Michael Bennett's Reviews > Animal Liberation
by Peter Singer
by Peter Singer
Normally I won’t review nonfiction, since most of the time I don’t even give them a star rating. However, there a few exceptions. First of all I may end up reviewing some memoirs since I consider a good memoir to be a blend of fiction and nonfiction (think James Frey here, but also less sinister examples). So my major exception will be this book. I feel okay with reviewing this book because I do have a philosophy degree, and also because this book had a major impact on me at a fairly young age. When I was a young whippersnapper of 20 I read a brief essay by the controversial Australian philosopher Peter Singer, in the Sunday New York Times magazine (this was a around the time of his protested appointment as Bioethics Professor at Princeton) about poverty and the choices we make in the West. The piece was simple, it was straightforward, and it was brilliant. He argued that we need to do more to help those who are starving and dying (not a revolutionary concept, but certainly one that has yet to catch on), but he did so by drawing specific analogies of behavior which we would consider grossly unethical (not stepping into mud to save a drowning child for fear of ruining a pair of 200$ pants) with behavior that we consider perfectly acceptable (buying 200$ pants when that same money could dig a well, or a send a child to school for a year, if spent elsewhere). The only difference between the two being distance. The only reason one is unacceptable is because we are face to face with it. But how does mere distance alter the ethical demands, he asks? It shouldn’t, of course, is the answer. This piece moved me in a direct way, and it helped to shape my decision to pursue a philosophy degree (a decision which my bank account laments, but my brain appreciates). But perhaps even more changing was the brief bio at the end of the piece which read something to the effect of: “Peter Singer is the author of the seminal 1975 work Animal Liberation which posits that non-human animals should be treated on the same ethical plain as humans”. As a young man on the Canadian prairies this idea was a bit new to me, but it also felt right. I often thought that I would one day stop eating meat (I enjoyed the taste, but something did seem not quite right) and so I took this book out of the library. A week later I ate my last piece of meat (thanksgiving dinner) and that was seven years ago. [return]The book follows a similar plan to the brief piece I read in the New York Times (which was called simply “Rich and Poor” and was the same abridged version of “Famine, Affluence, and Morality" [http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/... also appeared in his book Practical Ethics). It uses simple analogies based on ethical norms that we already accept and he broadens them to include new norms that are currently rejected. In Animal Liberation one of the key arguments is that our sense of the ethical world needs to be broadened to include non-human animals and that we need to redraw the bounds based on sentience (roughly the ability to feel pain) rather than on perceived intelligence or rationality. I am restraining myself from trying to mention some of his arguments here, as they are powerful and to the point, but I would only get bogged down in the finer points and be overly concerned that I was giving Mr. Singer a fair representation, also I run the risk of looking like a moron if I miss, or misinterpret, something. So read the book if you want to hear the points, and I encourage you to do so. He writes with a clarity and simplicity that makes it an easy (though not light) read. This is an accessible book written for the masses and requires no philosophical background to comprehend. All it takes is an open inquiring mind. So give it a chance if you care at all about living an ethical life. It may seem like it is impossible to do everything good, and that there are so many terrible and tempting things in the world that it you can’t avoid them all, but that does not mean you shouldn’t do anything. Reading this book is a good place to start.
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