Animal Liberation: Augmenting the Moral
Philosophy of Peter Singer
By Prof. John Tamilio
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. 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.”
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
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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?
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
 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?
 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding:
An Introduction to Christian Theology, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 208.
James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Fortieth Anniversary Edition
(Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010, originally published in 1970), 7.
 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.
 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.
 Singer, Animal Liberation, 15.
 Ibid., 17.
 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.
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Edited with an Introduction by George
Sher, 2d ed. (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.,