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Philosophy Notes:
Singer, "All Animals Are Equal"

Mark I. Vuletic

Last updated 28 January 2011

These are the notes I have taken for students in my upper-division applied ethics course, for the following article:

Singer, Peter. 1974. All animals are equal. Philosophical Exchange 1. Reprinted in LaFollette, Hugh (ed.). 2007. Ethics in Practice: Third Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell. pp. 171-180.

Introduction

Peter Singer probably is one of the most well-known philosophers alive today. He has been in the public spotlight a number of times for taking controversial moral positions based on an uncompromising utilitarianism. He was one of the pioneers of the animal welfare movement, starting with his 1975 book, Animal Liberation. I mention all of this because you are much more likely to encounter his name outside this course than most of the other authors we will be reading. Article #14 represents very early work, apparently published a year before Animal Liberation.

The argument

Singer's thesis is that we ought to extend to (non-human) animals the same equality of consideration that we extend to human beings.

Here's how I think the main contours of his argument shape up:

1. The only criterion of moral importance that succeeds in including all humans, and excluding all non-humans, is simple membership in the species Homo sapiens.

2. However, using simple membership in the species Homo sapiens as a criterion of moral importance is completely arbitrary.

3. Of the remaining criteria we might consider, only sentience―the capacity of a being to experience things like pleasure and pain―is a plausible criterion of moral importance.

4. Using sentience as a criterion of moral importance entails that we extend to other sentient creatures the same basic moral consideration (i.e. "basic principle of equality") that we extend to (typical, sentient) human beings.

5. Therefore, we ought to extend to animals the same equality of consideration that we extend to human beings.

Details

1. The only criterion of moral importance that succeeds in including all humans, and excluding all non-humans, is simple membership in the species Homo sapiens.

Singer argues for this simply by pointing to variation among humans. If we examine the usual characteristics that people say all humans, and only humans, share, we always find that there are human beings who lack those characteristics:

Like it or not, we must face the fact that 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. In short, if the demand for equality were based on the actual equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality. (173)

The only characteristic that every single human being has in common, that no other animal has, is membership in the human species. If you want to say that every human is morally important, and humans are the only creatures that are morally important, your criterion for moral importance must be based simply on species membership.

2. However, using simple membership in the species Homo sapiens as a criterion of moral importance is completely arbitrary.

Singer seems to think this is fairly obvious once it is stated. If there is, in fact, no relevant difference between your group and some other group, there is no rational ground for thinking that those who belong to your group deserve greater consideration than those who belong to the other group. Although it is fairly natural for people to use a criterion like this, Singer thinks the obvious parallels with racism are so striking as to invalidate that natural impulse. (This is a typically consequentialist way of thinking; you should consider how deontologists might look at this given the allowance for duties of special relationships in deontological ethics. Should common species membership be considered an appropriate special relationship?)

3. Of the remaining criteria we might consider, only sentience―the capacity of a being to experience things like pleasure and pain―is a plausible criterion of moral importance.

Singer argues for this in two ways. First, he argues, by example, that the other criteria are bad, because (again) they will exclude people who we think ought not be excluded. For instance, we don't really think that it would be permissible to disregard the well-being of someone who has much lower intelligence than average, so we can't possibly think that intelligence is a suitable criterion for moral consideration.

Second, he argues that it is only by virtue of something being sentient that it can be said to have interests at all, so this places sentience in a different category than the other criteria: "The capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way" (175). That is, Singer is trying to establish that if a being is not sentient, the idea of extending moral consideration to it makes no sense. This negative argument is important, because one common criticism of Singer is that his criterion ends up excluding humans who are no longer sentient (like those in an irreversible coma); Singer is content to accept that consequence, but it is important that he show why the exclusion of some humans by his criterion is not problematic, given that he has criticized other criteria for their exclusions, and this is what his negative argument tries to do.

