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Jan 16, 2006

Are All Animals Equal?

This post began as a response to a comment a friend left on my last post, “Caught in the Line of Fire”, but once I started I got carried away. Included in my friend’s comment was a link to the article “All Animals Are Equal” by the philosopher Peter Singer, which was an interesting read that appealed strongly to the humanitarian in me, and I would recommend taking a look at it. On the other hand, its foundation in science was shaky, and I found several problems, which I discuss below. I believe that humans have a responsibility to be humane, respectful, and caring to one another, to other animals, and to nature and the environment in general. At the same time, I believe that it does us all a disservice to ignore the basic cold hard facts of nature, something that Singer had to do to build his argument.

While I found Singer’s article well-written and skillfully argued, it felt contrived, particularly in his use of the term “speciesism.” Although I do not feel that the state of something in nature justifies it ethically, I was bothered by Singer was implying that “speciesism,” discrimination based on species, is a strictly human phenomenon (although he did not explicitly state this). One would have to go out of one’s way to ignore such a statement in a discussion like Singer’s, so at the very least he left out an inconvenient fact. Of course, every animal species practices “speciesism,” putting the survival of its own species above the survival of any other. In fact all lifeforms do this, acting primarily out of self interest, not just animals—plants, fungi, protozoa, and of course bacteria. Acting out of self interest does not require harming other species, and many species engage in mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships, but harming other species is never out of the question in the natural world. Nature is beautiful in its complexity and amazing in its ability to host life at all, but it is also exceedingly cruel. With that said, its ubiquitous presence in nature does not automatically justify “speciesism” (or any other type of violence, discrimination, or self-interest). Still, it is important to acknowledge that Singer’s article was misleading on this point.

The main argument against Singer follows from one he used himself, the difficult process of determining where we draw the line. The title of the article is “All Animals are Equal,” but I doubt he really means that. He lists many cute and furry animals, but he does not state a position on reptiles or amphibians, for example. They don’t seem that much like humans, but they share a large number of similarities to mammals in basic behaviors and structures. Okay, then what about fish? Sure, that’s pushing it, but why not? Then we should probably include insects and other invertebrates, which also animals. At that point there is no reason to stop with the animal kingdom, making everything is fair game. Why not? Each group has large similarities to another group related a step closer to humans. Even drawing the line at vertebrates, for example, is tricky, since the boundary is not always clear. Sea squirts, for example, live their early days as mobile animals with containing the precursor to a spinal cord, but they later settle down into a sedentary lifestyle more closely resembling that of a plant, or at least a sponge. It’s very clear that there are few distinct boundaries in nature (the boundaries between species can be distinct, as with the division between humans and their closest animal relatives, but not always), and Singer himself never states where he believes the boundary should exist.

Another question is that of whether with equal rights come equal responsibilities. It would be extremely difficult and absolutely unfair for humans to enforce our laws (or even very basic human values) on other animal societies, where sexism and violence, for example, are prevalent in everyday life. Of course I do not believe animals have to conform to such ideals to earn our respect, but then again it is difficult to consider them equals under such circumstances. Mammals more closely related to humans, such as chimpanzees, can approximate human behaviors and understanding in many ways, and that is something we should give a great deal of consideration. Is conducting any research on these mammals inhumane? It’s possible, and we should have a more open dialogue in our society about this. When animal rights activists call all animal research torture and Singer calls all animals “equals,” though, having this dialogue becomes much more difficult. This is what I meant in my last post, when I described the animal rights activists I met as having an “extreme ideology.” Refusing to recognize these basic differences between species is highly irrational.

I also had some additional minor criticisms of the article. Singer invokes the unattractive idea of a human society built on a hierarchy based on I.Q.s as similar to “discriminating” between different species. What he does not acknowledge is that while I.Q.s are a very poor measure of human ability, and no completely objective measure of human ability or worth exists, we can determine with 100% certainty whether an animal is a human, and this identification has an objective basis in science. Later in the article Singer even describes eating as a way “to satisfy trivial interests of our own,” but I doubt many people would agree that eating is trivial, since one will soon perish from not engaging in this activity. I do appreciate him mentioning the cruel treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and elsewhere in agriculture, though, which is an issue that deserves much more consideration from society.

