Philosophy - Index > General AR Philosophy
Animal Liberation: Augmenting the Moral Philosophy of Peter Singer

Animal Liberation: Augmenting the Moral Philosophy of Peter Singer

By Prof. John Tamilio III, Ph.D.

I: Introduction

Although some of their roots are ancient, liberation movements are a fairly modern phenomenon. As the name suggests, liberation movements seek the deliverance of an oppressed group. More specifically, liberationists expose institutional patterns of oppression that construct and underlie sociopolitical worldviews in which one group (the one that is privileged) wields power over another group (one that is marginalized). Such patterns occupy precognitive levels; the privilege typically assume that their position of power is natural. That is how oppressive structures survive. When brought to light the horrific, prejudicial nature of such patterns are made visible, which leads, ideally, to rectification.

The work of the contemporary ethicist Peter Singer, the philosopher whom Nigel Warburton deems “a modern day gadfly” in the spirit of Socrates, has advanced the cause of animal liberation more than any other thinker. This article will build on Singer’s work adding another dimension to it. Before doing so, however, we will place animal liberation in the context of other liberation movements -- movements suggested in the previous paragraph.

II: A Survey of Liberation Movements

Historically, liberation movements have focused on human beings -- thinkers challenging what they see as an inherent though accepted ill within a culture; a wrong in which one group sees itself as superior to another. Historically, such marginalization has been based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and a host of other categories that seek not to be deconstructed, for doing so would undermine their authority. When Thomas Jefferson opened the Declaration of Independence with the phrase “We hold these truths self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he meant all white land owning men. Clearly he did not consider African slaves (some of whom he owned) to be equals, nor did the term “men” mean the archaic “mankind” so as to include women, who would not see the right to vote for another 144 years.

The Civil Rights Movement was itself a kind of liberation movement, but the term did not come into vogue until the early 1970s, and even then it was not about the plight of blacks in America per se.[1] In 1971, the Peruvian priest and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez published Teología de la liberación: Perspectivas, which was released in the United States two years later as A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. This seminal text developed the concept “liberation theology,” which Gutiérrez coined in his 1968 article (also written in Spanish): “Toward a Theology of Liberation.” With the Latin American base communities as his context, Gutiérrez maintained that God has a “preferential option” for the poor. To fully understand the Gospel, it needs to be read from the perspective of the poor and oppressed, because these are the people to whom Jesus ministered. The systematician Daniel L. Migliore, whose method is heavily influenced by liberation theology, writes, “Latin American theologians interpret Scripture in the light of their situation and their situation in the light of Scripture. Within this hermeneutical circle they affirm that God in Christ enters into solidarity with the poor.”[2] Other Latin American theologians lent their voices to this novel field: Oscar Romero, Jon Sobrino, as well as Leonardo and Clodovis Boff to name a few.

Other social activists advocating for additional liberations quickly followed, some surfacing concurrently with Gutiérrez. In the spirit of Malcolm X, James Cone, the Charles August Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, gave shape to the black liberation movement. Four and a half decades before the emergence of the Black Lives Matter campaign, Cone wrote A Black Theology of Liberation. In this text he writes, “Black theology merely tries to discern the activity of the Holy One in achieving the purpose of the liberation of humankind from the forces of oppression.”[3] Cone’s work is quite controversial, though. In his passionate call for justice -- for self-definition free from the shackles of institutional white dominance -- he condones violence.

Feminism is itself a liberation movement, one that predates the work of Gutiérrez and Cone. Many date the origin of the modern Women’s Rights Movement to the middle of the nineteenth century, with a focus on the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1848, Stanton presented her Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York. This act launched the women’s suffrage movement in America, leading, eventually, to the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution giving women full voting rights. Today, the term feminism conjures a theoretical framework that seeks to expose misogynistic aspects of western patriarchal culture and to advocate full equality between men and women in all aspects of society.

The term Womanist, coined by the novelist Alice Walker and typically associated with theologians such as bell hooks (sic), Katie G. Cannon, and Emilie Townes, is a critique against Black Liberation and Feminism. Being black and female is unique; the person finds herself the victim of a dual form of discrimination: racism and misogyny. Womanist theorists maintain that Black Liberationists do not take this into account nor do Feminists. The latter, they assert, are privileged white women, typically academics, who do not take the plight of their black sisters into consideration when constructing their polemics. The work of the former, Womanists claim, is gender biased.

