Stan Kosilesky

Peter Singer's Animal Liberation

Singer argues that animal liberation today is analogous to racial and gender justice in the past. Just as people once thought it incredible that women or blacks should be treated equal to white men, so now speciesists mock the idea that all animals should be given equal consideration. Singer defines "speciesism" as prejudice that favors one's species over every other. What equalizes all sentient beings is our ability to suffer. In that, we and animals are equal and deserving of equal consideration of interests. Singer's argument is a utilitarian one having as its goal the maximization of interest satisfaction.

If we learned anything from the liberation movements, we should have learnt how difficult it is to be aware of latent prejudice in our attitudes to particular groups until this prejudice is forcefully pointed out. A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons and an extension or reinterpretation of the basic moral principle of equality. We need to consider them from the point of view of those most disadvantaged by our attitudes, and the practices that follow from these attitudes. If we can make this unaccustomed mental switch we may discover a pattern in our attitudes and practices that consistently operates so as to benefit one group-usually the one to which we ourselves belong-at the expense of another.

Arguments in obvious ways can be said, men and women are similar beings, and should have equal rights, while humans and nonhumans are different and should not have equal rights. Women have a right to vote, for instance, because they are just as capable of making rational decisions as men are; dogs, on the other hand, are incapable of understanding the significance of voting, so they cannot have the right to vote. But in argument to that, many feminists hold that women have the right to an abortion on request. It does not follow that since these same people are campaigning for equality between men and women they must support the right of men to have abortions too. Since a man cannot have an abortion, it is meaningless to talk of his rights to have one. Since a pig can't vote, it is meaningless to talk of its right to vote. There is no reason why either Women's Liberation or Animal Liberation should get involved in such nonsense. The basic principle of equality, I shall argue, is equality of consideration; and equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights.

We say that all human beings, whatever their race, creed or sex are equal. Like it or not, we must face the fact that humans come in different shapes and sizes. If the demand for equality were based on the actual equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality. It would be an unjustifiable demand. The fact that humans differ as individualism rather than as races or sexes, is a valid reply to someone who defends a hierarchical society. If we tie the moral principle of equality to the factual equality of the different races or sexes, taken as a whole, our opposition to racism and sexism does not provide us with any basis for objecting to this kind of inegalitarianism.

There is no need to pin the case for equality to one particular outcome of this scientific investigation. The claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact. Equality is a moral ideal, not a simple assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference inability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat humans.

Jeremy Bentham incorporated the essential basis of moral equality into his utilitarian system of ethics in the formula: "Each to count for one and none for more than one." In other words, the interests of every being affected by an action are to be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being. A later utilitarian, Henry Sidgwick, put the point in this way:"The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view of the Universe, than the good of any other." If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans?

Many philosophers have proposed the principle of equal consideration of interests, in some form or other, as a basic moral principle; but, as we shall see in more detail shortly, not many of them have recognised that this principle applies to members of other species as well as to our own. To the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristics that gives a being the right to equal consideration. The capacity for suffering-or more strictly, for suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness-is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language, or for higher mathematics. If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. Most human beings are speciesists. It is not merely the act of killing that indicates what we are ready to do to other species in order to gratify our tastes when we eat meat. Our practice of rrearing and killing other animals in order to eat them is a clear instance of the sacrifice of the important interests of other beings in order to satisfy trivial interests of our own.

Humans show a bias in favor of his own species whenever he carries out an experiment on a nonhuman for a purpose that he would not think justified him in using a human being at an equal or lower level of sentience, awareness, ability to be self-directing, etc.

Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most people take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and it is this task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity. In this respect the distinction between humans and nonhumans is not a sharp division, but rather a continuum along which we move gradually, and with overlaps between the species, form simple capacities for enjoyment and satisfaction, or pain and suffering, to more complex ones.

It is only when we think of humans as no more than a small subgroup of all the beings that inhabit our planet that we may realize that in elevating our own species we are at the same time lowering the relative status of all other species. The truth is that the appeal to the intrinsic dignity of human beings appears to solve the egalitarian's problems only as long as it goes unchallenged.

Warning of ease with which the best minds can fall victim to a prevailing ideology.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License