Peter Singer on Suffering and the Consequences of “Speciesism”

Share Button
Suffering Elephant - Musée D'Orsay. "La bestiare du Musée D'Orsay. Photo by Janet Cameron.

Suffering Elephant at the Musée D’Orsay. (La bestiare du Musée D’Orsay.) Photo by Janet Cameron, all rights reserved.

Australian animal-rights philosopher Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University in New Jersey.

According to Howard Darmstadter in his article, “Peter Singer says you are a Bad Person,” in “Philosophy Now,” two main principles inform Singer’s argument. These are Utilitarian principles, and are as follows:

  • Maximise pleasure and minimise pain.
  • All pleasure and/or suffering counts equally.

Peter Singer: Suffering Counts

Decoded Past asked Peter Singer to explain exactly what he means by, “all suffering counts equally.” He says:

“I don’t think that we should discount the suffering of a being because of its species (any more than we should discount the suffering of a human because of its race, sex, IQ, etc.).  The principle of equal consideration of interests, which I defend, is simply that we should give similar importance to similar interests.” 

“If hitting a horse causes the horse as much pain as hitting a child, then they are equally bad. Of course, if hitting the child causes more pain, then it is worse – and if hitting the horse causes more pain, then that is worse.”

According to Howard Darmstadter, Peter Singer is wrong to claim that all suffering counts equally, because his views have “awkward consequences. Darmstadter refutes Singer’s analogy that failing to consider animals’ interests is tantamount to racism or sexism. This would be the case “…only if animal interests are as valid as human interests.”

Are animal interests as valid as human interests? How can we comfortably survive in the world, and adhere to a code of ethics that may not be in our best interests? Is Professor Darmstadter being fair to Singer?  Let’s take a closer look at the argument.

The Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests

Singer starts from a fundamental moral position, that of human equality regardless of differences of colour, race, gender, intellect or religion, and without reference to actual abilities. Thankfully, today, most thinking humans believe that people should not be discriminated against because of “what they are like” and choose freely to follow this creed.

Nor does it matter if some people are less intelligent than others. This does not make it okay for us to exploit them.

Singer says, “Only a basic moral principle of this kind can allow us to defend a form of equality which embraces all human beings, with all the differences that exist between them.”

Having established this basic moral position, Singer believes we cannot limit our position to human beings, but we must extend it to non-human creatures. Singer describes “speciesism” as a prejudice; a prejudice no different morally from the attitude of racism, particularly the racism many white people exhibited towards black people during our grandparents’ time.

So – how can we learn to behave differently towards animals?

Can Animals Suffer?

In Practical Ethics, Peter Singer includes a quotation by Jeremy Bentham, which begins: “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.” Bentham continues: “…a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational… animal, than an infant of a day, or a week… The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

The main point for Bentham, and for Peter Singer, is the actual capacity for suffering, and that is what “Equal Consideration of Interests” means. It is arbitrary to consider qualities of intelligence or of rationality.

“We cannot claim moral justification for failing to consider that suffering, and sentience is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others,” says Singer.

We empathise with other suffering primates more than we do with birds and fish. Photo by Janet Cameron

We empathise with other suffering primates more than we do with birds and fish. Photo by Janet Cameron, all rights reserved

Alleviating Animal Suffering

However, Darmstadter disagrees, stating categorically that “animals aren’t people,” and that they don’t necessarily react to suffering as we do.

We do see the reaction to pain in many animals as similar to our own, but if we make an enormous leap from considering the suffering of primates to that of forms of life that are unlike our own, for example, fish or crustaceans, we become less empathetic.

But Peter Singer tells us this isn’t what he is saying. He accepts that there are certainly situations where one species will undergo worse suffering than another species. For example, Singer agrees that a non-human cancer victim is unlikely to suffer as much as a human cancer victim.

The non-human victim is probably far less aware of its situation and will not need to undergo the mental anguish of anticipation that a human being would experience. In a different situation, the animal may suffer more because of a lack of understanding that it is not being threatened.

However, he tells us, “Pains of the same intensity and duration are equally bad, whether felt by humans or animals.”

Eating Meat to Live

Peter Singer is, as you would expect, a vegetarian. However, there are communities that rely on fish or other animals for their survival. Decoded Past asked Peter Singer how he would respond to the suffering we cause when we kill and eat animals we need to survive. He tells us, “Taking suffering into account does not mean that one has to starve in order to avoid causing any suffering.” 

