07 December 2004

Misunderstanding Peter Singer

I finally got around to reading Richard A. Posner’s book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). Although I admire Posner greatly and always learn from him, I find that he treats certain people and subjects cavalierly. For example, here is what he says about Peter Singer:
Singer is an academic philosopher. But his book [Animal Liberation] is written for a popular audience, is not tightly reasoned, and makes no effort to overcome the obvious objections that can be lodged against a version of utilitarianism that expands the community whose aggregate welfare is to be maximized to include animals—objections such as: if there are happier animals than man, we may have a moral duty to shrink the human population to the point at which the maximum number of the happy animals can be supported. (page 158)
Posner must have read other works by Singer besides Animal Liberation, because nowhere in that book does Singer refer to or rely on utilitarianism (the theory that one has an obligation to maximize the overall good, impartially considered). The book has no theoretical presuppositions. That Singer is a utilitarian and argued in behalf of animals doesn’t entail that Singer’s argument is utilitarian in nature. (Compare: I’m a conservative and I put in a garden. Therefore, I put in a conservative garden.) In fact, it is not. Singer’s argument can be accepted by any normative ethical theorist. As Singer himself put it to me, it’s compatible with utilitarianism but not dependent on it.

If you read Animal Liberation carefully, you’ll see that Singer is making a simple and uncontroversial point: that like interests should be treated alike. This is an application of Aristotle’s dictum that justice consists in treating like cases alike and different cases differently. Suppose you’re dealing with two humans whose interests are the same. Justice requires that you neither disregard nor discount either person’s interests. Singer calls this principle the Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests (PECI). It’s a formal principle, not a material principle. It doesn’t tell us what interests there are, only how equal interests must be treated.

Obviously, each of us has many interests, the main one being the interest in not suffering. Let us call beings who have the capacity to suffer “sentient beings.” You and I are sentient beings. Cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens are sentient. Trees and other plants are not. Rocks and dirt are not. Since cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens, and other animals are sentient, and since suffering is intrinsically bad (you believe that, don’t you?), every sentient being has an interest in not suffering. Trees, plants, rocks, and dirt, not being sentient, cannot suffer (by definition), and therefore have no interest in not suffering. Indeed, they have no interests at all. Nothing matters to them. Sentience appears to be a necessary condition for having interests, and, since being sentient gives one at least the interest in not suffering, it is also a sufficient condition. The class of sentient beings is the same class as (i.e., is coextensive with) the class of beings with interests.

All Singer demands, in Animal Liberation, is that, when we act, we take all relevant interests into account and consider them equally. We must neither disregard nor discount relevant interests. But disregarding and discounting routinely occur with respect to animals’ interest in not suffering. Humans inflict terrible suffering on animals for little or no reason, often just because they like the taste of their flesh. (I refer here to factory farms, where most meat, including, I suspect, all the meat you consume, originates.) That this disregards the animals’ interest in not suffering can be seen by the fact that we would not inflict any amount or kind of suffering on humans in order to satisfy our taste for human flesh (supposing we had such a taste). We are fastidious about respecting human suffering, but cavalier to the point of indifference when it comes to animal suffering.

If we took animal suffering into account, without discounting it, as PECI requires, our behavior would change dramatically. The main change is that we would stop eating the flesh of animals who were made to suffer, since eating it contributes to further suffering. But practically speaking, this means becoming vegetarian. We would also stop using animals for entertainment or for frivolous medical, biological, and psychological experiments. Finally, we would stop most forms of hunting, trapping, and fishing (those whose sole purpose is recreation, amusement, or sport).

Singer’s argument is not as radical as it may appear. He’s not imposing his values on his readers. He’s trying to get them to see that they’re not living up to their own values, i.e., that they’re not taking seriously their beliefs that (1) suffering is intrinsically bad and (2) animals have the capacity to suffer. If nothing else, he’s shifting the burden of persuasion to those who would continue to use animals as objects. He’s forcing people to reflect on the distinction they draw between humans and other animals. There are many differences between humans and animals, some of them, in some contexts, morally relevant. But one thing humans and animals have in common, and that must be considered equally, is sentience. If suffering is bad, why is it less bad when it’s experienced by an animal? Why the fundamentally different treatment of human and animal suffering? How does that differ from disregarding or discounting the suffering of other races or nationalities, which all of us think objectionable?

That a smart man like Richard Posner doesn’t grasp Singer’s argument is dismaying. Perhaps he was too eager to dismiss the argument and latched onto the first thing he thought damaging to it, namely, Singer’s utilitarianism. But if Singer’s argument doesn’t rest on utilitarianism, then no defect in utilitarianism can undermine it.

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