Author: Peter Singer
Published: originally, 1975; updated edition, 2009 (248 pages)
Started reading: 9.January.2017
Finished reading: 14.January.2017
I’m suffering from cognitive dissonance as I write this. Few omnivores could read Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement, from page 1 to page 248, then refuse to overhaul their diet. The (apparent) convenience and tastiness of animal meat remain appealing to me. But our author, the Melbourne-born Princeton professor Peter Singer, argues that indulging our palates is a poor reason to continue to discount the interests of the billions of animals who undergo extreme suffering every year to finish up on clean white plates.
This daily massacre underpins our diets. It’s notable that we’re not privy to the farming process of birth, maternal separation, life in miserable conditions, slaughter – all hidden from view. Our speciality is the final product, making it easy to psychologically distance ourselves from the prior life of tonight’s dinner. Even the names we give to some of our food help to disconnect us: cows are ‘beef’, pigs are ‘ham’, ‘pork’ or ‘bacon’.
Singer who, with the recent passing of Derek Parfit, is probably now the world’s most influential moral philosopher, forensically exposes the practices behind the meat industry, as well as animal research, mostly using the accounts of industry members themselves. The book is memorable for the dispassionate and thorough way in which it moves through this evidence.
Chapter One lays out the philosophic first principles for considering the interests of animals equally. Chapters Two and Three deal with the horrors of research and factory farming respectively. Chapter Four makes an interesting case for vegetarianism, showing how it can more efficiently feed the world’s poor and prevent deforestation while still nourishing our bodies. The final two chapters trace the history of ‘speciesism’ and debunk modern speciesist arguments. Singer is comprehensive in making his case, which is no doubt partly why Animal Liberation, originally published in 1975, is considered the book that kick-started the animal rights movement.
What is speciesism? It’s the neglecting of the relevant interests of non-human animals on the basis of the arbitrary characteristic that they aren’t human.
I’ll offer a brief outline of Singer’s impeccable logic, taken from Chapter One.
On what grounds do we oppose racism and sexism? As a matter of moral philosophy, they are rejected not because all humans are characteristically equal. We’re clearly not, as there are differences within races and genders. Racism and sexism are wrong because virtually all humans have the capacity to suffer. Suffering and happiness create interests.
Interests should be considered equally. This principle can be traced most clearly to Jeremy Bentham, but it was espoused by many other philosophers. But why should relevant interests be considered equally? They should be, Singer states, not as a question of fact but as a matter of morality: we simply ought to consider them equally.
Once you accept that all humans should have their interests equally considered, it follows that non-human animals should have theirs counted too. To draw the line at the Homo Sapiens species is just as arbitrary as placing it around a particular race or gender because the key question is the capacity to suffer. As Singer writes, a rock has no interest in not being kicked along a road, because it can’t suffer. But a mouse in the same situation does have an interest.
Of course, the principle of equality does not imply identical treatment for every being. Dolphins should not receive a school education. The principle of equality applies to relevant interests, based on the ability to suffer. Fish don’t suffer when they are not taught the Pythagoras theorem. But they do, as a matter of fact, suffer when they are dragged onto the decks of ships and left to slowly suffocate. In that circumstance, their interest in not dying painfully should be counted and weighed against our paltry desire to eat fish and chips, when we could live happily on a vegetarian diet.
“The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
– Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789
For anyone who still questions whether animals really do feel that much pain or whether factory farms really are like that, Singer dismantles these complaints. I won’t go into the gory details here – read the book for that – but the practices of the meat industry and animal research (routinely conducted for new drugs, cosmetics and other products) are truly horrific. The treatment of veal calves, in particular, is really just torture.
Ultimately, the attitude of viewing humans as one of many species, and really no more special except that we’ve developed the ability to talk and reason on a high level, is powerfully humbling. I know that Yuval Harari drew a lot from Animal Liberation in writing his own outstanding book Sapiens. Reading both these books will leave you a different person.
> Become vegetarian. Free range eggs are still good, as this doesn’t seem to offend chickens. But all meat, even dairy which still, in its own way, contributes to the suffering of dairy cows and their calves, is off the menu. Be practical. Singer has little time for purists who refuse to eat vegetables cooked on the same pan as meat. The idea is to change your individual habits so as to reduce the profits of the meat industry and thereby minimise the harm inflicted on animals. As Singer acknowledges, there are still questions around whether animals raised free-range and slaughtered painlessly can be ethically eaten, since it is surely better to live a decent life and be killed than to live no life at all. But since almost all meat fails to conform to this ideal, to eat the standard supermarket and restaurant fare is to contribute to the suffering of animals.
> Legislative change is essential to protecting the rights of animals. From reading the book, it became clear that profit motives trend inevitably towards the mistreatment of animals. On their own, research companies and huge factory farms won’t care for their animals – it’s too expensive and the arena too competitive. Political reform is essential to equal consideration of animals’ interests.