Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Meeting Peter Singer

I remember watching an episode of Penn & Teller about animal rights. As usual, the show mostly consisted of a long series of clips relating to animal rights, followed by comments from Penn making fun of the idea. This show, I recall, was particularly weak. They didn’t even pretend to make an argument; it was entirely mockery.

Watching this, I couldn’t help but realize there was a powerful logical argument at the core of the animal rights groups: animals should be treated much the same way humans are — their lives should be respected, their pain minimized, etc. Make this one simple change to your system of morality and everything else falls into place. PETA actually seems kind of measured when they refer to “the Holocaust on your plate”.

Peter Singer is the moral philosopher who has probably done the most to promote this idea. With a wide-ranging career spanning from Marx to meat, his book Animal Liberation, which quietly and thoughtfully makes this case, is widely-regarded as launching the animal liberation movement.

I was recently dragged to the Boston Vegetarian Festival to see Singer speak about his new book, The Way We Eat, and was deeply impressed by his thoughtfulness and clarity of mind. An aging fellow with thoughtful glasses, he looks like Noam Chomsky, another plainspoken professor. He is not a passionate activist who has taken on the cause of animals, but simply what he appears: a moral philosopher who started thinking about the issue one day and drew the logical conclusions.

After his talk, a woman in the audience asked a question about the rumors that he would sometimes eat non-vegan food. The audience was scandalized. “Let me address that,” Singer said. “I don’t believe in veganism as a religion. I simply believe that refraining from eating animal products is the most effective way of putting pressure on producers to stop abusing and killing animals. Sometimes, if a host misunderstands my request and makes non-vegan food, instead of throwing it away, I will eat it. I don’t think this is a problem, because I don’t think this does any moral harm.”

Another person asked how he could say good things about Whole Foods when they were still serving numerous animal products. “Whole Foods has the best standards for animal treatment of any major organization,” he replied. “That’s simply a fact. And, I think it’s a good thing. Do I think not using animals at all would be even better? Of course. But I praise people for the good things they do and condemn them for the bad ones.”

A final question raised the incrementalism versus revolutionism debate common to all left-wing social movements. Should one really worry about animal treatment when the animals were still going to be killed? Pinger said the answer was undoubtedly yes. “Look, I thought that when Animal Liberation came out everyone would read it and become a vegan. But it’s been thirty years and vegans are still less than 10% of the population. If you genuinely care about animal suffering, you have to admit that, and say, ‘what else can we do to ease animal suffering?’”

After Singer’s talk, I began thinking through the consequences of his morality. A question occurred to me: “Should we also stop animals from eating each other?” I was sure others had made such arguments as reductio ad absurdums of vegetarianism, but I thought I might be the first to be genuinely interested in it from a moral perspective.

“Of course not,” said my friend. “It’s not our fault if the animals kill each other.” “You mean,” I said, “that you think it’s perfectly moral to let that guy” — I pointed at a random guy nearby — “go around killing people?” “Well, OK,” he said. “But it’s different with animals, because they don’t know any better.” “You mean it would be OK to let him go around killing people if he was mentally ill and didn’t realize he was doing it?” “You should go ask Singer,” he said.

So I did — he was signing books outside the lecture hall and as the line ended I asked him my question. His answer was even better than I imagined: “We would if we knew how to do so without making things worse and disturbing the ecosystems and so on.” “Thanks!” I said, impressed. He spied the large white book I was hugging to my chest. “Are you reading Kolakowski?” he asked. “Yep,” I said smiling. “Had to read that when I was studying Marx a long time ago. It’s heavy,” he said. “Quite literally!” I replied, hefting the 1200 page book. He smiled.

“I have to say, though,” I said, feeling guilty, “that I don’t agree with your Darwinian Left stuff.” “That’s OK,” he replied. “You don’t need to agree with everything I write.” Then he wandered off, looking for the next thing to see.

I had to get that off my chest, because it was the one thing bugging me about Singer. Somehow later in life Singer had become a sociobiologist, one of that vulgar group of psuedoscientists who insist — despite all evidence — that humans are genetically programmed to do all everything a right-wing politician could imagine. (Sociobiology having gotten a bad name, they now call themselves evolutionary psychologists.)