In the end, while I found the article thoughtful and an interesting read, it is fundamentally flawed in the ways outlined above. I agree with animal rights activists insofar as the humaneness of animal research needs to be vigilantly maintained, and while I think we have great framework for this in our society, I see no reason why it can’t be improved, and I believe we should have a more open dialogue on this. However, demanding an end to all animal research, along with calling animals our equals, is counterproductive and will probably lead to none of these ends being accomplished.

18 Comments:

  • I have great respect for Singer, his Animal Liberation was the spur for me to become vegetarian and vegan, but I think the weakness of Singer's argument is his attempt to use babies and people with brain damage to blur the moral distinction between animals and humans.

    I don't think it works because (a) he severely underestimates the level of function of most people with mental disability, and the repercussions of error in our estimation of capacity, and (b) fails to appreciate that in humans with reduced awareness there are additional utilitarian considerations to take into account - i.e. considering only suffering obviously it can only be true that a human with no brain function could, or even should, be used for scientific experiments over a live animal - but, we do not have to just consider that, what would the consequences be for society if we used people's relatives as pieces of meat, even if that is rationally speaking all they are?

    By Anonymous RS, at Tue Jan 24, 10:55:00 PM  

  • Dear Nick,

    I was happy to see your reply to Peter Singer’s article, and I thank you for raising some interesting objections. However, I have heard many of these same objections before (although rarely have I heard them so articulately presented!) and so I thought I’d try to explain why Singer’s position is not, in fact, vulnerable to the charges you’ve leveled against it.

    First, you seem to be arguing that because “speciesism” is practiced by all animals in nature, therefore it is misleading for Singer to describe it as a purely human phenomenon. This objection seems very similar to one I hear often from my carnivorous friends: they often say that because lions, wolves, and other carnivores kill and eat other animals, it is therefore morally acceptable for us to do so. This is mistaken for two reasons, the first of which is that proponents of such an argument ignore the fact that lions, wolves, and other carnivores literally cannot survive without killing and eating other animals, whereas I am a living testament to the fact that humans can not only survive but flourish without consuming any meat products (I have been a vegetarian for twelve years and have suffered no ill effects for it). The second mistake, however, is the one that more appropriately applies to your line of argument, and that is that animals, as far as we know, do not have the reflective nature requisite for morality. Therefore it is a fundamental error to charge them with a moral failing like discrimination based on species membership. If they do not have the capacity to make moral choices, we can hardly fault them for following their instincts and acting out of self-interest. However, most (but not all) humans do indeed have the capacity to reason and reflect, and therefore to make moral choices, and thus we may hold each other morally accountable in a way that does not apply to animals. This is a point to which you give due credit when you say that the presence of a particular practice in nature does not justify its practice in human society.

    Your second objection, if I understand your point correctly, is that Singer never defines where exactly the line should be drawn concerning which animals are worthy of moral consideration and which are not. You correctly point out that there are myriad difficulties when we attempt to determine where such a line should be drawn: should fish be included, or clams, or sponges? Yes, it is true that Singer does not address each and every taxonomic possibility here. However, he does address this issue in more detail in his seminal work Animal Liberation, which I have just finished reading. In this work he spells out even more clearly that the question we should be asking ourselves is not how closely animals resemble humans. That is not the fundamental criterion that makes a being worthy of moral consideration. As Jeremy Bentham writes, “the question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” Of course, this reply does not completely mitigate the difficulty, for you might very well object that we cannot know with any reasonable certainty whether some borderline species, such as insects, do actually experience suffering. This is of course true, but just because there is a grey area around the actual line is not an argument for why the line should not be drawn at all. Furthermore, when it comes to the animals we usually eat (cows, pigs, chickens) and experiment on (monkeys, dogs, mice), it is quite clear that these species all experience profound suffering as a result of our speciesist treatment of them. Therefore your objection, were it valid, would not help support the continuation of these practices anyway.

