Since the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975, Peter Singer has been one of the most vocal proponents of animal rights reform and remains a controversial figure for the views he espouses. The following will concern itself in discussing his claim that the interests of non-human animals deserve consideration equal to those of human beings, as well as in ascertaining the strength of that claim. To this latter end, throughout the course of the analysis I will examine whether there are any relevant exceptions or differences between the human situation and that of other animals that would alter the strength of his case. By way of introduction, I will first discuss Peter Singer’s arguments against what he perceives as species-based discrimination and the unequal consideration of non-human interests which results from it.
To begin, Singer challenges two commonly-held conceits. Firstly, that all humans are equal in moral status and, secondly, that all humans are of superior moral status to all animals.1 These two principles are widely held to be true, which by logical extension causes us to put human welfare ahead of the suffering of animals (especially where their suffering provides us with some benefit). However, the argument that all humans have some kind of intrinsic worth and dignity, while other species do not, is untenable without further justification. For these two principles to be sound there would have to be a characteristic which is possessed by all humans and which no other animal possesses.
The first and most obvious potential criterion is simply that of being human. Yet if we consider membership of the species Homo sapiens alone to be adequate justification to accord special consideration, we endorse preferential treatment on the basis of arbitrary characteristics in the same fashion as those who maintain race or gender to be sound bases for discrimination. This belief that species is in itself sufficient to grant the interests of one being more weight than those of another is the definition of speciesism as Peter Singer perceives it.2 He therefore attempts to discern whether there are any characteristics that would logically justify the unequal consideration of human and non-human animal interests.
Another obvious candidate is the superior mental capacity of human beings, including the faculties for critical reasoning, self-awareness and a sense of morality. The life of a being which possesses these abilities might be richer and more diverse than that of a being which did not, but the problem inherent in arguing the moral significance of intelligence is the fact that human beings are not equal in this regard. There is natural variation within the human population, certainly, but more obvious is the fact that some humans possess debilitating and permanent intellectual disabilities. We do not treat them as being of less moral worth merely because of this, but in order to maintain equal treatment based on intellect we would be obliged to significantly lower the degree of mental capacity required to qualify. Lowered thus, many animals would qualify for treatment comparable to or better than that offered to the severely mentally impaired.3 One could argue that higher intelligence is a general property of human beings but not of other animals, yet given the fact that the most intelligent animals possess faculties greater than those of the most severely impaired human beings, it is essential in avoiding unjustified discrimination that we regard individuals as such, rather than attempting to create homogeneity where it would not otherwise exist.4
Neither should a line of separation be based on linguistics. Human beings are far more able to articulate their ideas and the sensations they experience, but language has nothing to do with the fundamental capacity to experience pain or to have interests of some kind. Most animals exhibit behaviour indicating the experience of pleasure or pain; behaviour which we do not need language to recognise.5 Similarly, the distinction could not be perceptual, for there are animals with much more sophisticated sensory organs than ours and evidence indicates that most animals, especially other mammals, have neurological systems very similar to our own. Indeed, modern concepts of biology are reliant on the evolutionary similarities between animals. Consequently, it would be reasonable to conclude that most animals experience pain in a similar way. Even if we were stripped of language, we would not doubt that other human beings can experience pain and should not assume that other animals cannot also do so, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence.6
Essentially, the point Singer wishes to make is that “the question is not ‘can they talk?’ or ‘can they reason?’ but ‘can they suffer?’”7 It is sentience (the capacity to experience pleasure and pain) that determines the weight we should grant a being’s interests. If we are aware that a being is suffering, we cannot justify refusing to take that suffering into consideration.8 It is important to note, however, that the equality of consideration Singer advocates does not necessarily translate into equal treatment. While it is in the interests of a modern human being to be educated and afforded certain civil rights, a pig might only require the companionship of its fellows, space to move about, sustenance and shelter in order to be content. Many of the rights we grant human beings would be meaningless to it, but this does not matter because the pig would have no interest in or capacity for them and this does not in any way diminish the strength of the desires it has.9 Indeed, Singer holds the desire to avoid harm to be the most fundamental and essential desire any being could possess, thereby condemning disregard for animal suffering outright, whereas some claim that these practices are justified if committed in service of a greater good (as argued in the cases of factory farming, vivisection and other experiments incorporating animal subjects).10
In summation, if an animal possesses interests of some kind (as all sentient beings do) and if the neglect or contravention of those interests can be determined to cause distress, we should regard whatever interests the animal has as being morally equivalent to our own unless we have sound reasons to discriminate; to do otherwise is speciesist and, as Singer argues, we should acknowledge the needs of others as scrupulously as we would want our own needs acknowledged.11 This is, however, an incomplete account of his argument for the weight we should afford the interests of non-human animals. The rationale given so far operates solely on a classical utilitarian basis (that is, it seeks to maximise the total amount of happiness in attempting to equalise consideration of all sentient creatures), yet Singer’s argument is more complex as it also incorporates elements of preferential utilitarian reasoning.
