The Satya Interview with Peter
Peter Singer and Maude at Farm Sanctuary.
Photo by Derek Goodwin
As a university student in the early 1970s, Peter Singer sat
across from a friend who ordered a vegetarian meal. While eating meat,
asked his classmate why he didn’t eat meat. His ethical reasons
for vegetarianism prompted Singer to plumb some of the deepest
moral issues of the time. He found factory farming indefensible
a utilitarian philosophical framework to a culture based on animal
exploitation. Thus a book called Animal Liberation was born, published
in 1975, which inspired an international movement.
Three decades later, Peter Singer holds professorships at both
Princeton University and the University of Melbourne, and has published
of books addressing
a wide range of ethical issues. In 2005, Singer was listed as one of the
100 “most influential people” by Time magazine. At 60,
standing as a major figure in the animal rights movement was reinforced with
the publication of The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (Rodale) this
spring. Singer paired up again with co-author Jim Mason to revisit some of
what they explored in Animal Factories. To examine the many ethical issues
to food, the authors followed around three families: a Wal-Mart shopping family
who eats fast food, an environmentally-conscientious family, and a vegan family.
Singer’s philosophy has also stirred controversy and offense on a number
of fronts, including with disability rights activists, for his contention that
infanticide can be justified in certain circumstances where a newborn is severely
disabled; anti-abortion activists, for his stance that human fetuses do not qualify
for personhood; feminists, for his rejection of an ethic of caring as a necessary
component of a moral framework; and animal rights activists, for his utilitarian
relegation of some animals as “replaceable.”
Over tofu BLTs at Chelsea’s all-vegan restaurant Blossom, Catherine
Clyne asked Peter Singer about his new book and how his strategy for animal liberation
has changed over time, and about some of his controversial views on animal welfare
What do you want the general public to get from reading your book, The
Way We Eat?
The overarching thing I would like is to get them to think of food as an
ethical question, which most of them don’t. Once they do that, the single most
important thing I’d like them to do is to realize that buying factory farmed
products is something we can’t defend on a lot of different grounds.
And at a minimum, to make that step away from buying anything from factory
What do you want animal activists to get from the book?
Well, some of them might think a bit more about some of the other aspects
of what they’re eating. That is, they might think about buying fair trade
products and more organic produce, for example. Beyond that, I would like them
to think about what’s the most appropriate way to really reduce the suffering
of animals. The book is suggesting that we might be more effective by being somewhat
more tolerant of people who consume animal products, if they’re thoughtful
about where they came from and try to ensure that the animals have had a
decent life. And that we not be too fanatical about insisting on a purely
What’s the response been so far?
From the general public, it’s been really very good. The reviews have been
strong and positive, and a number of people have spoken to me or emailed—people
who are not part of the animal movement—to say they read the book and became
vegetarian, or will say I’m never going to eat chicken again. (Several
people found the chapter on chickens particularly off-putting.) So that’s
From the activist movement, it’s generally been very good too. I’ve
been pleased that people who are vegan themselves, and are involved in some of
the major animal rights organizations, have been strongly in support of it. I’ve
had a few gripes from the kind of people I would expect to have gripes from.
I mean, there are people who I think are a little too ready to criticize others
who are basically on the same side of the fence, but are not as pure as they
are, and they’ve fixed on the fact that this book doesn’t simply
say you ought to go vegan and nothing else.
How do you respond to such criticism?
If you read the book, it does make clear that going vegan is a good solution
to a lot of the ethical problems. It doesn’t hide that; and it defends
the fact that you can bring up your children as healthy vegans and so on. In
my view I guess the line that says just tell people to go vegan and that’s
it, really hasn’t faced up to reality. I’ve been in the movement
for more than 30 years and the number of vegans is still a tiny minority, we
haven’t got into the mainstream. Today, factory farming is the mainstream.
So if we could change the mainstream from eating factory farmed products
to eating only free-range, pasture raised animal products, that would be
a huge and positive
change. People would end up eating a lot less meat and fewer animal products
anyway, and the animals they do eat would have had better lives.
How has your strategy changed since you wrote Animal Liberation?
