Peter Singer has promoted consumption-based veganism, quite effectively. And at the same time he has avoided taking a position to change family policies in a way that would benefit animals. We can summarize that approach as: “We should help animals by not eating them.” But that claim fails if the intent is to, all-things-considered, help animals because the “we” in it – the unspoken norm of an unlimited right to have children which permits population growth, a norm and relations Singer tacitly accepts – does more harm to animals than changing diets does good.
Singer fails because he does not push for what true animal liberation, the title of his famous book, requires: Restoration of the nonhuman world through family planning entitlements. Had he done so during the climate-crucial decades in which could have, he might have helped mitigate the climate crisis, the greatest threat to nonhumans.
His mistake is what we might call the constitutive fallacy. The fallacy means Singer never accounts for the actual relations between humans and nonhumans (a random person abusing their companion animal, growth driving extinction, utility-based consumerism demeaning the nonhuman world more generally, etc.) because he never accounts for the creation of those relations.
The we in our normative (“should”) claims often undoes the good we think we are promoting, whether it’s preventing parents from torturing the children by removing the kids post hac rather than preventing abusive parents from having kids, undoing climate progress by promoting population growth, or undoing equity by not leveling the playing field for all kids in the key stages of their birth and development.
But the fallacy does something more insidious. It robs us of our freedom, or relative self-determination.
When we create people we are also creating the fundamental power relations between them, and between them and their otherwise nonhuman ecologies, and in a way that precedes written constitutions or other binding sets of rules. If we want justice, bottom-up in the style of true democracy, just creation must come first. Imagine this process as a sort of “first election” – the one that means we all consent to be a “we” then capable of doing things like electing officials. And that mistake – not requiring things like the Children’s Convention standard in family planning policies to improve those relations, which would physically constitute just communities – does more than just harm animals.
It fundamentally permits anthropocentric changes that cause irrefutable harm to all, against an absolute standard like infant health. Singer might counter that “ought implies can” and effective family reforms were not politically feasible. But as discussed below, incentives/entitlements work where coercion does not, but were never promoted by people like Singer, even when the wealth the absence of these incentives created was shuttling into the hands of a few during the critical decades we had to evade the worst of the crisis.
TAKE ACTION: Find and urge Singer to admit the overall impact of the changes he promoted could not have, and did not, liberate animals.