, I suggested that there are six areas is which we interact with animals. Several of them raise controversial ethical issues but the most controversial is the use of animals in scientific research. Equally controversial is the issue I shall discuss in this essay – the use of animals as food. Those who oppose the use of animals as food are, of course, known as vegetarians. A more extreme version of the view is known as veganism. Veganism is becoming more common, and indeed, it may be more logically consistent than vegetarianism.
Religion, or at least the Judaic and Islamic versions of religion, have traditionally given animals a very low moral status. Eastern religions have on the whole been kinder to animals. For example, Buddhist monks do not kill animals or eat meat. Indeed, the opening of Genesis suggests that the first diet of human beings was vegetarian. Meat-eating became common after the Flood, and thereafter the Judaic and Islamic tradition have had no concern for the suffering of animals. Well, that is not strictly true. Aquinas held that we should be kind to animals – in case unkind habits to animals carried over into our treatment of human beings. Kant later held a similar view.
It was not until the 19th century that a different view of animals began to emerge. The poet Shelley argued for a more humane attitude to animals, but the first philosophical work on the subject known to me was by Henry Salt (1851-1939). Salt was an English writer and campaigner for social reform in the fields of prisons, schools, economic institutions, and the treatment of animals. He was a noted ethical vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist as well as a literary critic, biographer, and classical scholar. Salt is considered to be the 'father of animal rights' since he was one of the first writers to argue explicitly in favour of animal rights, rather than just improvements to animal welfare. Bernard Shaw was another early well-known vegetarian at the beginning of the 20th century. So much for a very brief history. What are the arguments?
The arguments are in three categories: the health arguments, the environmental arguments and the humanitarian arguments. I shall not say much about the health arguments because they turn on issues beyond my competence. Nevertheless, it is true to say that health and diet experts all assert that we eat too much meat, and that this leads to raised cholesterol levels and other risk factors for ill-health.
Environmental factors are currently of great concern to the world. Intensive farming involves the growing of grain which is fed to animals confined indoors or in crowded feed lots. The agricultural land could be used for the much more efficient purpose of growing pulses which can feed a much greater number of the world's population. There is also the issue of the millions and millions of cows raising carbon emissions by farting into the atmosphere.
The third type of argument is the humanitarian argument. This is the natural home-ground for the philosopher. If I spend longer on it, it is by no means because I think the previous empirical arguments are unimportant. Many philosophers have written on the subject since the 1970s but I shall concentrate on two of the most influential. They are the Australian philosopher Peter Singer and the American philosopher Tom Regan.
Singer is basically a utilitarian. If we put his argument simply it is that the pleasure which (some) people obtain from eating meat is vastly outweighed by the suffering caused to animals to make such pleasure possible. In discussing the suffering caused to animals, he drew attention to the horrors of factory farming, the force feeding of calves, turkeys and so on. And it might be added here that the addition of antibiotics and other substances quite foreign to the natural diet of these creatures doesn't do much for human health either. The farming of animals for human consumption, Singer argued, is obviously totally against the interests of the animals. This violation of the interests of animals he called 'speciesism'.
Just as racism and sexism are serious failings of the contemporary world so, according to Singer, is speciesism. Equal consideration of all interests requires an end alike to racism, sexism and speciesism. It took a change in culture for us to see the historic wrongs of racism and sexism, so increasingly people are coming to see the moral force of speciesism. Just as recognition of the wrongs done to women over the centuries gave rise to 'Women's Liberation', so recognition of wrongs done to animals gave rise to 'Animal Liberation'.
Arguments of a different type, but aimed at a similar conclusion, have been put forward by Tom Regan. Singer's arguments are basically utilitarian but Regan is a rights theorist. His argument, again, can be put briefly and simply. The basis for holding rights is having interests or being subjects of a life. Regan argues that animals are 'subjects of a life' – they have interests – and that gives them basic rights. To kill them, eat them or use them in experiments is simply a violation of their rights. This is in many ways a very persuasive argument because it is via the language of rights in which many moral arguments are delivered in the contemporary world.
There are problems which might be raised about the positions of both Singer and Regan. In the case of Singer, we might want to know (and this is an empirical rather than a philosophical question) how far down the great chain of being does suffering extend. Personally, I don't have much sympathy for midges. (Indeed, in Burns' poem Death and Dr Hornbook
, the doctor has a remedy based on midge-tail clippings!)
Similarly with Regan, we might ask whether it is just mammals or all living creatures which are subjects of a life and therefore have rights. This question becomes important when we learn of the nutritional value of many insects. It is a question which a future generation might need to ask in a world of scarcity. For dessert, how about chocolate-coated locusts?
The arguments of Singer and Regan are strong arguments and can make meat-eaters uneasy. One repost is the charge of inconsistency. If you are caught with leather shoes or using some product derived from animals, you are likely to face the triumphant charge of inconsistency. To be inconsistent is to profess a principle and not stick to it. But most people have more than one principle in life and sometimes we may unwittingly act against a principle.
As a vegetarian, I have been accused of inconsistency not just by meat-eaters but also by vegans. As a vegetarian I eat eggs, but a vegan certainly would not. Again, I will wear a jumper of lambs wool but a vegan would not. I absolutely would not eat a lamb chop, but I am happy, if inconsistent, that the lamb is able to praise God with its wool.
I have never had the privilege of meeting Singer but I once had dinner with Tom Regan and spent some time with him. He was over here to play golf rather than to demonstrate against eating haggis. Indeed, I introduced him to vegetarian haggis – which I recommend to meat-eaters who have not tried it. He was a well-informed and charming companion. Yes, and I did check that the restaurant had a vegetarian menu, although no crunchy insects.
A great deal of philosophy is of zero interest to the general public but whatever is to be said about the arguments of Singer and Regan, they have reached the general public and raised issues of public importance.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow