Peter Singer

January 31, 2016

We’ve arrived at the fifth Sunday in January. Both of my regular readers know that I am now contractually obligated to come up with one more “food ethics icon,” and that given the parameters laid out on January 3, it has to be a full-bore, no-questions-asked philosopher. (For stray web browsers who just happened to land here, I’ll point out that like many things in The Blog, this is not strictly true, but then I’ll just move right on along without skipping a beat. Take it at face value.) My dilemma is that so far I’ve come up with four dead white guys. I would never put together a course syllabus with all white guys, much less dead ones. I really believe that racial, ethnic and gender diversity of standpoints is philosophically crucial. So how can I write a blog where all the food ethics icons are dead white guys?

Now there are some possible responses to my dilemma. Lisa Heldke, for example. I’ve mentioned Lisa in the blog several times before. At a recent lecture on another campus I was honorifically introduced as “the father of food ethics,” but the host went on to say that Lisa is probably the mother. There are in fact a number of women philosophers doing very cool work in food ethics today—Mary Rawlinson, Erinn Cunniff Gilson, Kate Millar, Lieske Voget-Kleschin. People who focus on animal issues might list Lori Gruen. The trouble with this list—and I would put Lisa right at the head of it—is putting them on another list that already has John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Aristotle and Karl Marx on it. Lifting any living person to iconic status in that company might be a bit of a stretch. I’m sure Lisa would agree.

The one exception that I would make among living philosophers (and remember, the standard is that everyone would recognize our candidate as a philosopher) is Peter Singer—another white guy, though admittedly not yet dead. Singer is by all counts in good health and alternately teaching at Princeton and the University of Melbourne. There are reasons why you might not want to put Singer up there in the same category with Locke, Mill, Aristotle and Marx, but if we look back over the last half century, there are very few philosophers (if any) who have been more widely read. I think there is a good chance that people looking back on our era may indeed think of it as philosophically barren, but there is a fair chance that Singer will be singled out as someone who influenced us significantly and for the better.

What is more, unlike some of the other living philosophers who might be candidates for getting up there on an icons list with bigshots like Aristotle—people like Daniel Dennett or Martha Nussbaum—Singer has indeed made significant contributions on food. His two earliest papers were on world hunger and on animal liberation (with significant implications for ethical vegetarianism and intensive livestock production). He has revisited these themes often and productively throughout his career. And he even wrote a book on food ethics (with Jim Mason) called The Ethics of What We Eat.

So I’ve resisted the temptation to go combing back through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth to see if I couldn’t scrounge up some passage where they happened to mention food. Either would have satisfied my diversity craving: neither are white males and both have the advantage of being dead. Yet the fact is, we don’t remember these works for anything they said about food, and I’m not inclined to say that as with Locke or Aristotle we might read them more perceptively if we were to pay attention to the role that food plays, however indirectly, in their thought.

Singer it is then. That closes off the food ethics icons for 2016. Next Sunday, it’s back to the usual nonsense.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


4 thoughts on “Peter Singer

  1. How about Carol Adams? If your willing to consider Fanon, a non philosopher; and then there’s Laurie Zoloth


  2. Laurie is also a friend, and an important thinker but I’m not ready to put her (or Adams) up there with Locke, Mill, Aristotle and Marx.


  3. Professor,
    How can you not include yourself? I mean, you’re already on a tee shirt.

    Peter Singer is the first philosopher you suggested I read when I started reading ethics with you, in the same sense as Jefferson read the Law with Mr. Wyeth. And, still an ethics newbie, I immediately quoted an insightful Singerism in a hospital board retreat and mentioned he is a father of animal ethics.

    At lunch, I was — by some with good humor and some not so much — for citing Singer.
    This was in Wyoming or similar state; a hospital board that included several ranchers. And this was a couple decades ago. Why cattle should have rights they just could not understand.

    I like to envision Peter having an office at Princeton near Uwe, my favorite medical economist, and maybe them having coffee together sometimes. I doubt it.

    But I never doubt you. You need not apologize for occasionally playing loose with the truth. Sir, I know Donald Trump. You are not and will never be a Donald Trump in the realm of accuracy and truthfulness.

    Regular Reader #2 (so how come you have 3 comments if you only have 2 readers)



  4. Well, I’m certainly not ready to put myself up there with Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. If anyone other than my Dad does get deep enough into the comments to read this, note that putting someone in the “icons” category doesn’t imply that I agree with them. Go back and read the Locke and Mill entries! It’s just a mark of their influence and significance, and each year we are defining “influence and significance” a little differently in the list of food ethics icons we come up with.


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