Animal Liberation is a book by Peter Singer first published in 1975. The book makes a highly-readable and extremely cogent case for personally re-evaluating your behaviour in light of the treatment of animals in modern economies and societies. The book argues that our modern societies unthinkingly inflict immense suffering on millions of animals for trivial reasons.
The book encourages you to think the ethical implications of the treatment of animals by human society. As a society we rarely stop to consider the treatment of animals since we encounter so few of them in our everyday lives. In modern, urban/suburban society, our interaction with animals has been drastically curtailed. One can go through life without learning much about the farm animals we consume as food. We continue to eat them without consciously considering the ethical implications of our actions. Animal Liberation is essential reading if you have any interest in ethics or morality. Even if it does not convince you to give up consuming animal products, it will make you aware of their ethical problems surrounding their production, and you owe it to yourself as a thinking person to learn that much.
The book (2002 edition) is organized into six chapters and I have provided a short synopsis of each.
Chapter 1: All animals are equal...
Singer's agenda is much more radical than promoting vegetarianism or combating cruelty to animals. He wants to eliminate speciesism from our hearts and minds. Speciesism is behaviour that "allows the interest of your own species to override the greater interests of members of other species" and it leads to the systematic mistreatment and oppression of animals other than humans. Singer believes we must approach the problem of our mistreatment of animals as an ethical and moral issue of the highest import. When we do this, he believes we will realize that animals should be afforded "equal consideration" for their interests. Most people will object, using some variation of the argument that animals are unthinking brutes. The gist of Singer's argument is made by a quote from Jeremy Bentham:
The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
-- Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
Most of the chapter is an exposition on this quote and a process of re-acquanting the reader with the fact that humans are also animals. Singer uses brain-damaged humans incapable of further mental development, rather than infants, to avoid the problem of future potential. The animal liberation movement is also compared to the women's suffrage and anti-slavery movements in that they sought to reveal the inequity of widely accepted behaviour.
Chapter 2: Tools for Research...
Singer looks at how animals are used in research within commercial, governmental and university laboratories. Approximately 25-35 million animals are produced for experimentation in the US alone. He provides some examples of cruel experiments that result in the mutilation, painful isolation, starvation, torture, and death of animals. Scientists who hurt or kill animals in their research are not asked to justify their actions. Animals are used for experiments that add little to the store of human knowledge, alternatives to using animals are rarely considered, and the scientific community enjoys a license to mistreat animals within its laboratories. Many experiments on animals are repeated with trivial modifications to produce slightly modified results so researchers can publish papers and further their careers. Much research on animals does not produce results worth publication. The scientific community suffers from conditioned ethical blindness and refuses to weigh the suffering of animals used in its research. Students who object to experiments that cause needless suffering are penalized and self-selected out of scientific careers. Millions of animals are painfully and cruelly treated as raw materials for experiments that have limited merit. The scientific establishment has almost no system of checks and balances to weigh the interests of animals against the potential benefits of the research.
Chapter 3: Down on the Factory Farm...
100 million cows, pigs and sheep and 5 billion chickens are killed for human consumption in the US alone. Singer looks at the condition these animals live and die in and it is not a pretty sight. In an effort to maximize yield and profit from their stocks, large agribusiness producers have adopted methods that result in cruel, short and unnatural lives for animals. Animals used for meat are kept in confined spaces, denied exercise, and force fed to maximize their growth. Chickens in the poultry industry are often starved to encourage them to produce eggs. During transportation, animals are often denied food and water for days and subjected to harsh environmental conditions.
Singer looks at the cruelty of separating mothers and children, denying animals their natural environment and keeping large groups of animals in small enclosed spaces. Some of this cruelty is not apparent till you accept that animals can suffer, and that it is ethically wrong to cause pain. Once you acknowledge that all animals have the capacity to suffer, it is very difficult to read through the various ways in which they are abused in modern animal farms. The killing of animals is rarely pleasant and the process is often botched in large scale assembly-line slaughter houses. Animals are often stunned incorrectly and are fully conscious when they are painfully killed. Your personal complicity in the cruel practises of factory farms is apparent every time you purchase meat from one of the large producers.1
Chapter 4: Becoming a Vegetarian...
This chapter contains practical advice on becoming a vegetarian. Humans can subsist entirely on plant foods, as indeed most humans did for millenia, and billions still do today. Vegetarian cuisine offers much more variety than meat based food, especially the standard fare offered in most fast-food restaurants. Since it takes approximately twenty kilos of plant protein to produce a single kilo of animal protein, eating animals is also inherently wasteful. There is some discussion of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet and the revelation that many children refuse to eat meat instinctively when it is first offered to them.
Chapter 5: Man's Dominion...
This chapter is a brief historical survey of the various rationales presented for human supremacy over other animals throughout the ages. Singer focuses solely on the Western tradition, partly because that is his target audience, and also because the rest of the world offers a much more varied ethical attitude towards animals (especially the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions).
Chapter 6: Speciesism Today...
Singer looks at how our technological societies have succeeded in removing most animals from our daily lives and encouraged us to adopt an unthinking attitude towards animal products. We feed our children a diet of anthropomorphic animal characters as entertainment, and their flesh for lunch. We treat our pets as members of our families but never think about the unending progression of chickens and pigs we eat. Some of this chapter is a challenge to traditional philosophy which ignores or dismisses the question of how animals should be treated. Singer says we will eventually come to realize that ignoring the interests of animals is ethically wrong, just as most of us have rejected sexism and racism.
Personal Note: This book led me to reconsider my own dietary habits. I no longer consume animal products without thinking about how they were produced and have turned mostly vegetarian, eating meat only when it is extremely well-prepared and not merely fuel. Unlike many children, I knew where the chicken I ate came from. My mother often sent my brother and I to the broiler shop near our home in Bombay and we would pick out a chicken (one amongst many kept in small cages for days) and watch its metamorphosis from a living, breathing animal to a pile of flesh and bone within minutes. This never bothered me, or stopped me from eating them. I had never thought rigorously about my own relationship with animals.
- As a classical liberal I recognize how the profit motive is both an incentive and signal within a competitive economy. At the same time I realize it can lead to unintended consequences when the rules governing behaviour are incomplete.