I suppose when I wrote Animal Liberation I didn’t really quite know what
to expect. But I did think the argument was very clear and compelling and that
any reasonable person who read it would say, ‘well, that’s right,
so therefore I shouldn’t be eating animals and I should change my whole
lifestyle.’ And if enough people did that, and told others about it, then
these animal industries would collapse fairly quickly. Now, I wasn’t totally
naïve even then. I guess I realized that these were big, powerful interests
and maybe people are just too selfish to accept a rational argument when it goes
against their eating habits. So I wasn’t really sure that would happen,
but I did think there was a really powerful argument that should appeal to people.
I still think that’s true, but given that we haven’t got anywhere
near where I hoped we would be, 30 years down the track, I think we do have
to look for other things.
Over the years since Animal Liberation, I’ve become more of an incrementalist.
That is, I’m prepared to say that we’ve got to make progress where
we can, we’ve got to reduce animal suffering where we can, and even if
we’re just doing it by taking small steps, which fall well short of our
ultimate goal, that’s a good thing to do.
I would be concerned if I thought that in some way this was going to prevent
us from achieving further goals, but I can’t see that it is. I know some
people claim it will make people comfortable with eating meat, but I don’t
think we’re going to get the mainstream of the population to just become
vegan. It’s not as if there are more vegans in countries like in the
U.S., where animals are more abused than in Britain or Sweden or somewhere
they have better protection; in fact, there are fewer vegans here than in
I think they actually reinforce themselves: the greater consciousness of
animal issues, improvements in the way animals are kept, feeds back to greater
and more people thinking that even though there have been improvements, this
is really still not good enough. Whereas, if you don’t have the debate
about the improvements, people don’t know about the conditions in which
animals are kept and they don’t really change.
You are kind of considered the “godfather” of the animal rights movement
for writing such a watershed book. Most people point to Animal Liberation as
at least a starting point for this discussion. So how do you respond to people
who feel The Way We Eat is too watered down, that it doesn’t make as
strong an argument for vegetarianism as you have in the past?
I don’t think that the ultimate argument is different. I’ve not
said anything in Animal Liberation I no longer believe or say in The
Way We Eat. Other
than strategic issues—how do we get more people to do something that will
reduce animal suffering—I certainly stand by the ethical argument of Animal
Liberation. I think people are mistaken if they think I’ve watered down
that underlying ethical argument. Now, other people assume, incidentally, that
in Animal Liberation I said that killing animals is always wrong, and that was
somehow the argument for being vegetarian or vegan. But if they go back and look
at Animal Liberation, they won’t find that argument.
But vegetarianism and veganism is still a consistent response to factory farming
and its overwhelming abuse and exploitation.
That’s right. That’s what the argument was, and remains.
What do you think of some of the media responses to your book, praising
humane meat options, like ‘Yay, the guy who told us to go vegetarian is now telling
us humane is okay’ and so on? For example, there was The Post article, “Meat
Eaters Without the Guilt,” and the AlterNet article, “It’s
Not Enough to be Vegetarian,” which started off talking about your book,
then said, ‘Hey, I’m going to go buy cage-free or free-range,’ and
that’s kind of where it ends.
Well, I think that’s too easy an out. It’s not surprising that people
will try and find an easier path that they consider ethical. In a way, perhaps
that’s a watering down of the message of the book. But I still think that’s
a good thing—if that gets into The Post or major newspapers, it’s
still better than people not thinking about it. Because if people are going to
eat meat, it’s certainly better they eat meat with the humane label on
it, even if I don’t think the humane label and standards…
Well, I think it means something. I do think it means a better life for animals,
not sufficiently so that you should feel there’s nothing wrong with
eating them of course, but still a better life.
That brings me to the Animal Compassionate standards being devised with Whole
Foods. What do you think about that process?
I think it’s a very good process. I’m really encouraged that a huge
food retailer is doing it. They’re taking it seriously, there’s no
question about that. It’s not just a little bit of window dressing for
PR. They’re putting a lot of time into it right from the top, [CEO] John
Mackey and the two co-presidents are sitting down with some of the nation’s
strongest farm animal advocates to discuss standards for each species. And they’re
trying to make them practical by bringing in the producers and farmers. I
think the standards are going to be the highest animal welfare standards
for any animal
products available in this country, at least.
