If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.1
Peter Singer has been described as having more positive influence on the world than any other living philosopher.2 His book Animal Liberation has been translated into fifteen languages, sold half a million copies, and is known as the Bible of the Animal Liberation Movement. Practical Ethics, published in eight languages, was named one of the world's one hundred most significant philosophical texts.3 He is currently De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, having previously held a Chair at Monash University, Melbourne, from 1977 to 1999, and stood for the Australian Senate as a candidate for the Australian Green Party.
Singer was born on 6 July 1946, in Melbourne. His parents had arrived in Australia eight years earlier, fleeing from their native Vienna to escape the persecution of the Jews shortly after the Anschluss, the political union of Germany and Austria. Singer, however, did not learn German until he began high school. He then studied Law, History and Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, where he met his wife Renata, with whom he has had three daughters. While at the University of Melbourne he participated in the movement against the Vietnam War. Later, when he was continuing his studies at the University of Oxford, this experience inspired his first book Democracy and Disobedience. It was in Oxford that he first learned about the conditions in which animals are kept in laboratories and factory farms, when he met the vegetarians to whom Animal Liberation is dedicated.
Singer was also deeply influenced by his Oxford supervisor, Professor R.M.Hare, one of the leading philosophical advocates of utilitarianism, a moral outlook developed in the last century by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Like other consequentialist moral theories, utilitarianism claims that our ultimate moral aim should be to achieve outcomes which are best when the interests of all those affected are considered impartially. Utilitarianism also claims that the best outcome is one which contains the greatest sum of utility, a term which usually refers to pleasure minus pain, preference satisfaction minus frustration, or simply happiness.
A number of environmentally important implications follow from utilitarianism. Given the significance the theory attaches to certain mental states, it implies that we must take into consideration all those sentient creatures capable of possessing those states. The condition of animals must, therefore, be included in our calculations, and an outcome which involves their suffering is morally worse than one which does not. Moreover, even if we have little personal concern for individuals in distant countries or future generations, they too can thrive, or suffer, as a result of our actions, and so must also be taken into consideration. From the impartial perspective of morality, their interests are no less important than ours. Thus, as Singer shows, a welfarist theory like utilitarianism can prove very supportive of certain environmentalist concerns.
Singer also believes that welfarist premises are modest, and provide a sound basis for an environmental ethic. It is therefore unnecessary to appeal to more extravagant metaphysical assumptions about the 'inherent worth of all life', or 'the intrinsic value of species and ecosystems'. As Singer explains, it is difficult to see how 'a species or an ecosystem can be considered as the sort of individual that can have interests, or a "self' to be realised', let alone that 'the survival or realisation of that kind of self has moral value, independently of the value it has because of its importance in sustaining conscious life'.4 By contrast 'an ethic based on the interests of sentient creatures is on familiar ground. Sentient creatures have wants and desires. The question: "what is it like to be a possum drowning?" at least makes sense, even if it is impossible for us to give a more precise answer than "it must be horrible". But there is nothing that corresponds to what it is like to be a tree dying because its roots have been flooded.'5
A moral theory is stronger when it does not require faith in controversial metaphysical assumptions, and has wide appeal based on clearly intelligible and relatively weak premises, to which everybody can relate. For this reason, although Singer openly embraces utilitarianism, his arguments are often constructed in ways which can appeal to people from a variety of moral positions. His three best-known contributions to moral philosophy include his work on animal ethics, famine relief and bioethics. His work on abortion, euthanasia, reproductive technologies and other areas of bioethics is extensive, and has generated considerable controversy. The first two areas, however, which are more directly relevant to environmentalism, have had an even greater impact on the development of modern moral philosophy. They are not just exercises in applied ethics, but path-breaking ideas about the nature, scope and demandingness of morality, which raise issues of fundamental theoretical importance.
Again, however, Singer's arguments are based on very simple and apparently uncontroversial premises, such as 'pain is bad', and 'it is wrong to cause intense pain unnecessarily or fail to relieve it when we could do so at little cost to ourselves'. The following is probably one of the best know passages making this point:
The path from the library at my university to the humanities lecture theatre passes a shallow ornamental pond. Suppose that on my way to give a lecture I notice that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. Would anyone deny that I ought to wade in and pull the child out? This will mean getting my clothes muddy and either cancelling my lecture or delaying it until I can find something dry to change into; but compared with the avoidable death of a child this is insignificant.
A plausible principle that would support the judgement that I ought to pull the child out is this: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.'6
Relying on these modest premises, Singer argues that it is wrong to cause millions of animals the most terrible suffering in factory farms for the sake of a trivial difference in taste to our meals, and that it is wrong to allow people in poor countries to die of starvation, when we could prevent their deaths by making donations which do not represent unbearable costs to ourselves. In so doing, he develops a number of arguments which conclude that most of us should, like him, become vegetarians and donate—with some flexibility depending on our circumstances—at least 10 per cent of our incomes to charities like Oxfam that assist the world's poorest people.
