Chapter 6. Teleological Theories : Utilitarianism

Section 9. Example: Peter Singer and non-humans

This article from

An Animal's Place

November 10, 2002

The first time I opened Peter Singer's ''Animal Liberation,'' I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare. If this sounds like a good recipe for cognitive dissonance (if not indigestion), that was sort of the idea. Preposterous as it might seem, to supporters of animal rights, what I was doing was tantamount to reading ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' on a plantation in the Deep South in 1852.

Singer and the swelling ranks of his followers ask us to imagine a future in which people will look back on my meal,
and this steakhouse, as relics of an equally backward age. Eating animals, wearing animals, experimenting on animals,
killing animals for sport: all these practices, so resolutely normal to us, will be seen as the barbarities they are, and we will come to view ''speciesism'' -- a neologism I had encountered before only in jokes -- as a form of discrimination as indefensible as racism or anti-Semitism.

Even in 1975, when ''Animal Liberation'' was first
published, Singer, an Australian philosopher now teaching
at Princeton, was confident that he had the wind of history
at his back. The recent civil rights past was prologue, as
one liberation movement followed on the heels of another.
Slowly but surely, the white man's circle of moral
consideration was expanded to admit first blacks, then
women, then homosexuals. In each case, a group once thought
to be so different from the prevailing ''we'' as to be
undeserving of civil rights was, after a struggle, admitted
to the club. Now it was animals' turn.

That animal liberation is the logical next step in the
forward march of moral progress is no longer the fringe
idea it was back in 1975. A growing and increasingly
influential movement of philosophers, ethicists, law
professors and activists are convinced that the great moral
struggle of our time will be for the rights of animals.

So far the movement has scored some of its biggest
victories in Europe. Earlier this year, Germany became the
first nation to grant animals a constitutional right: the
words ''and animals'' were added to a provision obliging
the state to respect and protect the dignity of human
beings. The farming of animals for fur was recently banned
in England. In several European nations, sows may no longer
be confined to crates nor laying hens to ''battery cages''
-- stacked wired cages so small the birds cannot stretch
their wings. The Swiss are amending their laws to change
the status of animals from ''things'' to ''beings.''

Though animals are still very much ''things'' in the eyes
of American law, change is in the air. Thirty-seven states
have recently passed laws making some forms of animal
cruelty a crime, 21 of them by ballot initiative. Following
protests by activists, McDonald's and Burger King forced
significant improvements in the way the U.S. meat industry
slaughters animals. Agribusiness and the cosmetics and
apparel industries are all struggling to defuse mounting
public concerns over animal welfare.

Once thought of as a left-wing concern, the movement now
cuts across ideological lines. Perhaps the most eloquent
recent plea on behalf of animals, a new book called
''Dominion,'' was written by a former speechwriter for
President Bush. And once outlandish ideas are finding their
way into mainstream opinion. A recent Zogby poll found that
51 percent of Americans believe that primates are entitled
to the same rights as human children.

What is going on here? A certain amount of cultural
confusion, for one thing. For at the same time many people
seem eager to extend the circle of our moral consideration
to animals, in our factory farms and laboratories we are
inflicting more suffering on more animals than at any time
in history. One by one, science is dismantling our claims
to uniqueness as a species, discovering that such things as
culture, tool making, language and even possibly
self-consciousness are not the exclusive domain of Homo
sapiens. Yet most of the animals we kill lead lives
organized very much in the spirit of Descartes, who
famously claimed that animals were mere machines, incapable
of thought or feeling. There's a schizoid quality to our
relationship with animals, in which sentiment and brutality
exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive
Christmas presents this year, yet few of us pause to
consider the miserable life of the pig -- an animal easily
as intelligent as a dog -- that becomes the Christmas ham.

We tolerate this disconnect because the life of the pig
has moved out of view. When's the last time you saw a pig?
(Babe doesn't count.) Except for our pets, real animals --
animals living and dying -- no longer figure in our
everyday lives. Meat comes from the grocery store, where it
is cut and packaged to look as little like parts of animals
as possible. The disappearance of animals from our lives
has opened a space in which there's no reality check,
either on the sentiment or the brutality. This is pretty
much where we live now, with respect to animals, and it is
a space in which the Peter Singers and Frank Perdues of the
world can evidently thrive equally well.

Several years ago, the English critic John Berger wrote an
essay, ''Why Look at Animals?'' in which he suggested that
the loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals
-- and specifically the loss of eye contact -- has left us
deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to
other species. That eye contact, always slightly uncanny,
had provided a vivid daily reminder that animals were at
once crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we
glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear,
tenderness) and something irretrievably alien. Upon this
paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they
could both honor and eat animals without looking away. But
that accommodation has pretty much broken down; nowadays,
it seems, we either look away or become vegetarians. For my
own part, neither option seemed especially appetizing.
Which might explain how I found myself reading ''Animal
Liberation'' in a steakhouse.


This is not something I'd recommend if you're determined to
continue eating meat. Combining rigorous philosophical
argument with journalistic description, ''Animal
Liberation'' is one of those rare books that demand that
you either defend the way you live or change it. Because
Singer is so skilled in argument, for many readers it is
easier to change. His book has converted countless
thousands to vegetarianism, and it didn't take long for me
to see why: within a few pages, he had succeeded in
throwing me on the defensive.

