Scoop Review of Books

A Vegetarian’s Dilemma

Writers and Readers Week Preview: Peter Singer

By Jeremy Rose

Shortly after we launched the Scoop Review of Books, two years ago, I sent the philosopher Peter Singer an email asking him the following question:

“New Zealand is in the process of introducing a compulsory bio-fuel component in all fuel. The Green Party, and others, have introduced measures to ensure that the bio-fuel isn’t coming from unsustainable sources (and taking food out of the mouths of the poor) and as a result in the short term at least all of the bio-fuel is likely to come from tallow from the country’s very large meat industry.

“So it looks like in the very near future it will be impossible for those who believe the killing of animals is immoral to avoid feeding the fat of those animals into their cars. On the other hand the tallow will be contributing – in however small a part – to cutting carbon emissions.

“What would your personal position be? Would you give up driving a car rather than fill the tank with animal fat? How would you advise moral vegetarians and others to tackle the dilemma?”

And Peter Singer very generously took the time to respond so:

“I’m a utilitarian, not an absolutist, so I wouldn’t give up driving a car because fuel contained an animal product, and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do so either. For most people, the costs of going without a car, in a country like NZ, would be too great, and the gesture is unlikely to achieve much. But if this becomes a subsidy for the livestock industry, then it is hard to see how it is sustainable, because as is increasingly recognized, livestock are a major source of methane, which is an especially potent greenhouse gas. Indeed, James Hansen, the renowned US climate change expert, has suggested that a reduction in livestock is the best hope we have of avoiding a disastrous level of global warming in the short-term. So if this is providing a boost to the livestock industry, then I am surprised that the Greens are supporting it.”

The question was later taken over by events as the incoming National Government scrapped the bio-fuel plan.

When I sent the email my only exposure to Singer’s ethical ideas was through reading an essay or two of his on-line. Essays where he had set out the stark reality that virtually all of us in the rich world could very easily choose to save the life of someone in the poor world by simply foregoing a luxury or two.

So it was probably from those essays – and knowing that he was the intellectual guru of many in the animal rights movement – that I had got the idea he tended towards absolutism.

I’ve just finished reading his excellent The life you can save: acting now to end world poverty a fascinating and moving exploration of how a fairly modest transfer of wealth from the rich world to the poor world could end world poverty.

His solution involves all of us giving what amounts to a fairly modest amount of our income to organisations working to end poverty in the developing world.

It’s a sobering argument and one that I hope will convince many of us to give a little more of our disposable income to organisations like Oxfam working on the front lines but there are aspects of Singer’s utilitarianism that irritate me.

I’ll save my exploration of those irritations until after hearing Peter Singer speak at this week’s Wellington Writers and Readers Week.

Where To From Here: Peter Singer in conversation with Rod Oram: Wednesday 10 March, 12.30pm, Embassy Theatre.

Radical Chic Peter Singer in conversation with Keith Ovenden, Thursday 11 March, 5.15pm, Embassy Theatre.