‘Environmental arguments are ethical arguments’: Peter Singer on ethics and meat consumption

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

The philosopher Peter Singer became a vegan because he believes inflicting suffering on animals is wrong. Image Source: jax10289/Getty Images
The philosopher Peter Singer became a vegan because he believes inflicting suffering on animals is wrong. Image Source: jax10289/Getty Images

Related tags Meat plant-based Sustainability Ethics

Australian philosopher Peter Singer, best known for his 1975 book Animal Liberation, spoke to FoodNavigator about his views on the ethical implications of meat eating and veganism.

Peter Singer, who is known as one of the founding figures of the animal rights movement, is a philosopher and bioethicist. He has recently released Animal Liberation Now, ​an updated version of his 1975 classic exploring the relevance of the animal liberation movement in the twenty-first century.

There are, he told FoodNavigator, two main ethical arguments for not eating meat. “The one that led me to stop eating meat is that the way that the meat industry causes an immense amount of animal suffering​,” he told us, “and it is wrong to support and contribute to that suffering by buying meat, which after all, for those of us who can easily nourish ourselves well without meat, is a luxury, not a necessity.

The other ethical argument is that we should minimize our greenhouse gas emissions, and going vegetarian or better still, vegan, does reduce our emissions​.”

Singer does not see environmental arguments against meat consumption as separate from ethics. “Environmental arguments ​are ethical arguments. Concern about our greenhouse gas emissions is an ethical concern, not a self-interested one​.”

The ethics of meat consumption

The concept of plant-based meat - whereby the taste, texture and appearance of conventional meat is mimicked by plants - could seem confusing if targeting vegan audiences, But Singer does not take issue with meat mimicry. “If your food choices are not supporting the infliction of suffering on animals, or causing unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, the way that they taste is not an ethical issue​.”

Not everyone is persuaded by ethical arguments, Singer told us. It “depends on the audience. Many people are persuaded by the ethical arguments, and they often become activists in trying to reduce meat consumption. Others are persuaded by health arguments.​”

Some people have suggested that meat consumption is important, as it provides consumers with important nutrients that they need to be strong and healthy. According to Singer, however, “for most people in affluent societies, there is no nutritional benefit to consuming animal-based products that could not be obtained without consuming such products.

There is no evidence that meat-eaters are healthier or live longer than vegetarians or vegans.  If anything, the evidence is in favour of vegetarians and vegans being healthier and living longer, but this is not proven either.”

Not all meat consumption has the same moral weight, Singer told us. When it comes to farming, “the difference is significant”​ between factory farming and smallholder farming, “because the amount of suffering inflicted on animals in factory farms is much greater​.”

However, he added, “with regard to greenhouse gas emissions, there is no significant difference​.”

Nevertheless, he does see a potential future where meat consumption holds an ethical taboo. “Perhaps by 2100, people will look back on the way we now treat animals in horror, just as we now look back on slavery or the denial of women's rights​,” he suggested.

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