Singer's argument is disarmingly simple and, if you accept
its premises, difficult to refute. Take the premise of
equality, which most people readily accept. Yet what do we
really mean by it? People are not, as a matter of fact,
equal at all -- some are smarter than others, better
looking, more gifted. ''Equality is a moral idea,'' Singer
points out, ''not an assertion of fact.'' The moral idea is
that everyone's interests ought to receive equal
consideration, regardless of ''what abilities they may
possess.'' Fair enough; many philosophers have gone this
far. But fewer have taken the next logical step. ''If
possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle
one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can
it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same

This is the nub of Singer's argument, and right around here
I began scribbling objections in the margin. But humans
differ from animals in morally significant ways. Yes they
do, Singer acknowledges, which is why we shouldn't treat
pigs and children alike. Equal consideration of interests
is not the same as equal treatment, he points out: children
have an interest in being educated; pigs, in rooting around
in the dirt. But where their interests are the same, the
principle of equality demands they receive the same
consideration. And the one all-important interest that we
share with pigs, as with all sentient creatures, is an
interest in avoiding pain.

Here Singer quotes a famous passage from Jeremy Bentham,
the 18th-century utilitarian philosopher, that is the
wellspring of the animal rights movement. Bentham was
writing in 1789, soon after the French colonies freed black
slaves, granting them fundamental rights. ''The day may
come,'' he speculates, ''when the rest of the animal
creation may acquire those rights.'' Bentham then asks what
characteristic entitles any being to moral consideration.
''Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of
discourse?'' Obviously not, since ''a full-grown horse or
dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more
conversable animal, than an infant.'' He concludes: ''The
question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but,
Can they suffer?''

Bentham here is playing a powerful card philosophers call
the ''argument from marginal cases,'' or A.M.C. for short.
It goes like this: there are humans -- infants, the
severely retarded, the demented -- whose mental function
cannot match that of a chimpanzee. Even though these people
cannot reciprocate our moral attentions, we nevertheless
include them in the circle of our moral consideration. So
on what basis do we exclude the chimpanzee?

Because he's a chimp, I furiously scribbled in the margin,
and they're human! For Singer that's not good enough. To
exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because
he's not human is no different from excluding the slave
simply because he's not white. In the same way we'd call
that exclusion racist, the animal rightist contends that it
is speciesist to discriminate against the chimpanzee solely
because he's not human.

But the differences between blacks and whites are trivial
compared with the differences between my son and a chimp.
Singer counters by asking us to imagine a hypothetical
society that discriminates against people on the basis of
something nontrivial -- say, intelligence. If that scheme
offends our sense of equality, then why is the fact that
animals lack certain human characteristics any more just as
a basis for discrimination? Either we do not owe any
justice to the severely retarded, he concludes, or we do
owe it to animals with higher capabilities.

This is where I put down my fork. If I believe in equality,
and equality is based on interests rather than
characteristics, then either I have to take the interests
of the steer I'm eating into account or concede that I am a
speciesist. For the time being, I decided to plead guilty
as charged. I finished my steak.

But Singer had planted a troubling notion, and in the days
afterward, it grew and grew, watered by the other animal
rights thinkers I began reading: the philosophers Tom Regan
and James Rachels; the legal theorist Steven M. Wise; the
writers Joy Williams and Matthew Scully. I didn't think I
minded being a speciesist, but could it be, as several of
these writers suggest, that we will someday come to regard
speciesism as an evil comparable to racism? Will history
someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who
went about their ordinary lives in the shadow of Treblinka?
Precisely that question was recently posed by J.M. Coetzee,
the South African novelist, in a lecture delivered at
Princeton; he answered it in the affirmative. If animal
rightists are right, ''a crime of stupefying proportions''
(in Coetzee's words) is going on all around us every day,
just beneath our notice.

It's an idea almost impossible to entertain seriously, much
less to accept, and in the weeks following my restaurant
face-off between Singer and the steak, I found myself
marshaling whatever mental power I could muster to try to
refute it. Yet Singer and his allies managed to trump
almost all my objections.

My first line of defense was obvious. Animals kill one
another all the time. Why treat animals more ethically than
they treat one another? (Ben Franklin tried this one long
before me: during a fishing trip, he wondered, ''If you eat
one another, I don't see why we may not eat you.'' He
admits, however, that the rationale didn't occur to him
until the fish were in the frying pan, smelling ''admirably
well.'' The advantage of being a ''reasonable creature,''
Franklin remarks, is that you can find a reason for
whatever you want to do.) To the ''they do it, too''
defense, the animal rightist has a devastating reply: do
you really want to base your morality on the natural order?
Murder and rape are natural, too. Besides, humans don't
need to kill other creatures in order to survive; animals
do. (Though if my cat, Otis, is any guide, animals
sometimes kill for sheer pleasure.)

This suggests another defense. Wouldn't life in the wild be
worse for these farm animals? ''Defenders of slavery
imposed on black Africans often made a similar point,''
Singer retorts. ''The life of freedom is to be preferred.''


But domesticated animals can't survive in the wild; in
fact, without us they wouldn't exist at all. Or as one
19th-century political philosopher put it, ''The pig has a
stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon. If
all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.''
But it turns out that this would be fine by the animal
rightists: for if pigs don't exist, they can't be wronged.

