Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation

 

Spiked Online has run quite a lot of articles about animal welfare lately.

I remember how disappointed I was thirty odd years ago when I bought Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. The case for considering animal suffering and for doing what we could to alleviate it seemed to me – then as it does now – a very strong one. So I wanted to know more.

Singer’s unpromising title was a clue to the content. He was trying to hitchhike a ride on the lingo of the times. Blacks, women, gays why not animals? Then again, book titles are the product of much manipulative thought on how to get the readers juices flowing. Freakonomics anyone?

But I really got turned off once I came across the term ‘speciesism’. (Thirty years on my spellchecker remains unimpressed with the word as well it might).

Now, as I understand it Jeremy Bentham argued in favour of animal welfare or perhaps I should say against animal cruelty on a simple ground. “They suffer:”

What does the term ‘speciesism’ add to this? If Oscar Wilde had nothing to declare but his genius, Peter Singer’s book and its central concept of speciesism had nothing to declare but its circumlocution.

If not fully appreciating the evil of cruelty to an animal is speciesism, isn’t a failure to appreciate the evil of cruelty to a rock ‘genus-ism’? Of course it’s a silly question but only because one cannot act cruelly to a rock. Why not? Because they do not suffer.

The only possible objection to ‘speciesism’ is that people might be ignoring the pain of animals. Singer speaks boldly of their ‘interests’ which is a bit of a stretch. Maybe I’m missing something, but I would have thought that the only thing that gives an animal ‘interests’ for us is its capacity to suffer. But in that case why not argue the case directly in terms of animals’ suffering? Justifying speciesism takes us back to square one, but with an ugly, misleading and tendentious neologism thrown in.

It seems to me there are two ways to look at the question of animal suffering. (I guess these mirror two very broad approaches to philosophy and ethics). One is purely analytical and takes as its perspective that of God or an omniscient being. Singer is an atheist of course but as they say, if God didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent him. As Helene Guldberg argues Singer reduces “social, moral and legal” questions to “cognitive abilities and biology”.

The alternative is a more modest and small c ‘conservative’ approach which shrinks from the God’s eye view and takes us back to our own ken. In this view, claims to alleviate suffering arise as animals come more fully into our proximity and our care. I’ve not read any philosophers on animal suffering who approach the subject from this perspective, but that’s where I’d start.

Oddly though, if I was arguing a purely analytic line about animal welfare from God’s perspective, then the most obvious question that occurs to me is whether us humans have a duty to intervene in the carnival of suffering which we call the natural world.

Do we have a duty to save as many animals as we can from the suffering and torture that is inflicted on them by their predators, presumably in proportion to our understanding of their cognitive abilities from which we deduce their capacity to suffer.

Should we be concerned about the suffering involved in animals’ death? If so, does a fish have a worse time of it in a net than it will have when it is killed by a predator or dies of other natural causes in the wild? If not, what’s wrong with eating them? Ditto for cattle. Is there a value in their life? How is it diminished by their death? Is there a positive value in the life and not too cruel death of a cognitively sophisticated animal? If so is it a case of the more lives the better? Or is it the fewer deaths the better? If so, if we eat meat, is it better to eat sheep rather than cows (more lives) or cows rather than sheep (fewer deaths). These are pretty tough questions, and I don’t really know how to start.

But, from memory and from a recent squiz in a bookshop, the subject barely comes up in Animal Liberation. Then again, maybe I’m wrong. I’d be interested in others’ views.

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18 Responses to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation

  1. boynton says:

    ‘Blog’ isn’t recognised by Spellchecker either?

    Last weekeend in the Guardian, Richard Ryder discussed “speciesism”, the word he coined 35 years ago. A reader’s letter raises the crucial point for me. The capacity for Pain should not be the only factor in atrributing rights. Capacity for happiness and pleasure should also be considered.

    The pain inflicted in the natural world would seem to me the least obvious question in regard to animal suffering. Almost an ontological sideshow to the Carnival of animal suffering when one considers, for example, the moral battleground of the factory farm.
    There are many obvious links out there, but this one from last year’s ‘Background Briefing’ is good as it summarises some big questions from an Australian point of view and also features Matthew Scully, author of “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy”
    http://www.vnv.org.au/Articles/EnoughIsEnough.htm

  2. blank says:

    In Peter Singer’s view not all humans are ‘persons’. Only those who are self-aware and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals with a future are ‘persons’. Only Singerian ‘persons’ have rights.

