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.