Mother Jones Magazine May 3, 2006
Chew the Right Thing
The philosopher talks about ethical eating,
fast-food burritos, and why local food is
By Dave Gilson

For Peter Singer, the unexamined meal is not
worth eating. Over the past three decades, the
Australian philosopher has challenged the idea
that eating is simply a matter of convenience or
enjoyment, making a case that it is a profound
ethical choice-particularly if you're a meat
eater. In 1975 he published Animal Liberation, a
pioneering defense of the rights of animals that
concluded that veganism is the most ethically
justifiable diet. The book established Singer as
the intellectual godfather of the animal rights
movement and, as an Oxford philosophy lecturer
put it, took what had been viewed as "the concern
of eccentrics and little old ladies with too many
cats" and transformed it into a "respectable
moral cause."
Singer may have helped legitimize the idea that
meat is murder, but try telling that to most
Americans. Only six percent say they're
vegetarian or vegan, and while the demand for
organic food is booming, the vast majority
continues to consume the "standard American diet"
of cheap meat and processed food. In his latest
book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices
Matter, Singer (with co-author Jim Mason) turns
his sights on the American way of dining,
applying his ethical calculus to the eating
habits of three families-ranging from
meat-and-potatoes Wal-Mart shoppers to Whole
Foodies and hardcore vegans. With a mix of quiet
philosophizing and Fast Food Nation-style
reportage, Singer argues that eating well means
looking beyond the plate and taking a hard look
where our food comes from and how it affects
other people, animals, and the environment. He
isn't advocating that Americans become a nation
of militant vegans, however. He even cuts meat
eaters some slack-so long as they avoid factory
farmed meat-and reassures readers that
interrogating their food choices need not be done
dogmatically: "Food is an ethical issue-but you
don't have to be fanatical about it."
This contrast between the radicalism of Singer's
core philosophy and the nuanced way he puts it
into practice is The Way We Eat's biggest
surprise. Singer is not a knee-jerk foe of the
food industry, nor does he give the organic and
local food movement a free ride. He writes
favorably about companies that have made efforts
to break away from the industrial food chain,
such as Chipotle, a burrito chain owned by
McDonald's, which has made efforts to buy more
organic vegetables and sustainably-raised meat.
Likewise, Singer is critical of the notion that
local farming is a cure-all for the abuses of
industrial farming, and is quick to point out it
may come with its own negative impacts. For
instance, what's more fuel efficient-driving an
hour to buy apples at a nearby farm or driving to
the local supermarket to do a week's worth of
grocery shopping? In short, Singer's not afraid
of market solutions or globalized agriculture-so
long as they work within his carefully delineated
ethical framework.
That's not to say that The Way We Eat doesn't
pose profound dilemmas for anyone who cares about
the environmental, social, and moral consequences
of what they eat-particularly if you're what
Singer calls a "conscientious carnivore." Though
Michael Pollan (who's been engaged in a mini-feud
with Singer over animal rights) has written
cheekily of reading Animal Liberation while
tucking into a steak, only the most
steel-stomached meat eater will get through The
Way We Eat's discussions of intensive animal
farming without a twinge of disgust or guilt. As
Pollan conceded at a recent appearance, "You have
to defeat [Singer's] arguments or stop eating
Singer is currently professor of bioethics at
Princeton University and laureate professor at
University of Melbourne. recently
spoke with him about his new book, his
disagreements with Pollan, and why he thinks
obesity is unethical. You're probably the world's best
known utilitarian philosopher. Can you briefly
explain what it means to be a utilitarian and how
that applies to food?
Peter Singer: To be a utilitarian means that you
judge actions as right or wrong in accordance
with whether they have good consequences. So you
try to do what will have the best consequences
for all of those affected. When it comes to food
it means that obviously you look not only at
whether you enjoy what you're eating but also
what you're contributing to and supporting with
your food purchases. That's of particular concern
where you're contributing to or supporting a
system that abuses animals, that damages the
environment, that's harmful to workers, and so
on. I think a lot of the food produced in
America, particularly factory farmed or
intensively farmed animal products, is in that
MJ: You write that local food often is the most
ethical choice, but isn't always necessarily the
most ethical choice. Why is that?