And still there are other movements: Mujerista philosophers and theologians focus on the plight of Latinas; Gay Liberation focuses on the experience of marginalization by members of the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately, this article does not afford us the space to delve into these pertinent, historic movements. Suffice it to say, the focus of all of the above, and similar movements, seeks to expose the forms of oppression that subjugate members of marginalized groups. Those members are human beings. Singer challenges and expands that paradigm.

III: Singer, Speciesism, and Ethics

In 1975, Peter Singer released Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement. Many undergraduates who study social or environmental ethics have been exposed to the expurgated version of this text: Singer’s article “All Animals are Equal.” The title is an allusion to the often quoted line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Singer not only challenges the totalitarian construct that arises when the pigs (the metaphorical aristocracy) on the Orwellian Manor Farm gain absolute power (which corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton maintained), but the speciesism that is prevalent in both western and global cultures.

Like racism and sexism, speciesism denotes a specific prejudice and form of subjugation. Although he does not define the term in the aforementioned article, Singer intimates that speciesism -- a term he is often credited with coining, although he attributes it to Richard Ryder -- is seeing nonhuman animals as having a lower stature than human beings and a lack of access to the rights the latter enjoy. Humans exploit animals in a sundry of ways. According to Singer, “Experimenting on animals, and eating their flesh, are perhaps the two major forms of speciesism in our society.”[4]

Although Singer’s work is formative to the discipline of animal rights, it is based, in part, on the work of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham (1748-1832) was a British philosopher and social reformer -- one of the pioneers of Utilitarianism. Often associated with the work of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who was a student of Bentham, Utilitarianism maintains that to be moral an action must seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Numerous thought experiments have been offered historically to illustrate this, the most recent being the bestseller by David Edmonds Would You Kill the Fat Man, which builds upon the work of the late Philippa Foot. Criticisms of Utilitarianism aside (and there are several), it is pertinent to note the distinction between Bentham and Mill.

Unlike Aristotle, who believed that happiness (eudaimonia) was developing the right kind of character and a balance between the extreme vices of excess and deficiency, Bentham maintained that happiness was equivalent to pleasure and that all pleasures were equal. We will develop Bentham’s thought further in the next section, but to understanding how he would influence Singer’s philosophy we need to understand that for Bentham there was no distinction between the higher and lower pleasures -- i.e. pleasures that most would consider more refined and formative (seeing a first rate production of a Shakespearian play) as opposed to those which would be labelled inane and base (watching, oh dear, Keeping Up with the Kardashians). Bentham was ahead of his time in that he felt that the pleasures of women and animals were no less important than the pleasures of men. He was a forerunner of both women’s rights and animal liberation.

At the outset of Animal Liberation, Singer quotes the passage from Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation that is foundational to the thought of both philosophers:

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?[5]

At the core of Singer’s argument against speciesism is the claim that animals have rights not based on their levels of intelligence, but because they can suffer -- they know pain and fear. He argues that “there can be no moral justification for regarding the pain (or pleasure) that animals feel as less important than the same amount of pain (or pleasure) felt by humans.”[6] This aligns with Bentham’s Utilitarianism. Furthermore, many grown animals are far more intelligent than newborn babies, as Bentham notes. This is the basis by which animals should not be seen as a means to human ends, but, rather, as ends in themselves.

Human beings are speciesists. Like most forms of oppression, humans assume that their approach to the other (in this case animals) is justified. In other words, most people do not consciously consider the status they lord over nonhuman animals. Our views are precognitive, as mentioned in part one. Singer writes, “Just as most human beings are speciesists in their readiness to cause pain to animals when they would not cause a similar pain to humans for the same reason, so most human beings are speciesists in their readiness to kill other animals when they would not kill human beings.”[7] Part of the goal of any liberation movement is to empower oppressors to see lucidly their prejudices, which are often latent. Change can only be achieved through a clarified vision.

Singer is a vegetarian. The fourth chapter of Animal Liberation is a justification for the practice. Some people are vegetarians for health reasons, others for moral motives. Singer falls into the latter camp. “It is not practically possible,” he writes, “to rear animals for food on a large scale without inflicting considerable suffering.”[8] Anyone who has studied factory farming knows this to be true. One thinks of the work of Dr. Temple Grandin who developed a more humane abattoir for the slaughter of cows, pigs, and sheep.