    I am a little unclear about the objection you outline in the fourth paragraph of your post. You raise an important question about the relationship between rights and responsibilities, however I do not quite see how such a relationship could possibly show that we do not owe equal moral consideration to animals. As Singer points out, human infants and severely disabled human adults also lack the capacity to be moral agents, or to perform moral responsibilities of any kind; this fact however does not rob them of their status as moral patients, that is, beings who are worthy of moral consideration. As we have already established, the criterion of such considerations is the capacity for suffering, and even though nonhuman animals and some humans lack the capacity to have any meaningful moral responsibilities, this does not mean that those of us who do have such a capacity do not have moral responsibilities towards them. Furthermore, I think you may be misinterpreting Singer’s use of the word “equal.” You charge Singer with refusing to recognize basic differences between species, however this is not an accurate reflection of his position. Singer never denies that there are important differences between species, and that some of these differences are relevant when we consider how we should treat members of different species. In Animal Liberation, Singer uses this example: we recognize that dogs, unlike healthy adult humans, do not have the capacity to vote. Therefore we deny dogs the right to vote. However, such treatment is not speciesist because it does not deny dogs the right based on an irrelevant distinction between them and healthy adult humans. Singer very clearly argues that we do not have to provide equal treatment in order to provide equal consideration of interests. Similarly, not allowing men the right to an abortion is not sexist, since they lack the capacity to become pregnant, but not allowing them the right to vote would be sexist, since they do have the capacity to vote. Singer claims that because animals have the capacity to suffer, we are morally required to consider their interests equally; this does not entail that we are required to treat them in all cases the same way we would treat other humans.

    In your next objection, you argue that Singer’s analogy to a human society built on IQ is a poor comparison to a hierarchy based on the far more scientifically objective distinction between different species. However, imagine for a minute that determination of a person’s IQ were as sound a science as taxonomy, and now consider whether we would feel any better about a human society arranged hierarchically according to IQ level. Would we? My guess is that we probably would not feel comfortable with this, because we would realize that even though there are differences between humans when it comes to intelligence levels, such differences are in no way relevant to whether all humans deserve equal moral consideration of their interests. Similarly, as differences between species are in no way relevant to moral consideration, all animals capable of suffering also deserve equal moral consideration of their interests. In the same paragraph, you chide Singer for referring to eating as a trivial human interest. This is also a misunderstanding of his position, as Singer obviously recognizes that eating is necessary for survival. What he disputes, correctly, is that eating meat is in no way necessary for our survival (barring extreme cases such as someone stranded on a deserted island, etc., and in which cases it would not be morally required to sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of another animal). Thus he is perfectly correct to characterize eating meat as a trivial human interest, because none of us needs eat it, it’s just that most of us like it.

    I hope these clarifications make sense, because I think the argument is important enough that it would benefit us all to understand it and then discuss it. I too still do not know where I stand on the specific issue of performing research on animals. My hesitation on this point stems from my belief that some of this research is necessary to save human lives (an attitude that obviously has some speciesist connotations). However, reading Animal Liberation has shown me that many of my beliefs concerning this practice are actually wrong: for example, the majority of experiments performed on animals do not even yield papers that scientific journals consider worthy of publication, therefore it seems such experiments’ benefit for humans is considerably overstated. Furthermore, Singer’s arguments have convinced me that if I ever do decide that experimenting on animals is morally justified, I must also concede that performing similar experiments on severely disabled humans without their consent is also justified, and I do not yet know if this is an implication I am prepared to accept. I will be the first to admit that for much of my life I was guilty of a speciesist attitude. However, careful consideration of these arguments has profoundly altered my perspective. This is the purpose of philosophy, after all, so I hope that the lively debate will continue and that more minds will experience a similar transformation.

    Carolyn

    By Anonymous Carolyn, at Tue Jan 24, 11:09:00 PM  

  • Thanks for putting so much thought into all of that, Carolyn. I think my points still stand for the most part, but I think you made some really great points as well. I think the point about mentally disabled humans is a really important one, because when it comes down to it, we tend to define humanity based on an advanced mental ability. That is the hole in the argument, and I don't really have an answer to that. Obviously, something else makes us human. Maybe it is as superficial as just having a human form. I don't know, but I wish I did. You also made a good point about the difference between treating something as an equal and just treating it with respect. I agree with you, and I still think that's the main problem with Singer's argument. We should respect animals, for what they are, and I think we should have an honest and open debate about that, especially in regards to animal research and animal treatment in agriculture. I just fear that the tactics of the animal rights movement prevent that from happening, by marginalizing people on both sides. Hopefully we can all overcome that.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Wed Jan 25, 12:12:00 AM  

  • I've commented on Singer's article too, with a completely different objection from any of those Nick raised here. But I foolishly did it on the previous post, before noticing that the debate continued here. Consider this a cross-post...

