Moral philosopher and Princeton University professor Peter Singer will discuss his new book, “Why Vegan? Eating Ethically,” during Labyrinth Books’ livestream event set for Tuesday, December 8, at 6 p.m.
Presented in partnership with the Princeton Public Library, Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, Princeton University Humanities Council, the High Meadows Environmental Institute at Princeton University, and the Food, Ethics, Psychology Conference, the in-conversation session also features Andrew Chignell, a Princeton University professor specializing in ethics, religion, and philosophy.
The Australia-born Singer became internationally known through his books “Animal Liberation” (1975), “Practical Ethics” (1979), “The Reproduction Revolution” (1984, co-authored with Deane Wells), and “Should the Baby Live?” (1986).
On his personal website, he writes, “Journalists have bestowed on me the tag of ‘world’s most influential living philosopher.’ They are probably thinking of my work on the ethics of our treatment of animals, often credited with starting the modern animal rights movement, and of the influence that my writing has had on development of effective altruism. I am also known for my controversial critique of the sanctity of life ethics in bioethics.”
On that latter point, The Atlantic magazine noted in 2013, “Singer is one of the world’s most controversial philosophers. He supports a parent’s right to end the life of a severely disabled infant and argues that animal and human suffering are on an exactly equal moral level; his views have inspired both fervent admiration and fierce denunciation. Shortly after Singer first arrived at Princeton in September 1999, billionaire publisher Steve Forbes told Princeton’s trustees that he would stop giving money to the university until Singer left. The trustees refused to rescind the appointment. Still, Singer has been what the New York Times once called a ‘public relations nightmare’ for his employer. Nevertheless, over the decade since Singer first arrived at the university, his Practical Ethics course has become famous on campus, enrolling nearly 400 students this past semester.’
Singer says in the introduction of “Why Vegan?” — a collection of essays spanning several decades — that while his writings against eating animals go back 47 years the fact that they are appearing again suggests both a relevancy and a problem and restates his arguments.
“It would have been so much better if we could put them in the same category as arguments against slavery: of historical interest, but no more than that today. Our ethics regarding animals are still a long way from reaching that point. Never the less , the extraordinary spread of vegan food over the past decade, coupled with the billions of dollars invested in developing plant-based alternatives to meat, has brought the goal of a vegan world from fantasy to a possible future.”
He then states that the movement has become strong because of three main concerns: animals, climate change, and personal health.
“It was the first of these that led me to become a vegetarian in January 1971. Shortly before that, I had learned some facts about the way the animals I was eating were treated before they were killed. I talked about it with Renata, my wife. We could not justify supporting those practices through our purchase, so we stopped eating meat.”
He says it was not until the 1980s that he became aware of how the meat industry contributed to problems related to climate change — something that could be corrected by people changing their diets.
Regarding health, Singer writes, “In 2011, when Bill Clinton, looking healthier and slimmer than he had in many years, revealed that he had become a near-vegan to reduce the danger of heart disease it was a sign that health concerns were leading people to eliminate, or drastically reduce, their intake of animal foods, and it influenced more to follow Clinton’s example. I have no special expertise in health or nutrition, so I have investigated that aspect of avoiding animal products only to the extent required to assure myself that it is no less healthy than a diet including animal products. Experts in nutrition generally recommend that vegans take a B-12 supplement, but as long as that is done, vegans generally enjoy health at least as good as those of meat-eaters. Given the animal- and climate-related reasons for avoiding animal products, that is reason enough to change your diet.”
Singer then brings up a startling meat-related health consideration: “In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic brought a fourth reason for avoiding meat. The pandemic appears to have come to humans via the so-called ‘wet markets’ in Wuhan, China. Wet markets are places where live animals, sometimes including wild animals, are sold and then slaughtered on the spot for the purchaser. They are hell for the animals, and as we know now, a major health hazard. But Westerners who blame China for allowing markets in wild animals need to look at what they are eating themselves. The factory farms that produce their meat and eggs crowd tens of thousands of animals into a single shed, creating an ideal environment for viruses to multiply and mutate. The 2009 swine flu pandemic appears to have come from a pig farm in North Carolina, and different forms of bird flu have started in intensive chicken farms. At least one of them — H5N1 — was far more lethal than COVID-19. Moving away from meat, whether from wild animals or from factory farms, would reduce the risk of another pandemic that could make COVID-19 look like a minor problem.”
Singer says one of the main obstacles to embracing animal rights and a vegan diet is habit. “Habits not only of diet but also of thought and language must be challenged and altered. Habits of thought lead us to brush aside descriptions of cruelty to animals as emotional, for ‘animal-lovers only’; or if not that, then anyway the problem is so trivial in comparison to the problems of human beings that no sensible person could give it time and attention. This too is a prejudice — for how can one know that a problem is trivial until one has taken the time to examine its extent?”
He adds that the challenge is that the argument “has to be expressed in a language which in this case happens to be English. The English language, like other languages, reflects the prejudices of its users. So authors who wish to challenge these prejudices are in a well-known type of bind: either they use language that reinforces the very prejudices they wish to challenge, or else they fail to communicate with their audience. This book has already been forced along the former of these paths. We commonly use the word ‘animal’ to mean ‘animals other than human beings.’ This usage sets humans apart from other animals, implying that we are not ourselves animals — an implication that everyone who has had elementary lessons in biology knows to be false.”
To continue discussion, there is Singer’s 96 page “Why Vegan? Eating Ethically,” published by Norton and priced at $15.95. Or register for the December 8 Labyrinth livestream by going to www.labyrinthbooks.com.