Animals on factory farms have never known any other life.
Singer replies that ''animals feel a need to exercise,
stretch their limbs or wings, groom themselves and turn
around, whether or not they have ever lived in conditions
that permit this.'' The measure of their suffering is not
their prior experiences but the unremitting daily
frustration of their instincts.

O.K., the suffering of animals is a legitimate problem, but
the world is full of problems, and surely human problems
must come first! Sounds good, and yet all the animal people
are asking me to do is to stop eating meat and wearing
animal furs and hides. There's no reason I can't devote
myself to solving humankind's problems while being a
vegetarian who wears synthetics.

But doesn't the fact that we could choose to forgo meat for
moral reasons point to a crucial moral difference between
animals and humans? As Kant pointed out, the human being is
the only moral animal, the only one even capable of
entertaining a concept of ''rights.'' What's wrong with
reserving moral consideration for those able to reciprocate
it? Right here is where you run smack into the A.M.C.: the
moral status of the retarded, the insane, the infant and
the Alzheimer's patient. Such ''marginal cases,'' in the
detestable argot of modern moral philosophy, cannot
participate in moral decision making any more than a monkey
can, yet we nevertheless grant them rights.

That's right, I respond, for the simple reason that they're
one of us. And all of us have been, and will probably once
again be, marginal cases ourselves. What's more, these
people have fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, which
makes our interest in their welfare deeper than our
interest in the welfare of even the most brilliant ape.

Alas, none of these arguments evade the charge of
speciesism; the racist, too, claims that it's natural to
give special consideration to one's own kind. A utilitarian
like Singer would agree, however, that the feelings of
relatives do count for something. Yet the principle of
equal consideration of interests demands that, given the
choice between performing a painful medical experiment on a
severely retarded orphan and on a normal ape, we must
sacrifice the child. Why? Because the ape has a greater
capacity for pain.

Here in a nutshell is the problem with the A.M.C.: it can
be used to help the animals, but just as often it winds up
hurting the marginal cases. Giving up our speciesism will
bring us to a moral cliff from which we may not be prepared
to jump, even when logic is pushing us.

And yet this isn't the moral choice I am being asked to
make. (Too bad; it would be so much easier!) In everyday
life, the choice is not between babies and chimps but
between the pork and the tofu. Even if we reject the ''hard
utilitarianism'' of a Peter Singer, there remains the
question of whether we owe animals that can feel pain any
moral consideration, and this seems impossible to deny. And
if we do owe them moral consideration, how can we justify
eating them?

This is why killing animals for meat (and clothing) poses
the most difficult animal rights challenge. In the case of
animal testing, all but the most radical animal rightists
are willing to balance the human benefit against the cost
to the animals. That's because the unique qualities of
human consciousness carry weight in the utilitarian
calculus: human pain counts for more than that of a mouse,
since our pain is amplified by emotions like dread;
similarly, our deaths are worse than an animal's because we
understand what death is in a way they don't. So the
argument over animal testing is really in the details: is
this particular procedure or test really necessary to save
human lives? (Very often it's not, in which case we
probably shouldn't do it.) But if humans no longer need to
eat meat or wear skins, then what exactly are we putting on
the human side of the scale to outweigh the interests of
the animal?

I suspect that this is finally why the animal people
managed to throw me on the defensive. It's one thing to
choose between the chimp and the retarded child or to
accept the sacrifice of all those pigs surgeons practiced
on to develop heart-bypass surgery. But what happens when
the choice is between ''a lifetime of suffering for a
nonhuman animal and the gastronomic preference of a human
being?'' You look away -- or you stop eating animals. And
if you don't want to do either? Then you have to try to
determine if the animals you're eating have really endured
''a lifetime of suffering.''


Whether our interest in eating animals outweighs their
interest in not being eaten (assuming for the moment that
is their interest) turns on the vexed question of animal
suffering. Vexed, because it is impossible to know what
really goes on in the mind of a cow or a pig or even an
ape. Strictly speaking, this is true of other humans, too,
but since humans are all basically wired the same way, we
have excellent reason to assume that other people's
experience of pain feels much like our own. Can we say that
about animals? Yes and no.

I have yet to find anyone who still subscribes to
Descartes's belief that animals cannot feel pain because
they lack a soul. The general consensus among scientists
and philosophers is that when it comes to pain, the higher
animals are wired much like we are for the same
evolutionary reasons, so we should take the writhings of
the kicked dog at face value. Indeed, the very premise of a
great deal of animal testing -- the reason it has value --
is that animals' experience of physical and even some
psychological pain closely resembles our own. Otherwise,
why would cosmetics testers drip chemicals into the eyes of
rabbits to see if they sting? Why would researchers study
head trauma by traumatizing chimpanzee heads? Why would
psychologists attempt to induce depression and ''learned
helplessness'' in dogs by exposing them to ceaseless random
patterns of electrical shock?

That said, it can be argued that human pain differs from
animal pain by an order of magnitude. This qualitative
difference is largely the result of our possession of
language and, by virtue of language, an ability to have
thoughts about thoughts and to imagine alternatives to our
current reality. The philosopher Daniel C. Dennett suggests
that we would do well to draw a distinction between pain,
which a great many animals experience, and suffering, which
depends on a degree of self-consciousness only a few
animals appear to command. Suffering in this view is not
just lots of pain but pain intensified by human emotions
like loss, sadness, worry, regret, self-pity, shame,
humiliation and dread.