    In Practical Ethics Peter Singer wrote that not just severely disabled infants can be killed.
    He specifically mentioned the case of an infant with haemophilia, and stated that the parents should be able to kill such a child, so that they can replace it with a healthy child.
    Essentially, the child’s right to life depended on the parents’ attitudes and opinions.

    In one way, much of Peter Singer’s work reads like a reductio ad absurdum argument against his own propositions.

    In another way, it is the logical continuation of current abortion practice. A mother may terminate a pregnancy in line with her attitude and opinions. The unborn are legally not persons, and have no rights. What is the moral effect on a blob of cells when it passes along the birth canal?

  3. Rafe says:

    There are some tough issues here. The only farm animals that I have known personally were free ranging and they had a good time until the day came for them to go to market. At that point one can only hope that the killing is swift and humane.
    If the animal liberationists are serious about doing away with animal husbandry (or is it only the intensive factories that cause concern?) then there will be virtually no domestic animals because the overwhelming majority of cute beasties that you see out in the country are only there because they are destined to killed and eaten (yum!).

  4. Gaby says:

    Nicholas, I suppose “speciesism” is of a piece with the black, women and gay “liberation” movements you referred to.

    That is, “animal liberation” is to “x liberation” as “speciesism” is to racism, feminism and sexism. And these latter are often couched in terms of immoral or unjustified discrimination against “interests”.So, neither is this surprising.

    I haven’t read “Animal Liberation” but I think restricting the issues to a “negative right” to not be subjected to (unnecesary) pain or suffering needs arguing. They may be the subjects of other types of rights or interests that need to be considered by humans in deciding on moral courses of action. This could be along the lines of the point that Boynton was making concerning anability to feel pleasure. Another example could be an interest in roaming free and wild. Of course this latter position also needs to be substantiated by argument.

    Teasing this issue out would then start to answer some of the questions you have raised. A not unrelated issue is what sort of duties or obligations human have to other humans to alleviate pain and suffering. I don’t see that this issue is yet to well thought out either.

    I don’t really understand your point about morality from a God’s eyrie. Generally the existence of a god doesn’t solve moral problems, just defers them. Omniscience only excerbates them by creating puzzles over free will and responsibility.

    I read Singer’s “Practical Ethics” many years ago and found that his proposed solutions to moral problems by applying his utilitarianism to be crude and not satisfying. I haven’t bothered with anything of his since.

  5. Gaby says:

    PS I think I should have read the review linked to before commenting. Doesn’t seem that the book argues the case for “animal interests” very well. And I would reiterate the utility of utilitarianism in these sorts of arguments.

  6. boynton says:

    Rafe: I eat lamb and chicken occasionally and it’s the intensive farming issue rather than Livestock farming itself that is the cause for concern, a relatively recent and increasing trend.

    “One can only hope”

  7. Gaby says:

    Boynton,

    I agree it can be seen as such of course, but I was only trying to point to another possible basis. The latter is not necessarily reducible to the former. For instance, sufficient pleasure could be had from life in a zoo, but it is probably better to be roaming a savannah or mooching around a jungle.

    I’m not sure that assigning “interests” is the right way to go about this issue. But I do think that human effects on animals and their habitats are important moral considerations for us. For me, it doesn’t sit right to couch the issue in terms an animal having a “right” or “interest” not to have its natural habitat devastated by theme parks (q.v.Carl Hiassen’s “Native Tongue”, very funny).

  8. Gaby,

    Yes ‘speciesism’ is clearly by analogy with race and sexism. But the very fact that we don’t have an ‘ism’ for homophobia suggests that it would make better sense for the word to reflect the situation. I guess I was arguing that Singer could have done with avoiding the cheap temptation to do an ‘ism’ on species. I think its risible.

    I agree with you that Singer’s ethics is sufficiently lacking in sympathy for human situations as to be a waste of (my) time and I don’t read him either.

