Animal Liberation: I claim to have been misrepresented

At the end of question time in Parliament any member can speak to a claim that he has been misrepresented. I claim to have been misrepresented.

I was interested in the responses to my earlier post on Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Perhaps it’s understandable given that it’s a highly contested area, and I was making a kind of methodological point that some will regard as obscure. I expect I could have expressed myself better.

But no-one seems to have addressed what I was trying to get at.

Most commenters took me to have various views on animal welfare. Why else would I be interested in Singer’s book on it? Of course, if I didn’t feel strongly about the issues themselves, it would odd to post on Singer’s book. I do have views on them. But I didn’t put them prominently in the article because I was trying to address an antecedent point about how we think about them.

Note that the heading was “Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation”. The post was principally about the viability or otherwise of Singer’s approach and, not being in the foreground I didn’t outline my views on animal welfare with any great clarity or prominence.

I think most of the commenters on my thread took me to be making much more direct comments on vegetarianism and animal welfare than I was. I am not unsympathetic to Singer’s vegetarianism. I just think what he says about it is very confusing.

Because I wanted to extend the discussion further I asked John Quiggin if I could do a guest post on Crooked Timber. He suggested that CT wouldn’t be too keen but kindly put up his own post on the issues linking to my original post and cross posted to CT.

The problem for me is that John has (mis)interpreted me in just this way. John writes that

[A]s Nicholas points out, there’s no reason to think any non-human animal is self-aware in the kinds of ways that would make it wrong for us to (for example) painlessly kill them for our own purposes.

I can’t find any claim by me to this effect, but it is suggested as one of the multitude of questions that Singer’s framework doesn’t help us with. The point of the commentary on Singer was to argue that Singer’s arguments seemed to me incoherent in an almost trivial way. If you’re being utilitarian, then (as I understand it) by definition you’re a consequentialist – you think consequences matter more than intentions and sentiments. You want to maximise happiness and minimise pain.

But if that’s really the case, then it seems to me there are a whole lot of antecedent questions before you get to vegetarianism and farming. These questions are dealt out of the discussion by way of a deus ex machina which arrives on the scene unexplained.

Singer’s book focuses essentially on animals under human care. I don’t have any problem with the idea, it’s just that its as far from a utilitarian perspective as I can imagine. We get to this position via an argument from sentiment, from an argument that both Edmund Burke and Adam Smith would have shared, that proximity matters in ethics. I can’t see how utilitarianism can get us there, let alone consequentialism.

It gets worse (or so it seems to me). Even for animals that are not cruelly farmed, or those we’ve caught from the wild (in which case it’s a moot point whether they came to a stickier end than they would in nature), Singer’s argues for vegetarianism. Now as a matter of fact I’m quite sympathetic to this idea. But it’s not utilitarian. If it were, a whole host of questions arise.

On enumerating some of them, commenters said that these questions were ‘absurd’ and (I think) they thought that I was arguing absurdities, or that I was trying to use them to justify omnivorousness. I wasn’t in the slightest. I was asking why Singer doesn’t go down that track. I was suggesting that Singer’s argument reduces to absurdity.

The basic idea of utilitarianism is that we think of moral questions by doing some economic style accounting against a pleasure/pain calculus. The standard economic questions arise here like ‘are we getting maximum effectiveness in achieving a better pleasure/pain optimum for our efforts?’

If you’re not doing that at some level (even after one has taken the step back required for instance by ‘rule utilitarianism’ and asked what rules might optimise pleasure and pain), then I can’t see how you sensibly say that you’re being a utilitarian.

So consider non-factory farming. Are animal lives good? How does the badness of the death of an animal detract from the goodness of its life? If it’s not a cruel death say they don’t even know they’re dying does it detract at all? Say an abattoir death does detract from a life, but a good healthy life is better than the death (leaving a net positive in terms of animal welfare), then farming and killing for meat is good right?