Consider castration. No one would deny the procedure is
painful to animals, yet animals appear to get over it in a
way humans do not. (Some rhesus monkeys competing for mates
will bite off a rival's testicle; the very next day the
victim may be observed mating, seemingly little the worse
for wear.) Surely the suffering of a man able to comprehend
the full implications of castration, to anticipate the
event and contemplate its aftermath, represents an agony of
another order.

By the same token, however, language and all that comes
with it can also make certain kinds of pain more bearable.
A trip to the dentist would be a torment for an ape that
couldn't be made to understand the purpose and duration of
the procedure.

As humans contemplating the pain and suffering of animals,
we do need to guard against projecting on to them what the
same experience would feel like to us. Watching a steer
force-marched up the ramp to the kill-floor door, as I have
done, I need to remind myself that this is not Sean Penn in
''Dead Man Walking,'' that in a bovine brain the concept of
nonexistence is blissfully absent. ''If we fail to find
suffering in the [animal] lives we can see,'' Dennett
writes in ''Kinds of Minds,'' ''we can rest assured there
is no invisible suffering somewhere in their brains. If we
find suffering, we will recognize it without difficulty.''


Which brings us -- reluctantly, necessarily -- to the
American factory farm, the place where all such
distinctions turn to dust. It's not easy to draw lines
between pain and suffering in a modern egg or confinement
hog operation. These are places where the subtleties of
moral philosophy and animal cognition mean less than
nothing, where everything we've learned about animals at
least since Darwin has been simply . . . set aside. To
visit a modern CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) is
to enter a world that, for all its technological
sophistication, is still designed according to Cartesian
principles: animals are machines incapable of feeling pain.
Since no thinking person can possibly believe this any
more, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension
of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a
willingness to avert your eyes on the part of everyone

From everything I've read, egg and hog operations are the
worst. Beef cattle in America at least still live outdoors,
albeit standing ankle deep in their own waste eating a diet
that makes them sick. And broiler chickens, although they
do get their beaks snipped off with a hot knife to keep
them from cannibalizing one another under the stress of
their confinement, at least don't spend their eight-week
lives in cages too small to ever stretch a wing. That fate
is reserved for the American laying hen, who passes her
brief span piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a
wire cage whose floor a single page of this magazine could
carpet. Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted,
leading to a range of behavioral ''vices'' that can include
cannibalizing her cagemates and rubbing her body against
the wire mesh until it is featherless and bleeding. Pain?
Suffering? Madness? The operative suspension of disbelief
depends on more neutral descriptors, like ''vices'' and
''stress.'' Whatever you want to call what's going on in
those cages, the 10 percent or so of hens that can't bear
it and simply die is built into the cost of production. And
when the output of the others begins to ebb, the hens will
be ''force-molted'' -- starved of food and water and light
for several days in order to stimulate a final bout of egg
laying before their life's work is done.

Simply reciting these facts, most of which are drawn from
poultry-trade magazines, makes me sound like one of those
animal people, doesn't it? I don't mean to, but this is
what can happen when . . . you look. It certainly wasn't my
intention to ruin anyone's breakfast. But now that I
probably have spoiled the eggs, I do want to say one thing
about the bacon, mention a single practice (by no means the
worst) in modern hog production that points to the compound
madness of an impeccable industrial logic.

Piglets in confinement operations are weaned from their
mothers 10 days after birth (compared with 13 weeks in
nature) because they gain weight faster on their hormone-
and antibiotic-fortified feed. This premature weaning
leaves the pigs with a lifelong craving to suck and chew, a
desire they gratify in confinement by biting the tail of
the animal in front of them. A normal pig would fight off
his molester, but a demoralized pig has stopped caring.
''Learned helplessness'' is the psychological term, and
it's not uncommon in confinement operations, where tens of
thousands of hogs spend their entire lives ignorant of
sunshine or earth or straw, crowded together beneath a
metal roof upon metal slats suspended over a manure pit. So
it's not surprising that an animal as sensitive and
intelligent as a pig would get depressed, and a depressed
pig will allow his tail to be chewed on to the point of
infection. Sick pigs, being underperforming ''production
units,'' are clubbed to death on the spot. The U.S.D.A.'s
recommended solution to the problem is called ''tail
docking.'' Using a pair of pliers (and no anesthetic), most
but not all of the tail is snipped off. Why the little
stump? Because the whole point of the exercise is not to
remove the object of tail-biting so much as to render it
more sensitive. Now, a bite on the tail is so painful that
even the most demoralized pig will mount a struggle to
avoid it.

Much of this description is drawn from ''Dominion,''
Matthew Scully's recent book in which he offers a harrowing
description of a North Carolina hog operation. Scully, a
Christian conservative, has no patience for lefty rights
talk, arguing instead that while God did give man
''dominion'' over animals (''Every moving thing that liveth
shall be meat for you''), he also admonished us to show
them mercy. ''We are called to treat them with kindness,
not because they have rights or power or some claim to
equality but . . . because they stand unequal and powerless
before us.''