Some people finds the case for vegetarianism more convincing because we actively cause animals to suffer and die while in the second case we may merely be passively allowing people to suffer and die. Others, by contrast, find the second case more persuasive because it concerns human beings rather than animals. Singer challenges the alleged moral importance of both of these distinctions: between killing and letting die (when they have the same consequences) and between causing a certain amount and type of pain to a human and to a non-human animal (which increases to the same degree the suffering in the world). Other consequentialists, as well as Singer, have scrutinized the first distinction at length.7 Singer is particularly famous for opposing the second distinction, which he argues relies on speciesism, a discriminatory prejudice comparable to racism. Thus, like racists, speciesists do not base their decisions on the merits of an individual case but instead on group membership.
Singer's opposition to speciesism is often misinterpreted. First, anti-speciesists can accept that humans and animals are, in fact, different. Similarly anti-racists, and feminists, may accept the existence of racial or sexual differences since they need only deny that any such differences justify giving less importance to the interests of racial minorities or women. Second, anti-speciesists do not claim that killing any animal is as bad as killing a person. They may accept that taking the life of a self-conscious creature—with memories, expectations, plans and long-lasting friendships—like a chimpanzee is worse than killing a creature, like a fish or a worm, which lacks any of these capacities. By taking the chimpanzee's life, we would be depriving it of much more; a worm, however, has only a worm's life to lose.
Singer's view of the wrongness of killing—discussed in Practical Ethics and subsequent works—also fits with the view expressed in Animal Liberation, that whenever pain is of the same type and intensity it is not, in itself, morally worse if it occurs in the course of a human rather than an animal life. The views can be reconciled because the interest in avoiding suffering is very different to the interest in avoiding death. For example, when doctors cannot spare both a mother and her foetus a certain amount of pain, mothers tend to prefer to suffer quite considerably, to save their future baby from a smaller pain. However, when the conclusion the doctors reach is that they cannot save both lives, it is the mother that is generally saved, even when there are no relatives that could be affected by her death. This difference provides the plot of a good number of war movies. During the siege, all the sedatives, or the cognac, are given to the most gravely injured soldier. But when at the end of the movie they cannot all be rescued—for example, because someone must remain to detonate the explosives— the volunteer is standardly the most gravely injured soldier, who has least to lose. While an individual's interest in preserving their life depends on what sort of life it is going to be, the interest in avoiding suffering is universal, and when it really is of the same character and intensity, it has the same moral importance independently of who suffers.
This idea changed the life of Henry Spira, one of Singer's former students. Having participated in some of the century's key progressive struggles, for Civil Rights in the American South and for Trade Union reform in the US Labour Movement, amongst others, Spira devoted his last two decades to the fight for animal rights. Singer wrote a biography, and filmed a documentary about Spira because his life expressed so well what the philosopher has attempted to say: that there is a natural progression from human liberation to animal liberation. The same compassion, the same sense of justice, the same opposition to cruelty and exploitation which made us reject slavery and, later, so many other forms of oppression and abuse, have to make us react against the systematic and prolonged torture of millions of sentient creatures crammed in laboratory cages and factory farms. Singer also claims that by 'ceasing to rear and kill animals for food, we can make so much extra food available for humans that, properly distributed, it would eliminate starvation and malnutrition from this planet. Animal liberation is human liberation too.'8 Furthermore, as well as contending that vegetarianism is required by interests of animals and the poorest human beings, Singer argues that the meat industry is so environmentally damaging that it cannot be part of a sustainable lifestyle, and must also be rejected on grounds of intergenerational justice.9
This is just one example of the integrity and depth of Singer's work. In an academic and political context favouring the development of novel and sophisticated theories which ultimately lead only to the same old reformist conclusions, it is refreshing to see a theorist begin with some modest premises, clear arguments and common sense, and inspire people to radically re-examine their lives, reach into their pockets, and take to the streets.
1 Practical Ethics, p. 229.
2 See, e.g., The Philosophers Magazine, 4, 1989, and R.Posner, 'Reply to Critics', Harvard Law Review, 111.7, p. 1816, 1998.
3 K.Worsley, 'Heartless Animal or Rational Beast?', Times Higher Education Supplement, 29 May 1998, p. 17.
4 Practical Ethics, p. 283.
6 Ibid., p. 229. See also, 'Famine, Affluence and Morality', Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1, pp. 229-43, 1972; 'Reconsidering the Famine Relief Argument', in P.Brown and H.Shue (eds), Food Policy: US Responsibility in the Life and Death Choices, New York: The Free Press, 1977; Practical Ethics, chs 8 and 9; The New York Times, 5 September 1999.
7 But see, e.g., Practical Ethics, pp. 206-13, 218, 222-9, 309 and D. Jamieson, Singer and His Critics, pp. 311ff.
8 End of the 1975 Prologue to Animal Liberation.
9 See Practical Ethics, pp. 287-8 and How Are We to Live?, pp. 44ff.
See also in this book
Singer's major writings
Democracy and Disobedience, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. Animal Liberation, New York: New York Review/Random House, 1975, 2nd edn 1990.
Animal Rights and Human Obligations, ed. with Tom Regan, Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Practical Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, 2nd edn 1993. Marx, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. The Expanding Circle, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. Hegel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Should the Baby Live?, with H.Kuhse, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Applied Ethics, ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
In Defence of Animals, ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.
A Companion to Ethics, ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
How Are We to Live?, ed., Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1993.
The Great Ape Project, ed. with P.Cavalieri, London: Fourth Estate, 1993.
Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Rethinking Life and Death, Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1994.
The Greens, with B.Brown, Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1996.
Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
Jamieson, D., Singer and His Critics, Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
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