As aforementioned, a being which possesses superior mental faculties might live a more fulfilling existence than one which was solely concerned with avoiding harm. Beings which have a sense of their own identity, unlike those without, also have a conception of their own future. Consequently, this quality of ‘personhood’ would justify a higher standard of living for some animals, meaning that although the interest all sentient beings have in avoiding harm is to be regarded as identical, we should be more concerned for the ongoing quality of life of more intellectually endowed animals because they are capable of comprehending and being personally interested in their futures.12 As such, we would have to take those specific preferences into account above the general need to mitigate the total quantity of suffering; if forced to choose between the (comparable) needs of a person (human or otherwise) and that of a merely sentient animal, we would have to opt to uphold the former as animals that have no individual identity are, to some extent, replaceable, but ‘persons’ are not.13
One objection to the given argument is that it takes liberties with the concept of rights.14 Definitions of rights vary widely, but if we are to rationalise their existence at all, we must define them in terms of the legitimacy with which they are held. If we consider rights to be the product of an agreement amongst autonomous individuals to uphold particular duties towards one another, it would be fallacious to suggest that animals (which do not appear to exhibit the capacity for moral self-legislation) qualify for inclusion. According to that argument, it would be wrong to speak of equal consideration of other animals as though it was an entitlement. However, Singer asserts the argument that rights are protections our morality suggests we ought to recognise.15 More importantly, whichever term we choose to employ and whatever misgivings we may have about phraseology, we cannot reasonably promote the welfare of one entity above another unless we are certain that the suffering of one is of less significance. That is the essence of the argument, and if we extend the same consideration to animals as we do to humans possessing comparable sensory capacities and intellect, as Singer suggests, we can curb our natural and understandable (but ultimately indefensible) inclination to favour our own species.
1 Singer, Peter: ‘The Significance of Animal Suffering’ in Baird, Robert M. (ed.) and Rosenbaum, Stuart E. (ed.): ‘Animal Experimentation - the Moral Issues’ (New York, USA: Prometheus Books, 1991), p57.
2 Singer, Peter: ‘Animal Liberation - Pimlico Edition’ (Sydney, Australia: Random House Publishing Australia, 1995), p6.
3 Singer, Peter: ‘The Significance of Animal Suffering’ in Baird, Robert M. (ed.) and Rosenbaum, Stuart E. (ed.): ‘Animal Experimentation - the Moral Issues’ (New York, USA: Prometheus Books, 1991), p60.
4 Singer, Peter: ‘Animal Liberation - Pimlico Edition’ (Sydney, Australia: Random House Publishing Australia, 1995), p19.
5 Ibid, p14.
6 Ibid, p11.
7 Bentham, Jeremy: ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,’ chapter 17 (1789) in Singer, Peter: ‘Animal Liberation - Pimlico Edition’ (Sydney, Australia: Random House Publishing Australia, 1995), p7.
8 Singer, Peter: ‘Animal Liberation - Pimlico Edition’ (Sydney, Australia: Random House Publishing Australia, 1995), p8.
9 Ibid, p2.
10 Singer, Peter: ‘The Significance of Animal Suffering’ in Baird, Robert M. (ed.) and Rosenbaum, Stuart E. (ed.): ‘Animal Experimentation - the Moral Issues’ (New York, USA: Prometheus Books, 1991), p63.
11 Ibid, p63.
12 Singer, Peter: ‘Animal Liberation - Pimlico Edition’ (Sydney, Australia: Random House Publishing Australia, 1995), p20.
13 Ibid, p20.
14 Cohen, Carl: ‘The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research’ in Baird, Robert M. (ed.) and Rosenbaum, Stuart E. (ed.): ‘Animal Experimentation - the Moral Issues’ (New York, USA: Prometheus Books, 1991), p104.
15 Singer, Peter: ‘Animal Liberation - Pimlico Edition’ (Sydney, Australia: Random House Publishing Australia, 1995), p8.
Baird, Robert M. (ed.) and Rosenbaum, Stuart E. (ed.): ‘Animal Experimentation - the Moral Issues’ (New York, USA: Prometheus Books, 1991).
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Anna E. Charlton and Gary L. Francione, Animal Rights Law.org: ‘Animal Rights and Animal Welfare: Theoretical Origins’
<http://www.animal-law.org/library/araw_iii.htm> (text copyrighted 1996-2002, last update unknown, accessed 22-11-2004).
Peter Singer, Animal Rights Library: ‘Animal Liberation at 30’
<http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/singer04.htm> (text copyrighted 2003, last update unknown, accessed 24-11-2004).
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<http://www.utilitarian.org/texts/alm.html> (text copyrighted in 1985, last update unknown, accessed 22-11-2004).