Animal Rights A critique of Peter Singer

Indian Summer

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Apr 26, 2012
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Oxon, UK
  1. Vegan
Presumably, some people here will be familiar with Australian author and philosopher Peter Singer's perspectives on ethics and animal suffering. Singer is, according to Wikipedia, a preference utilitarian. Utilitarianism "defines right actions as those that maximize pleasure and minimize pain", but preference utilitarianism is more specific to preferences / interests: A preference utilitarian is someone who "promotes actions that fulfill the interests (preferences) of those beings involved". (See preference utilitarianism in Wikipedia.)

In an article in edition #89 of Philiosophy Now titled "Peter Singer says you are a Bad Person", Howard Darmstadther writes :

To convince you that you should give more of your wealth to alleviate suffering, Singer uses a persuasive analogy. Suppose you see a child drowning in a pool. You can rescue the child at no danger to yourself, but at the cost of ruining your new suit (PE, p. 229). Clearly, you are morally obliged to wade in, suit be damned. But, says Singer, if you are a moderately well off citizen of first world nation, donating 10% of your income to CARE or Oxfam will similarly relieve much suffering, with only a modest impingement on your lifestyle (p.222). As with the drowning child, you can't just walk by. You have to grab your chequebook and wade on in.

For a preference utilitarian like Singer who holds that all pleasure and suffering counts equally, this line of thinking can have odd consequences:
Consider: if all pleasure or suffering counts equally, then (as his argument goes), the pleasure or suffering of your own children should have no special place in your calculations. So if you live in Ohio abd are deciding whether to spend $200,000 to send your daughter east to Princeton for four years, or instead spend $80,000 to send her down the road to Ohio State, while giving the other $120,000 to save the life of hundreds of African children -- well, Hello, Columbos (Ohio)!

Then, moving on to the more interesting topic of animal suffering:
Then there's the nearly intractable problem of what it is like for an animal to suffer. Animals don't react exactly like us, and they can't describe their suffering. But animals do react to events that would cause pain to us, often in ways that seem familiar from our own experiences. To the extent that animals are like us (especially neurologically), we project that they can suffer like us. But with each retreat down the evolutionary path -- from primates to mice to birds to crustaceans -- we become less inclined to see their suffering as akin to our own. When we drop a lobster in a pot of boiling water, does it feel like a human, or just react, like a thermostat? (When I asked my niece why she eats chicken and fish but not red meat, she told me that pigs and cattle just look too much like people. It's a natural way to think about animals.)

I find this to be an interesting argument, and it certainly seems like a typical way, if not necessarily a natural way, to think about animals.

He also brings up the old argument that some animals might prefer the safety and free food they enjoy in captivity over the uncertain life in nature. This, of course, is a false choice as these animals would not have existed were it not for their human masters, so they would never have had the choice between safety and freedom in the first place. To humans, it's a choice between breeding animals for captivity and suffering on one hand, and non-existence of these animals on the other.


Forum Legend
Jun 4, 2012
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Does Singer explicitly say that all pleasure and suffering counts equally (and should be considered equal by moral actors)?

I don't agree with Singer on everything, but I like his work. His writing in favor of animal rights is persuasive and, most importantly, informative regardless of whether one agrees with his utilitarian basis for ethics.


Jun 8, 2012
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Manchester, UK
This is interesting. My dissertation for my MA is going to be partially based on singer's work, so I'm always interested in reading critiques. I disagree with the last part quoted; I don't think it's relevant as to whether they suffer 'like us'. They have a brain, they have a nervous system, suffering may well be capable - benefit of the doubt and all that. If you want to go down that road, how do we know other people suffer as we do? We can't. Subjective experience.

Josh James xVx

Ah Pook is here
Jun 16, 2012
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To humans, it's a choice between breeding animals for captivity and suffering on one hand, and non-existence of these animals on the other.

Which oddly enough mirrors two equally false statements people give for continuing to eat meat

1 - If we stop breeding them, they'll all die out!

2 - If we stop eating them, there'll be too many of them!

(Kinda hear that one parroted a lot by anti-spay and neuter people too. That somehow against all odds cats and dogs will become extinct if we enforce mandatory programs to spay and neuter animals.)

It's true no farm or pet animal species would exist in its current form without thousands of years of human interference, though. I'd say 99.9% of them could rapidly adapt to living in the wild again within a generation or two with the exception of poultry animals who cannot naturally reproduce anymore, though.

Of course there's no doubt they'd be more comfortable being cared for by humans in some way, as they've been artificially evolved that way.


I have very strong opinions against Utilitarianism as an ethical system for individuals.
However, I think it's an excellent way to make decisions for an organization or government.

Putting that aside, I think many of Singer's arguments make a lot of sense. The problem is that his way of thinking is so very counterintuitive to many people. For example, when it's spelled out in a book the first argument (about rescuing a drowning child or donating money to Oxfam) the reader might nod in agreement. But in real life, most people won't even rescue a drowing child. They won't do it! They will stand there and stare and do nothing. Nothing.
How Singer can just ignore this reality makes no sense to me.

Personally, I think this appeal is better. This is a better way to get people to donate money:


the original disconnect
Jul 23, 2012
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I have very strong opinions against Utilitarianism as an ethical system for individuals.
However, I think it's an excellent way to make decisions for an organization or government.
Many counter-arguments to utilitarianism involve hypothetical utilitarian decisions that would probably be implemented by the government and not (just) by individuals. For instance, the example of convicting an innocent person in order to calm down the public's unrest and desire for vengeance (thereby seeking to increase utility) would probably be carried through at least by some local government officials. Or just any examples about sacrificing a minority of citizens for the benefit of the majority -- I think those would be governmental policies and not individual decisions.


Forum Legend
Jun 27, 2012
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^in that case they might as well fake it. Then there need not even be an actual sacrifice.