They’re putting money into research to make them more economically feasible
and therefore, hopefully they will spread, and other producers will also start
using these methods. So it won’t simply be the people who are prepared
to pay a very high price for the animal products.
I also think it will have a useful educational function. John Mackey has said
that once these standards are in place, he will want to tell people, not only
what the standards mean, but also what the alternatives are, what the so-called
normal way of producing animal products are.
So we’re going to have a Whole Foods version of Meet Your Meat
on flat screen TVs by the meat counters?
Not exactly, but maybe not that far off. That’s what I would hope they
would do. And given the size of Whole Foods and the number of people that go
through their stores, who are overwhelmingly not vegetarian or vegan, that’s
going to have a tremendous educational punch to it.
What was the purpose of the letter you sent to John Mackey with
the 17 animal groups listed on it, a year and a half ago? [See
Satya, Sept 06]
The purpose was to draw attention to the Animal Compassionate standards and
Animal Compassion Foundation. And it was a response to attacks—you know, when
they set the Animal Compassion foundation up, they had been attacked by Priscilla
Feral [President of Friends of Animals]. So we wanted to respond to that and
say, ‘This attack does not represent the animal movement.’
How do you feel about that letter being posted in the PR section of the Whole
Foods website and when asked about the treatment of farmed animals and humane
standards, John Mackey refers to it?
I don’t have any problem with that. I support what the letter says and
they’re welcome to use it. I mean, we wrote it to them expecting them to
use it. It wasn’t just a personal letter to John Mackey to be put in
his filing cabinet.
It was an announcement.
I do think people should know what they’re doing with the Animal Compassionate
standards. Part of this, I suppose, is that I hope Trader Joe’s or Wild
Oats or someone will say, ‘Hey, what’re they doing? You know, maybe
we could do the same.’ So I want people to know about it; I want them to
use it in their promotion. And then Whole Foods had that day when they were giving
five percent of that day’s profits to the Animal Compassion Foundation,
so I wanted to support that as well. It’s a good thing to be doing.
What do you say to people who feel the letter was an endorsement for Whole
Foods to apply the word compassion to the killing of animals and the packaging
I think it is that. I don’t deny that. Obviously they’re killing
animals and packaging their bodies. There might be some people who say, ‘You
can’t be compassionate if you end up killing the animals.’ I just
think that’s wrong. I think you can recognize the reality that people are
going to eat meat. Or if you’re in a supermarket chain, you can recognize
the reality that if you don’t sell meat, people will go elsewhere.
And nevertheless, you can hope that the meat products you sell will be as
produced as possible.
But do you see a problem in taking one of the most important words to animal
rights activists, the word compassion, and allowing it to be used on animal
No, I don’t see a problem. It’s clear what the word means. Vegans
don’t own the word compassion. It was around a long time before they were
vegan. I think as long as the standards really are compassionate ones, that do
as much as they can to give the animals decent lives before they’re killed,
I don’t have a problem with it.
One of the things I’m getting at is this isn’t so much about the
welfare vs. abolition debate. I think there are people who feel that with the
letter, animal rights activists may have gone a little too far in conceding this
word, compassion, to standards before we’ve even seen the proof of the
Firstly, I don’t know that it’s a question of conceding or not conceding
a word. Words are in the public domain. I suppose we could have said, ‘We
will not support something because you shouldn’t refer to it as Animal
Compassionate,’ but then the question would have been, well what word do
you want to use? I mean, you could have said the same objection to humane. So
I don’t think it’s really worth fighting over a word.
Secondly, we haven’t yet had the proof of the pudding—well, we had
the proof of the pudding in terms of process, right? We’ve got a consultative
process with a lot of animal groups involved, and not just the HSUS and ASPCA,
but groups that are basically run by vegans. Given the efforts to which Whole
Foods is going, to get standards these groups will agree to, I think that’s
enough assurance that these standards will be serious ones.
Do the objectors have that much influence, you think, to merit such a big letter?
I don’t think it’s a big letter. It was just a letter.
Well, maybe not big, but having 17 groups on there was really kind of a middle
finger to Priscilla Feral and people like that.
