Animal Rights:

A History

Peter Singer 


The Deeper Minds Of All Ages Have Had Pity For Animals
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This page is part of the section: Animal Rights:A History

In an earlier stage of our development most human groups held to a tribal ethic. Members of the tribe were protected, but people of other tribes could be robbed or killed as one pleased. Gradually the circle of protection expanded, but as recently as 150 years ago we did not include blacks. So African human beings could be captured, shipped to America and sold. In Australia white settlers regarded Aborigines as a pest and hunted them down, much as kangaroos are hunted down today. Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics.
Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Born in 1946 Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, is a famous and influential modern day advocate of animal rights.  His book Animal Liberation written In 1975 is now considered the basic reference book for animal rights activists and supporters and has been used as a course book for Singer's Bioethics course at Princeton University. It was Singer who helped to popularise the term Speciesism, coined by
Richard Ryder, which he used in his book Animal Liberation to describe the exploitative treatment of animals.


Called the "most influential living philosopher" by the New Yorker and voted as one of Australia's ten most influential public intellectuals, Singer has been the Ira W. DeCamp  professor of  Bioethics at Princeton University since 1999 and was a laureate professor of ethics at the Monash University of Melbourne where he founded its Centre for Human Bioethics. He is the world's foremost proponent of utilitarianism, a philosophy formulated by Jeremy Bentham, the 18th Century English Philosopher which holds that the best moral action is one which results in the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number. This philosophy also states that the most import facet of any action is the end result rather than the motivation behind the it.


Indeed  Peter Singer has accomplished much in academic circles and elsewhere, in addition to the above, In 2004 the Council of Australian Humanist Societies recognised Singer as Humanist of the year. He now serves on the advisory board of Incentives for Global Health. He was founding member of the the green party in Victoria  and was a Green Party candidate for the Australian Senate. He has taught at Oxford and New York Universities.


Peter Singer though first established himself as a bold thinker with his  philosophical view that it is unethical to kill animals because animal's share with us an equal moral status, he advocates for the moral equality of animals and human beings.

Concerning his contribution to the animal rights movement Peter Singer is best known for his seminal book Animal Liberation, published in 1975 and translated into fifteen languages it is generally considered the benchmark of the animal rights/liberation movement and the foundation upon which much of its philosophical ideas are based. In spite of the title, which to some may suggest extremism, this book has encouraged thousands of people to become vegetarian and support the rights of animals.


In Animal Liberation Singer writes about the cruelty of factory farming; by going behind the scenes he exposes the reality of the dreadful cruelty inflicted on animals and dispels the idyllic myth that many people have of farming portrayed in advertising and other media propaganda. From the perspective of morally reformed scientists and researchers he reveals the atrocities carried out on laboratory tested animals. In later editions Singer adds new information concerning today's factory farms and the continuing and increasing testing of animals. It is a very powerfully motivating book capable of changing the perspective of many and consequently a contribution to changing the way we view and treat our fellow creatures. Singer follows the often quoted view of Jeremy Bentham, mentioned earlier as the philosopher responsible for the formulation of the concept utilitarianism, concerning the moral status of animals and our treatment towards them: "The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they speak?' but, `Can they suffer?" Singer argues that the simple fact that animals have the  ability to experience pain and pleasure puts them on an equal moral footing with human beings. He said: All the arguments to prove man's superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals. Regardless of intelligence or reason or any other criterion humans consider important, animals like us feel pain and therefore as a consequence of this one criterion alone we should not cause them to suffer. 


It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road...A stone has no interests because it cannot suffer. The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is, however, not only necessary, but also sufficient for us to say that a being has interests - at an absolute minimum, an interest in not suffering. A mouse, for example, does have an interest in not being kicked along the road because it will suffer if it is.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation


Singer also denounces "speciesism," a concept rather like racism in which humans consider that they are entitled to exploit other creatures simply because they are members of a different species just in the way humans have exploited one another on the basis of race or gender or other perceived differences.


Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favoring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation



So far as this argument is concerned nonhuman animals and infants and retarded humans are in the same category; and if we use this argument to justify experiments on nonhuman animals we have to ask ourselves whether we are also prepared to allow experiments on human infants and retarded adults; and if we make a distinction between animals and these humans, on what basis can we do it, other than a bare-faced - and morally indefensible - preference for members of our own species?
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation


Some reviews and comments about  Singers book Animal Liberation


Singer's documentation is unrhetorical and unemotional, his arguments tight and formidable, for he bases his case on neither personal nor religious nor highly abstract philosophical principles, but on moral positions most of us already accept.

The New York Times Book Review



This book is a must...not just for every animal lover but for every civilized reader.

Cleveland Amory


I feel that the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer has served to awaken many people to think about ethics and the way that they live as beings. Because it is so easy to read it has assisted greatly in altering speciesist mind-sets.

Although I have been vegetarian since I was very young (by choice) and I am now becoming vegan, I had never really worked out why. I had made an emotional choice so as to avoid being part of what I perceived to be cruel behaviour by people. I now make an intellectual choice based on well thought out, well structured ethical frame-works.

