Post and past Singer: Absolutism and animal rights

Opinion by Johnathan Bowes
April 14, 2015, 9:11 p.m.

This past Wednesday, Peter Singer (the most famous or, at least, the most controversial bioethicist of our time) came to speak here at Stanford. Though he talked to the sold-out audience of students, faculty and visitors about the effective altruism movement, the ideas that brought him to prominence — animal rights — cropped up at various points during his talk.

Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” published in 1975, argues that humans should recognize the equality of nonhuman animals because of their ability to suffer and experience pain. We humans are just animals, after all, and all sentient beings seek to avoid suffering. This means that, in the jargon of ethicists, all sentient beings have an interest to not suffer. Our species’ failure to recognize that interest simply because its holders aren’t human comes from a place of what Singer and others call speciesism. Such an attitude exists in the same category as the other -isms that our society grappled with most widely in the ’70s, namely racism and sexism.

Many people today, both here at Stanford and around the world, see such ideas as either too preposterous or too radical to fathom. Nonetheless, the modern animal liberation movement has grown up around Singer’s ideas, and various jurisdictions around the world have even put some of those ideas into law, including California with the new state requirements for chicken cage sizes that became fully implemented earlier this year.

At a basic level, the ideas of Singer and other animal liberation thinkers make sense. However, the foundations of those ideas become more than slightly shaky when viewed through the lens of Singer’s utilitarianism alone. Working to protect the welfare of our fellow animals instead requires the consideration of a more fundamental, deontological approach; without that consideration added to the mix, it will likely prove difficult to effect lasting change for the benefit of all animals.

The main crux of Singer’s argument, the idea of animal equality, comes with the idea that we as humans should make it our goal to minimize suffering — particularly the suffering that we cause. And the suffering of nonhuman animals at our hands is undeniable. Whether through factory farming practices, puppy mills or overly restrictive amusement parks, we humans have found a myriad of ways to physically and psychologically damage other animals. The sentience of those animals (specifically, their ability to feel pain) should form the only basis necessary for human beings to consider them as equal moral actors, which Singer explains.

But taking this from theory to practice causes the idea of animal equality to run into problems, especially in the context of the United States. The basis of ethical decision-making from a utilitarian standpoint like Singer’s involves a need to weigh out all of the competing interests involved in a situation and decide based on those interests alone. Doing so can (and unfortunately often does) ignore the concept of rights, particularly at the individual level. Instead, the idea of the greater good takes precedence.

This lack of acknowledgment for individual rights bodes ill for the cause of animal equality in the U.S. After all, the entire basis of our governmental and legal system rests on Enlightenment ideas about rights endowed by our Creator. Our culture as a country has steeped itself in those ideas for the past 239 years. Simple appeals to utilitarian calculation may successfully disabuse the average U.S. human of some speciesist ideas, but doing so could never cause a great deal of social change to favor the liberation of other animal species. The ease with which we as a culture default to individual liberties — and the fact that doing so is nearly always ethically correct — has largely doomed such efforts from the outset.

But that doesn’t mean that we should abandon the Singerian approach to animal equality altogether. Instead, Singer’s frameworks from “Animal Liberation” and his other works on animal welfare should inform how our society moves to recognize some rights for nonhuman animals, using the idea of sentience, for instance, as a guide.

Taking that idea and morphing it into a construction of true animal rights requires only a small leap; if nonhuman animals already are entitled to the ethical consideration of their interests, it logically follows that they could have a right to such consideration under, at the very least, natural law. From there, it becomes relatively easy to formulate and justify a whole host of derived moral rights for nonhuman animal species based on their interest against suffering. For instance, taking that consideration as a right would lead us to recognize other animals’ right to life, from which we could define derivative rights as varied as a right to not be tortured and a right to not be consumed for food could, depending on the strength of the cases made in their favor.

Regardless, that is the path that animal equality campaigners must follow — the path of actual recognition of animal rights. Peter Singer gets us much of the way down that path through how his arguments build the case for considering animal interests in the first place. But in order to actually reach that end, where we as a culture cease to view most animals as means to our ends, we need to push past the limits of Singer’s arguments and take a more rights-oriented approach to our fellow animals.

Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’

Johnathan Bowes (also known as JoBo) is a senior and premed majoring in Science, Technology, and Society. Originally from Sacramento, he went to high school in Chattanooga, TN. Besides writing for The Daily, he also works for El Aguila, Stanford's only Latin@ interest and culture magazine. He's also an avid fan of black tea, Game of Thrones, and Spanish literature. Follow him on Twitter @JohnathanBowes.

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