    By the way, thanks to you both for such an interesting discussion. In case you're tracking, Nick, I reached it from Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" blog.

    Steve.

    By Anonymous Steve, at Wed Jan 25, 02:44:00 AM  

  • "Similarly, as differences between species are in no way relevant to moral consideration, all animals capable of suffering also deserve equal moral consideration of their interests"

    I do not think that is the case. Pain, suffering and other intentional states of animals have evolutionary antecedents that go back all the way to animals that we would not consider worthy of any moral consideration at all.

    The difference is not in kind but in degree.

    This suggests what we might call discount utilitarianism - that the interests of other animals are proportionately less important the less complex and rich their 'suffering' becomes. So I can kill as many bacteria as I like, should give at least passing consideration to ants, have to have some justification for hurting fish and reptiles, need some very good potential benefit for experimenting on birds and mammals, need overwhelmingly good reasons to use larger primates, and probably can never justify using great apes - but you discount rate may differ from mine.

    By Anonymous RS, at Wed Jan 25, 07:56:00 AM  

  • Steve,

    I enjoyed reading through your objection to Singer’s article because I think you raise a point very worthy of our consideration, namely the idea of a social contract. I am not as familiar with Rousseau’s work as I would like, but I think I understand the basic idea behind the social pact. You’ve also anticipated the obvious objection which Singer would surely bring up: what to say about severely disabled humans who cannot enter into such a “social pact” if it does in fact exist. To this you suggested that such humans are granted rights because “the body politic has determined that it is to the common good that they be accorded rights despite their lack of participation.” I think this is a novel objection to Singer’s view, but as an argument, I think it ultimately falters because it succeeds only in pushing the problem back one more step. For now we must ask ourselves, why has the body politic determined that for the common good severely disabled humans should be afforded rights but nonhuman animals with similar abilities should not be afforded the same rights? If we can come up with an answer to that question that is not speciesist, then I think we might be getting somewhere, but for my part, I cannot think of any relevant reason why the body politic should afford these humans rights while denying them to nonhuman animals.

    I also found interesting your claim that one must be a utilitarian to find Singer’s argument persuasive. I guess I’m just not seeing why this is the case. It is true that Singer himself is a utilitarian, but holding that capacity for suffering should be the basis of moral consideration is a position that is compatible with consequentialist, deontological, and hybrid moral theories. I would be interested to see if we can come up with a better basis for moral claims. I think we’ve already established in this debate that using the capacity for reason is not going to work, as this will exclude many humans, as would using the capacity for language as the basis. But maybe there are other characteristics I haven’t thought of that might be more justified as the basis for moral consideration? I would certainly be interested to hear any thoughts on this matter. Thank you again for bringing up such interesting points; I too have enjoyed this discussion and hope it will continue.

    Carolyn

    By Anonymous Carolyn, at Wed Jan 25, 03:17:00 PM  

  • I think you can approach Singer's argument in a number of ways, and obviously - since he stands as one of the most influential living philosophers - many people have tried. It's a really well-argued essay and, unlike a lot of philosophy, very accessible.
    One objection I'd have is that at heart it's basically just a reductio ad absurdum (or whatever they're called ) along the following lines.

    Where x is something like “the ability to reason”:

    (1) If a creature lacks some characteristic, x, then it's morally permissable to eat/test on them.
    (2) Nonhuman animals lack characteristic x
    Therefore (3) It's morally permissable to eat/test on nonhuman animals
    But….
    (2a) Retarded infants lack characteristic x
    Therefore (3a) It's morally permissable to eat/test on retarded infants

    If you accept (3) is true but don’t want to accept (3a) is true then you have to come up with a different version of x – something that could morally differentiate between a retarded infant and, for example, a beagle.

    But the argument goes both ways. It’s automatically assumed that people will disagree with the idea of testing on a human baby – but it’s also true that the majority of people think it’s okay to test on animals for medical reasons. There’s an unacceptable conclusion whichever direction you go in, and Singer’s argument relies heavily on you choosing his. But it’s an appeal to public opinion that could go either way. In reality, rather than adjusting your life to cut out meat and animal testing, you can adjust it instead to believe that, mad as it might sound, testing on retarded infants is okay.

