Speciesism, Painism and Happiness: A Morality for the Twenty-First Century

July 21, 2011

It's generous of Peter Singer to remind us that, even if he has talked a lot about the concept, the term "speciesism" isn't his but Richard Ryder's, coined in 1970 while - so we're told - lying in the bath. And it's generous of Singer, too, to write the foreword for this book, despite disagreeing with large chunks of it. It will help sales.

Speciesism is, of course, a bad, thing, on a par with racism and sexism. It involves our making unwarranted distinctions between members of different species, ranking ourselves unfairly above animals, worrying more about squirrels than rats just because they're cuter, or ignoring starving children and leaving everything to the donkey home. But you're not a speciesist in thinking animals are unequal, nor in treating them unequally, not even in claiming we're top dog. What both Singer and Ryder insist on is equal consideration, and who could argue with that? Well, the philosopher Mary Midgley for one, but there isn't space for a follow-up.

Around the same time, and maybe in the same bath, Ryder came up with "painient". What makes a thing matter, gives it moral status, is its ability to feel pain. People usually talk about sentience here, but Ryder's point is that merely being able to sense things - and perhaps thermostats and cameras can do this - hardly gets one into the moral community.

"Painism" is not a little different. Ryder fashioned this one more recently, and it names his home-grown moral theory. There's a lot of ambition here. Painism is said to be the account the modern world needs. It "challenges utilitarianism and democracy", improves on its main rivals, creates "a fresh and unified moral outlook".

What does it have us do? As with utilitarianism, the emphasis is on pain and pleasure. As with the rights approach, there's insistence on the importance of the individual. And it's around here that Singer jumps ship. Although Ryder allows that some measuring of the quantity of pain is appropriate - I should help agonised Jane before discomfited Jim - any more systematic aggregating or summing of pains across individuals is disallowed. So I can't cause pain in one to generate pleasure in many; I can't cause severe pain in one to prevent mild pain in millions; and I can't legitimately prefer that one should die rather than 100 should die. This last is a weird and wonderful claim put about by John Taurek some 40 years ago. Ryder doesn't mention him by name, but signs up to the position. Let's just say this is a long way from common sense.

And happiness? It's something like the mood you're in when your pleasures outweigh your pains. There's no accounting for tastes, and I may get my happiness in a quite different way from that in which you get yours. Assuming we don't make others unhappy, there's an end to it. Morality kicks in when and only when we consider others. Insofar as we strive to be good - and Ryder is never clear on how far that should be - we'll aim at making others happy. We're in Jeremy Bentham territory here, and unfriendly to John Stuart Mill.

I'm probably more sympathetic to Ryder's views overall than many will be. But he doesn't earn this sympathy. Many of his claims - gang rape is wrong; we're not going to get a viable morality from the Bible; bankers deserve a kicking - are uncontroversial. The more contentious or paradoxical they become, the more evident the need for detail, argument, nuancing, modesty. Unfortunately, all of these are in short supply.

Speciesism, Painism and Happiness: A Morality for the Twenty-First Century

By Richard D. Ryder. Societas Imprint Academic. 128pp, £8.95. ISBN 9781845402358. Published 1 June 2011

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