    My reference to a ‘God’s eye’ was just a bit of smartarsery from me and I’m sorry it threw you off the track of what I was saying. I was just saying that God’s eye view ethics is a bit too ambitious for me. My own conception of ethics is more modestly based on my own experience and some (hopefully critical) respect for the mores of the culture I’m in.

    As for ‘rights’ and ‘interests’, again, I agree with the drift of what’s been said that this is also part of the problem of Singer’s very mechanical analogy with other ‘liberation’ movements.

  9. Dan says:

    Should we be concerned about the suffering involved in animals’ death. If so, does a fish have a worse time of it in a net than it will have when it is killed by a predator or dies of other natural causes in the wild. If not, what’s wrong with eating them. Ditto for cattle. Is there a value in their life? How is it diminished by their death? Is there a positive value in the life and not too cruel death of a cognitively sophisticated animal? If so is it a case of the more lives the better? Or is it the more deaths the better? If so, if we eat meat, is it better to eat sheep rather than cows (more lives) or cows rather than sheep (fewer deaths). These are pretty tough questions, and I don’t really know how to start.

    Is there not a moral difference between suffering that we can easily prevent, and suffering that we can’t? This line – that animals suffer in the wild therefore it is okay for us to make them suffer for our own reasons – seems a tad ridiculous, to me. We don’t have to ask whether being slaughtered in an abbatoir is better or worse than being torn apart by a natural predator. The predator has no choice. We do. Surely that’s difference enough.

    As for speciesism, Singer was trying to combat those who might suggest that there was some essential moral difference between animal suffering and human suffering. Certainly, humans can suffer in all sorts of ways that other animals can’t (I suspect we might have a monopoly on existential angst, for example), but there is no reason to suppose that the suffering of a cow having a hot iron applied to her hide is all that different from the suffering I might expect to endure from a similar experience.

    Someone who wants to elevate the importance of human suffering might point to things like the humiliation and mental disintegration which we tend to experience alongside physical suffering, and which make that suffering uniquely human. We have no reason to suppose that a cow can suffer a nervous breakdown.

    Singer’s response, and I think it’s a good one, is that we regard it as a wrong to inflict suffering on a human even when her or she conspicuously lacks the capacity for those (perhaps) uniquely human kinds of pain. A small infant, for instance, or someone with a severe mental disability who has no idea what’s going on. We’d think it was wrong to inflict pain on them, particularly if we had no good reason. Yet there seems no way to distinguish their ability to suffer from that of a non-human animal. If you think that animal suffering is fine just because of the fact that they happen to be non-human, then surely you need to defend that double-standard somehow. Singer doesn’t think it’s possible without a sort of moral chauvinism. If a human and an animal are both suffering the same pain (as best we can tell), and if you argue that the human pain is more significant, based on nothing more than the fact that it’s being suffered by a human, then it’s fair to say that there’s some kind of species-based conceit involved. Singer, if I remember rightly, apologised in advanced for clumsiness of the word “speciesism”.

    I’m not sure that speciesism is the real cause why people defend meat-eating, though. I think it has more to do with the fact that we like eating meat so much. It’s an intellectual dishonesty informed by cravings for steak. The moral defences for meat-eating that I’ve seen have all been pretty lame (and believe me, I searched long and hard for a good one before I decided it was hopeless).

  10. Boynton,

    Nice to see you dropping by.

    I don’t understand your point. You say this “The capacity for Pain should not be the only factor in atrributing rights. Capacity for happiness and pleasure should also be considered.” So far so good, though I must say I’m more concerned with the former than the latter.

    You then go on to say that “The pain inflicted in the natural world would seem to me the least obvious question in regard to animal suffering. Almost an ontological sideshow to the Carnival of animal suffering when one considers, for example, the moral battleground of the factory farm.”

    I don’t get this comment at all. Personally I don’t have a view about what humans should do about this suffering, but my working hypothesis is ‘nothing’. But if you are arguing from a utilitarian perspective, then you want to do what you can to minimise pain and/or pleasure regardless of where it occurs. And if we are trying to minimise pain/maximise pleasure where it occurs then we could come up with really crazy pleasure enhancing pain reducing plans for nature.

