Animal Liberation — Peter Singer

Critic Peter Singer has written an in-depth review article about the book, Animals, Men and Morals, which very thoroughly covers the essays within the book and posits that there are some very serious questions about morality in the U.S.

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Animals, Men and Morals

Singer begins his essay by recounting the various (and fairly recent) liberation movements in the United States (Black Liberation, Gay Liberation, and Women’s Liberation); and Singer believes (based on his reading of the essays in the book) that the next (and current) liberation movement is for animals. Given that this article (and the release of the book) is 33 years old, there may have been some more recent arguments and theories that could trump the ideas and philosophies in this book, but that is irrelevant. Why? Any scholarship that is worthy has something valuable to offer the reader, no matter whether it is 2,000-year-old or just 33 years old.

Singer asserts that the book — whether the editors and essayists intended it to be or not — amounts to the launch of a liberation movement for animals; “the book as a whole amounts to no less,” Singer explains on page 1 of his critique. The powerful narrative that is contained in the book gets what seems to be fair and full exposure by Singer. For example, as to his insistence that this book is the informal launch of an animal liberation movement, that remark can be backed up by the narrative of Patrick Corbett, Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University in England. Corbett sounds a bit like American Revolutionary icon Patrick Henry when he says:

“…We require not to extend the great principles of liberty, equality ad fraternity over the lives of animals. Let animal slavery join human slavery in the graveyard of the past” (Singer, p. 1). To invoke slavery as a metaphor for how animals are treated in the West is quite daring, and even provocative. Singer says, okay, animals are deserving but are they to be placed in the same liberation context as women, African-Americans and gay men and lesbian women? His challenges to the salient theme of this book pop up periodically, and with a sharp eye and sound logic.

Moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham believed that the interests of every being that have interests “are to be taken into account and treated equally with the like interests of any other being” (Singer’s paraphrase used here). Bentham isn’t the only moral philosopher taking this position, but he makes a good point (Singer, p. 2) when he writes that the question is “not” can a horse or dog or cat reason, or can they talk; the question is, “Can they suffer?” (Singer, p. 2). And Springer believes that Bentham is correct when he reasons that if any being suffers (be it a dog or cat or cow) there can be “no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration.” But Springer may be treading on thin moral ice — at least with many people who don’t categorize animals in the same genre with humans — when he asserts on page 2 that if a being suffers its suffering should count “equally with the like suffering (if rough comparisons can be made) or any other being” — including humans (p. 2).

At this point in his essay Springer spends too much time convincing readers (and perhaps himself) that animals do indeed experience pain. But by page 3 he begins a review of the issue of language and beings without language. Just because animals do not use English or other languages that humans are familiar with, doesn’t mean they don’t have thoughts; and Springer uses a point from iconic chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall that humans don’t always use language themselves to illustrate their emotions. Apes clasp hands, cheer their colleagues, and express other emotions through body language — just as humans do — hence, “basic signals we use to convey pain, fear, sexual arousal…are not specific to our species,” Singer points out (p. 3).

So the argument then is not whether or not non-human species suffer, but whether or not humans cause their suffering by eating their flesh. On page four Singer quotes from the author’s Introduction: Noting that a “full force of moral assessment” has been provided in explicit terms in the book, the authors state that “…there can be no rational excuse left for killing animals, be they killed for food, science, or sheer personal indulgence” (Singer, p. 4). Singer references the essay in the book by Richard Ryder, who criticizes (with great justification) animal experiments (“now a large industry”). Of course there have been laws passed in the U.S. Congress subsequent to when this book was published, laws that provide guidelines for any animal research, but Ryder provides Singer with some gruesome experiments on animals and Singer reports them in his essay.

How moral is a company or organization or university when it injects chemicals into the brains of cats? At the National Institute for Medical Research in London they did just that, and while it is doubtful they could get away with such cruelty in 2011, they certainly did then. The injection into the brain of a cat with a large does of “Tubocuraine” caused the cat to jump into its cage and start calling “noisily whilst moving about restlessly and jerkily… jerking in rapid clonic movements” like an epileptic convulsion, and dying 35 minutes after the injection (Singer, p. 5).

Springer noted that notwithstanding the fact that these kinds of hideously cruel experiments are taking place “on university campuses throughout the country” there has not been “the slightest protest from the student movement” (p. 5). He is wondering in this essay why students protest against discrimination when it has to do with race or sex, or the military and big corporations, but when it comes to animals, the students tend to see them as “statistics rather than sentient beings with interests that warrant consideration” (p. 5).

Conclusion — What are Americans’ Values and Morals vis-a-vis Animals?

When Springer alludes to the essay by Ruth Harrison (“On Factory Farming”) he hits home with the most egregious practice in the West when it comes to food production. When veal calves are kept in narrow stalls, to narrow for the poor calf to turn around, that is immoral, and it paints an immoral portrait of the society, whether it is the UK or the U.S. One of the questions to be answered in this paper has to do with skewed morals, and there is no doubt that when a customer buys an order of Kentucky Fried Chicken he or he doesn’t think about the frightfully unsavory conditions that chicken was raised in. Hence, the customer obviously has skewed morals because all he or she is thinking of is hunger, satisfying that hunger, and placing the bones and paper trash in the proper receptacle.

The Kentucky Fried Chicken customer isn’t thinking about the fact that the chicken she is eating was raised in an area twenty inches by eighteen inches with four or five other laying hens, an area not big enough to stretch wings. If a video was playing as the customer entered the store, showing chickens jammed into tiny spaces and injected with drugs “to squeeze the maximum” out of the investment, likely the customer would pass on buying the KFC meal. The morals are all twisted by advertising and propaganda in this regard.

As Americans we value family, status, and possessions (among other things), but we are apparently too busy or too disinterested in checking our values against what we eat and how that food is raised. Those who value the rights of animals, and who chose to eat vegetables, and who oppose animal experiments and animal cruelty but don’t do anything about it, are giving lip service to morality. But those who speak out, who participate in meaningful protests of the conditions at cruel factory farms, and eschew eating the flesh of animals, can say they have morality at work at least in this context. How can values interfere with daily lives? Well if one’s values include not eating meat, then that person needs to locate a vegetarian restaurant or prepare one’s own vegetarian meal and not count on finding a venue for that preference. That could mean going out of the way (or interfering with one’s daily routine) but it’s a very small price to pay for the act of doing the right thing.

Works Cited

Singer, Peter. “Animal Liberation.” The New York Review of Books. Retrieved April 2, 2011,