09 January 2005

Peter Singer’s Influence

It’s been 30 years since Animal Liberation was published. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or read about its influence, which is said to be significant. But where’s the evidence for this? Has anyone done a study? And how much influence is a lot of influence? Is it influential as philosophy books go, as books about animals go, as books about animal ethics go, or as books in general go? And how much of the book’s influence is due to its argumentation, as opposed to the emotional wallop packed by its images and descriptions of how animals are used in laboratories and on factory farms? If all or most of the book’s influence is due to emotional factors, then neither Singer nor his philosophical colleagues can take pride in the fact that it was written by a philosopher; for another book that had the same images and descriptions—but not the arguments—would have had the same effect.

Philosophers are usually careful in making factual claims, since they have no factual expertise, but for some reason (self-interest?) they take liberties when it comes to making claims about the influence of this or that philosophical work. How influential has John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice been, either popularly or professionally? Nobody knows! We need a society or a discipline that measures such things by strict empirical standards—and publishes the results. By the way, I’m not suggesting that the worth of a philosophical work (or any other scholarly work) lies solely, or even largely, in its impact on nonphilosophers. But when self-serving claims are made that philosophical works such as Animal Liberation have had significant extraphilosophical influence, I’m skeptical. Let’s see the evidence.

No comments: