We used to think sexism and racism were okay, but now we no longer do. It’s difficult to be aware of the latent prejudice in our attitudes to particular groups until we’re forcefully made aware. Peter Singer is pointing out that the last discrimination left is speciesism. In Singer’s work on the treatment of animals, he argues that we are obligated to extend to other species the basic principle of equality we apply to all humans. He wants to make a mental switch in respect of our attitudes and practices to animals.
Singer has two separate arguments. One is discrimination, the other is interests, the capacity for suffering, and transferring those interests into moral consideration. His primary argument is the latter. Animals are not considered equally, despite having the interests for equal consideration. Singer’s basic principle of equality is of consideration; and while equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and rights, his ideology argues for the necessity of moral consideration. I ought to explain why speciesism should be rejected according to Singer.
Structure of Singers Argument
P1. The capacity for suffering is both necessary and sufficient for having interests.
P2. Having interests is both necessary and sufficient for equal moral consideration.
P3. Beings with interests deserve equal moral consideration.
P4. Many non-human animals are capable of suffering.
P5. Many non-human animals have interests.
Therefore, many non-human animals deserve equal moral consideration. 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. If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans.
In Singer’s writing, he quotes Bentham as one of the few forward-thinkers to realize that the basic moral principle of equal consideration of interests applies to members of other species as well as our own. Bentham addresses that a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant. He identifies the questions as not, can they reason, or can they talk? But, can they suffer? The capacity for suffering is a vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. Suffering and enjoyment are pre-requisites for having interests at all. If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration.
There is nothing to be taken account of, if a being is not capable of suffering or enjoying happiness, because sentience is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. If the boundary is marked by something like intelligence or rationality, then it is marked arbitrarily. At that point we can use any other characteristic to create a divide between individuals; for example: skin color. The racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of member of his own race. Similarly, the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of other species.
A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. A mouse on the other hand, does have an interest in not being tormented, because it will suffer if it is. This is the moral criterion that Singer uses for judging who has interests. There are several entities who don’t have interests and aren’t capable for suffering, so those are not the entities who deserve moral consideration. Once we’ve determined that the capacity for suffering is present, the next step is acknowledging why we need to take their interests into consideration.
Throughout our philosophical history, the problem of equality has been invariably formulated in terms of human equality. This is unfortunate because equality is a myth. Trying to define human equality results in using the lowest common denominator of comparison, whereas to include characteristics that no human lacks. Such a set of characteristics possessed by all humans is certainly not possessed only by humans. Singer argues that if we say, “all humans are equal”, the premises as to why we’ve determined that conclusion point to some members of another species are also equal, to each-other, and humans. In Singer’s analysis of other definitions of equality, his conclusions are revealed.
In William Frankena’s article, The Concept of Social Justice, he states that, “all men are to be treated as equals, not because they are equal, but because they are human.” His definition of humanity is having emotions and desires, the ability to think, and the capability of enjoying a good life. Singer contradicts his conclusion by isolating his premises and negating them one by one. Animals have emotions and desires, and while we may doubt their ability to think, what is the relevance? Only some people are capable of leading intellectually satisfying lives, or morally good lives, so it’s difficult to see why Frankena’s principle of equality is simply being human. The distinction between humans and non-humans is not a sharp division, but rather a continuum along which we move gradually, and with overlaps between the species, from simple capacities for enjoyment and satisfaction, or pain and suffering, to more complex ones.
There is no concrete difference that will act as basis for the moral gulf that separates humans and animals, without undermining the equality of humans. It’s only when we think of humans as more than a small sub-group of all the beings that inhabit our planet that we realize that in elevating our own species we are at the same time lowering the relative status of all other species. We cannot claim that Hitler and Stalin have some kind of dignity or worth than no elephant, pig, or chimpanzee can ever achieve. Talk of intrinsic dignity or moral worth assumes that all humans have some universal capacities or characteristics that animals don’t, which Singer has determined is not true.
Since none of our animal abuse practices cater for anything more than our pleasures of taste, our practice of rearing and killing other animals in order to eat them is a clear instance of the sacrifice of the most important interests of other beings in order to satisfy trivial interests of our own. Not all interests are moral interests, my desire to please my palate should not be regarded as highly as an animal’s moral interest in the freedom of suffering. To combat speciesism, Singer commands us to stop this practice. We have a moral obligation to cease supporting this practice. The possible benefits to mankind are either non-existent or fantastically remote; while the certain losses to members of other species are very real.