However, establishing that non-sentient creatures do not merit moral consideration, falls short of demonstrating that sentient creatures do merit moral consideration. Singer doesn't supply much argument for the latter claim, but probably has the same kind of rationale in mind as other utilitarians: clearly, we recognize that it is bad for us to suffer, so there should be an automatic extension of that to the recognition that suffering is bad, period. And if all suffering is bad, then, prima facie, it must be bad for any creature to suffer. So, if we want to make a radical distinction between our suffering and the suffering of other beings, the burden of proof is on us. Looking again to the arguments above, it is clear that Singer thinks this burden of proof cannot be met―our criterion of moral importance must be sentience.

4. Using sentience as a criterion of moral importance entails that we extend to other sentient creatures the same basic moral consideration (i.e. "basic principle of equality") that we extend to (typical, sentient) human beings.

I need to unpack all of this for you carefully, because what Singer means by it often misunderstood, and he doesn't explain it in enough detail in this article to prevent misunderstandings. Let's be clear: Singer is not saying that we are required, in practice, to treat humans and (nonhuman) animals the same. Extending to animals the same moral consideration we extend to humans means that we count the interests of animals equally with comparable interests of humans. However, not all interests necessarily are comparable. In other words, we cannot give the interests of animals less weight just because the beings that have them are animals, but we can give less weight to some of the interests they happen to have if those interests just do have less weight.

To clarify, it will be helpful to introduce a distinction Singer makes outside of this article: that between persons and sentient non-persons. Singer defines a person (a creature with personhood) as a creature that has awareness of its own persistence over time (personhood is not coextensive with humanity―Singer contends that adult chimpanzees are persons, but human infants are not). Because of their awareness of their own existence over time, persons are opened up to special forms of suffering that sentient non-persons cannot experience. A sentient non-person, for instance, can feel pain while dying, but only a person can experience the extra dread that comes with awareness of its own mortality. A sentient non-person can experience pain, but only a person can feel the hopelessness brought by awareness that his or her pain will last for weeks, months, or years into the future. In other words, persons have some interests that sentient non-persons do not. As a result, taking into equal consideration the comparable interests of all sentient beings, no matter what their species, does not dictate that we must, in practice, treat all sentient beings equally. If, for instance, one can save either a dog or a human adult from a burning building, Singer would say you must save the human adult, because the balance of pleasure over pain will be greater if you save the adult, than if you save the dog.

However, Singer argues, situations where one is faced with that kind of choice are unusual. There are indeed difficult cases, such as animal experimentation, where we need to sit down and weigh carefully how much total suffering our possible courses of action will cause; all Singer asks is that we do the calculation in those cases, instead of dismissing the suffering of non-humans from the very start. Most of our practices toward animals, however, are very easy cases to Singer: in the vast majority of our practices toward animals, we sacrifice important animal interests (such as life and freedom) for the sake of absolutely trivial human interests (such as satisfying a taste for meat). In these cases, the interests in question are still noncomparable, but in the other direction; for instance, the suffering inflicted on factory farm animals vastly outweighs our enjoyment of cheap and convenient meat. All such practices, Singer concludes, quite clearly lack any moral justification, and must be eliminated as quickly as possible.

The scope of livestock slaughter

I am going to close this set of notes with some statistics I found while researching Singer. The following are the United States livestock and poultry slaughter statistics for the year of 2009 (with a bit of rounding), from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service:1

33 million cattle
1 million calves
114 million hogs
2.5 million sheep
8.5 billion chickens (not a typo)
240 million turkeys
23 million ducks

If one agrees with Singer's argument, the statistics offer a glimpse of a moral problem so immense, that it must dwarf virtually any other moral problem imaginable. If not, then perhaps these statistics represent the pinnacle of human achievement in efficiency and mastery over the world. I'll leave it at that.

Notes

1 Livestock stats: http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/LiveSlauSu//2010s/2010/LiveSlauSu-04-29-2010.pdf

Poultry stats: http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/PoulSlauSu//2010s/2010/PoulSlauSu-02-25-2010.pdf

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