'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, May 08, 2006

Will Everyone be a Vegetarian in a Hundred Years? 

There's an interview with Peter Singer currently in Salon. I can't say I agree with every thing he says, but he's always an interesting read. For the record, I'm not a vegetarian but agree with this general sentiment -- so, you know, I guess that makes me a hypocrite:

Could you explain your position on "speciesism," and what this has to do with your call to "expand the circle"?

The argument, in essence, is that we have, over centuries of history, expanded the circle of beings whom we regard as morally significant. If you go back in time you'll find tribes that were essentially only concerned with their own tribal members. If you were a member of another tribe, you could be killed with impunity. When we got beyond that there were still boundaries to our moral sphere, but these were based on nationality, or race, or religious belief. Anyone outside those boundaries didn't count. Slavery is the best example here. If you were not a member of the European race, if you were African, specifically, you could be enslaved. So we got beyond that. We have expanded the circle beyond our own race and we reject as wrongful the idea that something like race or religion or gender can be a basis for claiming another being's interests count less than our own.

So the argument is that this is also an arbitrary stopping place; it's also a form of discrimination, which I call "speciesism," that has parallels with racism. I am not saying it's identical, but in both cases you have this group that has power over the outsiders, and develops an ideology that says, Those outside our circle don't matter, and therefore we can make use of them for our own convenience.

That is what we have done, and still do, with other species. They're effectively things; they're property that we can own, buy and sell. We use them as is convenient and we keep them in ways that suit us best, producing products we want at the cheapest prices. So my argument is simply that this is wrong, this is not justifiable if we want to defend the idea of human equality against those who have a narrower definition. I don't think we can say that somehow we, as humans, are the sole repository of all moral value, and that all beings beyond our species don't matter. I think they do matter, and we need to expand our moral consideration to take that into account.

But I'm a hypocrite in good company ... here's Chomsky making the exact same point as Singer above while admitting that he's not a vegetarian: (from an old interview with Z's Michael Albert)

MA: You're an animal rights activist?

NC: I think it's a serious question. To what extent do we have a right to torture animals? I think it's a very good thing that that question ...

MA: Torture?

NC: Experiments are torturing animals, let's say. That's what they are. So to what extent do we have a right to torture animals for our own good? I think that's not a trivial question.

MA: What about eating?

NC: Same question.

MA: Are you a vegetarian?

NC: I'm not, but I think it's a serious question. If you want my guess, my guess would be that ...

MA: A hundred years from now everyone will be.

NC: I don't know if it's a hundred years, but it seems to me if history continues--that's not at all obvious, that it will--but if society continues to develop without catastrophe on something like the course that you can sort of see over time, I wouldn't be in the least surprised if it moves toward vegetarianism and protection of animal rights. In fact, what we've seen over the years--and it's hard to be optimistic in the twentieth century, which is one of the worst centuries in human history in terms of atrocities and terror and so on--but still, over the years, including the twentieth century, there is a widening of the moral realm, bringing in broader and broader domains of individuals who are regarded as moral agents.

MA: Nothing could be happening to that underlying, wired-in, inate, intrinsic character... That can't be changing.

NC: No, but it can get more and more realized. You can get a better and better understanding of it. We're self-conscious beings. We're not rocks. And we can get more and more understanding of our own nature, not because we read a book about it. The book doesn't have anything to tell you, because nobody knows anything. But just through experience, including historical experience, which is part of our own personal experience because it's embedded in our culture, which we enter into.

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