PS: You have to ask yourself what's particularly
good about being local. People say, "Well, I want
to support my local economy." But if you're
living in a prosperous part of the United States,
what's really ethical about supporting the
economy around you rather than, say, buying
fairly traded produce from Bangladesh, where you
might be supporting smaller, poorer farmers who
need a market for their goods? So I think that
just in terms of supporting your local economy,
I'd say no, you should support the economy where
your dollars are needed most. But then people
will say, "Yes, but there's all the fossil fuel
used in shipping it over from Bangladesh or
wherever." But people often don't realize that if
you're shipping something like rice by sea, the
fuel costs are extremely low. Shipping is a very
efficient way of transporting. It may be that if
you're buying rice in California, the rice from
Bangladesh has used less fossil fuel than
California rice, even counting what it takes to
get there. We also found that when we looked at
tomatoes produced in New Jersey early in the
season by being grown on heat, when you calculate
the amount of oil that goes into heating the
greenhouses, it turns out that you could have
trucked them up from Florida with a similar
amount of oil. If people are prepared to eat
locally and seasonally, then they probably do
pretty well in terms of environmental impact. But
there's not many people who live in the northern
states of the U.S. who will say, "I'm not going
to have any tomatoes between November and July."
So I think there's a certain amount of double
talk about local food that's just too rosy.
MJ: But if you're concerned about animal welfare,
one argument for local food is that farmers who
know that their customers will be coming out to
the farm are less likely to treat their animals
PS: If you're buying animal products and can go
to the farm and actually see how the animals are
looked after, yes, that's an important point.
That's definitely the best way of assuring
yourself that the animals are being well treated.
But again, that example just shows that you need
to be more specific than just saying, "Buy
local." Because you might buy local at your
farmers' market but perhaps [the farmer] is
selling eggs from hens that are kept in cages in
a shed. That's still local food. There's local
and there's local, and if you are buying local
and are concerned about these ethical issues you
really need to be inquiring, or best of all,
inspecting for yourself.
MJ: In his new book, Michael Pollan writes about
an exchange he had with you about the ethics of
eating meat.
PS: Right, and I have part of a chapter that discusses his arguments as well.
MJ: One argument that he has put forward is that
while being eaten is not in an individual
animal's interest, from the standpoint of the
species, domesticated animals owe their existence
to humans having a need for them. If everyone
became vegan, cows would go extinct. What's your
response to this idea?
PS: I think there's a bit of confusion in this
argument about doing things for the good of the
species. The species isn't really a conscious
being. But if he's saying that it's good that
there are more cows around, I think that depends
on how the cows are treated. Perhaps we'd
actually end up with some measure of agreement
that it's only good for there to be cows around
if these cows are leading good lives. But I think
the majority of cows, and even more so chickens
and pigs, are leading pretty miserable lives.
MJ: You argue that we should look at animals as
individual beings, yet some would say that our
concept of individual morality and rights only
should apply to interactions between humans, not
the human desire to eat animals. As Pollan
writes, "We may simply require a different set of
ethics to guide our dealings with the natural
world, one as well suited to the particular needs
of plants and animals and habitatsŠ as rights
seem to suit us and serve our purposes."
PS: I'm a bit puzzled that he would think modern
farming is the natural world. I don't understand
the notion that modern farming is anything do to
with nature. It's a pretty gross interference
with nature. I think it ought to be governed by
the standards of how it affects the individual
animals, just as we'd want to deal with
institutions that deal with humans by how they
affect individual humans.
MJ: Do you think there can be such thing as what
Pollan describes as a "good farm"-a farm where
animals live happy lives and are slaughtered with
a minimum of suffering?
PS: Yes, I think it's possible. But I think it's
rarer than Pollan thinks. He refers to Joel
Salatin's farm as a model of a good farm. I've
had other reports about that farm and I don't
think it's nearly as good as Pollan is
suggesting. The hens that are in the fields are
actually in small wire pens that get moved around
on the grass; they're pretty restrictive. It's a
lot better than the standard intensive farm, but
it doesn't meet my standards of a good farm.
MJ: Have you been to Salatin's farm?
PS: No, I haven't. But one of my researchers has.
There's another guy who's got a book about
raising poultry outdoors [Herman Beck-Chenoweth,
author of Free Range Poultry Production and
Marketing] who talks about the system that
Salatin uses for his hens and describes it as one
of the worst of the methods of raising poultry
outdoors-[he's] not comparing it to the factory
cage, of course. He says it's like a cage with a
grass floor.
