Animal Ethics: On Peter Singer’s Article “All Animals Are Equal”

Animal EthicsAnimal Ethics is a young and developing field. ‘Since ancient times philosophers have been interested in questions of animal minds, but only beginning around the last quarter of the twentieth century has a significant philosophical literature developed on the ethics of our use of animals. Scholars then began to view the subject matter as needing sustained scholarly attention’ [Tom L. Beauchamp (2011) in: The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp and R. G. Frey]

I would like to contemplate about Peter Singer’s conception of equality and equal consideration of both humans and nonhuman animals as well as possible objections to it, its consequences and my own point of view regarding this issue.

I am referring to Peter Singer’s article “All animals are equal”, which is the first one in his book “Animal Liberation”. This book is considered to be a milestone in discourse dedicated to status and the place of animals in our world. Peter Singer’s starting point is noting the phenomenon of speciesism (discrimination based on belonging to a certain biological species). His objective is to prove and demonstrate, that speciesism is not different in kind from such despicable in contemporary society experiences as sexism and racism. [Singer, Peter (20023). Animal Liberation.]

Singer’s flow of argumentation could be represented through such a scheme: 1. In order to conclude that all and only human beings deserve a full and equal moral status (and therefore that no animals deserve a full and equal moral status), there must be some property P that all and only human beings have that can ground such a claim. 2. Any P that only human beings have is a property that (some) human beings lack (e.g., the marginal cases). 3. Any P that all human beings have is a property that (most) animals have as well. 4. Therefore, there is no way to defend the claim that all and only human beings deserve a full and equal moral status. [digital source]

Peter Singer is a strong proponent of Utilitarianism. If Utilitarianism is true and nonhuman animals are equal to humans in the way their suffering morally 95 matters, then we must reduce (with a purpose to eventually eliminate) their suffering, in order to establish maximum good in the world. I would like to make some critical remarks. First, Singer does not specify about what nonhuman animals he is exactly talking about. Although he does make an accent on the ability of critical thinking, planning future and so on as qualities that endow one with a “bonus point” for his/her/its interest, it is still vague and contradicts his own principle of equal consideration of interests.

Hence, if we say, that the interest of a worm (or some even more simple form of life) to live (from evolutionary point of view and not only) should be equally considered with a human one, then, according to utilitarian approach, we stumble upon a fact, that we have to sacrifice a life of a human in order to save two such worms in case such an ultimate situation takes place. Second, utilitarian system seems to be a good in certain aspects, but sometimes the resolutions that it offers strongly speak against our intuitions and conventional human behavior.

I would like to illustrate it with the help of the following example. Let’s imagine that there is a family in some prosperous western country that is fighting for the life of its child. They invest huge amounts of financial resources in the treatment of their only child, hoping that there is a chance to save the life of their child. They will not donate this sum of money for any other purpose, even if it is going about saving 100 African kids dying from hunger, not even speaking about saving lives of 50 homeless and “smart” dogs in some shelter.

There are strong feelings hiding behind the veil of rationality and possible utility. Relationships with relatives, friends and dear people will always be a priority for each of us and it seems like that they carry a privileged moral status for us. His utilitarianism violates this strong moral intuition, as the example hopefully shows. Third, I cannot avoid pondering about rights. As a utilitarian, Singer does not fight for animal rights. He does not demand equal rights for nonhuman animals and humans.

But can we leave it just like this? Still, after realizing how bad sexism and racism historically has been (and still is), the crucial difference has always been made starting from the point, where the incorrect treatment of representatives of this or that group was prohibited by law. As long as something is not being regulated by law, it “resides” only in the sphere of moral. To be a subject of morality alone means to depend on moral paradigms of other subjects (persons). There have been mixed reactions to Singer’s book.

On the one hand Peter Singer launched a new vector of thinking about nonhuman animals on scientific (philosophical, ethical) side as well as within general audience. He opened the eyes of many people, which had never thought about that before. On the other hand, he had been accused of radicalism, namely that his utilitarian, anti speciesist ideas, when implemented in reality, could result in negation of human dignity and human lives, when they are on the same line with nonhuman animals. [See, for instance, debate between Peter Singer and Richard Posner (June 2001)].

In spite of already mentioned weak points of Peter Singer’s approach, his contribution to liberation of nonhuman animals as being the founder of the polemics dedicated to animal liberation is hard to estimate. Thanks to him, namely to his courage to promote ideas that may sound weird from the first point to many of us.

But, maybe the radically of his proposal is merely an effect of us having trouble to practically conceive its implementations. With some creativity and problem solving thinking, we can develop and put in place small solutions to work towards a world in which animal suffering has the place in our moral endeavors that Singer imagines for them.

Author D. S. Kozlova

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