Scully calls the contemporary factory farm ''our own worst
nightmare'' and, to his credit, doesn't shrink from naming
the root cause of this evil: unfettered capitalism.
(Perhaps this explains why he resigned from the Bush
administration just before his book's publication.) A
tension has always existed between the capitalist
imperative to maximize efficiency and the moral imperatives
of religion or community, which have historically served as
a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market. This
is one of ''the cultural contradictions of capitalism'' --
the tendency of the economic impulse to erode the moral
underpinnings of society. Mercy toward animals is one such

More than any other institution, the American industrial
animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism
can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory
constraint. Here in these places life itself is redefined
-- as protein production -- and with it suffering. That
venerable word becomes ''stress,'' an economic problem in
search of a cost-effective solution, like tail-docking or
beak-clipping or, in the industry's latest plan, by simply
engineering the ''stress gene'' out of pigs and chickens.
''Our own worst nightmare'' such a place may well be; it is
also real life for the billions of animals unlucky enough
to have been born beneath these grim steel roofs, into the
brief, pitiless life of a ''production unit'' in the days
before the suffering gene was found.


Vegetarianism doesn't seem an unreasonable response to such
an evil. Who would want to be made complicit in the agony
of these animals by eating them? You want to throw
something against the walls of those infernal sheds,
whether it's the Bible, a new constitutional right or a
whole platoon of animal rightists bent on breaking in and
liberating the inmates. In the shadow of these factory
farms, Coetzee's notion of a ''stupefying crime'' doesn't
seem far-fetched at all.

But before you swear off meat entirely, let me describe a
very different sort of animal farm. It is typical of
nothing, and yet its very existence puts the whole moral
question of animal agriculture in a different light.
Polyface Farm occupies 550 acres of rolling grassland and
forest in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Here, Joel
Salatin and his family raise six different food animals --
cattle, pigs, chickens, rabbits, turkeys and sheep -- in an
intricate dance of symbiosis designed to allow each
species, in Salatin's words, ''to fully express its
physiological distinctiveness.''

What this means in practice is that Salatin's chickens live
like chickens; his cows, like cows; pigs, pigs. As in
nature, where birds tend to follow herbivores, once
Salatin's cows have finished grazing a pasture, he moves
them out and tows in his ''eggmobile,'' a portable chicken
coop that houses several hundred laying hens -- roughly the
natural size of a flock. The hens fan out over the pasture,
eating the short grass and picking insect larvae out of the
cowpats -- all the while spreading the cow manure and
eliminating the farm's parasite problem. A diet of grubs
and grass makes for exceptionally tasty eggs and contented
chickens, and their nitrogenous manure feeds the pasture. A
few weeks later, the chickens move out, and the sheep come
in, dining on the lush new growth, as well as on the weed
species (nettles, nightshade) that the cattle and chickens
won't touch.

Meanwhile, the pigs are in the barn turning the compost.
All winter long, while the cattle were indoors, Salatin
layered their manure with straw, wood chips -- and corn. By
March, this steaming compost layer cake stands three feet
high, and the pigs, whose powerful snouts can sniff out and
retrieve the fermented corn at the bottom, get to spend a
few happy weeks rooting through the pile, aerating it as
they work. All you can see of these pigs, intently nosing
out the tasty alcoholic morsels, are their upturned pink
hams and corkscrew tails churning the air. The finished
compost will go to feed the grass; the grass, the cattle;
the cattle, the chickens; and eventually all of these
animals will feed us.

I thought a lot about vegetarianism and animal rights
during the day I spent on Joel Salatin's extraordinary
farm. So much of what I'd read, so much of what I'd
accepted, looked very different from here. To many animal
rightists, even Polyface Farm is a death camp. But to look
at these animals is to see this for the sentimental conceit
it is. In the same way that we can probably recognize
animal suffering when we see it, animal happiness is
unmistakable, too, and here I was seeing it in abundance.

For any animal, happiness seems to consist in the
opportunity to express its creaturely character -- its
essential pigness or wolfness or chickenness. Aristotle
speaks of each creature's ''characteristic form of life.''
For domesticated species, the good life, if we can call it
that, cannot be achieved apart from humans -- apart from
our farms and, therefore, our meat eating. This, it seems
to me, is where animal rightists betray a profound
ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of
domestication as a form of enslavement or even exploitation
is to misconstrue the whole relationship, to project a
human idea of power onto what is, in fact, an instance of
mutualism between species. Domestication is an
evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is
certainly not a regime humans imposed on animals some
10,000 years ago.

Rather, domestication happened when a small handful of
especially opportunistic species discovered through
Darwinian trial and error that they were more likely to
survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on
their own. Humans provided the animals with food and
protection, in exchange for which the animals provided the
humans their milk and eggs and -- yes -- their flesh. Both
parties were transformed by the relationship: animals grew
tame and lost their ability to fend for themselves
(evolution tends to edit out unneeded traits), and the
humans gave up their hunter-gatherer ways for the settled
life of agriculturists. (Humans changed biologically, too,
evolving such new traits as a tolerance for lactose as

From the animals' point of view, the bargain with humanity
has been a great success, at least until our own time.
Cows, pigs, dogs, cats and chickens have thrived, while
their wild ancestors have languished. (There are 10,000
wolves in North America, 50,000,000 dogs.) Nor does their
loss of autonomy seem to trouble these creatures. It is
wrong, the rightists say, to treat animals as ''means''
rather than ''ends,'' yet the happiness of a working animal
like the dog consists precisely in serving as a ''means.''
Liberation is the last thing such a creature wants. To say
of one of Joel Salatin's caged chickens that ''the life of
freedom is to be preferred'' betrays an ignorance about
chicken preferences -- which on this farm are heavily
focused on not getting their heads bitten off by weasels.

