Dylan's Reviews > Animal Liberation

Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
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Jul 12, 2009

it was amazing
Recommended for: anyone opposed to all prejudice
Read in July, 2009

This is an incredibly eye-opening book and the most widely read on this subject. It starts with the a priori assumption that all beings deserve equal consideration, from which follows the axiom of Utilitarianism that the interest of any one individual is of no more importance than the interest of another. "At an absolute minimum," Singer says, all beings have "an interest in not suffering." Because all animals (or at the very least all mammals) can suffer, there is as much reason to prevent their suffering as to prevent human suffering. The fact that this principle of the equal consideration of interests is usually not extended to non-humans indicates that "speciesism" is a social problem at least as pernicious as racism or sexism.

He illustrates this point with the example of our consideration and treatment of human infants, or adult humans with permanent brain damage or with severe learning disabilities. It is generally assumed that we should consider the interests of humans such as these as no less important than our own, though their cognitive abilities are at most no greater the most intelligent nonhumans. Thus, it follows that if we are consistent we cannot deny the same considerations to any being with the same interests. Or we may also decide that it is acceptable to eat or perform scientific experiments on brain damaged humans, too. But we cannot arbitrarily exclude nonhumans from consideration, unless we baldly admit that we are guilty of speciesism, for reasons no better than the prejudice of racists and sexists.

The biggest part of the book is dedicated to exposing the atrocities that are being committed in animal research labs and in factory farms. Singer's research on these issues is thoroughly documented, based on objective and original sources, and provides many little-known mind-blowing statistics. (Around 60 million mice, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits were used in labs in 1965; of 1.6 million animals reported by the USDA in 1988, over 90,000 were reported to have experienced "unrelieved pain or distress;" p.37) Citing this book, Derrick Jensen rightly says it is not for the faint of heart, but its information is incredibly important given the dismal ignorance about (denial of?) these realities.

Striking a weird note, Singer says that in a totally vegetarian world he hopes that eventually "the only herds of cattle and pigs to be found will be on large reservations" but the question remains whether they should be born at all. He doesn't go into any more detail than this, but the reserve idea strikes me as pretty absurd. I don't see cattle and pigs acquiring the status of pets; their domestication was exclusively agricultural. Their companionship was neither the intent nor a consequence of their breeding, and zoo animals are only interesting for their lack of domestication. (The only tenable alternatives seem to be extinction or readaptation to the forces of natural selection.)

He also raises the issue of nonhuman carnivores, and goes so far as to consider whether humans might have an obligation to eliminate carnivorous species in order to reduce suffering. Thankfully he dismisses this idea, but disturbingly not because he finds it inherently wrong (no joke!); he just thinks that humans have thus far demonstrated a practical inability to police all of nature. Taken to its logical conclusion here, it's obvious to me his whole utilitarian system falls apart, and even a logically less airtight ecological ethic (that values whole species and communities) aligns much better with the larger reality. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the plight of animals used in labs and factory farms can hardly be represented better than Singer does.

In the final chapter Singer responds to his detractors. He includes a great refutation of the Carrot juice is murder! claim that that we must either cause suffering or starve, which is too clever not to share: Even if plants can feel pain just like animals, it still makes more sense not to eat flesh if we don't want to inflict pain. This is because, by eating an animal, we are "responsible for the indirect destruction of at least ten times as many plants" (100 calories of an animal's flesh required his/her consumption of at least 1000 calories). If carrot juice is murder, then rabbit stew is genocide.
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