Essays /

Not Mine Essay

Essay preview


An Animal's Place - New York Times




Login Register Now Help



Search All


An Animal's Place
By Michael Pollan
Published: November 10, 2002

Correction Appended
The first time I opened Peter Singer's ''Animal Liberation,'' I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare. If this sounds like a good recipe for cognitive dissonance (if not indigestion), that was sort of the idea. Preposterous as it might seem, to supporters of animal rights, what I was doing was tantamount to reading ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' on a plantation in the Deep South in 1852.


Singer and the swelling ranks of his followers ask us to imagine a future in which people will look back on my meal, and this steakhouse, as relics of an equally backward age. Eating animals, wearing animals, experimenting on animals, killing animals for sport: all these practices, so resolutely normal to us, will be seen as the barbarities they are, and we will come to view ''speciesism'' -- a neologism I had encountered before only in jokes -- as a form of discrimination as indefensible as racism or anti-Semitism.

More Like This
Will Chicken Little Sue the
Sky?; New Frontier for Law
Metro Briefing | New Jersey:
Princeton: Deer Population...
Legal Pioneers Seek to Raise
Lowly Status of Animals

Find More Stories
Animal Cruelty

Even in 1975, when ''Animal Liberation'' was first published, Singer, an Australian philosopher now teaching at Princeton, was confident that he had the wind of history at his back. The recent civil rights past was prologue, as one liberation movement followed on the heels of another. Slowly but surely, the white man's circle of moral consideration was expanded to admit first blacks, then women, then homosexuals. In each case, a group once thought to be so different from the prevailing ''we'' as to be undeserving of civil rights was, after a struggle, admitted to the club. Now it was animals' turn.

That animal liberation is the logical next step in the forward march of moral progress is no longer the fringe idea it was back in 1975. A growing and increasingly influential movement of philosophers, ethicists, law professors and activists are convinced that the great moral struggle of our time will be for the rights of animals.

So far the movement has scored some of its biggest victories in Europe. Earlier this year, Germany became the first nation to grant animals a constitutional right: the words ''and animals'' were added to a provision obliging the state to respect and protect the dignity of human beings. The farming of animals for fur was recently banned in England. In several European nations, sows may no longer be confined to crates nor laying hens to ''battery cages'' -stacked wired cages so small the birds cannot stretch their wings. The Swiss are amending their laws to change the status of animals from ''things'' to ''beings.'' Though animals are still very much ''things'' in the eyes of American law, change is in the air. Thirty-seven states have recently passed laws making some forms of animal cruelty a crime, 21 of



An Animal's Place - New York Times

them by ballot initiative. Following protests by activists, McDonald's and Burger King forced significant improvements in the way the U.S. meat industry slaughters animals. Agribusiness and the cosmetics and apparel industries are all struggling to defuse mounting public concerns over animal welfare.

Once thought of as a left-wing concern, the movement now cuts across ideological lines. Perhaps the most eloquent recent plea on behalf of animals, a new book called ''Dominion,'' was written by a former speechwriter for President Bush. And once outlandish ideas are finding their way into mainstream opinion. A recent Zogby poll found that 51 percent of Americans believe that primates are entitled to the same rights as human children.

What is going on here? A certain amount of cultural confusion, for one thing. For at the same time many people seem eager to extend the circle of our moral consideration to animals, in our factory farms and laboratories we are inflicting more suffering on more animals than at any time in history. One by one, science is dismantling our claims to uniqueness as a species, discovering that such things as culture, tool making, language and even possibly self-consciousness are not the exclusive domain of Homo sapiens. Yet most of the animals we kill lead lives organized very much in the spirit of Descartes, who famously claimed that animals were mere machines, incapable of thought or feeling. There's a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals, in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us pause to consider the miserable life of the pig -- an animal easily as intelligent as a dog -- that becomes the Christmas ham.

We tolerate this disconnect because the life of the pig has moved out of view. When's the last time you saw a pig? (Babe doesn't count.) Except for our pets, real animals -- animals living and dying -- no longer figure in our everyday lives. Meat comes from the grocery store, where it is cut and packaged to look as little like parts of animals as possible. The disappearance of animals from our lives has opened a space in which there's no reality check, either on the sentiment or the brutality. This is pretty much where we live now, with respect to animals, and it is a space in which the Peter Singers and Frank Perdues of the world can evidently thrive equally well. Several years ago, the English critic John Berger wrote an essay, ''Why Look at Animals?'' in which he suggested that the loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals -- and specifically the loss of eye contact -- has left us deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to other species. That eye contact, always slightly uncanny, had provided a vivid daily reminder that animals were at once crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, tenderness) and something irretrievably alien. Upon this paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away. But that accommodation has pretty much broken down; nowadays, it seems, we either look away or become vegetarians. For my own part, neither option seemed especially appetizing. Which might explain how I found myself reading ''Animal Liberation'' in a steakhouse.

