Fall 2001

On Peter Singer

Of mad cows and sacred cows

Slavoj Žižek

In his marvelous La peur en Occident, Jean Delumeau reports how, when faced with the threat of plague, a late medieval community reacted in six steps which followed one another with an inexorable necessity: first, they went on as if there is no disease; then, they explained away each case as pertaining to another, more harmless, disease; then, they conceded that there is a disease, but limited and under control; then, the paranoia erupted, people avoided contacts; then, there was the outburst of religious fervor, the attempt to read the disease as a divine punishment and do some kind of penance for it; then, people passed to the “What the hell!” attitude, engaging in the wild feasts of drinking, eating, and sexual orgies; finally, although the disease was still ravaging, people again tried to lead their lives as normal... Is it not reasonable to expect that our reactions to Mad Cow Disease will follow a similar succession: first, an outright denial; then, claims that it is a li­mited disease fully under control; then, the outright paranoia (BSE can be everywhere, in milk, in pork and chicken, in cows which were already tested); then, the New Age religious attitude of reading BSE as a phenomenon with a “deeper meaning” (the punishment for our ruthless manipulation of animals); then, a “What the hell!” attitude; and, finally, a kind of return to normal—who knows what is really going on, so let us just continue to live like before?

If the European Union plan of slaughtering two million cows, four hundred thousand of them in Germany alone, will be implemented, the difference between humans and animals will probably be reasserted in a perverse way: in the case of the Holocaust, it was publicly reported that the Jews were just being displaced onto some unspecified new territories in the east, while they were actually slaughtered and burned in Germany itself; the four hundred thousand cows will be reported to be slaughtered and burned in Germany itself, while, effectively, at least a part of them will be sold (or send as aid) to some unspecified Third World countries.... However, tasteless jokes apart, is the lesson of Mad Cow Disease not precisely the problematic nature of the animal/human divide? Is it morally right to kill millions of cows in order to save a dozen or more potential human victims?

There is at least one moral philosopher whose answer would have been a resounding “No!”—Peter Singer, the Australian whose books sell in hundreds of thousands of copies, and who needs a bodyguard to protect him from attacks at Princeton, where he now teaches. Singer is not controversial because he adopts some extravagant axioms, but because he simply draws the ultimate consequences from the commonly accepted axioms, ignoring hidden qualifications which enable us to avoid these unpleasant conclusions.

Singer—usually designated as a “social Darwinist with a collectivist socialist face”—starts innocently enough, trying to argue that people will be happier if they lead lives committed to ethics: a life spent trying to help others and reduce suffering is really the most moral and fulfilling one. He radicalizes and actualizes Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism: the ultimate ethical criterion is not the dignity (rationality, soul) of man, but the ability to suffer, to experience pain, which man shares with animals. With inexorable radicality, Singer levels the animal/human divide: better kill an old suffering woman than healthy animals.... Look an orangutan straight in the eye and what do you see? A none-too-distant cousin—a creature worthy of all the legal rights and privileges that humans enjoy. One should thus extend aspects of equality—the right to life, the protection of individual liberties, the prohibition of torture—at least to the nonhuman great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas).

Singer argues that “speciesism” (privileging the human species) is no different from racism: our perception of a difference between humans and (other) animals is no less illogical and unethical than our one-time perception of an ethical difference between, say, men and women, or blacks and whites. Intelligence is no basis for determining ethical stature: the lives of humans are not worth more than the lives of animals simply because the former display more intelligence. (If intelligence were a standard of judgment, Singer points out, we could perform medical experiments on the mentally retarded with moral impunity.) Ultimately, all things being equal, an animal has as much interest in living as a human. Therefore, all things being equal, medical experimentation on animals is immoral: those who advocate such experiments claim that sacrificing the lives of twenty animals will save millions of human lives; however, what about sacrificing twenty humans to save millions of animals? As Singer’s critics like to point out, the horrifying extension of this principle is that the interests of twenty people outweighs the interests of one, which gives the green light to all sorts of human rights abuses.

