Singer’s legacy: harm reduction

The influence of Singers focus on harm reduction can be seen in a range of contemporary debates in animal ethics that will be of interest to VS scholars, either because they address veganism, or because they will show what a vegan life could be. For a flavor, consider two.

First are questions about the causal impact of our dietary choices. Singer, recall, is interested in actually making a difference in the lives of animals. He thus takes very seriously the fact that a refusal to buy a burger from McDonald’s likely has no impact upon the lives of any animals. Naturally enough, the animal in question is already dead—but refusing to buy a burger will not have any impact on any future animal, either, because the decisions of McDonald’s to buy more burgers are not sensitive to one person’s refusal. Now, they are sensitive to the decision of lots of people to repeatedly refuse. But that we collectively have a responsibility to do something does not straightforwardly translate to the claim that we individually have a responsibility to do that same thing—especially if our individual action (unlike the collective action) will have no impact. Similarly, the fact that it is wrong to harm animals on farms when we could all thrive as vegans does not straightforwardly translate to a claim that it is wrong to eat the products of animals harmed on farms—especially, again, when said refusal will have no impact. Trying to get to the bottom of a justification for veganism given consumers’ causal impotence is something that concerns a lot of contemporary animal ethi-cists working in Singer’s shadow—for example, it was a real theme of a recent handbook of food ethics (e.g., McPherson; Nefsky). So seriously do philosophers take this problem that at least one vegan philosopher has concluded that, despite the wrong of raising and killing animals for food, it is not impermissible to purchase and eat the products of animal agriculture (Fischer). VS scholars who worry about the causal impotence of veganism (e.g., von Mossner 34—5) may be able to find much of value in these debates, and could do little better than starting with the works just cited.

Second are questions of impactful activism. Singer himself has written a considerable amount on this; for example, he has provided the philosophical underpinning for the effective-altruism movement (The Most Good You Can Do). Effective altruism is about doing the most good that we can, given our finite resources. Better to donate to a charity that will make effective use of my money than one that will not; better to save more lives than fewer. In the animal case, this has some unsurprising results. Given the numbers involved, their comparative neglect by philanthropists, and that we have relatively clear routes to measurable impact, animal activists and animal philanthropists would do better to focus on farmed animals and diet than on (say) companion animals. We can see these trends reflected in the charities recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators. At the time of writing, their “top” charities are the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, Anima International, The Humane League, and The Good Food Institute. But it might also have some results that are uncomfortable. For example, effective animal altruists face criticism (the fairness of which is disputed) for focusing on welfare reform at the expense of system change—in part because the former is more measurable, and we have clearer ideas about how it is achieved. Some of these will not sit easily even with those who reluctantly support welfare reform, such as encouraging people to change from eating chicken and fish to eating beef: Chickens and fishes are smaller than cows, which means more death and more suffering per meal (Cooney chap. 1). It also may have results that sound, for those unfamiliar with animal ethics, bizarre. For example, effective animal altruists might well focus on wild-animal suffering. Though there is a literature on wild-animal suffering in animal ethics (e.g., Horta,“Debunking”), and though a utilitarian should not distinguish between wild and domesticated animals, talk of interfering in predator—prey relations can be met with incredulous stares.

These debates serve as examples of the questions that contemporary Singer-influenced animal ethicists address. Both are relevant to VS scholars, who reflect upon the impact of their choices (von Mossner 34—5); the underlying tensions of their vegan position (Quinn); and what it means to live a vegan life beyond diet (Quinn and Westwood). No doubt, then, there is much of interest to VS scholars in these conversations, whether or not they are ultimately drawn to Singers utilitarianism.

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