This is not something I'd recommend if you're determined to continue eating meat. Combining rigorous philosophical argument with journalistic description, ''Animal Liberation'' is one of those rare books that demand that you either defend the way you live or change it. Because Singer is so skilled in argument, for many readers it is easier to change. His book has converted countless thousands to vegetarianism, and it didn't take long for me to see why: within a few pages, he had succeeded in throwing me on the defensive.

Singer's argument is disarmingly simple and, if you accept its premises, difficult to refute. Take the premise of equality, which most people readily accept. Yet what do we really mean by it? People are not, as a matter of fact, equal at all -- some are smarter than others, better looking, more gifted. ''Equality is a moral idea,'' Singer points out, ''not an assertion of fact.'' The moral idea is that everyone's interests ought to receive equal consideration, regardless of ''what abilities they may possess.'' Fair enough; many philosophers have gone this far. But fewer have taken the next logical step. ''If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same purpose?''

This is the nub of Singer's argument, and right around here I began scribbling objections in the



An Animal's Place - New York Times

margin. But humans differ from animals in morally significant ways. Yes they do, Singer acknowledges, which is why we shouldn't treat pigs and children alike. Equal consideration of interests is not the same as equal treatment, he points out: children have an interest in being educated; pigs, in rooting around in the dirt. But where their interests are the same, the principle of equality demands they receive the same consideration. And the one all-important interest that we share with pigs, as with all sentient creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain. Here Singer quotes a famous passage from Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century utilitarian philosopher, that is the wellspring of the animal rights movement. Bentham was writing in 1789, soon after the French colonies freed black slaves, granting them fundamental rights. ''The day may come,'' he speculates, ''when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights.'' Bentham then asks what characteristic entitles any being to moral consideration. ''Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse?'' Obviously not, since ''a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant.'' He concludes: ''The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?''

Bentham here is playing a powerful card philosophers call the ''argument from marginal cases,'' or A.M.C. for short. It goes like this: there are humans -- infants, the severely retarded, the demented -- whose mental function cannot match that of a chimpanzee. Even though these people cannot reciprocate our moral attentions, we nevertheless include them in the circle of our moral consideration. So on what basis do we exclude the chimpanzee? Because he's a chimp, I furiously scribbled in the margin, and they're human! For Singer that's not good enough. To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he's not human is no different from excluding the slave simply because he's not white. In the same way we'd call that exclusion racist, the animal rightist contends that it is speciesist to discriminate against the chimpanzee solely because he's not human.

But the differences between blacks and whites are trivial compared with the differences between my son and a chimp. Singer counters by asking us to imagine a hypothetical society that discriminates against people on the basis of something nontrivial -- say, intelligence. If that scheme offends our sense of equality, then why...