I thought it was a totally stupid tactic to protest against the store that
is setting the highest standards for animal welfare. So in that sense, yes,
the middle finger. You would have to scratch your head and really think hard
of what would be the stupidest thing an animal organization could do… find
the store that is trailblazing in making animal products that are less cruel
than they currently are, and go and picket outside their doors.
Some animal activists are talking about anecdotal situations where
doing vegan and anti-factory farming educational outreach, and more and more
they’re being confronted with responses, excuses or questions like, ‘Well,
what about humane meat?’ and, ‘I used to be a vegetarian, now we
have these humane standards,’ or ‘I just buy my meat at Whole Foods.’ Basically,
they’re saying, ‘I’m doing enough.’
Well, I see what you’re saying. ‘I just buy my meat at Whole Foods,’ doesn’t
say anything much about how the meat is produced. If you buy eggs at Whole Foods,
at least they’re not coming from battery hens—that you know. But
that’s not necessarily true about all of the meat that is not at all ethically
produced. So until we get those Animal Compassionate standards up and running,
Whole Foods’ meat might be a little better than Gristedes’ meat or
whatever, but it’s certainly not enough.
I’m really a little uncertain about how I feel about people who say, ‘I’m
going to buy stuff that has the Certified Humane label on it’. I do think
those standards are seriously deficient in various ways. That’s one of
the reasons why the Whole Foods standards are going to be better and will set
a new mark. But nevertheless, I would like to see more people who are now eating
factory farmed products, moving to Certified Humane stuff. That is going to create
more of a market for it and more people will see it. Although we might feel, ‘That’s
bad—these people who would have become vegetarian are now buying Certified
Humane who should be vegetarian…’ I’m not sure that the overall
effect is going to be bad. Specifically in the U.S., where we don’t
have any real legislative standards, the best way to make progress may be
to get these
more humane standards into the mainstream. So at this kind of tipping point,
of whether they are going to get into the mainstream or not, maybe people
buying that stuff is going to be a good thing.
There’s been some question about your vegan “purity.”
Oh, there’s no question about that, I’m impure.
How flexible are you? In The Way We Eat you describe, what was it—the “Paris
Ah, yes, the “Paris exception.” I’m probably more flexible
than that, in that it doesn’t have to be Paris. But also less flexible,
because that guy was prepared to eat meat when in a gourmet restaurant in Paris.
I’m not going to do that—I can’t imagine enjoying it, anyway.
When I’m shopping for myself, it will be vegan. But when I’m traveling
and it’s hard to get vegan food in some places or whatever, I’ll
be vegetarian. I won’t eat eggs if they’re not free-range, but if
they’re free-range, I will. I won’t order a dish that is full of
cheese, but I won’t worry about, say, whether an Indian vegetable curry
was cooked with ghee.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to animal people that we haven’t
I think animal people should think more about the impression they’re making
on others because my ethics are based on the consequence of what you do. I think
it’s more important to try and produce a change in the right direction
than to be personally pure yourself. So when you’re eating with someone
at a restaurant, and you ordered something vegan but when it comes there’s
a bit of grated cheese or something on it, sometimes vegans will make a big fuss
and send it back and that might mean the food is wasted. And if you’re
in company with people who are not vegan or not even vegetarian, I think that’s
probably the wrong thing to do. It’d be better off just to eat it because
people are going to think, ‘Oh my god, these vegans…’
I think this also relates to people in the movement and the kinds of tactics
they use. When you’re going to hurt the movement as well, you’ve
got to think not only about venting your anger, but about what is really
going to make the biggest difference for animals. Venting your anger can
be a very
bad thing for the movement, and so for animals too.
On that note, can you comment on the tactics used by the Stop Huntingdon Animal
By the time this is published, they would have been sentenced. And I don’t
want to be attacking people who are facing several years in prison. I think that’s
tragic and sad. Still, some of their tactics have not been really thoughtful
about what impression they are making on others, and how we are going to
advance the whole cause of animals, rather than just shut down Huntingdon.
I think some
of the publicity has been damaging to the movement.
People ought to be asking themselves, if the CBS evening news cameras were
on me now, would this be something I could expect people to support? Is your
evening news viewer going to see this as a good thing to do? If you’re
standing outside someone’s house threatening their children, your average
TV viewer is not going to be sympathetic. And that won’t help the movement.
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