The end of Pollan’s vegetarianism

After completing his factually dubious (see here and here) takedown of the “vegan Utopia” in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan is ready to eat meat again. He writes to Peter Singer to make sure that his arguments for eating meat from a “good farm” are good enough, and he shares Singer’s response:

“I agree with you that it is better for these animals to have lived and died than not to have lived at all … ,” Singer wrote back. Since the utilitarian is concerned exclusively with the sum of happiness and suffering, and the slaughter of an animal with no comprehension of death need not entail suffering, the Good Farm adds to the total of animal happiness provided you replace the slaughtered animal with a new one. (327)

It’s not clear to me whether Pollan’s point about the Good Farm adding to animal happiness is a paraphrase of something that Singer wrote, or whether Pollan has deduced this from Singer’s remarks. Singer’s point seems ambiguous, and it may well only mean that the Good Farm is good for the animals that live on it, not that it’s good for animal happiness overall. As I wrote recently, the Good Farm uses land that might otherwise be home to happy wild animals. I doubt there’s really any objective way to compare “the total of animal happiness” in two different scenarios, though.

Pollan continues,

However, this line of thinking does not obviate the wrongness of killing an animal that “has a sense of its own existence over time, and can have preferences about its own future.” In other words, it might be okay to eat the chicken or the cow, but perhaps not the (more intelligent) pig. Yet, he continued, “I would not be sufficiently confident of my argument to condemn someone who purchased meat from one of these farms.”
[…]
What this suggests to me is that people who care about animals should be working to insure that the ones they eat don’t suffer, and that their deaths are swift and painless — for animal welfare, in others words, rather than rights. (327)

It’s hard for me to see Pollan’s conclusion following from Peter Singer’s concession that he is not “sufficiently confident” in his argument. As I understand Singer, he’s saying that eating meat from the Good Farm occupies a sort of moral gray area; it may or may not be ethical. (This also seems to be his take on the issue in Animal Liberation). Pollan believes Singer suggests much more than that. To Pollan, it’s not merely ethically defensible to eat meat from the Good Farm. It’s the right thing to do if you care about animals.

He goes on,

In fact, the “happy life and merciful death” line is how Jeremy Bentham justified his own meat eating. Yes, the philosophical father of animal rights was himself a carnivore. (328)

This appeal to historical authority is a weak substitute for an argument. It’s quite common for ideas to evolve over time. After all, democracy doesn’t mean the same thing in the United States today that it did 200 years ago.

Of course, Pollan wants to hunt the animal for his meal, so he needs to address the issue of whether it’s ethical to kill a wild animal. He writes, “[I]n theory at least a utilitarian can justify eating humanely raised and slaughtered animals. Eating a wild animal that had been cleanly shot presumably would fall under the same dispensation.”

I’m not convinced. The argument for eating meat from the Good Farm relied on replacing the killed animal with a new one. The hunter doesn’t do that. Under certain circumstances, the hunter might allow the habitat to support an animal that wouldn’t otherwise survive. The argument there seems much hazier than the one for the Good Farm, and Pollan hasn’t made that argument. Instead, he’s asserted that hunting “presumably would fall under the same dispensation” as the Good Farm.

Pollan goes on to appeal to Singer to support his point:

Singer himself suggests as much in Animal Liberation, when he asks, “Why … is the hunter who shoots a deer for venison subject to more criticism than the person who buys a ham at the supermarket? Overall it is probably the intensively reared pig who has suffered more.” (328)

As before, I don’t think Singer really suggests what Pollan says he does. Singer’s point is that hunted meat isn’t as bad as factory-farmed meat. That’s a far cry from saying that it’s ethically defensible.

Of course, Pollan is planning to hunt a pig. The pig, you’ll recall, was the example he gave us of an animal that might have a conception of the future (in which case it should not be killed under Singer’s ethics). This says something about his view of the ethical questions. As in the case of the meat from the Good Farm, his standard of ethical action seems to be based on plausible deniability. We don’t know that pigs have a conception of the future, so it might not be unethical to kill them. Of course, if a pig does suffer when killed, it makes no difference to that pig that the hunter wasn’t entirely sure that it would suffer. In the utilitarian view, then, hunting a less intelligent animal — one that is less likely to suffer — would be a better choice. In this sense, Pollan’s foray into moral philosophy looks more like an effort to construct a defense (I didn’t know the pig would suffer!) than an effort to do what he can to reduce harm.

5 Comments »

  1. Molly said

    You’re very good at this, by the way. 🙂

  2. Ben said

    I don’t understand anything of Pollan’s, I think.

    Why would he (or Singer, or anyone) think that any animal is somehow better off to have lived and died (maybe painfully) than not to have lived at all? I mean, if some animal hasn’t been born, there’s no animal whose interests we can even discuss or consider.

    And anyway, I truly don’t believe Pollan et al. care about the rightness or wrongness of their actions. I think they want to eat (after hunting) animals. End of story. I don’t think this makes Pollan evil. I think it makes him typical. He wants what he wants and that is his first, second, and third consideration.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I think I understand Pollan pretty well, but I don’t agree with him.

      Interestingly, Singer actually changed his mind on this point between the first and most recent editions. In the earlier edition, he compared that argument to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. In the recent edition, he raises the point that he would agree with the suggestion that it’s wrong to bring a child into the world if one knows it’s only going to suffer. He said he wasn’t able to reconcile this with an opposition to bringing a happy animal into the world. He doesn’t say anything about what that means for a baby-eating scheme, though.

      This is one of several reasons I’m not a big fan of utilitarianism and why I saw the need to write this post stating that my objections to Pollan’s rebuttals did not constitute an endorsement of Singer’s arguments.

  3. Molly said

    I agree with you completely, Ben, regarding Pollan’s, and most others’, considerations. They want what they want, damn the rest.

  4. Joanna said

    Wow, those are some pretty creative misreadings on Pollan’s part of Singer’s quotes. I wonder if he knows Lierre Keith. The lengths people will go to justify not doing the right thing truly amaze me sometime.

    This is my first time reading your blog. It is amazing! I’m glad I found it!

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