Read more


-80 /2002/11/10/magazine/an-animal-s-place.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm 000 1/12 10 10/12 11/12 11/7/13 13 15 16 1611 1789 1852 18th 18th-century 1975 19th 19th-century 2/12 2002 2013 21 3/12 300 380 4/12 400 5/12 50 51 52 550 6/12 7/12 8/12 9/12 a.m.c abattoir abid abil abl absenc absent absolut abund accept accident accommod accord account accus achiev acknowledg acquir acr across act activist actual ad add adequ administr admir admit admonish adopt adult advantag aerat affirm afford african aftermath afterward age agenda ago agoni agre agribusi agricultur agriculturist air aka ala albeit alcohol alien alik aliv all-import alli allianc allow almost alon alreadi also alter altern although alway alzheim amend america american among amount amplifi ancestor ancient anesthet anguish anim ankl anoth answer anthropocentr anti anti-semit antibioticfortifi anticip anyon anyth apart ape apparel appear append appet appli appreci apt arcania aren argot argu argument aristotl around articl artifact asid ask assent assert associ assum assur attempt attent australian author autonomi avert avoid await away awkward babe babi back backward bacon bad balanc ballot ban barbar bargain barn base basi basic batteri be beak beak-clip bear bearabl beast becam becom bedrock beef began begin behalf behavior behind belief believ ben beneath benefit bent bentham berger besid best betray better beyond bibl bid biggest billion biolog biologist bird birth bite bitten black bled bleed blind bliss blunt bodi bomb book born bottom bout bovin brain break breakfast brief briefer brilliant bring british broiler broken brow brutal build built bumper burger burrow bush bypass byproduct c cabin cafo cage cagem cake calculus call camp cancel cannib cannon cannot capabl capac capit capitalist car card care carnivor carolina carpet carri cartesian case castrat casualti cat catch catchi categori cattl caus ceaseless center centuri ceremoni certain chain challeng chang charact characterist charg check chemic chew chicken child children chimp chimpanze chip choic choos christian christma churn circl civil claim clash clean cliff clip close cloth club code coetze cognit collect coloni combin come comfort command common communiti compani compar comparison compet complex complicit compost compound comprehend conced conceit concept concern conclud concret concur condemn condit conduc conduct cone confid confin confus conscious consensus conserv consid consider consist consolid constitut constraint consum contact contempl contemporari contend content continu contradict convers convert convinc cook coop copyright corkscrew corn corner corpor correct cosmet cost cost-effect could couldn count counter counterweight countless countri coupl cours cow cowpat crate crave creat creation creatur credit crew crime critic crop crowd crucial cruelti crush cull cultiv cultur current custom cut cycl d da daili danc daniel darwin darwinian daughter davi david day dead deal death decemb decent decent-life-merciful-death decid decis deep deeper deepli deer defend defens definit defus degre dehuman deliv demand dement demor deni dennett dentist depend depress descart describ descript descriptor deserv design desir despit detail determin detest devast develop devis devot devout dictat didn die diet dietari differ difficult difficulti digest digniti dine dirt disappear disarm disbelief discomfort disconnect discours discov discrimin dismantl disney disori disson distant distinct dock doctrin doesn dog domain domest dominion done door doubl doubt dozen draw drawn dread drip drop durat dust e e-mail eager earlier earth easi easier easili eat eaten eater ebb ecolog econom edit educ effect effici effort egg eggmobil ehrenfeld eight eight-week either electr elimin eloqu els elsewher emot encount end endang endur engin england english enjoy enough enslav ensur entail enter entertain entir entitl entrust environment equal erod erron error escap especi essay essenti establish estim ethic ethicist europ european evad even event eventu ever everi everybodi everyday everyon everyth evid evil evit evolut evolutionari evolv ewe exact excel except exchang exclud exclus exercis exist expand expect expedit expens experi explain exploit expos express extend extinct extraordinari eye face face-off fact factori faculti fail fair fall famili familiar famous fan far far-fetch farm farmer farmhous farther faster fate father fathom fear feather feather-pluck featherless fed feed feel feet felt fenc fend ferment fertil fetch fewer field fight figment figur final find fine finish fire first fish fit flatter flesh flock floor flourish focus follow food forc force-molt forcemarch forest forgo fork form former forward fossil found four frank franklin free freed freedom french frequent fri fring front frontier frustrat fuel full full-grown fulli function fundament fur furious futur gain gastronom gather gave gaze gene general german germani get giant gift give given glass glimps go goal goat god goe goma gone good got govern grace grain grant grass grass-f grassland gratifi graze great greater greec grew grim groceri groom ground group grow grown growth grub guard guess guid guilti habit habitat half half-dozen ham hand hand-wring happen happi hard hardest harrow harsh harvest haven head health healthi heart heart-bypass heavili heel help helpless hen herbivor herd heritag hide high higher hilli histor histori hog hold holi home homo homosexu honor hormon hors hot hour hous howev human humankind humanocarnivor humili hundr hunt hunter hunter-gath hunter-gather hurt hypothet idea ident ideolog ignor imag imagin impecc imper implic import impos imposs improv impuls incap includ increas inde indefens indian indic indigest individu indoor induc industri inevit infant infect infern inflict influenti initi inmat insan insect insist instanc instead instinct institut intellig intens intensifi intent interest intern intric intrins invis involv irretriev island isn issu j.m jame jeremi jersey jewish job joel john joke journalist joy juan judg jump justic justifi kant keep kick kill