The widespread practice of experimenting on other species for our own betterment is widely accepted, despite its little-to-no actual benefit. If our experiments were performed on ourselves instead of animals, the number of experiments performed would be a minute fraction of the number performed today. Singer advocates for education, revelation, and consideration. We must learn about the true horror of our practices, acknowledge our mistakes the same way we have with racism and slavery, and begin considering animals’ interests with as much respect as our own, because they deserve it.
At the start of his argument, Singer mentions the seclusion of animals as far as their similarity is to man. Before women had the right to vote, men parodied their movement by comparing it to animals right to vote. Eventually, women were considered similar enough to men to receive the right to vote, but animals are still negated. They are denied rights because they aren’t rational beings like us. Men and women are more alike, so it should be said that they have equal rights, and since animals don’t resemble us nearly as much, they should not have equal rights. While this analogy is correct up to a degree, Singer contradicts it by pointing out that even if there are differences in human and animals, they don’t negate our ability to extend the basic principle of equality. Comparing this maxim to the argument of abortion, we can assume that since a man cannot have an abortion, it is meaningless to talk of his right to have one. With the same concept in mind, since a pig can’t vote, it is meaningless to talk of its right to vote. The extension of the basial principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way or grant exactly the same rights on nature of the members of the two groups, Singer is only arguing for the consideration of equality.
Stanley Benn makes the only argument that Singer gently rejects. Every other objection comes in ferociously, but it’s clear that Singer holds more respect for Benn. Benn’s statement of the basis of consideration is correct up to a point, “it would be odd to say that we ought to respect equally the dignity or personality of the imbecile and of the rational man… but there is nothing odd about saying that we should respect their interests equally.” Benn wants to give to the interests of each the same serious consideration as claims, which coincides perfectly with Singers philosophy. Some characteristics provide the point of distinction between men and other species, but they are not the characteristics for distinguishing the class of morally considerable persons from animals. Singer agrees with some of his premises but disapproves of Benn’s conclusion by saying, “an imbecile’s irrationality is just the same as a dogs, neither is responsible for their mental level.” If it is unfair to take advantage of an isolated defect, why is it fair to take advantage of a more general limitation? Benn is defending a rigid division in the amount of consideration due to members of different species, despite admitted cases of overlap.
Singer isn’t arguing for moral equality between animals and humans, he’s arguing for the moral consideration of equality. There’s a big difference, and from that difference, comes my support. Throughout history, the thought of equality has only been concerned with human equality. The negative effect of this is that the question of the equality of other animals does not confront the philosopher as an issue in itself. Consideration is all Singer is asking for, and now that’s all I’m asking or as well. It is remarkably difficult to change the ideology of an entire species, but his writing changed my ideology.
Factory farming and experimenting on animals has been an overlooked part of my life. The more I think about these animal’s pain, the more I want to think about something else. My resentment comes from being fully aware of the cruelty, but simultaneously feeling powerless over it. I would avoid thoughts such as these because I thought there was no silver lining, but now I’ve learned that that’s simply not true. Singer acknowledges problems that have long been avoided, and without his endeavors I would continue being part of the problem. The main part of the problem is avoidance. With genuine analysis, there is nothing more humane than taking interest in the suffering of those around us. So much time is spent defining our humanity that we forget about the sentience of those in other species. Singer isn’t advocating for equality; he’s advocating for consideration. He wants us to think, so that it was I’ve done.
I don’t care if you look like me or not, if you can feel the same pain as me, our interests should be considered the same. The first step is realizing this, the next step is doing something about it. Without Singer’s article, I would still be oblivious to the suffering of those who supply so much for humanity.
Benn, Stanley. Egalitarianism and Equal Consideration of Interests, in Singer, Peter. All Animals Are Equal, in Morrow R. David. Moral Reasoning. New York: Oxford UP, 2018 p. 477
Singer, Peter. All Animals Are Equal, in Morrow R. David. Moral Reasoning. New York: Oxford UP, 2018 p. 477
Frankena, William. The Concept of Social Justice, in Singer, Peter. All Animals Are Equal, in Morrow R. David. Moral Reasoning. New York: Oxford UP, 2018 p. 475