But haven't these chickens simply traded one predator for
another -- weasels for humans? True enough, and for the
chickens this is probably not a bad deal. For brief as it
is, the life expectancy of a farm animal would be
considerably briefer in the world beyond the pasture fence
or chicken coop. A sheep farmer told me that a bear will
eat a lactating ewe alive, starting with her udders. ''As a
rule,'' he explained, ''animals don't get 'good deaths'
surrounded by their loved ones.''

The very existence of predation -- animals eating animals
-- is the cause of much anguished hand-wringing in animal
rights circles. ''It must be admitted,'' Singer writes,
''that the existence of carnivorous animals does pose one
problem for the ethics of Animal Liberation, and that is
whether we should do anything about it.'' Some animal
rightists train their dogs and cats to become vegetarians.
(Note: cats will require nutritional supplements to stay
healthy.) Matthew Scully calls predation ''the intrinsic
evil in nature's design . . . among the hardest of all
things to fathom.'' Really? A deep Puritan streak pervades
animal rights activists, an abiding discomfort not only
with our animality, but with the animals' animality too.

However it may appear to us, predation is not a matter of
morality or politics; it, also, is a matter of symbiosis.
Hard as the wolf may be on the deer he eats, the herd
depends on him for its well-being; without predators to
cull the herd, deer overrun their habitat and starve. In
many places, human hunters have taken over the predator's
ecological role. Chickens also depend for their continued
well-being on their human predators -- not individual
chickens, but chickens as a species. The surest way to
achieve the extinction of the chicken would be to grant
chickens a ''right to life.''

Yet here's the rub: the animal rightist is not concerned
with species, only individuals. Tom Regan, author of ''The
Case for Animal Rights,'' bluntly asserts that because
''species are not individuals . . . the rights view does
not recognize the moral rights of species to anything,
including survival.'' Singer concurs, insisting that only
sentient individuals have interests. But surely a species
can have interests -- in its survival, say -- just as a
nation or community or a corporation can. The animal rights
movement's exclusive concern with individual animals makes
perfect sense given its roots in a culture of liberal
individualism, but does it make any sense in nature?

In 1611 Juan da Goma (aka Juan the Disoriented) made
accidental landfall on Wrightson Island, a six-square-mile
rock in the Indian Ocean. The island's sole distinction is
as the only known home of the Arcania tree and the bird
that nests in it, the Wrightson giant sea sparrow. Da Goma
and his crew stayed a week, much of that time spent in a
failed bid to recapture the ship's escaped goat -- who
happened to be pregnant. Nearly four centuries later,
Wrightson Island is home to 380 goats that have consumed
virtually every scrap of vegetation in their reach. The
youngest Arcania tree on the island is more than 300 years
old, and only 52 sea sparrows remain. In the animal rights
view, any one of those goats have at least as much right to
life as the last Wrightson sparrow on earth, and the trees,
because they are not sentient, warrant no moral
consideration whatsoever. (In the mid-80's a British
environmental group set out to shoot the goats, but was
forced to cancel the expedition after the Mammal Liberation
Front bombed its offices.)

The story of Wrightson Island (recounted by the biologist
David Ehrenfeld in ''Beginning Again'') suggests at the
very least that a human morality based on individual rights
makes for an awkward fit when applied to the natural world.
This should come as no surprise: morality is an artifact of
human culture, devised to help us negotiate social
relations. It's very good for that. But just as we
recognize that nature doesn't provide an adequate guide for
human social conduct, isn't it anthropocentric to assume
that our moral system offers an adequate guide for nature?
We may require a different set of ethics to guide our
dealings with the natural world, one as well suited to the
particular needs of plants and animals and habitats (where
sentience counts for little) as rights suit us humans


To contemplate such questions from the vantage of a farm is
to appreciate just how parochial and urban an ideology
animals rights really is. It could thrive only in a world
where people have lost contact with the natural world,
where animals no longer pose a threat to us and human
mastery of nature seems absolute. ''In our normal life,''
Singer writes, ''there is no serious clash of interests
between human and nonhuman animals.'' Such a statement
assumes a decidedly urbanized ''normal life,'' one that
certainly no farmer would recognize.

The farmer would point out that even vegans have a
''serious clash of interests'' with other animals. The
grain that the vegan eats is harvested with a combine that
shreds field mice, while the farmer's tractor crushes
woodchucks in their burrows, and his pesticides drop
songbirds from the sky. Steve Davis, an animal scientist at
Oregon State University, has estimated that if America were
to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet, the total number of
animals killed every year would actually increase, as
animal pasture gave way to row crops. Davis contends that
if our goal is to kill as few animals as possible, then
people should eat the largest possible animal that can live
on the least intensively cultivated land: grass-fed beef
for everybody. It would appear that killing animals is
unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat.

