31 December 2003

Animal Liberation and Utilitarianism

Peter Singer (born 1946) is a towering figure in animal ethics, so let's clear something up once and for all. I will direct people to this entry whenever they make the mistake I'm about to identify. In 1980, Singer began an essay with the following stirring words:
I am a utilitarian. I am also a vegetarian. I am a vegetarian because I am a utilitarian. I believe that applying the principle of utility to our present situation—especially the methods now used to rear animals for food and the variety of food available to us—leads to the conclusion that we ought to be vegetarian. (Peter Singer, "Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism," Philosophy & Public Affairs 9 [summer 1980]: 325-37, at 325)
Five years before this essay appeared in print, Singer published Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 1975), which has been called "the bible of the animal-liberation movement." In this book, Singer argued against two "speciesist practices": (1) the raising and killing of animals for food and (2) the use of animals in scientific experiments and tests of consumer products.

So Singer is all of the following: (1) a utilitarian, (2) a vegetarian, and (3) the author of Animal Liberation, in which he makes a case for vegetarianism. Moreover, he is a vegetarian because he is a utilitarian. It does not follow from any of this that the argument of Animal Liberation is utilitarian. In fact, it is not, as Singer himself said in 1999. Responding to criticism by Robert C. Solomon, he wrote:
Solomon refers to my Animal Liberation, and suggests that the emotional impact of the photographs included in that book had more impact than the 'ethereally controversial utilitarian attack on "speciesism" that accompanied them'. But the text of Animal Liberation is not utilitarian. It was specifically intended to appeal to readers who were concerned about equality, or justice, or fairness, irrespective of the precise nature of their commitment. (Nor, for that matter, do I think there is anything in the least ethereal about it.) Significantly, the book succeeded in persuading thousands of people to change their diet and become involved in the animal movement. (Peter Singer, "A Response," chap. 13 in Singer and His Critics, ed. Dale Jamieson [Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999], 269-335, at 283)
Singer is a smart man and a good philosopher. He knew in 1975 and knows now that not everyone is a utilitarian. Many people are, but many are not. If the argument of Animal Liberation presupposed utilitarianism, then he would be cutting off much of his audience. People who aren't utilitarians would say, "This argument doesn't apply to me; I reject its main premise." That would be self-defeating, since Singer wanted to persuade as many people as possible to change their beliefs and behavior. The premises of Animal Liberation can be accepted by people of any (or almost any) theoretical persuasion. This gives the book a wide audience.

Here is a handout that I distribute to my Ethics students when we discuss Singer's 1974 essay "All Animals Are Equal" (first published in Annual Proceedings of the Center for Philosophical Exchange 1 [summer 1974]: 103-11). This essay, published when Singer was twenty-eight, is the basis for the main argumentative chapter of Animal Liberation. I showed the handout to Singer a few months ago. He suggested some minor changes in wording but said it accurately reconstructs his argument. As he put it in e-mail correspondence, the argument is compatible with utilitarianism but does not presuppose it. In other words, it's a nonutilitarian argument but not an anti-utilitarian argument. You will note that the argument is entirely free of theoretical commitments.