In his book A Darwinian Left, however, Singer explains that this is no reason for the left to despair. If people are actually born stupid, that’s only more justification for left-wing policies. We need to provide the stupid people with the extra resources to live on equal terms as the smart people. Steven Pinker cites this book (along with Singer’s The Expanding Circle) several times in his execrable Blank Slate to prove that his noxious views aren’t necessarily right-wing. (Neither Pinker nor Singer, of course, provide any real evidence to show this actually is the way humans are.)

That said, as usual Singer’s conclusions do follow from his premises — if you do make that one small change to the way you think the world works, then his conclusions about what we should do to remedy it undoubtedly follow. I just wish he’d check his assumptions.

That aside, it seems unfair to dismiss Singer on the basis of a small blemish on an incredibly long and varied career — Wikipedia lists over forty books he’s written or co-authored. His thoughtfulness and clarity in sharing it is an example to us all.

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November 13, 2006


What’s wrong with evolutionary biologists? I assume that all they’re saying is that certain immoral behaviors are also characteristics likely to get passed on to young. I really don’t see how it’s any different to say “Humans can be irrationally jealous about sex because irrationally jealous humans tend to have more children,” than it is to say “Cats have sharp claws because sharp-clawed cats can kill more mice and thus are more likely to breed.”

I think the exact term for Singer’s dietary ideology is Meagan.

posted by Byrne Hobart on November 13, 2006 #

Evolutionary psychologists say quite a bit more than that, but let’s just stick to that example. It’s nice to sit and make up stories about how cats got their claws (Rudyard Kipling has a nice book called Just-So Stories about how the leopard got his spots and so on). But this is children’s book writing, not science, which would require some evidence. Evolutionary psychologists just come up with stories to explain why they’re jealous without even bothering to look into whether everyone is just like them. That’s just propaganda.

posted by Aaron Swartz on November 13, 2006 #

I’m jealous. If I still lived in Cambridge, I definitely would’ve like to have met him. Just last week I was discussing various theories of altruism and was drawing increasingly large circles around the self, kin, tribe, nation, etc., with respect to social parochialism and drew the largest “expanding circle” to include Singer’s arguments for animals.

I always appreciated his consistency in argument, and his pragmatism. If I remember correctly, the interaction on veganism is much like his position on vivisection. While it might be immoral to experiment on animals, that shouldn’t prevent us from improving the protocols for animal experimentation while it is done (i.e., Britain is much better at this than in the U.S.) Here, all you have to do is allude to “cancer” and you can torture animals regardless of efficacy.

posted by Joseph Reagle on November 13, 2006 #

Oh, I see. Your problem is with the ‘data’ they’re trying to explain, rather than with the explanation itself, then? I’m not sure: I think their argument goes something like this:

1) Some people will lie/cheat/steal/rape/etc. if they can get away with it.

2) Some of them get away with it.

3) Those who get away with it expend less effort for the same amount of food/shelter/progeny.

4) Their progeny are more likely than the rest of the population to inherit these antisocial tendencies (whether through genes or memes).

5) More kids due to trait + kids more likely to have trait is the classic Darwinian recipe for proliferation of a trait.

It’s fair to say that traits exist and can be handed down from parents even if these traits don’t exist for everyone and don’t always get handed down: Evolutionary biology is useful if there’s correlation, even if it isn’t 100%.

posted by Byrne Hobart on November 13, 2006 #

And maybe people in San Francisco pee on doorsteps because the doorsteps remind them of the bathroom holes their hominid ancestors used. Without evidence, this kind of thing is just armchair wankery, not science. You can make up any such story to explain any such thing you like.

posted by Aaron Swartz on November 13, 2006 #

This is the best I can come up with for “Liberalism from First Principals”:

0) You (a human) have been sold 10,000 ideas about how to be happy, and how to avoid negative judgment. Push back against them all, and notice most fall away with absolutely no substance.

1) There is a high probability that you can be happy and healthy, and still have enough time, energy, and resources to do meaningful work for any cause you wish, because of the freedom you gained from pushing back (in step zero).

