Animals feel pain and suffering, so why do we deny them equal consideration, placing human preferences above compassion?
Philosopher Peter Singer criticises philosophy for failing to challenge accepted beliefs. He argues for a change in traditional Western ethics, which is human-centred or anthropocentric and which denies any direct moral obligation to the natural environment. In his book All Animals are Equal (1986), Singer calls for a change in attitude that gives animals equality of consideration regardless of any differences in their capabilities compared to humans. He makes a strong case for a shake-up in our cultural thinking.
Argument for animal equality
The basis for Singer’s argument is sentience, the capacity to experience pain and pleasure, which non-human animals have in common with humans. Singer supports vegetarianism, and although his views are unlikely to be widely accepted in a world where meat-eating is entrenched in cultures, his argument for animal equality with consideration for animal care and welfare is difficult for any rational, compassionate person to dismiss.
Singer argues for equality of consideration for animals. He proposes a change in attitude to nature and an expansion of our moral concern to include animals on the basic moral principle of Equal Consideration of Interests. Everyone’s interests should have equal consideration regardless of race, gender, or intelligence, and also regardless of species if distinctions aren’t permissible within the human species.
Animal equality is not animal rights
Singer isn’t proposing that animals have equal rights. They can’t take part in society in the way humans can – a vote is meaningless to a dog, for example. He acknowledges differences between humans and non-humans but argues that equality shouldn’t depend on equal capabilities. After all, humans aren’t equal to each other in intelligence, physical capabilities, or moral capacity, yet they are given the same moral consideration. Singer proposes that equality is a moral ideal. Death vs preference doesn’t consider equal interests – an animal shouldn’t be killed to satisfy human preference regardless of how many humans benefit.
Animal suffering compels equality of consideration
Singer looks to Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (1789), “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” If the capacity for reason or discourse is used as a measure of equality then a dog is superior to a baby. Singer, like Bentham proposes that sentience – the capacity of a creature to experience pain and pleasure, frustration and satisfaction – is the measure for giving equality of consideration.
If a being suffers then there is a moral justification for considering that suffering and an arbitrary boundary like intelligence is irrelevant. Sentience, a mental state shared with humans, gives animals both interests and a moral claim. We are capable of extending our circle of moral concern for human beings beyond our family and friends, so why not extend it beyond species?
Humans must reject speciesism
Singer sees the majority of humans as speciesists. We inflict suffering on animals farmed for food and we harm them by preventing their natural life cycle even though nutritionally we don’t have a basic need for meat – our protein needs can be met from plant sources. We use animals as a resource to satisfy taste preferences. Inhumane farming methods directed by economics and efficiency override welfare. Animals reared by intensive farming methods are kept in cramped, dirty conditions, and pumped with antibiotics and growth promoters to make meat even cheaper for consumers. Singer suggests the consumer can stop the cruelty and reject speciesism in the same way the U.S. stopped black oppression and rejected racism.
Pets are valued but farm animals are not
Singer’s view that we should become vegetarians is supported by philosopher Michael Fox in Why We Should be Vegetarians (2006). Fox says we care about the state of the world and our health so we should be concerned about what we eat. In fact, a Cornell University study (2004) in China found plant-based diets to be healthier. We care about reducing pain and suffering in the world, and animals are like us, so we should care about animal suffering too. Steven Wise (2002) reports 10 billion animals are slaughtered annually for food in the U.S. Pets receive lavish attention while livestock is expendable. The meat industry operates behind closed doors, but investigative journalism has revealed slaughterhouses with shocking human and animal welfare.
Evaluating our choices and actions leads to personal growth
Cultural and symbolic meaning strengthens reasons not to question our habits, and Fox notes our unreflective approach to life – we close our minds and don’t evaluate what we do. Caring shouldn’t depend on a relationship between the carer and the subject but should be based on sympathy, empathy, and compassion, with the benefit of personal growth. Our desire to survive and flourish is an interest we share with animals, and if we can recognise this we may be better placed to respect their independent life.
A Utilitarian view that favours maximum benefit might support the argument that pleasure and satisfaction gained by humans from eating meat outweighs animal pain and suffering. But the pain surely matters more to the animals than the pleasure matters to us in eating. Some people don’t even register what they are eating in the fast-paced Western lifestyle. The animal’s basic instinct must surely outweigh human preference. Animals have the desire to live, can enjoy living, and try to avoid death.
Compassionate farming for a more humane society
The demand for animal products in developed countries is not sustainable, and animals continue to suffer horrific conditions and cruelty. Organic and free-range farming is more humane, but a move to plant-based food production would be ideal. Vegetarianism and veganism are not limited to taste preferences; they provide an ethical outlook on how we can live. This attitude of causing less harm could have Utilitarian maximum benefit as humans and non-humans enjoy a less materialistic and more spiritual society.
