A Very Introductory Essay

Bob Corbett
August 1999

As we begin our exploration of our relationship with animals, we come face to face with Peter Singer and his insistence that speciesism is a vice. It is important to come to know what he means by speciesism, why he regards it as a moral mistake.

In order to try to clarify this I will do four things here:

  1. Talk about the general range of prejudices such as racism, sexism, nationalism and others.
  2. Then I will try to clarify Singer's views and how he extends the categories to include species.
  3. I also want to point out that Singer's view, while tremendously important in its philosophical and practical import, is not something really new to most of us. His uncompromising SENSE of it is.
  4. Lastly I will comment upon and hopefully clarify Singer's notion that the notion of equality has to do with "equality of consideration" and not of "treatment." Further, I want to deal with his notion that this "equality" is not a claim of fact, but a moral prescription.

Let me begin with the easiest one, my number three. Singer rightly points out that most of us are living examples of speciesism in the same sense that radical Ku Klux Klan's people are racist. However, on the other hand, most of us are familiar with anti-speciesist sentiments. Suppose one were all the things Singer attacks: a meat eater, unconcerned with the processes of producing meat for the table, a zoo goer, a pet owner and so on. Nonetheless, one might have an experience that is contrary to this position, and most people seem to. Suppose one were drinking a large glass of milk and had drunk one's fill. At the same time one noticed a small kitten, seemingly hungry and crying. Many people would be enough moved by the "interests" of the kitten to look for some container to pour the remaining milk into so the kitten might drink it. We would not be absolutely immune to the "interests" of the kitten, even though our lives as a whole might suggest we were speciesists of the worst sort.

The point here is that many of us have some intuitions toward the interests of animals. They may not be dominant, and they might not be sentiments of equality, and they many not compete well with contrary interests toward humans. At the same time, we still often have some positive sentiments and intuitions toward the interests of animals. The notion that Singer will develop in ways that may well be strange and new to us, are not 100% novel. If we have a hard time grasping his view, perhaps returning to some of those personal sentiments or intuitions might be a good place to go.

I next want to consider the entire notion of equality on which Singer bases his charge of "speciesism." All of us are aware that we live in a time with strong calls for greater equality. Since World War II this has become a major issue in the United States, first in relation to race and gender, but now in relation to many other groups who claim prejudices against their interests, including the handicapped, the aged and those with non heterosexual preferences.

Let's consider the general issue.

There is a decision to be made. Some limited resource is to be distributed. Who is to get it? The claim of "unfair" or "unjust" bias says that at times the decision is made on the basis of what should be unacceptable criteria. If one chooses the white person for the benefit SOLELY on the basis that he or she is white, then we would usually be considered to be acting out of racism. If we chose the female, solely on the basis of her gender, then we would be accused of sexism. And so on.

Let's look at this process in more detail. At least two things are being considered here:

  1. Who is making the decision?
  2. Whose interests are being weighed?

The WHO, the person making the decision may be:

WHOSE interests are being considered? Some of the typical groups of concern are:

The claim of equality is that one should be fair and make decisions on the basis of RELEVANT differences. The principle of equality says particularly that race, gender, national origin and religion are not relevant notions for most decisions and thus must be left out.

A sexist is one who allows gender to enter into deciding interests when gender is not a relevant (or should not be a relevant) variable. If one is deciding who gets the job as pilot and the four people being considered are all capable pilots, then the principle of equality says that gender should not be a relevant criterion.

And so on.

This is all extremely elementary. However, in getting a handle on Singer's views perhaps it helps to step away and see what is really being claimed by the principle of equality.

The next step however, is more complex. Singer claims that what the principle of equality demands is equality of the consideration of interests, not the quality of treatment. However, it is obvious that he means not merely that one "consider" interests, but decide them fairly. However, he is not suggesting that deciding interests fairly will always result in equality in fact.