    We could helicopter spray herds of mamals with insecticide to stop fleas and ticks (assuming we don’t think the ticks and fleas suffer). We should charge into places where there is a drought to put animals which will die of thirst out of their misery – perhaps with poisons etc etc. This would have a higher pleasure added or pain reduced per $ spent than changes in factory farming.

    I’m not suggesting any of these things. I’m using them to illustrate the point that thinking on animal welfare has barely begun from a really utilitarian perspective untill we address these issues. And since they’re pretty absurd, that leads me to believe that a utilitarian perspective won’t get us very far.

    If you have what I’ve called a ‘small c’ conservative view of ethics that’s not true. You argue that the animals being in our care creates some new obligations on us. But that’s not utilitarianism, and (from memory) is not really justified in Singer’s logic. In fact the more I think about this – admittedly without further attention to Singer’s text which may prove me wrong – the more arbitrary Singer’s argument becomes. He applies utilitarian logic where it seems to fit the argument, and completely ignores it elsewhere – simply assuming that we have a greater responsibilty for animal welfare where we farm them.

  11. boynton says:

    It seems I was addressing this post less in terms of utilitarianism than “philosophers on animal suffering”

  12. Boynton, you sure are misunderstanding me (I think) though it may be my own poor expression.

    When I said my working hypothesis was ‘do nothing’ I was speaking about or seeking to speak about what you call the ‘absurd’ idea that we charge off into nature to try to alleviate suffering that occurs there.

    You may think it is absurd to bring this up, but it seems to me to emerge immediately we say we are couching the argument strictly in ‘utilitarian’ terms. If that’s the case you just try to maximise pleasure and minimse pain wherever you find it.

    For the record I abhor cruel factory farming, and we should be ashamed of ourselves when we are cruel to animals. I try to avoid factory farmed products – though I have to admit I’m not too good on chicken which I eat a fair bit. I eat free range eggs.

    As for your point about animal pleasure, I don’t think we’re really in disagreement. I have tended to include that as absence of pain. But it doesn’t matter how you deal with it. To inflict pleasure on animals when it can be relatively easily avoided is wrong. Not going out of one’s way to give them ‘pleasure’ is OK with me, but it clearly depends on what you mean by that. I have expressed restricting them to a cruel degree not as robbing them of pleasure but as inflicting pain. Its a terminological point.

    I couldn’t see how any of the Singer quotes were on point – at least with regard to the argument we’re having here where the central argument I’m trying to advance is that Singer gets all utilitarian having made a very non-utilitarian move which is to constrain our gaze to animals within our ken and care.

  13. Dan,

    If you look at your defence of Singer’s use of the word ‘speciesist’ it makes my point – that the use of his fancy and ugly word is completely redundant. It turns on the earlier point made by Bentham. “They suffer”.

    You say “Is there not a moral difference between suffering that we can easily prevent, and suffering that we can’t?” Again, my point is that if we put our minds to it we might be able to think of lots of relatively easy ways we could alleviate suffering in the natural world. We actually do this in the case of Whales – going and rescuing them for instance, but we don’t tend to do it anywhere else that I can think of.

    I think the real criterion is not the ease or difficulty, but that we feel quite different where we feel proximity to ourselves and where we have assumed responsibility for the animals. That’s OK with me and with the more empirical/conservative kind of ethical sensibility I’m arguing for. My main reason for not wanting to wade into nature and reduce suffering is that its complexity and its scale dwarf me and my understanding. So I just leave it alone.

    And I take greater care and feel stronger ethical bonds with those people who are closer to me than those who are not (though I also give money to the poor of the world). Its the same with animals. I think we owe an obligation to those in our care not to be cruel to them. But this is miles away from a utilitarian line of reasoning.

    The idea of speciesism is offensive to me because in casually piggybacking on the other isms, it forgets that the charge of racism and sexism take their power (for me anyway) not from some legalistic idea that we’re all owed a level playing field. We are but that’s a rather schoolmasterly idea – which is in many ways impossible to realise in any event. They take their power from the idea that prejuding someone according to their gender or the colour of their skin is an affront to their dignity. Their human dignity.

  14. blank says:

    “I eat free range eggs”

    “free range” eggs are not really all that chook friendly.