Animals show intelligence
Seeing animals as sentient beings rather than meat cuts would also allow us to respect them as intelligent creatures. Animal behavioural science is still a fairly new research area, but there are many concrete examples of surprising animal intelligence. Scientist Irene Pepperberg worked with Alex, her African grey parrot until his premature death, showing him to have reached the cognitive ability of a five-year-old (2009). Memory tests with chimpanzees have shown their amazing ability to recollect number sequences after viewing for a split second on a computer screen, and more recently, Caledonian crows have shown surprising problem-solving powers. But regardless of how animal intelligence compares to ours, we can still have respect.
Animal experiments are often unnecessary
Yet we use animals as a resource in cruel experiments to test products for human use, or in psychological experiments for behavioural tests that might benefit, or simply inform humans. Hypothetically, if experimenters are not prepared to use orphaned human infants in experiments then it is speciesism because adult animals are more aware than an infant. If equal consideration was applied, the number of experiments would fall. A New Zealand university has been criticised for shooting pigs in the head to test brain splatter patterns when other methods might have been used. Using pig’s hearts in transplant operations is a tougher ethical dilemma. While we may not sacrifice a pig so we may live, many of us would not want to lose a close family member.
Culling ‘pests’ is not the same as killing animals for meat
Opponents to Singer might argue that we kill animals we consider to be pests, for example, possums, rats, and stoats which threaten native birds in New Zealand. Are we justified in killing them or should we allow birds to suffer harm? How do we decide between animal species when both are trying to live? Maybe in this instance, we consider posterity when deciding, based on the benefit to ecosystems and biodiversity in preserving native species. Where there is a conflict between human and non-human interest in survival, Singer might be unjust in suggesting equality of interest – a mosquito may carry blood-borne diseases like West Nile virus and Malaria, and the latter is a serious threat to children.
Holmes Rolston criticises vegetarianism and the idea of our duty to sentient life. He argues that farmed breeds are no longer natural. If we stop farming, these animals will die out or turn feral with associated environmental problems of unchecked populations. However, this isn’t justification for continued pain and suffering, and humane culling to check populations doesn’t equate to the suffering in factory farming. Rolston proposes that as farm animals are not cultural animals like pets, their suffering can equal the suffering they would have experienced in the wild. However, this would seem unfair given they don’t have the pleasure they might have had if life in the wild had been possible.
Human meat consumption is not an event in nature
Rolston even suggests that the killing and eating of animals in culture are events in nature just like predation and we don’t object to that. However, most people don’t kill the animals they eat – meat-eating is sanitised and predation in the wild is a matter of survival. Rolston argues the sacrifice of animal lives is in keeping with the natural ecosystem, but this is not true if animals are intensively farmed.
Defending why we shouldn’t eat humans, Rolston arrogantly suggests that animals can live in ignorant bliss of their forthcoming slaughter until the last few moments. He argues that our only obligation to them is to avoid pointless pain, in particular, the pain inflicted for culture-based reasons such as religious sacrifices that are ecologically pointless. Singer would argue that humans eating meat is ecologically unnecessary.
In choosing to respect nature, we show self-respect and self-realisation
Unlike Singer, David Schmidtz isn’t concerned with equality between humans and non-humans but suggests that we use our capacity for rational thought for mutual benefit. He argues that unlike animals instinctively hunting for food, we have a deliberative choice to care about an animal’s beauty, pain, and suffering. Schmidtz doesn’t consider speciesism as necessarily wrong or akin to racism – it’s worse to kill a dolphin than a tuna and we don’t need to be species egalitarians to have respect for nature. Self-respect from looking after things we admire and self-realisation in our capacity for moral consideration are reasons to respect nature.
Singer’s argument for giving respect and moral consideration to animals based on their sentience is a robust one. Fox supports Singer’s appeal to human nature to care and reduce suffering, not just for our pets, but for all animals. Although Rolston is narrow-minded in his anthropocentrism, his argument for meat-eating being part of human culture, although not morally justifiable, identifies the difficulty in promoting widespread vegetarianism.
Finally, Schmidtz’s focus on self-respect and self-realisation as a basis for respect for nature, irrespective of equality, could be more persuasive to those in doubt. People may not be willing to widen their moral concern with no perceived benefit to themselves, even though it is imperative for the wellbeing of the natural world to do so. But in considering animal needs as well as our own, and in minimising animal pain and suffering, we can break free of cultural traditions or ignorance, and enjoy personal growth by making informed, considered and ethical choices.
Do you think we give enough consideration to animals? Should we consider their pain and suffering above our preferences? How can we create a more equal world?
Battery cages by Farm Sanctuary on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Veal calf by Farm Sanctuary on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Sows in gestation crates by Farm Sanctuary on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Foie gras production by Farm Sanctuary on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Cows and calves by Cosmo_71 on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)