On October 1st, we here at Ecorazzi celebrated World Vegetarian Day – an annual herbivore holiday that officially kicks off Vegetarian Awareness Month. And because we believe in always partying like rock stars, to continue our celebration throughout the month, Ecorazzi will be chatting with some of the world’s most influential vegetarian actors, musicians and writers in a new Vegetarian Awareness Month celebrity interview series. Today we kick off our new feature with words by renowned author Peter Singer.
Peter Singer is a legend in the animal rights world. In 1975, Singer published Animal Liberation – a book widely considered to be the textbook for the animal rights movement. I recently had the chance to chat with the author at Karen Dawn’s Thanking The Moneky book signing/World Vegetarian Party (a full post on that will be coming shortly).
I feel like I’m interviewing a hero. I mean you published Animal Liberation in 1975 and essentially revolutionized the way people think about animals in regards to ethics. How did you get started in this field?
It was a combination of things. I was studying philosophy and I was interested in ethics and interested in ethics in a way that makes a difference to the world. And I happened to meet somebody who was a vegetarian and he was a vegetarian because of his concern about animals — which was pretty unusual then. I mean you had people who were vegetarian because they thought it was good for their health or if they believed in reincarnation, but he just straightforwardly thought that what we do to animals to turn them into meat isn’t right. And I never really thought about that. There wasn’t much discussed at the time. So I put it together with the ethics I was doing and tried to see how you would justify treating animals the way we do, and eventually I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t justify it. And that was a bit of a shock because I was eating meat all my life up to that point. But I thought having realized that, I needed to not only make the change myself, but to get other people to see this. It was obvious this was a major issue that nobody was seeing – we were just blind to it. So that’s why I wrote the book.
Since 1975 the animal rights/ vegetarian world has most certainly grown and changed. If you had to look back and compare, what would you say is the biggest change you’ve witnessed?
Well there are huge changes. There are changes in people’s understanding of the issue. The term “animal rights advocate” doesn’t anymore get sort of baffled looks or, “Are you crazy?”, or something like that. It’s known that there are people – including fairly sensible people – who think that animals ought not be treated the way they are and want to see radical changes, so that’s a big difference. There’s obviously a lot more vegetarian and especially a lot more vegan food around. Again the word vegan was not known or understood in the seventies at all. There was a tiny British vegan society, but you never met a vegan. There was nowhere vegans could go and eat or anything like that. So that’s really changed dramatically. But also I think we’re starting to see bigger breakthroughs into the mainstream on things like factory farming. You know Europe is already seeing that. Europe has already passed laws to change the nature of the way we treat factory hens and pregnant sows and so on. And we’re going see on November fourth whether California goes along with Proposition 2. I mean that’s going be huge. If that passes, that will be the most significant thing politically that has happened to animals in the history of the United States, I would say. So we’ll see if we’ve got to that point and if we can actually persuade a majority of Americans – a majority of Californians anyway – that the way we’re treating animals in factory farms is just plain wrong.
I want to talk for a second about speciesism. It’s a concept that many people aren’t familiar with and one that you seem to base your work on. Talk to me a little about speciesism and what that means to you.
Well I think the idea of speciesism is really crucial if we’re really going to see this issue as something that is in someway analogous with racism or sexism, which is what I would argue it is. I would argue that in all of these cases we have one group that has more power than the other group — whether that’s blacks or women or animals — and not only makes use of that other group for it’s own purposes, but actually convinces itself that it’s right to do so. And that — because they’re part of the other race, sex or species — it’s okay for us to use them in these ways. So I think speciesism, like racism, is a prejudice against those other beings – in this case who aren’t members of our species. This means we don’t take their interests seriously or give their interests the right that we would if they were human beings. I mean a lot of people say, “Well it’s not because they’re not a member of our species, but because they’re not as rational as us or self-conscious or able to act technically or whatever.” But the real test of speciesism is when you compare human beings at the same mental level to a non-human animal. It’s controversial to do because when you’re talking about humans with brain damage or other disabilities people don’t like comparing humans to animals. But realistically you have to say that there are humans that can not do the things that chimpanzees or even dogs or pigs can do. And yet we would never think of experimenting on them the way we think about experimenting on pigs or dogs — and of course not raising them for food. So we have to ask: what is the difference between them? What is supposed to be the moral difference? And I think really it just comes down to the idea that well, humans are special. And I think that’s the core as to why we’re able to exploit animals in the way we do.
Now I’m assuming that you yourself are vegetarian. Are you vegan as well?
Well I’ve been vegetarian for 35 years. I hesitate to call myself vegan because I’m not really strict about it. If I’m traveling and there isn’t vegan food around, I’ll eat vegetarian. I sometimes think that the purity of the thing is not the be all and end all of it. The thing you want to do is make an impact on others, to not support animal exploitation. And if on a few occasions there are some things that have some animal products in it, you shouldn’t feel that you’ve somehow done something dreadful. You’ve got to do what you can and to influence other people, and if you appear too fanatical or too purist you could quite possibly just turn people off.
We’d like to thank Peter for his time and his words. If you haven’t already, make sure to pick up a copy of Animal Liberation or any other of the fantastic books written by Mr. Singer. He will open your eyes. I PROMISE!
photo credit: picture taken by Derek Goodwin at the Farm Sanctuary.