United Poultry Concerns’ Karen Davis recently posted an open letter to Vegan Voice, an Australian vegan magazine, denouncing Peter Singer for allegedly disparaging chickens in a recent book review that touched on the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Singer, you may remember, argues that morality consist of reducing suffering in sentient persons. Singer has long hedged about where exactly the line between persons and non-persons should be drawn, but has speculated that a chicken might be an example of a creature that is not a person because it may not have a sense of its own existence over time.
That in itself was enough to enrage Davis, who insists that when chickens at her sanctuary “yell and otherwise beg and demand to be let out of their enclosures,” this is all the evidence anyone needs that chickens have a sense of their own existence over time.
But where Singer really crossed the line in Davis’ eyes was when Singer recently argued that it was wrong to draw a moral equivalency between the deaths of thousands of people in the 9/11 terrorist attack and the deaths of millions of chickens. Reviewing Joan Dunayer’s book Animal Equality: Language and Liberty, Singer rejected Dunayer’s claims that people should use the same terminology for the suffering of animals as they use to describe the suffering of human beings. Singer wrote,
Reading this suggestion just a few days after the killing of several thousand people at the World Trade Center, I have to demur. It is not speciesist to think that this event was a greater tragedy than the killing of several million chickens, which no doubt also occurred on September 11, as it occurs on every working day in the United States. There are reasons for thinking that the deaths of begins with family ties as close as those between the people killed at the World Trade Center and their loved ones are more tragic than the deaths of beings without those ties; and there is more that could be said about the kind of loss that death is to begins who have a high degree of self-awareness, and a vivid sense of their own existence over time.
Davis will have none of this, offering two closely related arguments — (a) that, if anything, the suffering experienced by chickens is worse than that experienced by humans in the 9/11 attacks, and (b) that the 9/11 attacks may have produced a net reduction in pain and suffering, since it likely killed several thousand meat eaters.
For 35 million chickens in the United States alone, every single night is a terrorist attack, if the victim’s experience counts and human agency is acknowledged. That is what “chicken catching” amount to in essence. And it isn’t just something that is “happening” to these birds but a deliberate act of human violence perpetrated against innocent (they have done us no harm), defenseless, sentient individuals.
While I would not dream of using arguments to diminish the horror of the September 11 attack for thousands of people, I would also suggest that the people who died in the attack did not suffer more terrible deaths than animals in slaughterhouses suffer every day. Moreover, the survivors of the September 11 attack and their loved ones have an array of consolations-patriotism, the satisfaction of U.S. retaliation, religious faith, TV ads calling them heroes, etc–that the chickens, whose lives are continuously painful and miserable, including being condemned to live in human-imposed circumstances that are inimical and alien to them as chickens, do not have available. They suffer raw, without the palliatives.
As Davis sums up near the end of her letter, she in fact does think “it is speciesist to think that the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center was a greater tragedy than what millions of chickens endured that day and what they endure every day.”
If a chicken killed for food is morally equivalent to a human killed by a terrorist, then the obvious question is whether or not the victims of the 9/11 attack were truly innocent, and Davis has no problem at all leaping to the logical conclusion of that line of thinking. She writes,
Doubtless the majority, if not every single one, of the people who suffered and/or died as a result of the September 11 attack ate, and if they are now a life continue to eat, chickens. It is possible to argue, using (Peter Singer’s) utilitarian calculations, that the deaths of thousands of people whose trivial consumer satisfactions included the imposition of fundamental misery and death on hundreds of thousands of chickens reduced the amount of pain and suffering in the world.
Some animal rights activists care more about the suffering of animals than people.
An Open Letter to Vegan Voice Re: Singer’s Disparagement of Chickens. Karen Davis, December 26, 2001.
Review of Joan Dunayer’s Animal Equality: Language and Liberty. Vegan Voice, Dec. 2001 – Feb. 2002, Peter Singer.