“Animal Liberation Now”: Nothing to Crow About

By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns

I see two interpretations of the title of utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer’s updated 1975 book Animal Liberation to which “Now” has been added to the 2023 version: One is a clarion call to Action for Animals – Animal Liberation Now! The other is a description of Singer’s reduction of “Liberation” to mean “just treat the animals a little nicer” (at least oratorically). Especially with respect to farmed animals, if his media interviews reflect the book, a more apt title would be Animal De-Liberation Now.

While his new book is said to include updates on the advancing technological assaults on farmed animals and recent cognitive science on certain animals hitherto deemed insentient, his current “recommendations” in media interviews suggest that his own advocacy for animals has not advanced since 1975 and has in fact deteriorated.

Here is an example from a May 21, 2023 interview in The Guardian:

Q. Conscientious omnivores oppose factory farming but continue to eat animal products from farmers who treat their animals well and don’t subject them to suffering. Do they get a pass?

Honestly, I can’t show that they are wrong. Assume that the cows wouldn’t have existed if they weren’t going to be sold for their meat and the conscientious omnivores investigate how their food is produced, and can be confident that the animals really do have good lives and are killed painlessly and without suffering – then I think they do get a pass. They’re allies in the movement against factory farming, and a world of conscientious omnivores would produce much less meat and dairy products, with vastly less suffering.

Who are these “conscious omnivores” exactly, and what, specifically, does “treat their animals well” mean? The “conscious omnivore,” on whom most have modeled themselves, is Michael Pollan – no moral hero whatsoever, more of sadist and a mean-spirited ignoramous, where farmed animals are concerned.

In a chatty piece titled “Michael Pollan and Ruth Reichl Hash out the Food Revolution,” published in Smithsonian Magazine, May 28, 2013, we read for example:

Michael Pollan: “I think now I could raise a pig and kill a pig for food. I didn’t feel a sense of attachment. Clearly a pig is a very intelligent animal, but I think I could probably do that. I raised chickens, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to kill them, but by the time they were mature, I couldn’t wait to kill them. They were ruining my garden, abusing one another, making a tremendous mess. Meat birds are not like hens. Their brains have been bred right out of them, they’re really nasty and stupid. And every other critter for miles around was coming after them. I lost one to a raccoon, one to a fox, one to an owl—all in the course of a week. In the end I couldn’t wait to do the deed, because otherwise, somebody else was going to get the meat.”

I replied to this pompous commentary in a letter to Smithsonian published July 10, 2013:

“Chickens bred for the meat industry are not stupid and nasty. These birds have been bred to be too heavy to run or fly, as their wild relatives do. This doesn’t mean that they are unintelligent or mean, but that people have incapacitated the birds’ natural physical abilities and frustrated their instincts. Even if chickens manipulated for meat production were stupid, blaming them for their defenseless predicament is cruel.”

Contrary to Peter Singer’s pie in the sky, there is no such thing as “animals killed painlessly and without suffering” on a farm. There never was, isn’t now, never will be. What farm have you heard of that gives a painkilling medication to the animals before sticking a knife in their throats? Or that medicates them or provides veterinary care and treatment when one of the farm’s chickens or goats or pigs gets sick? Can’t think of any?

Do we who call ourselves animal advocates consider people who kill animals for the human palate and for profit “our allies”?

Peter said in a recent opinion that he doesn’t see how we can get rid of global capitalism, yet he suggests we can somehow get rid of global animal factory farming – a pinnacle of global capitalism! Think about it: Even if the current human population of 8 billion and climbing could be reduced to 4 billion, and the current 100 billion land animals slaughtered for food each year could be reduced to 50 billion, factory farming would still be necessary to supply the masses with cheap meat, dairy and eggs. Ask yourself how much land human beings would be willing to sacrifice so that millions and billions of chickens, turkeys, ducks, cows, pigs, and goats could live free-range. How many real estate developers would yield their business to that?

Stop Factory Farming! This call means nothing as long as the majority of people consume animals, cheese and eggs, even if they scale back somewhat. Let us face it: All animal farming is factory farming. If an animal is brought into the world to be a slave, a piece of property, a piece of merchandise, a commodity, a being whose purpose in having been brought to life is to become DEAD as expeditiously and cheaply as possible, that animal is a factory-farmed animal owned by a factory farm or factory farmer. Just consider that an entire hen is hatched strictly to churn out eggs and then be killed. An entire chicken is forced to exist only to become pieces of meat. And if, indeed, the chicken or turkey, say, is enjoying a happy life, how does morality justify killing him or her years before he or she would have otherwise lived and thrived? This is not euthanasia. This is cold-blooded killing. This is raw economics, not ethics or empathy or respect for the life and feelings of a fellow creature who wants to live and is not ready to die. (“But you’re gonna die, chicken, because my bottom line is more important than your life.”)

What I am urging by posing these few, simple yet vital questions is that people who honestly care about animals think about what they are subscribing to before deciding upon Peter Singer’s vision of “animal liberation.” Hopefully they will have second thoughts and decide we owe more – much more – to our fellow beings in chains than this low, uninspired bar of “liberation.”

For those interested in my detailed look at Peter Singer’s philosophy of animal liberation, see “What Happened to Peter Singer?” posted on UPC’s website.– Karen Davis

Hen Found Dead in Egg Farm Manure Pit
We met at Henry Spira's Round Table meeting on factory farming and animal experimentation held at the New York Academy of Sciences, in New York City, June 1, 1991. Left to right: Karen Davis, Bernie Unti, Linda Parascandola, Peter Singer, Unidentified Person, and Mark Parascandola. Photo: Courtesy of United Poultry Concerns