When I talked to Joel Salatin about the vegetarian utopia,
he pointed out that it would also condemn him and his
neighbors to importing their food from distant places,
since the Shenandoah Valley receives too little rainfall to
grow many row crops. Much the same would hold true where I
live, in New England. We get plenty of rain, but the
hilliness of the land has dictated an agriculture based on
animals since the time of the Pilgrims. The world is full
of places where the best, if not the only, way to obtain
food from the land is by grazing animals on it --
especially ruminants, which alone can transform grass into
protein and whose presence can actually improve the health
of the land.

The vegetarian utopia would make us even more dependent
than we already are on an industrialized national food
chain. That food chain would in turn be even more dependent
than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer,
since food would need to travel farther and manure would be
in short supply. Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build
a more sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle
nutrients and support local food production. If our concern
is for the health of nature -- rather than, say, the
internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of
our souls -- then eating animals may sometimes be the most
ethical thing to do.

There is, too, the fact that we humans have been eating
animals as long as we have lived on this earth. Humans may
not need to eat meat in order to survive, yet doing so is
part of our evolutionary heritage, reflected in the design
of our teeth and the structure of our digestion. Eating
meat helped make us what we are, in a social and biological
sense. Under the pressure of the hunt, the human brain grew
in size and complexity, and around the fire where the meat
was cooked, human culture first flourished. Granting rights
to animals may lift us up from the brutal world of
predation, but it will entail the sacrifice of part of our
identity -- our own animality.

Surely this is one of the odder paradoxes of animal rights
doctrine. It asks us to recognize all that we share with
animals and then demands that we act toward them in a most
unanimalistic way. Whether or not this is a good idea, we
should at least acknowledge that our desire to eat meat is
not a trivial matter, no mere ''gastronomic preference.''
We might as well call sex -- also now technically
unnecessary -- a mere ''recreational preference.'' Whatever
else it is, our meat eating is something very deep indeed.


Are any of these good enough reasons to eat animals? I'm
mindful of Ben Franklin's definition of the reasonable
creature as one who can come up with reasons for whatever
he wants to do. So I decided I would track down Peter
Singer and ask him what he thought. In an e-mail message, I
described Polyface and asked him about the implications for
his position of the Good Farm -- one where animals got to
live according to their nature and to all appearances did
not suffer.

''I agree with you that it is better for these animals to
have lived and died than not to have lived at all,'' Singer
wrote back. Since the utilitarian is concerned exclusively
with the sum of happiness and suffering and the slaughter
of an animal that doesn't comprehend that death need not
involve suffering, the Good Farm adds to the total of
animal happiness, provided you replace the slaughtered
animal with a new one. However, he added, this line of
thinking doesn't obviate the wrongness of killing an animal
that ''has a sense of its own existence over time and can
have preferences for its own future.'' In other words, it's
O.K. to eat the chicken, but he's not so sure about the
pig. Yet, he wrote, ''I would not be sufficiently confident
of my arguments to condemn someone who purchased meat from
one of these farms.''

Singer went on to express serious doubts that such farms
could be practical on a large scale, since the pressures of
the marketplace will lead their owners to cut costs and
corners at the expense of the animals. He suggested, too,
that killing animals is not conducive to treating them with
respect. Also, since humanely raised food will be more
expensive, only the well-to-do can afford morally
defensible animal protein. These are important
considerations, but they don't alter my essential point:
what's wrong with animal agriculture -- with eating animals
-- is the practice, not the principle.

What this suggests to me is that people who care should be
working not for animal rights but animal welfare -- to
ensure that farm animals don't suffer and that their deaths
are swift and painless. In fact, the
decent-life-merciful-death line is how Jeremy Bentham
justified his own meat eating. Yes, the philosophical
father of animal rights was himself a carnivore. In a
passage rather less frequently quoted by animal rightists,
Bentham defended eating animals on the grounds that ''we
are the better for it, and they are never the worse. . . .
The death they suffer in our hands commonly is, and always
may be, a speedier and, by that means, a less painful one
than that which would await them in the inevitable course
of nature.''

My guess is that Bentham never looked too closely at what
happens in a slaughterhouse, but the argument suggests
that, in theory at least, a utilitarian can justify the
killing of humanely treated animals -- for meat or,
presumably, for clothing. (Though leather and fur pose
distinct moral problems. Leather is a byproduct of raising
domestic animals for food, which can be done humanely.
However, furs are usually made from wild animals that die
brutal deaths -- usually in leg-hold traps -- and since
most fur species aren't domesticated, raising them on farms
isn't necessarily more humane.) But whether the issue is
food or fur or hunting, what should concern us is the
suffering, not the killing. All of which I was feeling
pretty good about -- until I remembered that utilitarians
can also justify killing retarded orphans. Killing just
isn't the problem for them that it is for other people,
including me.