There then arise a whole lot of other questions. Leaving aside hugely imponderable questions like what other things might have happened on the land if it didn’t grow meat (and the other things that might have grown there) the main one seems to me to be that if we think mammals are by and large equivalent to each other, then farming sheep to eat is better than farming cows (more happy lives per acre). Of if death outweighs the benefit of a life (perhaps because it was a short one for instance) then the reverse holds and you grow beef not lamb.

Now I can see why people recoil from these arguments – why they think they’re silly. It’s just that, it seems to me that they’re the very first place utilitarianism takes us. Maybe I’m wrong, but wouldn’t you expect it to receive some useful treatment perhaps for the sake of refuting my claim that it’s a necessary part of any utilitarian analysis?

My point was that I think what’s going on here is really a different style of analysis. The only way I can make sense of what Singer doesn’t argue about in defending his vegetarianism is to say that before we even get to any utilitarianism in his book, the question has been decided according to other standards.

Using the word somewhat loosely, I’d call those standards aesthetic. They relate to our sentiments. It’s not a very nice thing to go munching through our fellow creatures. It’s an affront to our fellow-feeling with them.

I think the ‘better angels of our nature’ whisper into our hearts that eating meat is wrong. I don’t know any kid who hasn’t asked pretty sceptically whether it’s really OK to eat meat and large and ancient civilisations are given over to the idea that it is definitely not OK. And all societies (I think) are very thingy about eating some kinds of meat and not others.

If that is right, I think we need to acknowledge a much more human and modest style of moral reasoning more based on sentiment and local experience and feeling rather than utilitarianism which (at least in this case) is an enormous Heath-Robinson machine that goes in all the wrong directions –  a tank when we need a bicycle.

(As an aside and to try to head off other possible misunderstandings, I’m a fan of utilitarianism as a way of thinking about questions of public policy, but I think it has much more limited use in our private judgements of right and wrong).

I argue that if Peter Singer the philosopher and hander out of advice doesn’t know that his vegetarianism has very little to do with utilitarianism and descends into incoherence almost immediately we try to apply it, then his tome of advice to people who want to understand the issues better is not much chop (as it were).

Perhaps you’ll think this is a rather arcane point and perhaps it is. But that was the point I sought to make. And for me it is not arcane, because the issues are of importance to me. And for that reason I want to think about them more constructively, and in a way that is more sympathetic to what I think are the underlying issues than it seems to me Singer has been.

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17 Responses to Animal Liberation: I claim to have been misrepresented

  1. Helen says:

    I hadn’t thought about Singer from that point of view before – ie. sentiment. To me, he seems a very unsentimental kind of person. What is valuable about “A.L.” to me is the focus on the ability to suffer. Too many right-to-lifers, for instance, focus on being human – which is seen as having special privileges – so that an intelligent pig which is able to suffer both physically and mentally in factory farm conditions is given less status than a four – week foetus which has no cognitive function whatever. I think here utilitarianism had something important to contribute.

  2. wbb says:

    I agree that utilitarianism is not the way to go on this one. Given that other animals are completely at our disposal, then any strange proposal can be put up, rendering utilitarian analysis useless. Utilitarianism requires a very simple case to talk to. One where there are only a couple of choices, and where both are reasonably acceptable. And where the bottom line – human happiness is assumed.

    A broader ethics is required if we are to discuss our future relations with the other species.

    (Singer is a polemicist as all good philosophers are, and he may just be trying to win over people any way he can.)

  3. Neil says:


    What book have you been reading?? The things you think that Singer should do if he is consistent are precisely the things he *does* do. First, why focus on animals under human care? Because they are the ones we impact upon directly. Of course, we impact indirectly on animals everywhere, and Singer has devoted 100s of pages to the question of how we should act so to take their interests into account (see the chapter on environmentalism in *Practical Ethics* for a start). Second, why not ask about non-factory farmed animals? Well, Singer has addressed that question at great length, in *Animal Liberation* among other works. His conclusion is that non-factory farmed animals *can* be raised for food. But he thinks that this can’t be generalized to any kind of mass production, for many reasons: because it’s a bad use of land and resources (from a consequentialist viewpoint), because ethical transportation of animals is almost impossible, and so on. Singer does *not* argue for vegetarianism, come what may. He explicitly says that meat eating can be ethical.

