Peter Singer

"All Animals are Equal" (1989)


 1.      Singer accepts utilitarianism as an ethical theory

 2.      Definition of utilitarianism: The morally right act is the one whose consequences maximize the total balance of pleasure (interest satisfaction) minus pain (interest frustration) when considering all beings affected

 3.      The utilitarian criterion of moral standing is, therefore, all and only sentient beings (Sentio-centrism)

 4.      Sentient beings are those that can feel pleasure and pain and have preference interests (=desires, wants) that can satisfied or frustrated

          a.      Sentience (ability to feel and perceive); may or may not be reflective (have thoughts)

 5.      Which beings are sentient?

          a.      Not stones, nor trees, and probably not most invertebrate animals (all lack consciousness necessary to feel)

          b.      Singer believes that all and only vertebrate animals are sentient (e.g., he is skeptical about oysters)

 6.      Sentience--unlike skin color, sex, intelligence level, or species--is not a morally arbitrary reason for treating individuals differently ("differential treatment")

          a.      For if a being is insentient (like a rock), there is nothing to be taken into account.

 7.      Singer's Principle of the Equal Consideration of Interests: Identical interests must be given equal moral weight no matter in what type of being they occur.

          a.      Examples of identical and non-identical interests (e.g., spanking a baby and a horse)

 8.      Note: Interests with the same name, may or may not be identical interests

          a.      Example:

                    i.       The interest in sexual relations of a cat and a human (castration)

                    ii.      The life of a mouse and a normal adult human

                    iii.     Interest in being given laughing gas at the dentist (for an ape or a human)

 9.      Definition of Speciesism: Giving moral preference to the interests of members of one's own species, over identical interests of members of a different species, solely because it is a member of your species

 10.    Speciesism is an unjustified bias from a utilitarian perspective (analogous to a racist or sexist bias in favor of the well-being of members of one's own race or sex)

          a.      For example: From the utilitarian perspective, it is an unjustified speciesist bias to discount animal pain when compared to human pain of the same quality, intensity, and duration--as does Carl Cohen (in a future reading). Since the utilitarian goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, whose pleasure/pain it is, is not morally relevant

 11.    Singer’s utilitarian argument against meat eating and animal experimentation and his claim that these practices are speciesist

 12.    Singer's utilitarianism specifies a sense of moral equality between humans and animals: Their identical interests are equally morally important and must be treated with equal concern

 13.    Objection #1: But animals and humans are so factually different they can't be morally equal. They have vastly different characteristics; e.g., humans are more intelligent than animals.

          a.      Singer's Reply: Moral equality does not require factual identity.

                    i.       If it did, since humans are so factually different from each other, they too couldn't be morally equal.

                    ii.      But a lower degree of intelligence in one human doesn't mean he lacks moral equality with other humans; nor should lower intelligence count against the moral equality of animals.

 14.    Objection #2: Treating humans and animals the same leads to absurd consequences, thus they can't be morally equal. ( If they were morally equal, then we would have to do crazy things like give animals the right to vote and send them to college.)

          a.      Singer's reply: Equal treatment doesn't entail identical treatment, but often requires different treatment.

                    i.       Treating two beings' interests equally doesn't mean treating them the same.

                    ii.      To say humans and animals are morally equal doesn't commit one to treating typical animals the same as we treat typical humans.

                    iii.     For example, equal treatment of a person in a wheel chair and one who isn't requires different, not identical treatment

                             (1)    In the one case access to a building requires stairs, in the other a ramp..


 15.    Singer does not deny that differences between individual members of different species are often morally relevant in determining how to treat them.

          a.      For example, equal concern for the need for food of dogs, cats, and humans, requires that we treat them differently: give a dog dog food, a cat cat food, and a human human food.

          b.      Note: This difference in treatment is based on some actual morally relevant difference between individual members of different species and is not based solely on species membership (and so it is not speciesism as defined above).

          c.      That species membership is typically (though not invariably) correlated with morally relevant features doesn't show that species itself is a morally relevant feature.

 16.    Some worries about some of Singer's statements:

          a.      At one point Singer says: "Speciesism. . . the belief that we are entitled to treat members of other species in a way in which it would be wrong to treat members of our own species."

                    i.       Singer seems mistaken in thinking this type of "speciesism" is wrong, for his own views justify differential treatment: (1) Because equal treatment does not necessarily involving identical treatment and (2) Because factual differences between individual members of different species can justify differential treatment.

                             (1)    It would be wrong to put a human on a leash, but not a dog.

          b.      Singer claims that "speciesism is a prejudice no less objectionable than racism or sexism."

                    i.       Are people who eat and experiment on animals as immoral as racists or sexists? Are they morally as bad as Nazis?

                    ii.      Wouldn't this require total intolerance toward meat eaters and animal experimenters?

                    iii.     Still, even if speciesism is less objectionable, the same moral mistake is made in each case (i.e., in speciesism, racism, and sexism). The mistake is using a morally irrelevant feature to justify differential treatment.

 Study questions on Singer’s All Animals are Equal


1.      Define and explain utilitarianism. How does this moral theory determine what is right and wrong?

2.      State and explain the utilitarian argument against eating meat.

3.      What is the utilitarian criterion of moral standing? How does it follow from the definition of utilitarianism?

4.      What makes a being sentient? Are there any living beings that are not sentient?

5.      Must a utilitarian weigh animal and human pain equally when it is of the same intensity, duration, and quality? Could a utilitarian discount animal pain? Why or why not?

6.      Define and explain the idea of speciesism. What are reasons for thinking this is a kind of unjust discrimination?

7.      It is often argued that because typical animals are less psychologically sophisticated than typical humans, doing nasty things to both humans and animals would cause humans more pain (typically). Give an example where the relative lack of psychological sophistication would mean the animal would suffer more than the human. (Pollan has a great example of this.)

8.      Give an example where it is at least arguable that the interest of a human and the interest of an animal are identical. Give an example where an animal's interests and a human's interests have the same name, but are arguably not identical interests.

9.      State and explain Singer's response to the following objection: Animals and humans can't be morally equal because they are factually very different from each other.

10.    State and explain Singer's response to the following objection: Humans and animals should not get equal treatment since this would involve absurdities like giving animals the right to vote and providing them with a high school education.

11.    Does equal treatment require identical treatment? Why or why not? Give examples.