    “Free range” living in hugh flocks is unnatural and very stressful for a chook.

    Chooks are happy only when they live in small groups: that is their ‘natural’ way of living.

    The old hen-house in the back yard (anyone old enough to remember them?) is pretty much how chooks like to live.

  15. The free range eggs I eat are from a small bunch of chooks living on my mum’s farm.

  16. Juke Moran says:

    A while ago in the US a man was cited for having come to the defense of a fawn that was being attacked by a young black bear. The man was part of a small group of tourists in a viewing area above the site of the incident, in a national park. He ran down to the animals and began kicking the bear. After he was arrested by a park ranger, he said he felt it was justified and he’d do it again.
    There’s a morality at work there that’s bizarrely disconnected from the “truer” reality of carnivorous life.
    Arguing that causing pain is the substance of the crime makes murder by heroin overdose logically less criminal than other methods. And the sedation of factory-farmed animals more humane.
    Anthropocentrism makes the killing and eating of a chimpanzee almost cannibalistic, the killing and eating of an oyster not much different than munching an apple. We try to elaborate, and disguise, that identifying-with by distilling the pertinent qualities and saying they’re why it’s wrong – self-awareness, a capacity for suffering etc. The truth is the wanton destruction of an oyster bed, or a stand of willows, or even a single weed, has that same wrongness in it. It’s a breaking with a larger mostly invisible harmony that as a species we’ve been trained to ignore, and that we’ve attacked as if it were an enemy for centuries now
    Balance, in this instance the recognition of our carnivorous heritage and the necessity for any organism to assert itself against the often harsh and dangerous environment in which it must live, is impossible to legislate or codify precisely; but it’s the only way that “truer” reality can be honored.
    Animal mistreatment is a symptom of a much larger disease, and trying to “fix” it without fixing that larger context will only lead to these fractal trains of logic.
    Selfishness is the one unifying trait in every crime or sin, the elevation of the self above the interests and well-being of all else. The converse, the selflessness of someone like Mother Theresa, is not the real moral alternative, though it’s the easiest solution. The real answer is balance, harmonic balance between the needs of the self and the needs of the larger non-self – the family, tribe, society, species, ecosystem, the world, and on out to the ineffable.
    Ultimately these questions all lead to the central fact of morality – that it is a goal-driven system of codes for behavior. Most of the goals in the moral systems we inherit are unspoken, but they’re there, and far too often they’re selfish ones. The perpetuation of the institutions that codify the goals. Maintenance of the status quo. Keeping things as they are.
    It’s got parallels with the body. Much of our behavior is devoted to maintaining the body’s integrity, but the body itself grows toward an expression, sexual reproduction, that has only to do with something the body itself won’t share. It’s a vehicle for the transmission of something it inherits. The body as part of a continuum of bodies, which is really the more accurate view. That continuum has no “bright lines”. Again, balance. The problem is that balance can’t be legislated.
    We “feel” the causing of extinction to be a greater moral crime than caging large animals for entertainment in zoos, but the rational argument for it being so founders without a sense of that harmonic balance, without a recognition of the greater context. Factory farms are a pragmatic solution to the problem of feeding 6.5 billion people whose lives are almost all seriously dissonant, but only within the artificial context of the immediate present.
    Singer’s position is taken from within that artificial context as well, and most arguments for and against it are, too. It’s not that the liberation of animals will undo what’s wrong, but that the contemporary treatment of animals, and the attitudes toward that treatment by people who need to see themselves as essentially moral, are symptoms of a much greater problem.

  17. Dan says:

    “Again, my point is that if we put our minds to it we might be able to think of lots of relatively easy ways we could alleviate suffering in the natural world. We actually do this in the case of Whales – going and rescuing them for instance, but we don’t tend to do it anywhere else that I can think of.”

    The thing about the natural world is that it’s difficult to be sure that whatever intervention we make is not going to create more suffering in the long run. In a simple case, saving an animal from a predator might cause the predator to starve, with effects running their way up the food chain. If an animal is taking its place in the evolved ecosystem, then it’s probably safest to let it do its thing, suffering notwithstanding.

