July 2006

Arts & Letters

‘The Ethics of What We Eat’ by Peter Singer & Jim Mason

By Fiona Hile

JM Coetzee’s fictional animal rights activist and ageing novelist, Elizabeth Costello, didn’t hesitate to compare contemporary stockyards and slaughterhouses to Nazi prison camps. In The Ethics of What We Eat, Peter Singer and Jim Mason generally resist frightening or offending the reader. The tear-inducing chapter on intensive chicken-farming is signposted: “Warning: May be disturbing to some readers.” Singer and Mason are like good parents in this sense: humane, protective, non-judgmental. “Food choices,” they say, “are only one aspect of what people do and not a sufficient basis for judging their moral character.”

Their argument, presented in a simple structure (three families, three shopping lists: the Standard American Diet, the Conscientious Omnivores, the Vegans), is clear and not unduly biased. The idea is to provide readers with viable alternatives, rather than backing them into ethical corners. They target the hip pocket: it may be cheaper to torture animals than it is to treat them well, but the “externalities” are eventually passed on to the consumer (in the US, for example, factory farming is economically viable because of government grain subsidies).

If you don’t eat sentient creatures but can’t decide whether your boiling lobster’s clattering claws are morsing H-E-L-P or nothing at all, Singer and Mason suggest that it’s best to give it the benefit of the doubt. As David Foster Wallace pointed out in Consider the Lobster, “it takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics … not to see struggling, thrashing, and lid-clattering as … pain-behaviour.”

On the other hand, Singer and Mason are aware of the shortcomings of alternative farming methods. Organically reared, fibre-fed cows emit more methane gas than their intensively farmed relatives (cattle are responsible for “about 2.5 per cent of the total effect of greenhouse gas emissions”). And because they’re not injected with bovine growth hormone, it takes 10% more organic cows to produce the same amount of milk.

The book closes with a more discomforting argument that is well-worn territory for Singer: if we justify killing animals on the grounds that they possess inferior mental abilities, then we should also sanction the killing of humans who are “not conscious of their lives as their own”.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Nicole Kidman & Tom Cruise

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Bogin, hopit

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The myth of ethical investment

No closed shops, no leg-ups, no favours

Greg Combet’s master plan for industrial relations

More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue


More in Noted

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality