vegan muse

Peter Singer’s Case for Animal Liberation

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Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and is considered one of the world’s most influential people. His book Animal Liberation (1975) is the most influential book written on the subject, having in a sense started the animal rights movement. Singer argues that animal liberation today is analogous to racial and gender justice in the past. Just as people once thought it incredible that women or blacks should be treated as equal to white men, so now speciesists mock the idea that all animals should be given equal consideration. What equalizes all sentient beings is our ability to suffer. In that, we and animals are equal and deserving equal consideration of interests. Singer’s argument is a utilitarian one, having as its goal the maximization of interest satisfaction.

Singer’s views on the relationship between civil rights movements and the animal rights movement.

Proportionality exists between the animal rights movement (ARM) and civil rights movements (CRM). Singer argues that the ARM parallels the CRM in that to support the latter is to support the former. He also argues that animal liberation is analogous to racial and gender justice in the past. One cannot justifiably support the fight against sexism, for example, while not concerning themselves with the injustices done to nonhuman, sentient beings.

Singer thinks speciesism is a human failing.

Speciesism, a term coined by Richard Ryder, can be defined as an unjustified bias that favours one’s own species over every other.

Singer thinks that speciesism is a human failing. He urges the reader to consider his/her (our) fundamental attitudes from the point of view of those most disadvantaged by his/her (our) attitudes, and the practices that follow from these attitudes. Singer is a proponent against speciesism because he feels it fails to consider the whole picture. By solely focusing on what one wants/needs and not taking into consideration the devastating effects that that narrow path might have on nonhuman sentient beings, we are not only failing ourselves, in that we are not maximizing the potential purity of our moral status, but also greatly affecting, in a negative manner, the world to which we are participating members. On these grounds, Singer hopes that we, as a race, may come to see that there is a case for a new liberation movement: the animal liberation movement.

Do I agree with Singer’s dissection? With respect to my above interpretation of Singer’s thoughts, I most certainly do. Although I agree with Singer’s assertion (natural fallout) that speciesism is a human failing, in a holistic sense, I struggle when visually inserting myself into a situation that would call for me to choose between the interest of a member of my own species and that of a nonhuman, sentient being. It should be noted that this internal struggle is with respect to having to hypothetically choose between, say, saving the life of a member of my own species or that of my cat, if both were drowning in my presence and my directed efforts would only save one.

Singer’s stance on equality: for humans and nonhuman sentient beings alike.

According to Singer, all humans are not equal, insofar as reality is concerned – morality notwithstanding. Singer feels that when we ask if all humans are equal in a conscious realm, the very nature of it is more or less rendered meaningless. Singer writes, “… if the demands for equality were based on the actual equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality. It would be an unjustifiable demand.”

Thus, if equality is what we truly seek for our species, it can only exist as a moral principle that one ought to believe in. Singer writes, “Equality is a moral ideal, not a simple assertion of fact. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat humans.”

Applying the notion of equal consideration of interests.

Singer argues that the basic principle of equality is equality of equal consideration. He states, “… equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights.”

But how do we apply this notion? One way is by analyzing the true meaning of equality present in the human race. Singer argues, “…humans come in different shapes and sizes; they come with differing moral capacities, differing intellectual abilities, differing amounts of benevolent feeling and sensitivity to the needs of others, differing abilities to communicate effectively, and differing capacities to experience pleasure and pain.”

If we are to speak of equality in the domain of morality, we ought to include all sentient beings. To not include them would be immoral and would align oneself with speciesism. Therefore, by Singer’s reasoning, one is unjustified in their discrimination. Singer writes, “There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests.” Singer clarifies by stating, “The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat humans.”

Singer takes pleasure in Jeremy Bentham’s famous utilitarian thought, “Each to count for one and none for more than one.” A utilitarian stance that I struggle with.

Singer continues: “… that our concern for others ought not to depend on what they are like, or what abilities they possess – although precisely what this concern requires us to do may vary according to the characteristics of those affected by what we do. It is on this basis that the case against racism and the case against sexism must both ultimately rest; and it is in accordance with this principle that speciesism is also to be condemned.”

Animals are therefore not a means but an end in themselves, just as humans are.


Written by Ethan Handur

January 13, 2008 at 10:47

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