Singer on ‘speciesism’: a specious argument

In his new book In Defense of Animals, Peter Singer reduces the value of human life to a tick-list of capabilities.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Books

In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave, Peter Singer (editor), Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Peter Singer is recognised as the driving force behind the modern animal rights movement, and is widely credited with making ‘speciesism’ an international issue – speciesism being the idea that a human-centered morality is as abhorrent as racism or sexism. His new book In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave, of which he is editor, brings together ‘the best current ethical thinking about animals’, according to the cover blurb.

Yet neither the data nor the philosophical arguments in this book put forward anything like a convincing challenge to the Enlightenment belief in human exceptionalism.

That many today seem to go along with the idea that animals are ultimately not that different from humans is not the result of intellectual debate and persuasion, but rather points to a contemporary cultural outlook that denigrates human abilities.

This doesn’t mean, however, that people live their lives on the basis of human and animal equivalence. Those who treat animals in the same way they treat their fellow human beings are generally viewed as eccentrics or, worse, social misfits. Society could not function if we did not base out lives on the basic idea that humans are superior to animals. But today, we seem to have become uncomfortable with asserting that superiority.

Thirty years ago, when Singer wrote a review in the New York Review of Books entitled ‘Animal Liberation’, the mood was rather different. The use of the term ‘animal liberation’, which drew explicit comparisons with the liberation struggles of the 1960s, provoked widespread ridicule. But according to Singer, the title was used deliberately, ‘to say that just as we needed to overcome prejudices against black people, women and gays, so too we should strive to overcome our prejudices against non-human animals and start taking their interests seriously’.

Despite provoking outrage back then, this insulting comparison between the plight of animals and the oppression of black people, women or gays does not seem to raise many eyebrows today.

As Singer points out in the introduction to In Defense of Animals, ‘in 1970 the number of writings on the ethical status of animals was tiny [and] the tally now must be in the thousands’. In a roundabout way, he takes much of the credit for this growth of the animal rights movement. Philosophers, like himself, ‘were not the mother of the movement, but they did ease its passage into the world and – who knows – may have prevented it being stillborn’, he argues.

The philosophical framework that purportedly acted like a midwife for the animal rights movement is ‘preference utilitarianism’. Building on Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy, Singer believes that moral consideration should not be based on whether a being can reason or talk but on whether it can suffer. To Singer it is not happiness that matters, but preferences and interests. Preference utilitarianism therefore claims that the morally right course of action should be worked out by weighing up the preferences of all ‘beings with interests’ that might be affected by a certain action.

Singer argues that ‘all beings with interests are entitled to equal consideration: that is, we should not give their interests any less consideration than we give to the similar interests of members of our own species’.

If we tried to live our lives by Singer’s ethical calculus, every moral decision would become a never-ending computation of multifarious, and often unknown, costs and benefits. It would be impossible practically to live like that: indeed, Singer himself has been lambasted for failing to live up to his own moral teachings.

As well as being impractical, Singer’s philosophy is founded on a flawed conception of what it means to be human. He rejects the traditional distinction between humans and non-humans, distinguishing instead between ‘beings with interests’ and those without interests.

The special moral significance given to human beings has historically been on the basis of ‘the ability to reason, self-awareness, possessing a sense of justice, language, autonomy, and so on’, says Singer. But, he asks, seeming to believe that he has boxed humanists into a corner, how can ‘speciecists’ account for the fact that some human beings are ‘entirely lacking in these characteristics’? And what about the evidence for some non-human animals possessing at least some of the advanced cognitive characteristics of humans?

Setting aside the fact that there is no convincing evidence that animals have any capacity for insight – not even the great apes (see Why humans are superior to apes, by Helene Guldberg) – Singer is wrong to conclude that infants and neurologically impaired individuals are somehow less than human.

He has provoked a great deal of controversy in recent years for advocating euthanasia for severely disabled infants. Neonates and neurologically impaired human beings are not persons, in his view – in the sense that they are not ‘beings with interests’ – and therefore they have a lesser moral status than many animals.

However, it is not logically inconsistent to identify the ability to reason and reflect as the defining human characteristic while avoiding using that same criteria to decide whether or not an individual is human, or is worthy of having life.

Human progress has been made possible through our ability to evaluate who we are, where we come from and where we are going. In the past century alone we have constantly innovated to make vast improvements to our lives: including better health, longer life expectancy, higher living standards and more sophisticated means of communication and transport. Human society is thus premised on our ability to reason and reflect.

But the question of when life begins, or questions about the value of life, cannot be reduced to whether an individual has the capacity to reason, reflect and is self-aware – if that was the case, then most children under two would not be seen as human. Neither is this something that can be answered biologically. When life begins is a complex social question, defined differently in different societies in different historical periods.

As lawyer John Fitzpatrick has pointed out on spiked, it is necessary to draw a line as to ‘when life begins’ at some point, and ‘the law confers legal personhood at birth, drawing a crucial line at this point for understandable reasons, not least the fact of separation and entry into the world’ (see Jodie and Mary: whose choice was it anyway?, by John Fitzpatrick).

The distinction we make today between a fetus and a neonate is a social, moral and legal one that cannot be justified in terms of cognitive abilities or biology. The physical event of birth does not transform a fetus into a self-aware person. Yet in most societies a child, once born, is recognised in law as a legal person.

Singer gets himself into a complete muddle because he tries to reduce complex social questions and morality to simple logic. He says that those who believe morality is based on a social contract run into difficulties because ‘it means we have no direct duties to small children’. But you don’t need to be a professor of philosophy to work out that it is possible to confer legal personhood on children without giving them the same rights as adults.

The value of human life – and complex questions about life and death – cannot be reduced to simple arithmetic. It is a sign of a civilised human society that, even if severely disabled, an individual can be included in our common humanity. The value of human life cannot be reduced to a tick-list of capabilities. As Oscar Wilde might have said, that would be the outlook of a cynic: someone who ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’.

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Topics Books


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