Truth Through Combat

Peter Singer’s Animal Equality Argument

Peter Singer’s Argument – “All Animals are Equal”


1)      Begins with a summary of the debate raised by Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman:


a)      Assertion: Argument on behalf of equal consideration for women’s rights and interests is given by Wollstonecraft.


b)      Rebuttals: Arguments by opponents to feminine equality.


i)        Wollstonecraft’s argument uses the same reasoning as that used to argue on behalf of the rights of non-human animals.


ii)       It’s patently absurd for non-human animals to have rights and interests.


iii)     Conclusion of the rebuttal argument: Since the argument for the rights of non-human animals is absurd, and it is identical in form to the argument for the rights of women, it is therefore absurd for women to have rights.


2)      There are two possible replies to the above argument, according to Singer:


a)      Deny that arguing for women’s rights implies an argument for the rights of non-human animals (show that the groups are different in the relevant ways and therefore are not comparable to one another).


b)      Bite the bullet: accept that the principle of equality (on which the argument for women’s rights is based) implies support for the rights of non-human animals as well as women and show that any differences that may exist between the groups are irrelevant to the consideration of equal treatment.


c)      Singer adopts the second option.


3)      Why are sexism and racism wrong? This becomes the crucial question in Singer’s defense of his interpretation of the principle of equality.


a)      They are not wrong on the basis of any factual claims that we could make about the races or the sexes.  Why not?


i)        Because if we are wrong about these factual claims, it appears that we would be forced to support racism or sexism in certain situations.


b)      Equality does not rely on factual claims, and is instead a moral principle.  Therefore, the argument for equality must be prescriptive (instead of descriptive—in other words, it must tell us what to do, not what is currently the case).  The principle of equality is given along the following lines:



i)        Philosopher Jeremy Bentham states the principle as follows: “Each to count for one and none for more than one.”


ii)       Sedgwick states it as follows: “The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other.”


c)      Singer’s version of equality relies on the interests of the being in question: all individuals must receive equal consideration of their interests (whatever these interests may be).  The following argument is employed:


i)        Considerations of intellect are irrelevant – see the following quotes concerning the treatment of blacks in the 19th century:


(1)   Jefferson (p. 276): “Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I myself have entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to [blacks] by nature, and to find that they are on a par with ourselves…but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights.  Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore the lord of the property or persons of others.”


(2)   Truth (p. 276): “They talk about this thing in the head; what do they call it? [‘Intellect,” whispered someone nearby.]  That’s it.  What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights?  If my cup won’t hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?”


ii)       The analogy to racism and sexism shows that considerations of intellect are irrelevant.  If this is so with regard to slaves, then why should it be relevant with regard to non-humans?


iii)     A being’s interests begin with its happiness and/or suffering.  Pain is a measure of suffering, and therefore is relevant to the being’s interests.  Thus, pain must be taken into account when taking into account the interests of other beings.


iv)     The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is the basis of interests.  We can’t have interests without this base-level capacity to have preferences based on whether something gives us pleasure or pain.  Bentham supports this view as well:



(1)   “The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny.  The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor.  It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.  What else is it that should trace the insuperable line?  Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse?  But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old.  But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail?  The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer


v)      Therefore, sentience (the ability to feel or perceive, in this case related to pain) is the proper standard of equality and morality.


Rebuttals and Problems for Singer’s Argument:


4)      How do we know that animals are sentient and have the capacity to feel pain?

a)      Reply: How do we know other humans are sentient and have the capacity to feel pain?


5)      Does this mean we should do away with all animal experimentation?

a)      Not at all.  Singer’s interpretation of the equality principle is that it calls for equal consideration of the feelings (pain/pleasure) of other beings.  This means that we must do our best to determine the capacity to feel in other animals – such a process is rife with guesswork and difficulties, but can still be performed (consider the example of the earthworm).  The key is to refer back to the interests of the creature in question: is it fair to say, for example, that a sentient creature has an “interest” in avoiding pain?  What about an interest in avoiding captivity?  These two distinct questions will yield different sets of positive answers.  The great ape, for example, might have an interest in avoiding pain as well as an interest in avoiding captivity.  The rat, on the other hand, may have an interest in avoiding pain, but no interest in avoiding captivity.  What’s the difference in the two cases?  We are charged with asking Bentham’s question: “…Can they suffer  In the case of the great ape, it seems plausible to say that a creature with such intellectual capacity can cognize the fact that they are in captivity, and can in turn react negatively to that condition.  This would seem to indicate that the creature suffers while in captivity.  The rat, on the other hand, may not have the ability to cognize the fact that they are in captivity.  Therefore, we might not be inclined to say that it has an “interest” in avoiding it.  That’s because the rat doesn’t appear to suffer merely from the fact of being in captivity (this, of course, is disputable…other factors could be considered here, such as studies on the overall health of rats in captivity, studies which pinpoint more precisely what “captivity” means, etc.).

i)        Notice that in the above, a lot depends on the particulars behind the experiment.  Setting up a preserve on a large island in the South Pacific for the non-interventionist observation of bonobo monkeys may not even qualify as captivity as far as the bonobos themselves are concerned.  Putting them in a 20’ x 20’ steel cage, however, might indeed qualify as captivity in the eyes of the bonobo and therefore lead to a certain degree of suffering. 


6)      So how do we decide whether we should experiment on animals?  What criterion does Singer suggest?

a)      The criterion is given on p. 278: “…experiments serving no direct and urgent purpose should stop immediately, and in the remaining fields of research, we should whenever possible, seek to replace experiments that involve animals with alternative methods that do not…”

i)        What happens when we’re unable to replace animal experimentation?  Singer asks us to determine whether the experiment is urgent and serves a “direct purpose.”  How do we make this determination?  We can do so by answering the following question: Is the situation grave enough to impel us to experiment on humans in order to perform the necessary research?  Singer concludes:


(a)    “If the experimenters would not be prepared to use a human infant then their readiness to use non-human animals reveals an unjustifiable form of discrimination on the basis of species, since adult apes, monkeys, dogs, cats, rats, and other animals are more aware of what is happening to them, more self-directing, and, so far as we can tell, at least as sensitive to pain as a human infant.” (279)


(b)   Singer extends the argument to include talk of mentally impaired infants in order to avoid the reply that human infants have the potential to grow well beyond the capacities of the animals listed above.


Filed under: Bioethics, Uncategorized

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