Peter Singer's Animal Liberation: Equality for Animals?
February 3, 2005
- Singer is a utilitarian. 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.
- The Utilitarian criterion of moral standing is, therefore, all and only sentient beings. (Sentio-centrism) Sentient beings are those
that can feel pleasure and pain and thus have preference interests (=desires, wants) that can satisfied or frustrated.
- Which animals are sentient? Singer seems to hold the view that all and only vertebrate animals are sentient.
- Singer's Principle of the Equal Consideration of Interests says that identical interests must be given equal moral weight no matter
in what type of being they occur. Thus a moral agent must be species impartial. This principle follows from utilitarian moral
theory. (Can you explain why?)
- Note: Interests with the same name, may or may not be identical interests. (For example, a dog's and a human's "freedom" interests.) Singer may not be aware of this (or he might disagree?).
- 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.
- 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). 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-we shall see--does Carl Cohen. Since
the utilitarian goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, whose pleasure/pain it is, is not morally relevant.
- 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.)
- 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.
- Singer's Reply: Moral equality does not require factual identity. If it did, since humans are so factually different from
each other, they too couldn't be morally equal. 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.
- Objection #2: It is absurd to treat humans and animals the same, 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.
- Singer's Reply: Equal treatment doesn't entail identical treatment, but often requires different treatment. Treating two
beings' interests equally doesn't mean treating them the same. To say humans and animals are morally equal doesn't
commit one to treating typical animals the same as we treat typical humans. For example, equal treatment of a person in a
wheel chair and one who isn't requires different, not identical treatment.
- Singer does not deny that differences between individual members of different species are often morally relevant in
determining how to treat them.
- 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. 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).
- That species membership is typically (though not invariably) correlated with morally relevant features doesn't show that
species itself is a morally relevant feature.
- 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."
- Singer seems mistaken in thinking this type of "speciesism" is wrong, (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. (It would be wrong to ask a human to sleep on the floor, but not a dog.)
- Singer claims that "speciesism is a prejudice no less objectionable than racism or sexism".
- Are people who eat and experiment on animals as immoral as racists or Nazis? Justify intolerance?
- 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.