Peter Singer is a famous dispenser of moral judgments. Whenever I read his edicts – which is as seldom as possible – I find them full of loathing and contempt for your everyday American.
I confess that I haven’t inquired too deeply into the sources of Singer’s disappointment with the rest of us. It may well be endemic to professors of moral philosophy. More likely, I’d guess, it’s because Singer is a rationalist to his fingertips: he lives in that world of abstractions and general principles that Lee Harris warned against (see my post on Harris’ excellent article). Hence his scorn. Wielding abstract ideals like a club, Singer is forever vandalizing our moral traditions, and trashing the assumptions that underlay right behavior, American-style.
Part of this rationalist behavioral disorder has been the crusade for animal “rights,” of which Singer is probably the most powerful and effective voice. I put rights in scare quotes because the word entails a mix of citizen privileges and responsibilities, and I for one have trouble picturing my dog Tiger, a kindly but clueless soul, asserting his right to vote (though if he could vote, I have no doubt it would be for my next-door neighbor, who throws him treats over the fence).
Animals are passive and entirely dependent appendages to human society. As such, they are perfect foils for rationalists like Singer: they never speak on their own behalf.
In this Boston Globe piece, amusingly titled “Un-American About Animals,” Singer exhibits every rationalist tic and twitch. First, there is a Ladder of Moral Progress, from which we keep tumbling down. “What country has the most advanced animal protection legislation in the world?” Singer asks. “If you guessed the United States, go to the bottom of the class.”
Second, Europeans and their laws are cited as examples all morally enlightened Americans must follow. Europeans always stand very high on the Ladder, just as Americans are always found wanting. Singer particularly admires British law on animal treatment, which “does not allow veal calves to be denied adequate roughage and iron.”
Nevertheless, it is not Britain but Austria that has the most advanced animal protection legislation. In May 2004, a proposed law banning the chicken ”battery cage” was put to a vote in the Austrian Parliament. It passed — without a single member of Parliament opposing it. Austria has banned fur farming and prohibited the use of wild animals in circuses. It has also made it illegal to trade in living cats and dogs in stores and deems killing an animal for no good reason a criminal offense. Most important, every Austrian province must appoint an ”animal lawyer” who can initiate court procedures on behalf of animals.
Please forgive me if I don’t look forward to the next life-changing court case, Austrian Animal Lawyer vs. Ringling Brothers.
Lastly, there is the disregard for the democratic process – which, given our moral underdevelopment, can only push us ever deeper down the Ladder – and the call for some sort of “direct action,” aimed at the corporate world. “Why are Europeans so far ahead of Americans in protecting animal welfare?” Singer asks. In case you forgot: there is a Ladder. We are behind. Not just by any moral standards, but by the beatific “standards of other developed countries.” And the reason we are behind is: “The animal movement in the United States has not succeeded in turning animal rights into electoral issues about which voters seek their candidates’ views.”
Even a rationalist is right on occasion. We Americans must decide on many more pressing issues than the nonexistent rights of animals: issues, like the war in Iraq, that are life and death for human beings. Should we turn away from the beheadings of al Zarqawi, to debate the proper amount of roughage and iron for calves?
Kindness to animals is an Anglo-Saxon fetish I happen to share. But I also know that Hitler was kind to his dogs: would that have placed him, as a good European, higher on the Ladder than, say, Lyndon Johnson, who was photographed pulling his dog by the ears?