Angling for equality of consideration

February 28, 1997

In the third article in our occasional series about how we should treat animals, Peter Singer argues that the time has now come to embrace all animals inour circle of morality

Do animals have rights? If you know nothing more about me than that I am the author of a book called Animal Liberation, you will no doubt assume that you are about to read an emphatic defence of the view that animals have rights. You will find that you are wrong. But the assumption is widely made: people who object vigorously to the way in which we treat other animals are advocates of rights for animals. If they are also vegan or vegetarian, on ethical grounds - as I am - then the assumption is almost irresistible.

Even Roger Scruton, who really should know better, last year included me in a group of writers who, he claims, have "begun their examination either from the wrong basis, or from no basis at all. It makes no sense to confer rights on creatures who are insensible of the benefit ... " (THES, June 28, 1996).

There is a clear implication here that my examination of how we ought to treat animals is wrongheaded because it is based on conferring rights on them. But the most cursory reading of Animal Liberation would reveal that I ground my views not on the claim that animals have rights, but on the fact that animals can suffer, and on the principle of equal consideration of interests: "If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering - insofar as rough comparisons can be made - of any other being."

Scruton then goes on to say - as if he is about to approach the issue in a manner quite different from the misguided way in which animal liberationists tackle it - that "the moral argument must begin in metaphysics, from an exploration of the minds of animals, and the ways in which they resemble or differ from the minds of human beings". There is, however, nothing new about this approach. It is entirely compatible with Jeremy Bentham's oft-cited passage: "The question is not can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?" Like Bentham, the modern animal movement argues that the crucial similarity between our minds and those of animals is that, like us, at least all vertebrate animals and most likely some invertebrates can suffer. That there are differences between the minds of humans and other animals is not something that any animal liberationist has ever denied. On the contrary, most of them have shown keen interest in exploring the differences along with the similarities.

Perhaps they have a bias towards emphasising the similarities, but, if so, that is only to redress the balance after many centuries of thought in which humans have exaggerated the differences between humans and animals, claiming, falsely, that animals cannot use or make tools, cannot reason, or even, in the case of Descartes, do not feel. (The terminology of "humans" and "animals" itself places an unjustifiably wide gulf between us and them, for it denies that humans are also animals.) The fundamental moral issue is not so much a question about the differences between humans and nonhuman animals, but the moral relevance of these differences. Scruton does not deny that animals can suffer. He grants that fish - often losers in the debate - do feel fear and pain. Yet he manifestly gives the suffering of animals less consideration than he gives the interests of humans. He upholds the "sport" of angling on the grounds that "anglers do not enjoy the fear and pain they cause." Maybe not, and no doubt they would be morally worse people if they did, but they must be ready to allow their own enjoyment of fishing to override the fear and pain suffered by the fish. Their recreation is, judging from my strolls down many piers, based on indifference to the suffering of their victims. Is this not sufficient reason to condemn angling?

Argument about whether animals have rights is largely a distraction. It fits, as science writer Aisling Irwin notes, into "the US obsession that all moral issues should be phrased in terms of rights" (THES, September 1996). Apart from that, "animal rights" makes a handy slogan, and a suitably brief label to describe a point of view. The media's need for a label for the animal movement has in large part been responsible for it becoming known as the "animal rights movement". Outside the US, it is difficult to think of a single prominent figure who has explicitly espoused rights as a philosophical grounding for the movement.

The problem is that no other label rivals "animal rights" as a means of conveying approximately what people in the movement want. "Animal liberation" worked well in the 1970s, when we talked of the black and women's liberation movements, but now that term seems dated and it conjures up images of animals being literally set free - not always the overriding focus. As an alternative, "equality for animals" is closer to what the movement is after, but since egalitarianism takes many different forms, this slogan invites the movement's opponents to denounce all activists for animals as fanatics who think it as bad to kill a mouse as a normal human being. That is not a view I espouse.

Accepting that we should give equal consideration to the interests of all sentient beings does not imply that we should regard it as equally wrong to kill any sentient being. It is reasonable, and not speciesist, to hold that we normally commit a great wrong when we kill a being with self-awareness who is capable of understanding that he or she has lived in the past, and who wants to continue to live in the future. It is normally much less serious to kill a being which lacks self-awareness and which is incapable of projecting its desires into the future, and hence of forming a desire to go on living. This dividing line, of course, does not neatly separate all human beings from all nonhuman animals. On the contrary, there are some nonhuman animals - especially, but not only, the apes - who show more signs of self-awareness than either newborn or severely intellectually disabled humans. That is why conservatives are uncomfortable with the idea of making the seriousness of killing dependent on actual mental differences between beings. While this view justifies us in affirming that the lives of most humans need more stringent protection than the lives of most nonhuman animals, it also leads us to question whether all human life is of equal value.

Conservatives therefore prefer to cling to the idea that somehow all human life is always more precious than the life of nonhumans. Yet that is a difficult stance to defend, because it makes the value of a being's life dependent on the species to which it belongs. There are various religious defences for this view (all and only humans are made in the image of God, and so on) but attempts to defend it in secular terms always break down into either incoherence, or appeals to religious doctrines.

"Animal rights" is a useful slogan. At the level of political lobbying, too, declarations of rights can serve a useful rhetorical purpose. To get embroiled in philosophical dispute about whether animals have rights is, however, likely to prove as fruitless as debates between those who argue that a woman has a right to control her own body, and those who assert that a foetus has a right to life. Philosophical arguments for rights usually degenerate into a conflict between irreconcilable opponents.

The central argument behind the animal movement is much more straightforward. It is simply that it is wrong to allow the species of a being to determine the amount of consideration we give its interests. Certainly, the interests of beings vary, between individuals of the same species and between beings of different species. It is proper to take that variation into account. We should not imagine that cows will benefit from being given access to libraries, nor that humans can thrive when confined to so many acres of pasture, no matter how lush. But to the extent that we can compare the sufferings of nonhuman animals with our own, we ought to give the same weight to the same amount of pain or misery. For why should species, in itself, play a role in the amount of consideration we give to a being's pain? If we are willing to draw a line around "us" in this way, how are we to answer the racist who wants to do the same, but to define "us" more narrowly?

Scruton asserts that "moral judgement is a device through which we attempt to live by agreement with our fellows", and this presupposes a capacity in others to enter into agreements, and to reciprocate the favours we do them. This may be an accurate account of the origins of morality, but it is a mistake to argue from a claim about how morality has developed, to a claim about what we ought to do. We have extended the circle of morality in the past, from the tribe to the nation, from the nation to the race, and now from the race to all human beings. This circle already includes beings who cannot reciprocate: babies, the severely intellectually disabled, and, of course, all future generations.

If morality were a kind of social contract that protects only those who can reciprocate, what to do with nuclear waste would not be a moral issue. As long as we stored it in containers to keep it safe for a century or so, we would have fulfilled our obligations. Obviously, that is not a view any acceptable morality could endorse. But if we can extend the circle of morality to include future generations, we can also extend it to embrace nonhuman animals.

Membership of a community of beings that reciprocates favours is undoubtedly a significant part of our moral life. It is here that the language of rights and duties is most at home. Those who seek to base ethics on community membership often stretch the bounds of community. Without detailed political knowledge, it may be hard to see how Britons, say, share a moral community with Bosnians, let alone with Rwandans. Yet we ought to do what we can - and much more than we have done - to help seemingly remote people, if only for the simple reason that we can do so much to reduce their suffering, at so little cost to ourselves.

The same reasoning holds for animals - and requires a dramatic change in our treatment of them.

Peter Singer is the author of Animal Liberation (Pimlico, 1995) and professor in the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

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