The point Singer is making is this. The principle of equality is silent about whether or not all people are IN FACT equal in all regards. The evidence suggest were are probably not. We know for sure that individuals are not. But what about races, genders, Italians, the strong, the intelligent and so on. Singer cautions against taking such a stance of equality of fact. If we do this then we are committed to deciding a matter of fact before the evidence is in, a very bad idea epistemologically, and, further, if a hard case of actual inequality were established, then our principle of equality would be shattered. Rather, Singer argues, the principle of equality:

"The principle of equality of human being is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans; it is a prescription of how we should treat humans."

In another place he calls this a "moral idea" not a fact.

With these general notions of the principle of equality, then, the stage is set for Peter Singer to enter a new candidate into the right of those whose interests should be considered EQUALLY. That is animals. All animals, not merely human animals.

Why would one do this and what does it really mean?

The why is the possibility of experiencing pain. Animals feel pain and feeling pain is the grounds for one's interest to be considered. In general one should not cause another pain if it can be avoided. Having pain brought upon one, or having one's pain not addressed by the other, is a moral call upon us, claims Singer.

Thus to be a "speciesist" is to consider the interests of one's own species as more important that the interest of another species MERELY on the grounds of membership in the species.

Singer is not saying that all interests are identical. He roundly denies that. However, in relation to the question of suffering pain, he holds that the pain of an animal is just as important as the pain of a human if pain is the only consideration.

Suppose there is only room for ONE being to enter a space that will be protected from an upcoming deadly storm. There are ten candidates for the one space. Without question nine of them must be excluded. How shall we choose? We must use the principle of equality in guiding our choice.

We need to start eliminating. Nine of the beings are human, one is a horse. Can we quickly eliminate the horse on the grounds that it is a horse and not a human? Singer says NO. That is a violation of the principle of equality. Since obviously the nine beings not chosen are likely to die, and to die a painful death, we have to assume that the ten beings all can suffer pain. The non-speciesist version of the principle of equality would say that when suffering pain is involved we must give equal consideration to the non-human animals.

Now, we could build this case as a text-book case. We could have one white, one black, one yellow person. A man and a woman. An American, a Serb, a Chinese, an Argentine. A baby, a teen, a middle aged person, a very old person. Someone sick, someone well. A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist, an agnostic. Someone desperately poor, someone with a decent job, a fabulously rich person and so on. Obviously this is many more than ten beings, so we have to figure that some of the people have more than one of these qualities. One is a very rich teenaged American Muslim who is sick. And so on.

The task of equality is extremely difficult. We must weigh ALL the relevant variables and choose the MOST deserving being. How do we do that? Well, that's the trick that Singer and others don't really solve, though they work on it. Singer's contribution is a negative one. He is arguing, however you weigh the various variables, species is not a relevant one given the outcome of pain and death is the same for all.

Now the death of all may not weigh the same. There may be larger considerations. Suppose, to use a silly, but at least somewhat clear example, the person deciding is Noah, just hours before the flood will begin and there is room for exactly one and only one more being on the arc. Who will be chosen? Well, Noah may well need one more horse and thus the horse would be a reasonable choice over the nine humans given the RELEVANT needs of the situation. This would be a case when the actual dynamics of the situation made species a relevant variable. Singer's point is only that UNLESS the facts of the case can show it is a relevant criterion, then we can't reasonably use it.

The whole arena of the choice would have to be spelled out and then, only in that context, would we be in a position to choose the BEST candidate for the one spot. Perhaps we couldn't do that, but we still might be able to eliminate a few and include a few and end up with three candidates, not ten. And so on.

Singer's thesis and fundamental reason, then, is this:

Since many decisions we make involve allowing or requiring pain, it is important to recognize that all animals are capable of suffering pain, and that pain, as pain, is of equal moral worth to all sentient creatures. Thus species ALONE cannot be a relevant principle of moral decision making. The general principle of equality, in relation to pain, must be extended to all animals.

Once again, I point out that many of our na´ve sentiments and intuitions already suggest that we often operate and respond to similar notions to what Singer is making a more reflective, conscious and consistent moral principle. However, if we follow Singer and extend this non-speciesist principle of equality to animals, then huge aspects of our tradition modes of life would be dramatically changed, just as moving toward less racist and sexists social structures bring about radical changes.

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Bob Corbett