    Hear me out…

    All I’m saying is that, faced with that response, Singer’s argument collapses. And we can come up with a number of good reasons why testing on infants would be morally permissable in theory but not in practice, some of which have already been mentioned. (The distress of the parents, for example).

    Let’s say that, for the greater good, we need to test a drug. Thousands will die without it. and we have the choice of using an infant or a rabbit. It’s natural to pick the rabbit. It’s speciesist perhaps, but not immoral, since we’ve already established that testing on either is permissable. If I had the choice of saving my fiancee or a stranger’s baby from a housefire then it’s natural I’d save my fiancee. There are reasons above and beyond morality that influence the choice we would make, and it would be interesting to see Singer’s real-life reaction if faced with saving an elderly relative or a baby chimp from the same predicament. I think then we’d see the moment that cold, hard philosophy smacked into the solid wall of everyday life.

    So that’s what we’re faced with – finding some way of justifying choosing the rabbit (etc) over the retarded infant, when it might be coldly justifiable to use either. It’s far from being an impossible task.

    Whereas, on the other side of the fence, a supporter of Singer’s argument has to make practical arrangements for all the animals we’re currently eating. Are people going to be compelled to look after them, for example? Are animals that have evolved alongside us into farm animals suddenly going to be let loose in the wild? How much space are we obliged to allow for them? Given that many are bred specifically for food, will they simply not be bred anymore so that unborn, potential creatures will simply have no life at all? Realistically, how will we feed everyone without meat, when we can’t even manage it now with? Not insurmountable problems, maybe, but a very detailed (and morally coherent) thesis is needed first.

    And it’s always worth bearing in mind that Singer’s arguments have led him in the past to his own slightly disgusting conclusions. His comments in 2001 on the morality of bestiality, for example. Not strictly relevant perhaps, but if you don’t want to go down the ‘it’s okay to test on infants’ road, then it’s good to know what’s lurking down the path you do choose…

    By Anonymous Steve Mosby, at Wed Jan 25, 04:48:00 PM  

  • Steve, I agree with your approach, except I'd go down the route of using additional reasons, over and above questions of suffering, to bring babies and the mentally incompetent back into the fold (similar, but much more powerful, reasons as to why we can't make hat-stands out of dead people).

    But:

    "Given that many are bred specifically for food, will they simply not be bred anymore so that unborn, potential creatures will simply have no life at all?"

    But this isn't a consideration when we're worrying about animal suffering. Non-existent animals don't suffer.

    "Realistically, how will we feed everyone without meat, when we can’t even manage it now with?"

    Well, since we clear huge swathes of rainforest to grow soya to feed cattle, we could just miss out the middle man.

    By Anonymous RS, at Wed Jan 25, 06:19:00 PM  

  • RS – Good points.

    With regard to the second, I think it’s a logistical matter that I wouldn’t be sure enough about to comment on in any depth. I think an argument can be made that the practicalities of that kind of food production can all be equally damaging to animals and the environment in their own way. For example, the destruction of habitats, increased energy consumption from food transportation, and so on.

    As to the first – you’re right that it wouldn’t be a consideration, but it does lead into complicated questions of whether rights apply to species or just to individuals. In this view, we wouldn’t have any individual chicken suffering – but we’d also have less chickens overall (and so less chicken ‘happiness’) and the ones we did have would probably suffer very bad deaths in the wild. The situation, like most situations, highlights the difficulty of genuinely practising utilitarianism: how can you predict what will produce the most overall happiness? It just seems a curious consequence of an argument intended to improve the lot of animals that a species might die out – that it’s better to have no chickens at all, in other words.

    A few years back I read an excellent article on this, and I’ve managed to track it down: “An Animal’s Place” by Michael Pollan. It gives a very clear presentation of Singer’s argument, dismisses the standard reactions and objections and then proposes a realistic, common-sense half-solution, even getting interesting comments back from Singer himself. Well worth a read, and you can find it here:

    http://www.nehbc.org/pollan2.html

    By Anonymous Steve Mosby, at Fri Jan 27, 08:52:00 AM  

  • From Pollan: "Bentham here is playing a powerful card philosophers call the ''argument from marginal cases,'' or A.M.C. for short. It goes like this: there are humans -- infants, the severely retarded, the demented -- whose mental function cannot match that of a chimpanzee. Even though these people cannot reciprocate our moral attentions, we nevertheless include them in the circle of our moral consideration. So on what basis do we exclude the chimpanzee?"

