Advice from an über-ethicist

There wasn’t much wiggle room left for the casual carnivore when über-ethicist Peter Singer got finished with us in 1973. That’s when his uncompromising assault on trans-species suffering, Animal Liberation, had millions of readers trading in their T-bones for tofu.

But now even the moral high ground of a vegetarian lifestyle isn’t good enough. Singer’s new book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, argues that, all things considered, only a vegan lifestyle will do. The reasons go far beyond Singer’s past exposés of animal abuse and factory farming. Tracking the source of food served at three very different American tables, Singer and his co-author, Jim Mason, uncovered more than they could swallow.

How we eat can influence the very health of the planet even more than switching to hybrid cars or solar heating. The hidden costs of even the most prudent food choices—costs in terms of social injustice, poverty, waste and pollution, as well as animal cruelty, make us all collaborators in environmental destruction. Especially Americans, who manage to consume one-quarter of the world’s fossil fuels.

Looking for transparency in how our food is produced, the authors visited fields, farms, organic facilities and fisheries guided by the food-buying habits of three families—one embedded in the “standard American diet” of Wal-Mart and fast food, another of “conscientious omnivores” and finally a family of vegans who consume no animal products at all. It wasn’t hard to predict that the family shopping for bargains would be chastised for its convenience-based gastronomy. But when Singer sourced the politically correct fare bought by the conscientious consumers, the results were sobering. Looking at farms behind the “organic” and “certified humane” labels, Singer did not like what he saw. Even farm-raised seafood smelled fishy.

Much of the book flies in the face of the reigning environmental folklore, e.g. the “buy locally” mantra. It is not necessarily the case that local products are less costly—if by cost you include the environmental costs of carbon-dioxide emissions or social-justice issues. The “buy local” choice makes ethical sense, it seems, only when paired with “seasonal” consciousness. Out-of-season goods, even organic ones, always bear a high environmental price tag.

Singer’s maddeningly strict utilitarianism has made him famous. It can also make him tedious. Sidestepping the tricky issue of intrinsic rights, Singer bases his ethical considerations on the issue of calculating interests. Since animals (including us) have interests, such as avoidance of suffering, then those interests must be respected, as long as doing so does not entail greater suffering on our part. Poverty, hunger, abuse—these all cause suffering that those in affluent cultures might easily prevent. That is, if we’re willing to make some sacrifices.

In The Way We Eat, Singer and Mason carefully addresses the issue of making enlightened food choices, of buying and consuming only those animal products whose provenance is well-known and well-documented. Still, I can’t help feeling that he is asking us to be better than we actually can be. Given the facts—and he certainly supplies them—we are called upon to avoid eating seafood, eggs, meat, milk—any animal products—period.

How much should we agonize over the ethical price tag of free-range chicken, for chrissakes? Where do we stop the calculation of suffering? With pigs? Or scallops? What about the bugs I crush walking through my own organic garden? Numbed into ethical exhaustion, I came away from Singer’s message bloodied but unbowed. Living a moral life is arduous. The hidden price of the vegan lifestyle is, for me, too high in time and anxiety. So, I will continue to eat seasonal, organic produce, cage-free eggs, free-range chicken and wild salmon. But reading The Way We Eat did affect me. I’ve increased my contributions to Heifer International.