In Practical Ethics, Singer gives an example of Eskimos who might starve if they could not hunt animals. Their interest in surviving overrides that of the animals they kill.  But, we in the West cannot so easily defend our carnivorous diet, because we can live very well without eating meat. Meat-eating does not prolong our lives, or make us more healthy; therefore, it is a “minor interest.”  Meat is also wasteful in terms of the energy and cost required to produce it. 

It is immoral to satisfy a minor interest at the expense of great animal suffering.

A Need for Radical Change

An additional abomination is the miserable conditions under which humans force many animals to live before slaughtering them for our tables. However, even if this is not the case where farmers carry out their business ethically, the fact of our “minor interest” still does not justify the consumption of animal products.

Peter Singer devotes his life to trying to alleviate the suffering of animals, but this can only happen if human beings are prepared to make radical changes in their consideration of the interests of other species:

“Precision is not essential. As we shall see shortly, even if we were to prevent the infliction of suffering on animals only when the interests of humans will not be affected to anything like the extent that animals are affected, we would be forced to make radical changes in our treatment of animals that would involve our diet, the farming methods we use, experimental procedures in many fields of science, our approach to wildlife and to hunting, trapping and the wearing of furs, and areas of entertainment like circuses, rodeos, and zoos. As a result, a vast amount of suffering would be avoided.”

Factory Farming – No Excuse!

One argument Darmstadter uses against Peter Singer is to acknowledge Singer’s point that “The facts of modern food productions are not pretty,” and to cite examples of farm animals being cooped up in cages and other stresses endured in the factory farming industry. However, he points out that animals in nature also endure stress trying to escape from prey, constantly running for their lives, and defending their mates and young from danger.

Somehow, it’s difficult to see why the dangers faced by wild animals, which are a consequence of their evolution and nature, can excuse the excesses of factory farming, as Darmstadter suggests.

Experimentation – Not an Equal Consideration of Interests

Singer presents us with a telling analogy: “If forcing a rat to choose between starving to death and crossing an electrified grid to obtain food tells us anything about the reactions of humans to stress, we must assume that the rat feels stress in this kind of situation”  How can we say animals do not feel stress, when experiments like this work because they prove that non-humans can be compared to human beings by how they suffer?

Many people believe that scientists carry out most experiments in order to preserve human life and alleviate human suffering, but this is not true. Singer details some experiments that are too disturbing to describe here, but are related to cosmetics and shampoos, and involve young rabbits and the enormous suffering that is inflicted on baby monkeys who are deprived of maternal care and isolated.

Experiments like these “…do not alleviate more suffering than they inflict,” says Peter Singer. He asks:

“To the hypothetical question about saving thousands of people through a single experiment on an animal, opponents of speciesism can reply with a hypothetical question of their own: would experimenters be prepared to perform their experiments on orphaned humans with severe and irreversible brain damage if that were the only way to save thousands? ( I say ‘orphaned’ in order to avoid the complication of the feelings of the human parents.)”

This is an uncomfortable and painful example, but the point is that large numbers of species of animals would be more intelligent than this unfortunate human being, more sensitive to pain, more aware of what was happening to them. Therefore, experimenters are biased in favour of their own species at the expense of non-human species.

“If this bias were eliminated the number of experiments performed on animals would be greatly reduced,” claims Singer.

Human Choices

Howard Darmstadter says that we may wish to become vegetarian, and we may try to promote the cause of vegetarianism. We may wish to donate a large part of our income to charity.  We have a right to make these choices. Declining to do so, says Darmstadtler, does not make you a bad person.

“The moral world is wide, and can accommodate all sorts of positions.”

Is this a question of moral relativism?

Moral relativism is to take a normative stance, relating to how we feel we ought to behave towards those with whom we disagree.  It’s about tolerance, and accepting that moral judgments are not necessarily absolute. David Hume said we cannot, through “pure reason,” derive an “ought” from an “is” – although we can, as human beings, choose to do so in response to our feelings and instincts. David Hume is often misunderstood for his ought/is guillotine by both laymen and other philosophers, but was able, through his empiricism, to favour human feeling and instinct over reason.

Free – and Doomed – to Choose

As Darmstadter concludes, “But in the shadows, where there are no generally-accepted rules and the facts are not clearly established, we remain free – and doomed – to choose.”

Peter Singer would like us all to choose an equal consideration of interests, wherever we can, because we are free to choose.

What “is” can be changed.

© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

Speak Your Mind