    All this will be more explicit in the forthcoming book on the ethics of food production. But it’s already in his earlier work, if you care to look.

  4. blank says:

    Given Singer’s attitude to babies in “Practical Ethics”, a modern version of the Swiftian Modest Proposal should be compatible with Singer’s philosophy.

  5. Hammy says:

    I think you make some good points here. Few issues seem to generate such an emotive response as I found out on my blog some time ago.

    Just a couple of points though. Firstly, measurement is the ultimate flaw in a utilitarian perspective. How do you measure? Why measure this and not that etc. This is why you have the different types of utilitarianism – they all have different ways of measuring and priorities what they measure differently. But more over, there isn’t a philosophical perspective that doesn’t have room at the margins. So which ever method of measurement you choose there will always be ‘line-balls’ (Sorry if that’s a little vague I think I’m trying to address too much at once.)

    Secondly, I always find it interesting that broader ecological issues are rarely addressed in the animal rights frame work outlined here. To me this is the ultimate flaw in this argument – it’s individualistic. That’s not to say it’s wrong but it is to say that it can only ever be half right. So when we apply this framework to a broader ecological question we run into a lot of trouble. It seems like you did this a bit here but it’s always interesting to see the issue teased out.

  6. Neil says:

    Will no one listen? Hammy, I just finished telling you that Singer’s is *not* an animal rights view. Tom Regan has such a view; it is *opposed* (*opposed*; I don’t know how to put it more clearly) to the rights perspective. Nicholas’s points are not good; they are based on a misreading (or misremembering) of the book.

  7. boynton says:

    It is both arcane and important, and there are philosophy blogs where these questions are debated as if its cricket or audio equipment. Reading them casually with a backstage google-pass is like wandering into the wrong seminar, or watching a surgery demonstration mutely from the gods.
    I realised I was out of my depth, unfortunately about 2 comments too late ;)
    The problem for me here is that the matters at heart are too compelling. Those ‘whispers in the heart’ make me care less for the philosophic than the journalistic, (in both Singer and Scully.see Hitchens review) less the arcane mapping of the ethical territory than the field notes.

    A good article I have just re-read is one I linked to a couple of years ago:
    An Animal’s Place. Singer is evaluated here too
    but Pollan takes the moderate path of Humane farming.

    The factory farm was one example, perhaps the issue of using animals in research would present an easier case for an objective utilitarian examination?

  8. Neil,

    Thanks for your comments. I must say, its awfully unsporting of you to use facts in your argument. I’ll have to have another look at Singer and get back to you. But my recollection is that he addresses the issues in a way that can be referenced, but when you look at what he’s said it turns out to be fairly offhand and unsatisfactory. I did have a quick squiz in a bookshop a few weeks back, enough to have me not bothering to read further. But then again, perhaps I’m wrong. I wasn’t thinking of ‘going public’ on this at the time, and didn’t read all that carefully.


    Thanks for the references, and I agree that animals and research would be a better place for utilitarianism to be put through it’s paces. Still, I’m blowed if I know how I’d weight animal versus human suffering – though it must be done by default or design I guess.

  9. Gaby says:

    Nicholas, with respect, I’m not sure you are assisting your cause here.

    I thought I did address the central point of your earlier post which I took to be a critique of “speciesism”. I did not think that you were making a “methodological” point though because speciesism is a substantive moral position, rather than a metaethical thesis.

    As such a normative position, speciesism must be substantiated by argument in the usual way, which is what I said. And which it is alleged that Singer has not done. Also, there are competing normative positions, such as Boynton raised, which in turn, require to be argued against in favour of the speciesism thesis. On the other hand, some of the considerations or issues you alluded to could be made to count against adopting speciesism.