Consequently, Singer argues that we can no longer rely on traditional ethics for answers to the dilemmas which our constellation imposes on us; he proposes a new ethics meant to protect the quality, not the sanctity, of human life. As sharp boundaries disappear between life and death, between humans and animals, this new ethics casts doubt on the morality of animal research, while offering a sympathetic assessment of infanticide. When a baby is born with severe defects of the sort that always used to kill babies, are doctors and parents now morally obligated to use the latest technologies, regardless of cost? NO. When a pregnant woman loses all brain function, should doctors use new procedures to keep her body living until the baby can be born? NO. Can a doctor ethically help terminally ill patients to kill themselves? YES.

One cannot dismiss Singer as a monstrous exaggeration—what Adorno said about psychoanalysis (that its truth resides in its very exaggerations) fully holds for Singer: he is so traumatic and intolerable because his scandalous “exaggerations” directly renders visible the truth of so-called postmodern ethics. Is the ultimate horizon of postmodern “identity politics” effectively not Darwinian—defending the right of some particular species of the humankind within the panoply of their proliferating multitude (gays with AIDS, black single mothers, ...)? The very opposition between “conservative” and “progressive” politics can be conceived of in the terms of Darwinism: ultimately, conservatives defend the right of those with might (their very success proves that they won in the struggle for survival), while progressives advocate the protection of endangered human species, i.e., of those losing the struggle for survival.

One of the divisions in the chapter on Vernunft in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit speaks about das geistige Tierreich: the social world which lacks any spiritual substance, so that, in it, individuals effectively interact as “intelligent animals.” They use reason, but only in order to assert their individual interests, to manipulate others into serving their own pleasures. Is not a world in which the highest rights are human rights precisely such a “spiritual animal kingdom,” a universe? There is, however, a price to be paid for such liberation—in such a universe, human rights ultimately function as animal rights. This, then, is the ultimate truth of Singer: our universe of human right is the universe of animal rights.

The obvious counterargument is here: so what? Why should we not reduce humankind to its proper place, that of one of the animal species? What gets lost in this reduction? Jacques-Alain Miller, the main pupil of Jacques Lacan, once commented on an uncanny laboratory experiment with rats: in a labyrinthine set-up, a desired object (a piece of good food or a sexual partner) is first made easily accessible to a rat; then, the set-up is changed in such a way that the rat sees and thereby knows where the desired object is, but cannot gain access to it; in exchange for it, as a kind of consolation prize, a series of similar objects of inferior value is made easily accessible—how does the rat react to it? For some time, it tries to find its way to the “true” object; then, upon ascertaining that this object is definitely out of reach, the rat will renounce it and put up with some of the inferior substitute objects—in short, it will act as a “rational” subject of utilitarianism.

It is only now, however, that the true experiment begins: the scientists performed a surgical operation on the rat, messing about with its brain, doing things to it with laser beams about which, as Miller put it delicately, it is better to know nothing. So what happened when the operated rat was again let loose in the labyrinth, the one in which the “true” object is inaccessible? The rat insisted: it never became fully reconciled with the loss of the “true” object and never resigned itself to one of the inferior substitutes, but repeatedly returned to it, attempted to reach it. In short, the rat in a sense was humanized; it assumed the tragic “human” relationship towards the unattainable absolute object that, on account of its very inaccessibility, forever captivates our desire. On the other hand, it is this very “conservative” fixation that pushes man to continuing renovation, since he can never fully integrate this excess into his life process. So we can see why Freud uses the term “death drive.” The lesson of psychoanalysis is that humans are not simply alive; on the top of it, they are possessed by a strange drive to enjoy life in excess of the ordinary run of things—and “death” stands simply and precisely for the dimension beyond ordinary biological life.

This, then, is what gets lost in Singer’s geistige Tierreich: the Thing, something to which we are unconditionally attached irrespective of its positive qualities. In Singer’s universe, there is a place for mad cows, but no place for an Indian sacred cow.­

Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher and the author of numerous books, including The Fragile Absolute and The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime.

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