    This bit is where I really part company from Singer et al. I mean, really, anyone who can assert the inferiority of retarded humans compared to chimpanzees has clearly not got much experience of either. Now there are probably humans sufficiently damaged to be considered inferior to chimpanzees - people in certain vegetative states for example - but then the whole argument becomes a bit less steady because we already consider these sorts of people as less human, and thus having less rights.

    By Anonymous RS, at Fri Jan 27, 06:21:00 PM  

  • Steve, that Pollan article was interesting, but I don't think I can accept his points about species somehow having 'interests' - while I'm not a fan of driving species to extinction in general, I really don't see how it is even remotely the same kind of ethical question as thinking about causing animals pain.

    "I've become the sort of shopper who looks for labels indicating that his meat and eggs have been humanely grown (the American Humane Association's new ''Free Farmed'' label seems to be catching on), who visits the farms where his chicken and pork come from and who asks kinky-sounding questions about touring slaughterhouses"

    This is a perfectly consistent position - indeed, were the option available, I don't think I'd be too bothered about eating humanely reared and killed meat - but somehow I doubt he _always_ gets humane meat, I bet when he goes out for a meal he succumbs, even if he can't source the meat, and if he just can't get that humane cut of beef from the local butcher, he might just compromise - and then you've just used the humane meat as a smokescreen, you are simply _trying_ to be better, trying to assuage your conscience (which is obviously better than nothing, but is far from adequate as an ethical response).

    By Anonymous RS, at Fri Jan 27, 06:36:00 PM  

  • Carolyn,

    You ask the perfectly fair question, "why has the body politic determined that for the common good severely disabled humans should be afforded rights but nonhuman animals with similar abilities should not be afforded the same rights?"

    I think that the answer to that question, at the moment, in our society, probably is speciesist on Singer's terms - even if the moral philosophers Singer attacks can survive his criticisms, their arguments aren't the basis on which "real people" make decisions. I'm not a Rousseau expert any more than you, but I think that the question doesn't trouble his system, because he doesn't feel that the body politic needs to ethically justify its decisions in such terms. Its justification stands solely on whether it serves the will (and the good) of those who participate in it, so it is somewhat entitled to be arbitrary and unfair in respect of those who are not. It doesn't have a moral duty not to be speciesist, on the assumption (as I've said before and repeat again because it's crucial to the argument) that those species excluded are not capable of participating. Likewise it has no moral duty not to be speciesist in favour of crops that yield more food - Singer says that this is only OK because crops don't suffer, but Rousseau says it's OK because crops aren't political beings, just as cows aren't.

    So the answer to the question might be "ruthless human supremism", or it might be "sentimentality on the part of those people with familial relations to someone in a persistant vegetative state", or it might be "practical benefit" (of some kind which I can't identify right now), or it might be some (philosophically debateable) instincts about identity suggesting that we "could have" been "imbecilic" humans, whereas we "couldn't have" been dogs. It doesn't really matter if you accept that the social pact is effectively self-justifying.

    You say, "I also found interesting your claim that one must be a utilitarian to find Singer’s argument persuasive. I guess I’m just not seeing why this is the case. It is true that Singer himself is a utilitarian, but holding that capacity for suffering should be the basis of moral consideration is a position that is compatible with consequentialist, deontological, and hybrid moral theories".

    I'm not really equipped to fully answer this, but I'll have a go. I'd say that although Singer's position is probably compatible with many versions of deontology, it isn't essential in the same way. Utilititarianism takes as its basis some concept of good and Singer asserts, in common with all other utilitarians I know about, that the scale of good is that of happiness vs. suffering. The difference between Singer and others is that he universalises the scale to all entities having the capacity to distinguish the two, whereas others have typically restricted their domain of discourse to humans. So the capacity to suffer really is at the heart of utilitarianism, since (some or all) suffering is "bad".

