A matter of ethics


Below is an edited text from books by Peter Singer.

We don’t usually think of what we eat as a matter of ethics. Stealing, lying, hurting people – these acts are obviously relevant to our moral character. So too, most people would say, is our involvement in community activities, our generosity to others in need, and especially our sex life. But eating – an activity that is even more essential than sex, and in which everyone participates – is generally seen quite differently.

The way food is sold an advertised today doesn’t help. Despite the recent upsurge of farmers’ markets, in the developed world almost all food is purchased from supermarkets. Shoppers are not presented with relevant information about the ethical choices that surround food. Instead, the world food industry spends more than $40 billion annually trying to make us eat their products – a figure greater than the domestic product of 70% of the world’s nations. That buys an avalanche of advertising that sweeps down on us from all sides but tells us only what the advertisers want us to know.

If slaughterhouses had glass walls, it’s often said,  we’d all be vegetarian. That’s probably not quite true – some people can get used to almost anything. But transparency is increasingly recognised as an important ethical principle and a safeguard against bad practice. Consumers should be able to get accurate and unbiased information about what they are buying and how it was produced.

There is a broad consensus within both religious and secular ethics that an ethical life respects virtues like fairness, justice, and benevolence. At the heart of these virtues lies a more basic principle: I cannot reasonably claim that my interests matter more than yours simply because my interests are mine. My interests may matter more to me, but I cannot claim they matter more in any objective sense. From the ethical point of view, everyone’s interests deserve equal consideration.

Obviously, animals can’t have equal rights to humans. Animals can’t have equal rights to an education, to vote, or to exercise free speech. The kind of parity that most animal advocates want to extend to animals is not equal rights, but equal consideration of comparable interests. If an animal feels pain, the pain matters as much as it does when a human feels pain. Granted, the mental capacities of different beings will affect how they experience pain, how they remember it, and whether they anticipate further pain – and these differences can be important. But the pain felt by a baby is a bad thing, even if the baby is no more self-aware than, say, a pig, and has no greater capacities for memory of anticipation. Pain can be a useful warning of danger, so it is sometimes valuable, all things considered. But taken in themselves, unless there is some compensating benefit, we should consider similar experiences of pain to be equally undesirable, whatever the species of the being who feels the pain.

We don’t need to eat meat to live. We only continue doing so because we are accustomed to eating these animals products and can’t imagine a meal without them, or because we like the way they taste. And these are not ethical justifications, given the harm these practices cause.

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4 Responses to “A matter of ethics”

  • Hershey Says:

    Nice article, heartfelt words. I have seen many documentaries on the cruelty of animals. Your right they don’t have a choice they are at the mercy of humans daily. Animals are cruelly slaughtered all over the world. It’s down right disgusting. It takes a real sick and twisted individual to do this. I can’t even imagine what kind of gratification this kind of job would bring anyone.”If slaughterhouses had glass walls, it’s often said, we’d all be vegetarian.” This is true I would break down and cry. Advertisers are not concerned with the welfare of animals only the might buck. You have a great day I will come back to read more of your articles late.


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