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Philosophy

Peter Singer: Equal Consideration For All

Peter Singer's approach to animal liberation does not presume that animals have inherent rights, but rather that the interests of animals should be given their due consideration. Although there are similarities between humans and other animals, there are also many differences in abilities and interests. It is not expected that humans and nonhumans should be treated in exactly the same way; the nature of the being must be taken into account.

Singer argues that, even among humans, the concept of equality is not that of an actual equality of attributes. In fact, intellect, physical strength, moral capacity, and a host of other attributes vary enormously within our species. Equality must refer to an equal consideration of human interests rather than to some absolute equality, which clearly does not exist. The interests of two given human beings might be quite similar or very different, but in fairness their interests should be given equal consideration. This is not to say that one interest may not be reasonably evaluated as more important than another, but rather that no interests should be discounted unfairly. Now there is no moral or rational reason for not extending such a consideration of interests to nonhumans as well. This fact forms a foundation for Singer's arguments for animal liberation.

Singer's philosophy is essentially preference utilitarianism. Such utilitarianism combines the equal consideration of interests with the idea that the right action is the one which yields the greatest satisfaction of interests over frustration of interests for all those involved. Although this measurement might be difficult in some situations, utilitarianism generally has the positive effect of preventing a situation from becoming too lopsided as far as the interests of the involved parties are concerned. Presently, the human exploitation of animals is a very lopsided situation, where even the trivial interests of humans usually prevail over the most basic interests of animals, such as the desire to live or the avoidance of pain and suffering.

Many humans see no problem with the exploitation of other animals since humans are clearly intellectually superior. But Singer poses the question, "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 nonhumans?" (Animal Rights and Human Obligations, 1989) From a moral standpoint, it simply does not follow that the possession of certain abilities should allow one to discount the interests of another. Hence, the belief in human superiority is no basis for routinely discounting the interests of nonhumans, whether or not they come into conflict with human interests.

Singer uses racism and sexism as examples of why it is wrong to promote the interests of one group over another simply because the perpetrator is a member of the favored group. Racism and sexism are not wrong only because all races and sexes are equal in abilities and achievements. In fact, a little research shows that there are some significant differences. Whether all such differences can be attributed entirely to environment is unclear but not really relevant to the issues of racism or sexism. For if one race or sex were inherently superior in one way or another, that would not morally entitle the superior race or sex to routinely discount the interests of the inferior. In reality, sometimes "might makes right," but neither morality nor reason can support such a stance. As an analog to racism and sexism, speciesism involves favoring the interests of one's own species over another. Speciesism is extremely widespread among humans, who routinely discount the fundamental interests of nonhumans to satisfy the often trivial interests of humans. Singer points to the consumption of animal products as a clear example. Under the modern agricultural system, billions of animals live under horrendous conditions much or all of their lives, only to be slaughtered so that humans can experience the taste of animal flesh, for which humans have no nutritional requirement. Arguably, this mistreatment and killing of animals for human pleasure is speciesism at its worst.

Still, in an attempt to justify their exploitation of animals perhaps, some humans continue to argue that animals just do not possess the mental capacity to live the meaningful lives that humans live. The wealth of literature to the contrary should eliminate such notions, but even allowing for such a belief in the limited capacities of animals, one of Singer's arguments is stunning: For if we would like to justify the exploitation of animals, say in scientific research, due to a supposed lack of mental capacity, then a non-speciesist argument for not exploiting severely brain-damaged or otherwise mentally handicapped humans in a similar fashion does not exist. Is it morally acceptable to subject the less fortunate humans to medical experimentation or product testing? If not, then exploiting a nonhuman of similar mental capacity in a similar way is also immoral, and outright speciesist.

Even though Singer does not strictly support inherent animal rights, his convincing arguments and frequent appeal to the lay reader have resulted in his great popularity among animal rights advocates. By far, his most famous work is Animal Liberation (1975, 1990). Some of his other books include Practical Ethics (1993), How Are We to Live? (1995), and Ethics Into Action (1998).

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