2) Pushing back against insubstantial ideas about happiness and avoiding negative judgment is not consistent with any particular “progressive” cause, but is definitely inconsistent with working slavishly to preserve the current human power structure.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and create pervasive tolerance among, between, and throughout all people who are disinterested in working slavishly to preserve the current human power structure.

Conservatives are typically marked by cohesion and tolerance among members of their own group, and progressives are typically marked by incohesion and intolerance among members of their own group.

My guess is that a progressive, tolerant of all other progressives, is a politically unexploitable creature. So it is attacked from all sides with no fear of reprisal: attacked either for fun, sport, or for purpose.

I am interested in the necessary and sufficient conditions for human politics to arise. What sources would you suggest for researching this?

posted by manuelg on November 13, 2006 #

It’s only ‘armchair wankery’ if it doesn’t provide a viable answer to an existing question. Evolutionary psychology hypothesizes an answer to the question of why people have an inclination to do bad things; we can (probably) test it by comparing the honesty of people across different cultures. If it’s found to be valid (I’m not an expert — perhaps it’s been confirmed, perhaps not), we’ll have evidence that people will tend to be more moral in the future if they’re compelled to be more moral now.

posted by Byrne Hobart on November 13, 2006 #

Unless you consider natural selection a powerful enough theory that, for a given feature in nature, there almost must be an adaptation explanation for it (our ability to discern anything whatsoever from fossils depends on this assumption, so I assume you’ll buy it). Then just-so stories, if they are falsifiable, are simply theories. Thinking up theories isn’t wankery, is it? Generally you think of a theory, think of some predictions, and then go test it, no?

Going back to animal rights: I am not convinced that everything with a nervous system places an ethical burden upon us. What is your justification for this premise?

posted by David McCabe on November 14, 2006 #

I don’t think any scientist believes every trait is adaptive. There is also exaptation and pure randomness.

But the bigger problem is that the evopsychers seem to think the Scientific Method includes an “alert the national media” phase between coming up with a hypothesis and testing it.

As for animal rights, I wasn’t making any arguments in favor of the premise. But if you want to read some, perhaps you should get Singer’s Animal Liberation which many people seem to find convincing.

posted by Aaron Swartz on November 14, 2006 #

Aaron, you don’t know much about sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. You’re attacking a caricature. Go read a bunch and then if you still disagree with it you can attack it. But sociobiologists emphatically do not believe humans are “genetically programmed” to behave in the way you describe, and one of their first principles is avoiding just-so stories, so the fact that you attack the field for those things says to me you don’t know the first thing about it.

I never finished Animal Liberation but I liked what I read (I’m a vegan so I’m entitled to skip the tedious arguments, heh). But I thought “A Darwinian Left” was one of the most brilliant small books I’ve ever read.

posted by Jamie McCarthy on November 14, 2006 #

I am interested that the objections to evolutionary biology, at least as expressed here, seem similar to fundamentalists’ objections to Darwinism — it’s just a theory, where’s the evidence, there are holes in the theory — and, as far as I can tell, for some of the same reasons, namely that it lessens the stature (in this case, moral) of humans to the nature of animals. And that the objections are being made by people who admittedly have little expertise in the subject. And that it’s used to further a theory — in this case, conservatism, that the objectors object to, hence it’s the agenda rather than the theory that seems to be in question.

posted by mike on November 14, 2006 #

We’re talking about evolutionary psychology, not biology. Do you seriously believe Darwinism has no evidence?

posted by Aaron Swartz on November 15, 2006 #

Jamie: Sorry, but I’ve read an enormous amount of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. I was trying to keep things simple for the comments here, but I know way more about this subject that I really should.

posted by Aaron Swartz on November 15, 2006 #

How do the glasses you wear affect the quality of your thought?

posted by Mike Sierra on November 22, 2006 #

Animal rights drives me around the bend, so I wrote a response here.

posted by Mike Sierra on November 24, 2006 #

Peter Singer is a 24 karit idiot blabbering his mindless philosephies to the mind numbed zombies comming out of these failed schools and collages no wonder our collage educated kids flunk becuase their listening too much to these mindless pholosephers

posted by Spurwing Plover on October 28, 2008 #

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