not anticipate.)
At any rate. When I read Animal Liberation I did think that Singer's arguments were correct. If you an accept an argument as correct, of course, you do not have to act on this, and most people don't. The price of failing to do so, though, is that you then have to live with the fact that you are nothing like the people you most admire.
Most of the time, living up to the people we most admire is hard work. How can I ever live up to Mill, who ran for Parliament in 1862 on a platform that included women's suffrage? How I can I possibly live up to Russell? How can I possibly live up to Amartya Sen? But let's say I'm a cash-strapped graduate student. I'm living primarily on peanut butter and jam sandwiches. The only time eating meat is an option is when I go out to dinner. So all I have to do is order vegetarian curries at Indian restaurants, or pasta al pesto at Italian restaurants, and mention to hosts that I'm a vegetarian, and at a stroke I have transformed dietary practices (which never interested me much in the first place) into an expression of solidarity with people of a moral stature I can never hope to attain. Wow. If only life were always that easy.
Now Singer, as far as I can remember, never invoked great rationalists of the past in Animal Liberation; I don't think he said "Those of us who love Socrates, who love Spinoza, who love Mill, who love Russell, will not want to find ourselves, in the face of compelling arguments, siding with the multitude." I also don't think he said "Do not thou follow a multitude to do evil." But anyone who has read, as it might be, Mill on the subjection of women, will be repelled to find him or herself going through the kinds of logical contortion which were once performed to justify denying women the vote, education, access to the professions. The thing that's disgusting is not eating meat; the thing that's disgusting is giving head room to crap.
The thing that's interesting, anyway, is not the fact that this particular reader was influenced in this particular way. The thing that's interesting is that this particular triangulation of desire seems in fact to be more outré than vegetarianism itself, in fact than any kind of mere practical consideration of animal welfare.
Some years ago David Foster Wallace wrote a piece, Consider the Lobster, for Gourmet magazine; the piece went on at great length about the evidence for the sentience of the lobster, the extent to which apparent signs of suffering in a creature being boiled to death should be taken as evidence of suffering, the extent to which this should affect our eating habits. DFW's primary concern, it seemed, was to avoid sounding preachy, to avoid sounding as though he had any answers. To this reader, the piece displayed a startling degree of willingness to give head room to crap. But what's really going on? Well, there is an implied triangulation of desire, in which the desired object is behaving in a way that implies no criticism of anyone else's behaviour. The implied model is not someone who will not follow a multitude to do evil; the model is someone who doesn't want to make the multitude uncomfortable. DFW can't just say: This is the evidence; I love Socrates, I love Spinoza, I love Mill, I love Russell, so I can't eat the fuckers. When I say "can't", I mean: the assumption is, presumably, that the multitude just is the multitude. In 100,000 readers you will get 4 who respond not just to the appeal to reason, but to the reminder of great outliers of the past. (We're talking Poisson distribution, not normal, and the Poisson is not much use to publishers of a magazine.)
Jonathan Safran Foer has been writing about vegetarianism. I read an interview on The Young and the Hungry:
What made you decide to become a vegetarian?
I've become a vegetarian many times in my life. I've gone on and off, and different times have been inspired by different reasons. I started when I was nine, very simply because I didn't want to hurt animals. It was totally uncomplicated. And then as I've gotten older the reasoning has changed. I've thought more about environmental issues, workers rights issues, sustainability issues, the wastefulness. At the end of the day it's probably still, mostly, because of animals. I guess what I mean is the older I've grown, the stronger the argument against eating meat has become in my eyes.
You mentioned that you were vegan for a bit, but it didn't stick. Why didn't it work?
I'm going to try it again now. It didn't stick because my wife became pregnant and she had to eat certain things, or we felt at the time that she did, and it wasn't fair for me to take a step in a direction that I think she would want to as well. Also it's very hard. Vegetarianism is very easy. Anyone who says it's hard really isn't trying, in New York. Veganism is hard. It separates you from a lot of social occasions. I don't think there's any restaurant in the city where you can't eat easily as a vegetarian. Any steakhouse will have enough good things to eat. Eating as a vegan would preclude a lot of restaurants and a lot of occasions.
Anyone familiar with JSF's style of interview will know that he - I was going to say goes out of his way to sound like a friendly, accessible, normal human being, but maybe that's just rampant intentionalism. My understanding is that JSF studied philosophy at Princeton; it's not, I take it, that he is unfamiliar with philosophical rigour in ethical matters; it's just, it seems, that this is a style of discourse that might come across as judgmental and unfriendly. So the implied object of desire is not action chosen for the right reasons, following the example of past rejecters of ill-founded convention; the implied object of desire is action which implies friendly accommodation to others who act differently, following the example of unthreatening people who pursue courses of action without "imposing their views".
Have not read Singer's new book so am in no position to comment on it, and the battery is about to go.