    When we deliberately step outside of the ecosystem and start farming animals for our own consumption, though, the whole moral compass changes. These are no longer wild beasts hunting out prey and avoiding predators – their very existence has (in most cases) been created to serve our (human) interests. Surely their suffering is now something we have to balance against the benefits which we derive from farming them? What might have happened to the same animal if it happened to be born in the wild is utterly irrelevant.

    This might be a similar point to your proximity/care argument, but I think it’s a rather more. It’s not just that we’re closer to these animals in the sense that we can touch them (mules them, brand them, slaughter them etc). It’s not just that they happen to be in our care (i.e. penned in by us). It’s also that they have been *created* by us for our own needs. If not for us, they wouldn’t even exist. To me, creating a being and then making it suffer for most of its life is not something can be justified by the pleasure of eating porterhouse. That is, it can’t be justified unless you regard animal suffering as innately distinguishable from like human suffering. There can be no question that the pain these animals experience is our responsibility, and that’s something you just can’t say for animals in the wild.

    “And I take greater care and feel stronger ethical bonds with those people who are closer to me than those who are not (though I also give money to the poor of the world). Its the same with animals. I think we owe an obligation to those in our care not to be cruel to them. But this is miles away from a utilitarian line of reasoning.”

    Miles away from Singer’s reasoning, perhaps. Other utilitarians point to a probability function as a possible utilitarian justification for helping those close to us. We can be much more certain that the good will be done if we expend our samaritan efforts on those we can actually see. As far as family and friends go, I’m inclined to the view that fostering close relationships like those is a necessary part of human happiness, and thus eminently defensible on broad utilitarian lines. Peter Singer has the idea that favouritism is innately wrong, but I’m not sure how he defends that view.

    I guess my feeling about Singer is that he’s very right about particular things (animal liberation being one), but that his brand of utilitarian reasoning gives utilitarians a bad name. He seems to blind himself to a whole raft of human realities. The point I made before is an example – it’s difficult for me to believe that human happiness as a whole would be enhanced if everybody was to abandon his relationships with family and friends because whenever there was some greater good that he could supposedly be doing somewhere else in the world. I just don’t think it makes sense to think of every human in the world as being a self-contained unit whose happiness-maximising, suffering-minimising potential must be maintained at all times. If you think of good as a currency, then Singer seems to be a market fundamentalist, imagining that the greater good will best be served by every individual maximising his profit. He seems to ignore social capital (or whatever its ethical analogue is) as a good in itself.

  18. Tuning in says:

    First time at this blog. Hi everyone

    A few years I would never have thought a thing about a sentient creature. In fact the only thing I knew about animal rights etc. was that idiots would sometimes attack people wearing furs with paint. As I am usually conservative leaning and these attacks made feel that whatever PETA & like company were against I was for. In fact if male fashions supported fur coats for men I would have probably bought one (just kidding).

    I then started to read a little about it over the web and got to a Phil. teacher somewhere the US who changed my mind in what I thought was a very powerful but old- fashioned way- persuasion. His arguments persuaded me that eating animal flesh was a truly horrific thing to do.
    Anyone interested the website is http://www.analphilosopher.com.

    From that website I went to others and finally decided that eating animal meat is not for me.

    One of the main points which had a great effect was that not only were we causing pain to other sentient creatures we were also shortening a worthwhile life that was important to the creature concerned. That’s a pretty powerful comment to make.

    Another comment went like this. What does a bat, or a dog or a cat think when they are lying around? In other words what could possible is going through their brain? Other than a constant desire for food etc., the most thing say a dog could be thinking when lying around satisfied is how happy and content it is to be a dog. A bat gripping a tree upside own would also be thinking the same thing: it great to be a bat.

    Life in farm factories is horrific. Chickens instead of frolicking around are made to stand in tight enclosures where most have terrible scars on their heads because other behind them are pecking them to slow death. Enclosure makes them go crazy. Their legs and feet are distorted because they are constantly gripping to wide meshing at the bottom of the cages. These animals are living in constant pain.

    Cattle and pigs do seem to understand that they are going to be killed at the slaughter yard because they smell death around them and begin to behave in a panicked fashion. Kind reminded me of the movies depicting Jewish prisoners being led to “showers”

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