MJ: When you take the suffering of animals or
factory farming into consideration, what role, if
any, does the personal enjoyment of food play? Is
enjoying a steak secondary to the ethical
problems with eating a corn-fed cow?
PS: I think it is. I'm not saying that enjoyment
isn't legitimate. But I think that compared to
what the cow or steer has been through and
compared to the impact you're having on the
environment, I think your enjoyment of the steak
is secondary. Don't forget, it's the net
difference between your enjoyment of the steak
and your enjoyment of whatever else you'd be
eating instead. So I hope you'll find something
else-there's lots of great vegetarian or vegan
food that you can eat that will be tasty and,
once you develop a taste for it, probably will
enjoy as much as you enjoy the steak, anyway.
MJ: Some people who want to eat ethically will
probably feel that they'll never be able to live
up to the ideal. What can people realistically
aspire to?
PS: I do want to emphasize that I don't think
eating ethically, particularly from a utilitarian
point of view, is a matter of saying, "Here's
this strict law that I have to do everything
possible comply with." I think we can be
ethically conscientious and recognize that
sometimes there are going to be compromises.
Sometimes it's going to be very difficult, very
inconvenient, to get the best choice, so we'll
settle for something else. As you were saying
before with the steak, there's a little bit of
room for indulgence in all of our lives. I know
some people who are vegan in their homes but if
they're going out to a fancy restaurant, they
allow themselves the luxury of not being vegan
that evening. I don't see anything really wrong
with that. If what they're doing nine days out of
ten is good, I'm not going to criticize them for
being less than perfect on the tenth day. Sure,
you'll make mistakes, but don't flagellate
yourself if you do.
MJ: Do you eat meat? If not, are you vegan?
PS: I don't eat meat. I've been a vegetarian
since 1971. I've gradually become increasingly
vegan. I am largely vegan but I'm a flexible
vegan. I don't go to the supermarket and buy
non-vegan stuff for myself. But when I'm
traveling or going to other people's places I
will be quite happy to eat vegetarian rather than
MJ: I thought it was quite interesting that you
write pretty favorably about Chipotle. Seeing as
they're funded by McDonalds, I imagine many
people who consider themselves ethical eaters
would be loath to eat there. It seems that you
ultimately see solutions in what larger companies
can do to change where they get their food from,
instead of just taking the local approach of
getting your local farmer to be humane and
PS: I think we have to work with the tools we
have. In the United States the market is probably
the best tool that we have to produce change. If
I were writing in Europe, I might think that the
political system is more useful as a way of
bringing about change. But in this country, the
political system has not shown itself to be
responsive to consumer demand when it challenges
major businesses like agribusiness. While maybe
that will change, at the moment if we want to
get-to use Chipotle as an example-more pigs
outdoors, not confined indoors in factory farms,
one way of doing that is by consumers switching
their consumer choices from chains that sell
factory farmed pork to chains that sell humanely
raised pork. If Chipotle's doing that, well,
good; I hope more people go there and switch
their patronage to them because of it.
MJ: You write briefly about the ethics of obesity
and suggest that we revive the idea that gluttony
is a bad thing. Why?
PS: When you look at food as an ethical issue in
the Christian tradition, you don't find very much
about it. You don't find, as you do in the Jewish
or Islamic or Hindu traditions, a lot of
restrictions saying you can eat this but you
can't eat that. But what you do find is this idea
that gluttony is a sin and that it's something
that we ought to be ashamed of. But it's
interesting that although the United States sees
itself as a very Christian country, this
something that is not talked about very much.
Christian leaders talk about a variety of sins,
but gluttony is generally not one of them. If you
look at their congregations, often you can see
why, because many of the members are pretty
grossly obese. I think that this is something
that we need to think about. It is related to the
impact we are making on the planet. Somebody who
eats twice as much factory-farmed products as he
or she needs to is clearly doing twice as much
damage. From a utilitarian point of view, that's
twice as bad.
- Dave Gilson is the associate editor of Mother Jones.

Vegan Home
to be VEGAN
vegan foods
VEGAN menus
to avoid

VEGAN recipes
keep on hand
Great Links