There are numerous critiques of Singer -- one being rooted in the law of the jungle. Animals eat other animals, too. Furthermore, they kill each another with unparalleled savagery. We are carnivores. The primary function of our cuspids (also called canines) is to tear flesh. Even if it was not our original design, we evolved to be meat eaters. R.M. Hare, a demi-vegetarian, claims that there is a difference between causing animals suffering and killing them for food. In the wild, animals typically have shorter and rougher lives. Hare writes,

We have to ask…whether the entire process of raising animals and then killing them to eat causes them more harm overall than benefit. My answer is that, assuming, as we must assume if we are to keep the “killing” argument distinct from the “suffering” argument, that they are happy while they live, it does not. For it is better for an animal to have a happy life, even if it is a short one, than no life at all.[9]

Although logically defendable, there is something about Hare’s argument that is unsettling. It is as if there are only two possible choices for animals: life in the wild where it is harsh or have a comfortable yet shorter existence on the farm. Clearly there are other options. Furthermore, as Singer and Grandin have shown us, life on the factory farm is not a comfortable alternative to life in the wild. If we could create a utopia for humans, but it would require our lives to be cut short, would we feel that such a perfect world was better than our existence with all the difficulties and hardships we incur?

Clearly, there are particular rights that we cannot bequeath to nonhuman animals. Bentham and Singer would concur. Animals cannot vote or drive a vehicle, for example, but neither can newborn babies, the severely mentally disabled, or those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Because animals lack the ability to perform certain tasks does not mean that they do not deserve certain basic rights -- rights that take their ability to experience pain and fear into account. The two issues are unrelated. And what about the fact that animals are superior to us in other respects? The Acinonyx jubatus (commonly known as the cheetah) can accelerate their running rapidity from zero to sixty in three seconds and can reach speeds as fast as seventy-five miles per hour. Those who can run a five minute mile travel at twelve miles per hour. That is a far cry from the cheetah. Does that make us inferior to them as a species? It certainly does in terms of speed, but certainly not moral worth. Similar comparisons can be made with eagles, who can carry four times their body weight in flight, and gorillas, who can lift 2000 kilograms (or 4409 pounds, the equivalent of twenty-five people who weigh 175 pounds each) over their heads. Our strength does not compare.

Surely this does not make us morally inferior beings -- a species deserving fewer rights. In fact, one could argue that basing such rights on strength is as arbitrary as using intelligence as the rule. However, if intelligence is to be the rule surely there could be a species far more intelligent than Homo sapiens. Would that change our moral ethos?

IV: Building on Singer

I concur with Singer and maintain that nonhuman animals have rights due not to their cognitive ability, but the fact that they can experience pain and fear. But what about the intellectual ability of nonhuman animals? Surely that is a factor in how they are perceived by the majority of people. If nonhuman animals had intellectual abilities akin to humans that would certainly influence the latter’s sensitivity regarding the numerous ways we use the former: e.g. food, clothing, sport, entertainment, protection, and so forth.

It is arduous, if not impossible, to discern the IQ of nonhuman animals. The means by which we chart the intelligence quotient of humans involves testing and modes of communication that obviously are not easily transferable to nonhuman animals. That said, scientists and zoologists have shown that chimpanzees are quite similar to us in terms of physical traits, reasoning, and even DNA. Dolphins are creative. According to an online article by Science/NBC News, the “dolphin in Australia uses a sponge to protect her snout when foraging on the seafloor, a tool use behavior that is passed on from mother to daughter.”[10] Elephants mourn their dead. Squirrels and other rodents practice deception. Crows are able to communicate with one another in such a way that only the staunchest skeptic would say is void of reason. Dogs and pigs are able to be trained. Clearly, these, and other species, possess some level of cognitive ability.

For the sake of argument, let’s posit that the comparable, average IQ of the above mentioned nonhuman animals is five. (It is probably higher, but I find it hard to believe that it is lower.) The average human IQ is 100. This means that humans are twenty-times more intelligent than nonhuman animals. Now let us imagine that extraterrestrial beings exist and that one particularly race of them, one that possesses an average IQ of 2000, visits the earth. (They would have to be incredibly intelligent if they were able to traverse space and time to come to the Earth.) Now let’s imagine that these aliens want to use our flesh for food and our skin and hair for clothing. Maybe the entrepreneurs among them discover that if they double our recommended daily caloric intake and keep us confined in closets our flesh will become fatter and more tender due to our lack of movement. They also want to experiment on us for scientific and cosmetic reasons so they construct special laboratories in which we are tested. Maybe they are small (yet powerful) enough to ride on our shoulders for sport and transportation and decide to hold competitions in which the more petite among them drive us, or maybe they make us race one another on specially build tracks. Who knows what else they may decide to do. Maybe they will put two of us in a small, enclosed ring and watch us brutally claw one another to death -- or maybe they will make us run through the wild as they stalk us and shoot us with their laser guns.