kill-floor kind king kinki kinky-sound kitchen knife know known label laboratori lack lactat lactos lactovegetarian land landfal languag languish larg largest larva last later latest law lay layer lead learn least leather leav lectur left left-w lefti leg leg-hold legal legitim less let liber life lifelong lifetim lift light like limb limit line link liter littl live liveth local logic login long longer look loss lost lot love lowli lunch lush m machin mad made magazin magnitud mail mainstream make mammal man manag mani manur march margin market marketplac marshal masteri match mate matter matthew maxim may mayb mcdonald meal mean meanwhil measur meat medic medium medium-rar member mental mention merci mere mesh messag metal metro mice michael mid might mile milk mind mine minimumwag minn minut misconstru miser modern molest molt moment monkey moral morn morsel mother mount mourn mous move movement much murder must muster mutual name nation nativ natur near necessari necessarili need negoti neighbor neither neolog nest nettl neutral never nevertheless new next nightmar nightmarish nightshad nitrogen none nonexist nonhuman nonindustri nontrivi normal north nose note noth notic notion nov novelist novemb nowaday nub number nutrient nutrit nutshel o.k object oblig observ obtain obviat obvious occupi occur ocean odder offend offer offic often old one onto open open-air oper opinion opportun opportunist option order ordinari oregon organ orphan other otherwis oti ought outdoor outlandish output outsid outweigh overnight overrun owe owner packag page pain painless pair palm pan paper paradox parasit parochi part parti particip particular pass passag past pastur patienc patient pattern paus penn peopl percent perdu perfect perform perhap permit person pervad pesticid pet peta peter phenomenon philosoph philosophi physic physiolog pick pig piglet pile pilgrim pink pioneer piscatorian pit pitiless place plan plant plantat platoon play plea plead pleasant pleasur plenti plier pluck point polici polit poll pollan polyfac popul popular pork portabl pose posit possess possibl poultri poultry-trad power powerless practic precis preclud predat prefer pregnant prematur premis prepar preposter presenc present presid pressur presum pretti prevail prey priest primat princeton principl print prior privaci probabl problem procedur process product professor profound progress project prologu prompt proport prosper protect protein protest protoplasm provid provis psycholog psychologist public publish purchas puritan purpos push put qualit qualiti question quit quixot quot rabbit rachel racism racist radic rain rainfal rais ramp ranch random rang rank rape rare rather ration rational re reach read reader readili real realiti realli reason recal recaptur receiv recent recip reciproc recit reckon recogn recommend recount recreat redeem redefin refer reflect refut regan regard regardless regim regist regret regulatori reject relat relationship relentless relic religi religion reluct remain remark rememb remind remov render replac repli repres requir research resembl reserv resign resolut respect respond respons rest restaur result retard retort retriev reviv rhesus rib rib-ey right rightist rigor ritual rival rock role roll roof root rough row rub ruin rule rumin run sacrific sacrifici sad said salatin sapien saturday save saw say scald scale scare scheme schizoid scienc scientist score scrap scribbl scrupul sculli sea sean search second secret see seek seem seen self self-consci selfpiti sell semit sens sensit sentienc sentient sentiment serious serv set settl seven sever sex shadow shake shall shame share shed sheep sheer shenandoah ship shock shoot shopper short shouldn show shred shrink sick side sight sign signific similar simpl simpli sinc singer singl sink six six-square-mil size skill skin sky slab slat slaughter slaughterhous slave slaveri slight slit slogan slowli smack small smarter smell sniff snip snout social societi sole solut solv someday someon someth sometim somewher son songbird soon sophist sort soul sound south sow space span sparrow speak speci special species speciesist specif specul speechwrit speedier spend spent spirit spoil sport spot spread sprinkl squar stack stainless stainless-steel stand start starv state statement status stay steak steakhous steam steel steer step steve steven sticker still stimul sting stop store stori straw streak stress stretch strict stronger structur struggl studi stump stupefi subject subscrib subtleti succeed success suck sue suffer suffici suggest suit sum summer sun sunday sunshin supplement suppli support sure surest surgeon surgeri surpris surround surviv suspect suspend suspens sustain swear swell swift swiss symbiosi synthet system tail tail-bit tail-dock take taken talk tame tank tantamount tasti teach technic technolog teeth tempt ten tend tendenc tender tension term test tester testicl thank theori theorist therefor thing think thinker thirti thirty-seven though thought thousand threat three thrive throat throw thwart time today tofu togeth token told toler tom tool topic torment total touch tour tow toward track tractor trade train trait transform transpar trap trauma traumat travel treat treatment treblinka tree tri trial trip trivial troubl true trump turkey turn two typic u.s u.s.d.a udder unanimalist unavoid uncanni uncl uncommon underperform underpin understand undeserv uneasi unequ unfett uniqu unit univers unlik unlucki unmistak unnecessari unneed unreason unremit upon upsid upturn urban us use usual utilitarian utopia valley valu vantag ve vegan veget vegetarian vener vessel vex vice victim victori video view virginia virtu virtual visit vivid walk wall want warrant wasn wast watch water way wean wear weasel weed week weight welcom welfar well well-b well-to-do wellb wellspr went whatev whatsoev whether white whole whose wild will william willing wind wing winter wire wise within without wolf wolv women won wonder wood woodchuck word work worker world worri wors worst would wouldn wrightson wring write writer writh written wrong wrote year yes yet york youngest zogbi