Each year about five billion animals are slaughtered in the United States. They are killed to satisfy the American taste for their flesh. The vast majority of us consider this sort of treatment of other species morally acceptable (or at least nor particularly unacceptable). But is it?
After all, we know, do we not, that animals suffer? They are also, to differing degrees, capable of enjoying pleasurable experiences as well. Why then are we morally permitted to treat the members of other species so very differently to our own?
In his 1975 book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer presents us with precisely this challenge: to morally justify the way in which we discriminate between our own species and others. His conclusion, shocking to many, is that this discrimination cannot, in fact, be morally justified. Indeed, Singer believes that the vast majority of human beings are currently guilty of what Singer terms “speciesism” (an expression first coined by Richard Ryder) – a form of bigotry against other species comparable to sexism and racism.
Of course, no one has ever suggested we shouldn’t be able to discriminate between conscious beings, or that we are not often morally justified in doing so. For example, we discriminate between children and adults. We give adults the right to vote, to drive, and live their lives more or less as they see fit, while withholding all these rights from children. But this discrimination is morally justified. Children are not yet mature enough to be able to exercise the right to vote responsibly or to drive a vehicle safely. Here is a difference that does indeed morally justify our discriminating in the way we do.
On the other hand, withholding the right to vote on the grounds of sex and skin colour is morally unjustified. Sex and skin colour are irrelevant when it comes to the ability to exercise the right to vote. Refusing such rights to women and non-whites therefore constitutes a form of bigotry. Were we to deny the vote on the basis of sex and skin colour, we would be guilty of sexism and racism.
So the difficulty the vast majority of us face, if we are not to find ourselves guilty of a similar form of bigotry, is to justify the way in which we discriminate between humans and other species.
Perhaps the most obvious suggestion to make is to point out that humans are far more mentally sophisticated than other species. We are more intelligent than they. We possess a shared language. We have a sense of right and wrong. And so on. Don’t these differences between humans on the one hand and cows, pigs, apes and sheep on the other justify the difference in treatment?
Singer doesn’t deny that our superior mental powers can, under certain circumstances, be morally relevant. Suppose we want to test a product on live subjects in a way that causes great pain and possibly death. One option would be to kidnap adult human beings from a local park and test it on them. Another would be to use animals instead.
Singer points out that testing on kidnapped humans might well result in greater suffering than testing on animals. If we start abducting and experiment on some humans, those that remain will soon figure out the danger and anticipate that they too may be kidnapped if they go out for a walk. Far more stress and anxiety may be caused than if we simply test on animals, who are too dim to experience any such anticipatory fear. In this case, perhaps we can make a slightly better case (if not a good case) for testing on animals than we can for testing on humans.
But, as Singer points out, sometimes our superior intellect means that we will suffer rather less than would an animal subjected to similar treatment. We can explain to prisoners of war that they will eventually be safely released, whereas wild animals incarcerated for a similar period of time cannot be given that knowledge, and so may suffer rather more than similarly incarcerated humans.
The mentally impaired
Perhaps the most obvious difficulty with the appeal to mental sophistication to justify the way in which we discriminate against other species is that some humans are no more mentally sophisticated than are some animals. Human babies, in fact, are far less cerebral than are mature primates. And of course there are many unfortunate mature humans who, either through and accident of birth or subsequent disease or damage, are no smarter or more mentally sophisticated than is the average ape. If certain forms of mental sophistication are our criteria for determining who is deserving of full moral consideration and who is not, then the boundary between those who are deserving and those who are undeserving will not coincide with the boundary between our species and others. It seems that we will have to say that, if it is morally acceptable to experiment upon or kill for meat the smarter animals, then it is morally acceptable to treat babies and the mentally impaired in a similar way. Or, if we continue to insist it is morally wrong to treat the less cerebral humans in this way, then we will have to say that it’s equally wrong to treat the smarter animals in that way too. What we cannot consistently do is draw the boundary between those deserving our full moral concern and those who do not where it is currently drawn – along the boundary between the human species and the rest.
A new attitude towards other species?
Singer’s own view is that we can quite rightly morally discriminate between sentient beings. He agrees it would be more wrong to kill a normal adult human being than it would be to kill, say, a mouse (in Practical Ethics, Singer suggests this is because a human, being a self-conscious being, can, and typically does, have a preference to go on living, whereas a mouse can have no such preference).
However, Singer argues that there is no moral justification for the way in which we currently discriminate. Discriminating solely on the basis of species is no more justified than was our earlier discrimination on the basis of sex and race. So far as justifying our current practices is concerned, whether or not sentient beings have feathers or fur, a beak or teeth, two legs or four, is simply irrelevant - as irrelevant as skin colour or sex.
When we now look back a few hundred years to how white people discriminated against black, and men discriminated against women, many of us are shocked. With hindsight, it can be difficult to understand how those who were engaged in these practices were unable to recognise that what they were doing was wrong. “How could they not see?” we ask.
The day may come when the human race looks back on the way we currently treat other species – raising and slaughtering five billion a year, in many cases under the most horrific conditions, simply to satisfy our taste for their flesh – and ask that same question. If that day comes, it will in large measure be Peter Singer’s legacy.
How not to avoid the charge of speciesism
Peter Singer has many critics. Many criticisms focus on Singer’s utilitarianism. For an overview of some of the main criticism of utilitarianism, see the chapters on Mill (chpt XX) and Bentham (chpt XX). However, even if we reject utilitarianism, the challenge Singer sets us – to point to the morally relevant difference between humans and other species that justifies our current discriminatory practices – remains. If we cannot meet that challenge, it is difficult to see how we can avoid the charge of speciesism, whether or not we’re utilitarians.
Unfortunately, many people are under the misapprehension that if they can come up with some cogent objection to utilitarianism, that is enough to fend off Singer’s charge of bigotry. That is not the case.
This extract is from my forthcoming book (out June 2008): The Great Philosophers