    I think that saying Singer is “incoherent in an almost trivial way” is a big case to make. I think you can get to a “rights” or “interest” view on rule utilitarian grounds. This is exactly what John Quiggin has done in his separte post. This is neither trivial nor incoherent. Rather, it is eminently defensible. The conclusion of this view essentially posits a value in being “human”. Quiggin is taking the pejorative aspect out of “speciesism” and positing it as a value. I take it to be akin to the “exceptionalism” referred to in the review of Singer to which your original post linked.

    The point of a normative position is to use it to furnish a moral casuistry addressing the many and various problems raised by you and the other commentators.

    I agree with you that consequentialism should not be the ultimate touchstone for personal morality.

    Two of the best critiques of utilitarianism in this context I have read are those of Bernard Williams in “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy” and Alasdair Macintyre in “After Virtue” and “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?”.

  10. Neil,

    My central claim was that Singer had not seriously addressed things that seem to me to follow immediately from a utilitarian perspective. To me the most obvious thing is suffering in nature and degrees of suffering in farming

  11. Neil says:

    I don’t have AL to hand. But I can put Singer’s position on wild animals: essentially, he considers the matter irrelevant to the ethics of factory farming. Why? Because his claim is that FF brings into existence animals whose lives are not worth living, such that their lives are all-things-considered burdens to them. His argument is that we ought not to bring such animals into existence. Now, why should the existence of suffering in nature matter to this question? How could suffering over *there* possibly justify or mitigate suffering over *here*? Now, as a matter of fact Singer has views on the environment that are (oddly enough) utilitarian, and therefore there is a clash between his environmental views and those of various other people. For instance, as an opponent of speciesism he gives no weight to species membership as such. So whereas many environmentalists think that it is appropriate to cull members of a numerous species to (say) protect the breeding grounds of a threatened species, Peter thinks that species rarity has no independent value (though of course the loss of a species might have flow on effects, in loss of ecological stability). So you’re right to think that his views lead to what some regard as counterintuitive views. But this doesn’t seem to undermine the case for not consuming factory farmed meat at all.

  12. Tony.T says:

    Hang on a tick. Is that a new picture?

  13. I don’t have any problem with what you’ve said Neil or with what you say Singer has said. But it seems like pretty trivial philosophy

  14. My problem with Singer is that he seems to confuse moral philosophy with political philosophy.

    I’m not sure if I’ve interpreted Gruen correctly when I say that I agree with him that utilitarianism is a much better method for determining public policy than it is for determining moral behaviour. And perhaps I am doing Singer an injustice… but he seems to argue the latter (utilitarian moral philosophy) and draw conclusions for the former (public policy).

  15. Yes, I certainly think its a nice way of putting it to say that Singer confuses “moral philosophy with political philosophy”. As for the second claim, I’m not sure I understand it.

  16. Neil says:

    I no longer know what we’re arguing about. I thought you were claiming that Singer’s utilitarianism commits him to preventing animal suffering everywhere, and that therefore vegetarianism was not required of us (or at least should be a low priority). I replied by setting out Singer’s argument: that factory farming is simply irrelevant to the question of wild animal suffering since suffering elsewhere cannot justify suffering here. Now you’ve replied by saying that Singer’s case is trivial. Well, I think he’d be glad to agree: if you think that factory farming is just obviously unjustifiable cruelty, than he’s not addressing you at all (except to this extent: utilitarianism tends to begin from the obvious, move on to the less obvious, and challenge you to locate the morally relevant difference. An example from Singer: you are morally obliged to rescue a dying child, even at non-trivial cost to yourself, if, eg, she is drowning in front of you. So why aren’t you morally obliged to rescue children in the 3rd world?)

    Note, too, that Singer’s book was written for a mass market. If you want the entire philosophical defence, you will have to turn to the debate in the journals; that’s how philosophy is generally conducted.

  17. Brent says:

    Singer’s focus on animals under human care, rather than in the wild, is not a function of a (conservative) philosophy of sentiment or proximity as Nicholas suggests. After discussing the rescue of whales trapped in ice, Singer writes (“Animal Liberation: Second Edition”

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