    In a deontological view, though, you might not see suffering as being quite so important. Since the nature of your actions is more important than their consequences, there certainly will be cases where you are morally obliged to cause more suffering than the minimum possible, and I suppose that there are likely to be cases where you are entitled to choose to do so. So Singer's argument, resting on the idea that dogs and "imbeciles" are comparable in their capacity for suffering, might not be at all salient.

    So I wouldn't say that you must be a utilitarian to accept his argument, just that the necessity of it follows from (among other things) a principle which is primarily utilitarian, namely that of suffering being the salient "bad" for moral purposes. This is what I meant by "if you're not a utilitarian, you don't have to accept it".

    Your final question I want to consider is, "maybe there are other characteristics I haven’t thought of that might be more justified as the basis for moral consideration?"

    The one think I can safely here is that Singer certainly thinks there aren't. I've haven't looked for any academic essays directly criticising Singer, but presumably that is the first place to go for direct rebuttals. In the realm of deontology, one can look at virtue ethics, where moral consideration follows from the characteristics the active agent should have rather than those of the target of the action. So one might somehow conclude that "giving consideration to deficient humans" is admirable whereas "giving consideration to other animals" is less so, and thus that more consideration should be given to deficient humans than to animals. Virtue ethics can be a bit arbitrary, though, so the basis for doing so might not be very convincing.

    But ultimately, I think one could also reject Singer's approach of arguing from edge cases (what he calls "admitting an overlap"). We could simply say that we give consideration to humans on account of some capacity such as intelligence, or moral reasoning, or something else, because the vast majority of humans recognisably have that capacity. We then could also say that we don't give the same consideration to any other animals because we think we know that no other animals have that capacity (and Singer agrees that there are capacities which are only found in humans, they just aren't shared by all humans). As far as this essay is concerned, you're quite right that Singer doesn't reject such capacities as a moral basis because he's a utilitarian, he does it for the simple fact that using such a basis is inconsistent with giving consideration to humans lacking the capacity in question.

    So the dispute is that Singer thinks that if we do this then to be consistent we must properly evaluate each human to check that they really do have that capacity. Strictly speaking this is necessary, since to unduly elevate your consideration for one person will inevitably reduce your consideration for someone else who is entitled to it. But a "close enough for government work" approach is to draw a line in the sand, that of being human, which correctly evaluates the capacity except in a tiny proportion of cases, and then perhaps rule specially on those cases if absolutely necessary. I think that in practice this is the kind of approach which people actually do take to human rights (and, for that matter, animal rights) - we give certain specific rights to adults, then abrogate them wholly oe partially in the cases of children, infants, the insane, the incapacitated, and so on, as seems appropriate for those catagories. It's approximate, but it avoids Singers "inconsistency" argument by not really according true equivalence between the categories (even when it says it does - human rights aren't truly universal even when they sound like it).

    This approach isn't conceptually ideal. If you for a moment take X to be the key moral capacity then, occasionally a non-X human's interests will win out over a X human's interests. This isn't perfect, but in practice people consider it to be a better result than that of concluding, via Singer's exercise of logic, that all non-X being's interests should be allowed to trump those of X humans. Looked at this way, his proposal would be almost absurd, and certainly not compelling.

    By Anonymous Steve Jessop (not Mosby), at Sat Jan 28, 12:18:00 AM  

  • Another point which I forgot to make - the kind of speciesism which I'm suggesting is true of people who contradict Singer, doesn't fall foul of Singer's other main comparison, which is with sexism and racism. This kind of speciesism may well be on fairly sound factual grounds when it says that species is a very good indicator of the capacity relevant for moral consideration. So drawing the line at species could be a tactic to guarantee that there are no false negatives. The cost is allowing some false positives. This is the same consideration which dictates that those accused of crimes are "innocent until proven guilty" - you aim to err on the side of generosity to the individual under test. In the case of babies, it's much, much safer to draw the line at "birth" (or even "start of third trimester") than to "at the point where they start to really understand about morality, whenever that is for each individual, not quite sure how we'll test it" or something of the sort.