Would this be ethically acceptable? Would these aliens be justified in treating us this way? (After all, they are far more intelligent than us.) In fact, their ratio of intelligence to ours is the same as (if not higher than) our ratio of intelligence to nonhuman animals. Yes, we are rational, sentient beings, but not compared to our interstellar oppressors.

The question is rhetorical: of course we would not qualify such exploitation as ethical. In fact, as much as it was in our power, we would rebel against our captors. This is the impetus for most liberation movements: the oppressed revolt (not necessarily with violence) when they can no longer tolerate their subjugation. Ideally, such revolutions lead to change.

Such oppression is unethical, regardless of the intelligence level of the oppressed, on utilitarian grounds (à la Bentham). Hearkening back to section two, we noted that Jeremy Bentham’s brand of utilitarianism did not take level of intelligence or even species into account in the sense of affording more rights to one group or class over another. Bentham, as you recall, maintained that the pleasures enjoyed by the beast were no different than those in which the most cultured among us indulge. Happiness is relative. Listening to J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto performed by the Handel and Haydn Society while imbibing a glass of Château Lafite Rothschild would give a tremendous sense of pleasure to the elite, erudite, sophisticate, whereas someone else would find a similar degree of enjoyment (according to Bentham’s Felicific Calculus) watching The Jerry Springer Show while guzzling a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. According to Bentham, if they yield a similar degree of happiness, they are equally ethical.

Bentham did not distinguish between the higher and lower pleasures. His counterpart one generation removed, however, did. In the oft quoted segment from his 1863 text Utilitarianism, Mill, who was a student of Bentham, writes:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.[11]

If pleasure and degrees of happiness are relative instead of comparative, then human pleasures are not superior to animal pleasures. (In fact, the phrase human pleasures is a misnomer since they vary among humans, as noted above.) Therefore, the pleasures of an extraterrestrial race are not superior to human pleasures. They would simply be different, and this is the basis by which we would critique alien exploitation. “Just because they are different and possess a higher degree of intelligence,” we would say, “does not afford them the right to infringe upon our rights.” And this polemic would be ethically justified.

This article is not an exercise in science fiction, although what I propose sounds an awful lot like the classic 1962 Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.” I do not know whether aliens exist or not. It certainly is possible. If they do exist it is conceivable that one or several species of them would be as intelligent as I propose. But even if they were not, the comparison still holds: level of intelligence does not determine moral worth. If it did, then we could justify using people who are severely mentally disabled -- whether they were born that way or developed cognitive ailments later in life, such as Alzheimer’s disease -- for medical testing. Nazi doctors did so. Were they simply superimposing popular perceptions of some animals onto those they considered undesirable and subhuman? Nazi propaganda films, such as The Eternal Jew (1940), compared Jews to rats to promote the Final Solution. Other films produced by the Third Reich justified the extermination of the severely mentally disabled by making similar claims. Mind you: I am not comparing your average meat eater to a Nazi, nor am I minimizing the plight of Jewry in German in the 1930s by comparing it to factory farming. What I am saying is that the victim of our whims, whoever they may be, must be delegitimized (not just dehumanized) to justify exploitation. When it comes to animals, we base such practices on cognitive ability primarily.

No moral theory can ever rationalize such practices. The question before us is why are they used to justify how we treat animals when we would never use them to validate such treatment of other human beings?

© 2016, Dr. John Tamilio III


[1] As a professor of ethics, I purposely use the word black when referring to certain non-whites. It is far more inclusive and therefore less offensive than African-American. There are people from various ethnicities and cultures that define themselves as black who are not of African descent. There are also a variety of Caucasians from Africa for whom the label African-American would seem strange at best. Furthermore, the term is culturally biased. Do we refer to blacks who live in Europe as African-Americans?
[2] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 208.
[3] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010, originally published in 1970), 7.
[4] Peter Singer, “All Animals are Equal,” taken from Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works, David Schmidtz and Elizabeth Willott, eds., 2d ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 55.
[5] See Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation (Prometheus Books: Amherst, 1988), 311. This passage is quoted in Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement, updated edition (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009/1975), 7.
[6] Singer, Animal Liberation, 15.
[7] Ibid., 17.
[8] Ibid., 160.
[9] R.M. Hare, “Why I Am Only a Demi-Vegetarian,” taken from William H. Shaw, Social and Personal Ethics, 8 ed. (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014), 163.
[11] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Edited with an Introduction by George Sher, 2d ed. (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001), 10.

Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin,