21 May 2004

Getting Singer Wrong

Here is an in-house report on a new book about animal thinking. I found it interesting, but the psychology professor whose book is being discussed gets Peter Singer wrong. He says Singer “humanizes” animals. Singer does nothing of the sort. Singer, who understands biology better than most psychologists, would never say that humans and animals are alike in all or even most respects. He says (1) that they are alike in some respects and (2) that some of the respects in which they are alike, such as being sentient, are morally relevant.

Morally responsible agents take all morally relevant considerations into account. (Yes, that's a tautology, but it bears stating.) That means animals must be taken into account when we act. Their interest in not suffering must be neither disregarded nor discounted simply because of species membership. Species, in other words, like race and sex, is morally irrelevant. Sadly, most humans don’t take animals into account. They inflict suffering on them for little or no reason, such as taste, entertainment, and the production of unnecessary clothing and redundant “knowledge.” This, Singer argues, is morally irresponsible.

Singer isn’t imposing his values on you, so don’t dismiss him as a meddler. He’s trying to get you to think clearly about—and act upon—your values. He’s your friend, not your enemy. If you feel as though you’re being imposed on, it may be your moral scruples rather than Singer doing the imposing. Singer just reminds you of your scruples and helps you see their implications. That is what philosophers do, and have done, since Socrates. It is a noble undertaking.

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