    By comparison, the fault of those who reckoned that women (or non-Anglo-Saxons) didn't deserve the same consideration as white men, was that they weren't actually basing their decision on a good assessment of the capacity that they thought was important. So perhaps they thought that women weren't fit to vote because they didn't understand politics, or blacks not suitable for enslavement because they were uncivilised, unintelligent, and un-moral - well, women did in fact have the capacity to understand politics, and blacks did have the capacity for all those other things, what was lacking was in some cases the opportunity, and in others the simple recognition that they did have the characteristics in question. This isn't good enough, since we prefer not to punish people for their extrinsic circumstances. But if our moral characteristic genuinely is human-only, as far as we can possibly determine having made good-faith efforts, then Singer's comparison doesn't apply.

    By Anonymous Steve Jessop, at Sat Jan 28, 12:43:00 AM  

  • > blacks not suitable for enslavement

    It's getting a bit past my bed-time. I mean that they thought blacks were suitable for enslavement.

    By Anonymous Steve Jessop, at Sat Jan 28, 12:45:00 AM  

  • RS - yeah, I agree that it wouldn't currently be very easy to follow that kind of lifestyle. But that's a practical matter, really, and if you say "it's okay to eat animals under x conditions" then you are stating a coherent ethical position. Whether society adopts it as a whole is another matter, but then what you're arguing about is the conditions in the farms (etc) and not the general principle. It's an adequate ethical response to say "this is how farms should be". It might not be how they are - but you can agree with Singer that things need to change while disagreeing about the correct change to make. It's an acceptable rebuttal to his argument.

    By Anonymous steve mosby, at Sun Jan 29, 12:02:00 PM  

  • I agree with you Nick. I read about this in a book entitled "classic cases of ethics in medicine." The article was specifically about animal research, but they brought up this point. I do believe that we should be considerate towards animals, but ultimately whether or not you believe in God I find a flaw. If you do believe in God (which most supporters of speciesm I can only assume don't) then you would believe as the Bible says that this world was made for man. If you don't, then you would likely believe in a natural order, of which every species watches out for it's own first. If we don't make human's the priority, we would end up building houses for monkey's while we sleep outside, (because that is just as fair as the opposite. I think it's a little over the top personally.

    By Anonymous Laptop Computer Backpacks, at Sun Dec 17, 12:44:00 AM  

  • Humans are at the top of the foodchain, as is JLO in the celebrity/business world.....this shows us that with our almightly power to feed our selves over and over again, we still see fit to rip fur off live crying animals in the name of fashion.
    So what of animal testing in the name of science..surely jusifiable...

    brains or no brains we have alot of problems..and they won't be fixed with cruelty. We may fix our problems if we slow down and work on THE WAY we do things. If we are to eat meat, to test on animals, then we should do it with care and limitations...because if at the end of the day we have prolonged human life...but still allow mass cruelty of the less intelligent animals or dolpins slaughter in Japan for Example ..then frankly..what is the point?

    ..ethics over life prolonging drugs. It goes to the basic premise..if you would kill another to save your own. That is when we need a scale to measure who we can justify testing on....poor people, black people, stupid people..and the other animals ..who feel pain, and emotion ..they don't write university appers these animals..but they soak up love....that is measurable surely?

    By Anonymous Ellie, at Fri Feb 23, 10:15:00 PM  

  • I believe in specie-ism for now.

    Look any animal on this planet is all destined to die when the sun blows up, PERIOD. No animal living today has the capacity to save itself from the Sun exhausting it's source of fuel.

    Everyone's thinking here is much too small in scope. I believe in respect for nature, but not so much respect that we let our brains fall out.

    We got to where we are by being a brutal cut-throat species, you should thank your lucky stars because you wouldn't exist if it wasn't for EVERY SINGLE parent and grandparent ad infinitum back into the past.

    It's kind of remarkable when you think about it: You are part of the great chain of ancestors, without every single ancestor in that chain, you would have never been born, thats millions upon millions of individual decisions that could have branched off in enormously different directions.

    Sorry but unless we become godlike in our technology or we find ou animals have human level type thinking, specie'ism is necessary.

    I'm still open to the fact that one day it may become obsolete. But for today, considering how hostile nad destructive the universe is. We don't have a lot of choice... the sun is going to blow up unless we (being future humanity) figure a way to stop it from collapsing in the future. Not to mention the host of other hostile phenomena in space that may one day destroy everything.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Sep 26, 09:18:00 PM  

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