During my visit to Polyface Farm, I asked Salatin where his
animals were slaughtered. He does the chickens and rabbits
right on the farm, and would do the cattle, pigs and sheep
there too if only the U.S.D.A. would let him. Salatin
showed me the open-air abattoir he built behind the
farmhouse -- a sort of outdoor kitchen on a concrete slab,
with stainless-steel sinks, scalding tanks, a
feather-plucking machine and metal cones to hold the birds
upside down while they're being bled. Processing chickens
is not a pleasant job, but Salatin insists on doing it
himself because he's convinced he can do it more humanely
and cleanly than any processing plant. He slaughters every
other Saturday through the summer. Anyone's welcome to

I asked Salatin how he could bring himself to kill a

''People have a soul; animals don't,'' he said. ''It's a
bedrock belief of mine.'' Salatin is a devout Christian.
''Unlike us, animals are not created in God's image, so
when they die, they just die.''

The notion that only in modern times have people grown
uneasy about killing animals is a flattering conceit.
Taking a life is momentous, and people have been working to
justify the slaughter of animals for thousands of years.
Religion and especially ritual has played a crucial part in
helping us reckon the moral costs. Native Americans and
other hunter-gathers would give thanks to their prey for
giving up its life so the eater might live (sort of like
saying grace). Many cultures have offered sacrificial
animals to the gods, perhaps as a way to convince
themselves that it was the gods' desires that demanded the
slaughter, not their own. In ancient Greece, the priests
responsible for the slaughter (priests! -- now we entrust
the job to minimum-wage workers) would sprinkle holy water
on the sacrificial animal's brow. The beast would promptly
shake its head, and this was taken as a sign of assent.
Slaughter doesn't necessarily preclude respect. For all
these people, it was the ceremony that allowed them to
look, then to eat.

Apart from a few surviving religious practices, we no
longer have any rituals governing the slaughter or eating
of animals, which perhaps helps to explain why we find
ourselves where we do, feeling that our only choice is to
either look away or give up meat. Frank Perdue is happy to
serve the first customer; Peter Singer, the second.

Until my visit to Polyface Farm, I had assumed these were
the only two options. But on Salatin's farm, the eye
contact between people and animals whose loss John Berger
mourned is still a fact of life -- and of death, for
neither the lives nor the deaths of these animals have been
secreted behind steel walls. ''Food with a face,'' Salatin
likes to call what he's selling, a slogan that probably
scares off some customers. People see very different things
when they look into the eyes of a pig or a chicken or a
steer -- a being without a soul, a ''subject of a life''
entitled to rights, a link in a food chain, a vessel for
pain and pleasure, a tasty lunch. But figuring out what we
do think, and what we can eat, might begin with the

We certainly won't philosophize our way to an answer.
Salatin told me the story of a man who showed up at the
farm one Saturday morning. When Salatin noticed a PETA
bumper sticker on the man's car, he figured he was in for
it. But the man had a different agenda. He explained that
after 16 years as a vegetarian, he had decided that the
only way he could ever eat meat again was if he killed the
animal himself. He had come to look.

''Ten minutes later we were in the processing shed with a
chicken,'' Salatin recalled. ''He slit the bird's throat
and watched it die. He saw that the animal did not look at
him accusingly, didn't do a Disney double take. The animal
had been treated with respect when it was alive, and he saw
that it could also have a respectful death -- that it
wasn't being treated as a pile of protoplasm.''

Salatin's open-air abattoir is a morally powerful idea.
Someone slaughtering a chicken in a place where he can be
watched is apt to do it scrupulously, with consideration
for the animal as well as for the eater. This is going to
sound quixotic, but maybe all we need to do to redeem
industrial animal agriculture in this country is to pass a
law requiring that the steel and concrete walls of the
CAFO's and slaughterhouses be replaced with . . . glass. If
there's any new ''right'' we need to establish, maybe it's
this one: the right to look.

No doubt the sight of some of these places would turn many
people into vegetarians. Many others would look elsewhere
for their meat, to farmers like Salatin. There are more of
them than I would have imagined. Despite the relentless
consolidation of the American meat industry, there has been
a revival of small farms where animals still live their
''characteristic form of life.'' I'm thinking of the
ranches where cattle still spend their lives on grass, the
poultry farms where chickens still go outside and the hog
farms where pigs live as they did 50 years ago -- in
contact with the sun, the earth and the gaze of a farmer.

For my own part, I've discovered that if you're willing to
make the effort, it's entirely possible to limit the meat
you eat to nonindustrial animals. I'm tempted to think that
we need a new dietary category, to go with the vegan and
lactovegetarian and piscatorian. I don't have a catchy name
for it yet (humanocarnivore?), but this is the only sort of
meat eating I feel comfortable with these days. I've become
the sort of shopper who looks for labels indicating that
his meat and eggs have been humanely grown (the American
Humane Association's new ''Free Farmed'' label seems to be
catching on), who visits the farms where his chicken and
pork come from and who asks kinky-sounding questions about
touring slaughterhouses. I've actually found a couple of
small processing plants willing to let a customer onto the
kill floor, including one, in Cannon Falls, Minn., with a
glass abattoir.

The industrialization -- and dehumanization -- of American
animal farming is a relatively new, evitable and local
phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food
animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. Were
the walls of our meat industry to become transparent,
literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue
to do it this way. Tail-docking and sow crates and
beak-clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of
slaughtering 400 head of cattle an hour would come to an
end. For who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get
more expensive. We'd probably eat less of it, too, but
maybe when we did eat animals, we'd eat them with the
consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve.

Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for the magazine, is
the author of ''The Botany of Desire.'' His last cover
article was about the beef industry.

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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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