Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why SHOULD you eat what you eat?

This friday, November 13th, Peter Singer will speak at Penn State on "The Ethics of What We Eat" at 4 pm in 10 Sparks. This presentation will likely flow from his decades of work as a utilitarian philosopher who has focused on how we treat animals. As a utilitarian, he argues that many of the animals that we eat are entitled the rights that many humans are, or perhaps more, because of their capacities as sentient beings.

To give a simple (but hopefully not simplistic) example, pigs have more developed senses of self than infant humans. Pigs remember who they are from moment to moment, experience intense desires, develop social relationships, play games, can deceive one another, and even use mirrors to find objects. Infants have do not have these capacities. As Flowing from his work in Practical Ethics, Singer argues that a pig might well fulfill John Locke's definition of a person: "A thinking intelligent being that has some reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places." Note: a human is not de facto a person though If we are not to kill persons, we should not kill pigs.

But this is where things get ethically difficult. Neonatal infant humans lack the sense of personhood that adult pigs do. However, we outlaw infanticide. Surely we wouldn't coop infants, allow them to wallow in their own feces, inject them or feed them massive amounts of antibiotics because we force them to live in their own feces. Were such a place discovered, there would be a trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. But if we use Singer's criteria, factory farms constitute, if not crimes against humanity, crimes against personhood.

Why should we continue to kill pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens the way that we do? If we do that, then why must infanticide be deemed unethical? To make this even less comfortable, why are the mentally retarded given rights when gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans are not? Why is an unborn fetus granted more standing than a living dolphin or orca in a pod? He would argue that at the base of our preferences for humans over other animals is a kind of chauvanism he calls "speciesism" that lacks good reasons and perpetuates suffering on an unacceptable scale. his conclusions naturally lead to vegetarianism and veganism.

Perhaps from this all-too-brief entry you can see why some have called him "the architect of the culture of death." He pushes buttons effectively. However, he is also one of the world's most vocal advocates for the world's impoverished people because they suffer, in part, because of the exploitation and neglect of wealthy people, nations, and their global organizations. Because we know that billions of people are suffering, Singer argues that we should do much more for them and much less for ourselves by redistributing wealth and resources. To read more on that you can read "The Singer Solution to World Poverty," One World, his newest book The Life You Can Save, a recent interview with D.J. Grothe on Point of Inquiry (listen to others here), and lots of YouTube videos about poverty and cooperation (see two videos below).

Singer wants us to consider our choices' ramifications in the real world. His philosophy lives in the real world and puts everything in front of us. Why do we eat the way that we do? What are its effects on ourselves and on others, including non-human animals? How does my dinner affect the economic, social, and ecological health of where I live and where I don't? What are the ecological ramifications of eating a $24 steak dinner instead of the same on butternut squash ravioli and a salad? What if I made that butternut squash ravioli and salad from a local farmer's produce and made that dinner at home and gave the extra money to an organization like Oxfam? Which is the better decision. The Way We Eat matters.

Come out this Friday, November 13th at 4 pm to 10 Sparks and dig into these issues. If you have a Facebook account you can register that you are coming!

Note in the following his stance on bottled water. Love it.

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