Philosophy Weekend: Peter Singer, J. M. Coetzee and Animal Ethics

J. M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, a book of essays compiled by Anton Leist and Peter Singer, presents itself as a general overview of philosophical themes — morality, semiotics — in the work of the great South African novelist J. M. Coetzee.

There is plenty of substance to this collection, though anyone familiar with the work of philosopher Peter Singer will detect a false note in the book’s pretense to disinterested objectivity. Peter Singer has devoted his career in academic philosophy to animal rights — his Animal Liberation was published in 1975, and he has championed the cause passionately since then. Human/animal relations is also a persistent theme in the fiction of J. M. Coetzee, and it’s clear that Singer initiated this project as the latest step in his lifelong mission.

Singer’s extensive introductory chapter zooms right into the issue, laying out the position that Coetzee never advocates directly, though his sympathetic characters like David Lurie and Elizabeth Costello do. The treatment of animals in civilized society, these Coetzee characters argue, is a moral disgrace, an evil on par with slavery and genocide.

I’ve heard a wide variety of opinions on animal treatment and vegetarianism. I’m sympathetic towards anirmal rights issues and was once a vegetarian for two solid years (but that was a long time ago, and it ended with a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese at a sleazy McDonalds). Like most people I know, I don’t have a very good personal record of upholding animal rights, though I cringe at YouTube videos of live chickens getting their beaks sliced off at KFC factories, and try to support the “locavore” (local foods) movement, which seems like a positive step forward towards reducing the horrors of vast industrial murder machines slaughterhouses.

But, then, does a cow really benefit by being slaughtered by a “locavore” with an organic knife? Wouldn’t the cow prefer to not be slaughtered at all? These questions are very difficult to answer. Sometimes they’re even difficult to ask.

For me, the question of animal rights is an opening to a moral chasm. I’m uncharacteristically unsure what to say about it. Ever since my crash landing with that Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese many years ago, I’ve avoided returning to vegetarianism. The most ethical position I can claim with a straight face is that I would sincerely pledge to pay more for food if I could be assured it was produced as humanely as possible.

For ethicists like Peter Singer, this is not enough, nowhere near it. There may be a growing movement in the slow wake of Singer’s 1975 manifesto. J. M. Coetzee has allowed himself to become identified with animal rights (though, again, he only speaks through his characters, a luxury that only fiction writers can enjoy). Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent Eating Animals offers another endorsement of the sympathetic position, and this author claims to live according to his beliefs.

The call for animal rights is often seen as shrill, comical, an affront to biological reality. I don’t agree with these criticisms, but I also haven’t found a way to integrate my concern for animal rights into my everyday life. I guess this gives me a helpful constant reminder — a three meals a day reminder — that for all my ethical posturing and philosophical self-pride, I’m basically a hypocrite. Or am I just doing what animals do?

5 Responses

  1. My thirteen year old daughter
    My thirteen year old daughter argues that human beings are crueler than animals because of how we torture animals, in horrible conditions, before we slaughter, cook and eat them. And I think, like these ethics philosophers, that she’s got a point… Probably many of us who aren’t vegetarians see a lot of validity in the animal rights/ethics perspective that urges vegetarianism. But it doesn’t touch us enough on a visceral level to make us give up eating meat.

  2. Since William James was on
    Since William James was on the menu last weekend (pun intended), I think we should try to look at this problem through the lens of Pragmatism. That said, I don’t believe that the call for ethical treatment of animals is silly, but at the same time, I’m not sure that an ethical approach equals some objective truth, like vegetarianism. The argument not to eat meat, it seems to me, is better placed in the realm of the practical. If you want to be healthier, it would probably mean trying to eat less meat, and when you do eat it, that you pick meat from farms that are organic and conscious of the environment. I think there is enough science out there that demonstrates the advantages to both animals and humans when farms take care not to abuse nature (animal, vegetable, or mineral).

    But I think there’s also something else to consider here: farmers and how we view them. If we take Safran Foer’s position, for example, it seems to me that we are saying that farmers who slaughter meat are bad people–or at least they are doing something bad. That’s the way the argument for vegetarianism seems to go. But if you actually talk to people who farm–even some hunters–(and I am neither), you usually walk away with a sense that these people really love and respect the animals they raise. That may bring up another question worthy of discussion: how can people love and respect the animals they routinely kill? I don’t know what the answer to that question is. However, I’ m not so arrogant to dismiss the possibility of it.

    Saffran Foer (just name one) strikes me as a city dweller who is looking at the problem philosophically, in a pre-Jamesian understanding of the word. From that view, the killing of a sentient being is wrong–always, no discussion. But one of the things that James teaches us is that philosophy, if it is to be a living, breathing course of study, must take human psychology into the mix.

    The famers who I have known in my life have a deep respect for the land and for the animals they raise, care for, and then slaughter. How this is possible is probably not clear to many of us because most of us are not willing to walk in their shoes. Which may bring us to another ethical/philosophical rule of thumb: you can’t judge the other if you do not know the other truly. Food for thought (pun intended again.)

  3. I like your Jamesian
    I like your Jamesian analysis, Taoist. Makes sense to me.

    I would like to point out, though, that there seems to be a big difference between traditional farming and industrial-scale meat operations. The YouTube videos that occasionally sneak out from these factory operations show animal living arrangements and slaughterhouse assembly lines that look nothing like anybody’s notion of a wholesome, humane farm. The impression I get is that these animals live miserable short lives in tiny spaces, are fed unnatural concoctions designed to accelerate growth, and are subjected to one factory floor indignity after another until the final indignity of a mechanically induced dismemberment and death. Is this what we call farming?

    I should add a disclaimer that I haven’t researched this very much, so what I’m saying here is simply my impression based on what I’ve seen and read elsewhere. If anybody reading this has been closer to either traditional or industrial farming operations than I have and has anything to say, please do.

  4. My wife and I have abstained
    My wife and I have abstained from eating cows and pigs since 1988, sticking to poultry and fish/seafood for our protein intake. Despite those 22+ years of not eating mammals there is still a huge demand for those products (and products are what they are treated as).

    As the world continues to multiply the demand for food continues multiplying accordingly. Even though animal rights is completely understood by me and many others, I’m sure, hunger comes first. A hungry man cares not about philosophy or religion at least until his belly is full.

    During my 22 years of no mammalian meat eating I’m still surrounded by friends who crave a good steak or a juicy hamburger. It often seems to me that this craving is nothing more than habit based upon memories those meals and the atmosphere they were consumed in. Sitting around a table with friends sharing barbecued cow muscle with the delicious homemade sauce slathered over it and washing it down with a cold beer defies one’s ability to think of the animal’s rights that gave this meal to those whose joy and delight is in the present partying mood.

    I often recall a comment made by a Zen monk when he was served some meat – “don’t insult the cook, the animal is dead.” I’m not quite that generous as I will refuse to eat those ‘products’ that I have abstained from all these years. And this refusal is also based upon my own memories of not eating those meats.

    We are habitual creatures for the most part. There certainly may come a time in the future when our casual consumption of meats will become either too expensive to indulge in or found to be unhealthy in the quantities that we presently eat them, i.e. breakfast, lunch and dinner. We may grow up one day and find out that a vegetarian or even vegan diet is much healthier for our bodies despite what our minds may desire.

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