It is actually thanks to Singer, Regan, Francione, Dunayer and others' passionate discussions and theorising that I have made further sweeping changes to my lifestyle and made a strong and lifelong commitment to altering people's thoughts about non-human animals (and therefore behaviours).

Forum user Tassie Unfortunately this forum and website appears to be no longer available.


A selection of Quotes  from Animal Liberation


As a matter of strict logic, perhaps, there is no contradiction in taking an interest in animals on both compassionate and gastronomic grounds. If a person is opposed to the infliction of suffering on animals, but not to the painless killing of animals, he could consistently eat animals that had lived free of all suffering and been instantly, painlessly slaughtered. Yet practically and psychologically it is impossible to be consistent in one's concern for nonhuman animals while continuing to dine on them. If we are prepared to take the life of another being merely in order to satisfy our taste for a particular type of food, then that being is no more than a means to our end. In time we will come to regard pigs, cattle, and chickens as things for us to use, no matter how strong our compassion may be; and when we find that to continue to obtain supplies of the bodies of these animals at a price we are able to pay it is necessary to change their living conditions a little, we will be unlikely to regard these changes too critically. The factory farm is nothing more than the application of technology to the idea that animals are means to our ends. Our eating habits are dear to us and not easily altered. We have a strong interest in convincing ourselves that our concern for other animals does not require us to stop eating them. No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared caused suffering.

Peter Singer

What is there about the notion of a person, at law, that makes every living member of the species Homo sapiens a person, irrespective of their mental capacities, but excludes every nonhuman animal - again, irrespective of their mental capacities?
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

...chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans are thinking, self-aware beings, capable of planning ahead, who form lasting social bonds with others and have a rich social and emotional life. The great apes are therefore an ideal case for showing the arbitrariness of the species boundary. If we think that all human beings, irrespective of age or mental capacity, have some basic rights, how can we deny that the great apes, who surpass some humans in their capacities, also have these rights?
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

Should one break in and free the animals? That is illegal, but the obligation to obey the law is not absolute. It was justifiably broken by those who helped runaway slaves in the American South, to mention only one possible parallel.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

The assumption that in order to be interested in such matters one must be an "animal-lover" is itself an indication of the absence of the slightest inkling that the moral standards that we apply among human beings might extend to other animals. No one, except a racist concerned to smear his opponents as "nigger-lovers," would suggest that in order to be concerned about equality for mistreated racial minorities you have to love those minorities, or regard them as cute and cuddly...The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional "animal-lovers" has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

Habits of thought lead us to brush aside descriptions of cruelty to animals as emotional, for "animal-lovers only"; or if not that, then anyway the problem is so trivial in comparison to the problems of human beings that no sensible person could give it time and attention. This too is a prejudice - for how can one know that a problem is trivial until one has taken the time to examine its extent?
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

Animal Liberation has a lot of handicaps. First and most obvious is the fact that members of the exploited group cannot themselves make an organized protest against the treatment they receive (though they can and do protest to the best of their abilities individually). We have to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. You can appreciate how serious this handicap is by asking yourself how long blacks would have had to wait for equal rights if they had not been able to stand up for themselves and demand it. The less able a group is to stand up and organize against oppression, the more easily it is oppressed.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same purpose?
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering - insofar as rough comparisons can be made - of any other being. So the limit of sentience is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary manner. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin color?
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

...the nervous systems of other animals were not artificially constructed - as a robot might be artificially constructed - to mimic the pain behavior of humans. A capacity to feel pain obviously enhances a species' prospects of is surely unreasonable to suppose that nervous systems that are virtually identical physiologically, have a common origin and a common evolutionary function, and result in similar forms of behavior in similar circumstances should actually operate in an entirely different manner on the level of subjective feelings.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

With the eventual acceptance of Darwin's theory we reach a modern understanding of nature, one which has since then changed in detail rather than in fundamentals. Only those who prefer religious faith to beliefs based on reasoning and evidence can still maintain that the human species is the special darling of the entire universe, or that other animals were created to provide us with food, or that we have divine authority over them, and divine permission to kill them.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

Animal Liberation will require greater altruism on the part of human beings than any other liberation movement. The animals themselves are incapable of demanding their own liberation, or of protesting against their condition with votes, demonstrations, or boycotts. Human beings have the power to continue to oppress other species forever, or until we make this planet unsuitable for living beings. Will our tyranny continue, proving that morality counts for nothing when it clashes with self-interest, as the most cynical of poets and philosophers have always said? Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending our ruthless exploitation of the species in our power, not because we are forced to do so by rebels and terrorists, but because we recognize that our position is morally indefensible?
-Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

From a collection of quotes:


However not all advocates of the animal liberation/rights movement support his view point for a number of reasons. One of which is Singer's view that it was not necessary to pursue the issue concerning the interests and our treatment of animals within the frame work of animal rights,  but rather the interests of animals should be considered  because they like us have the ability to suffer. Singer believes the concept of animal rights is not necessary in order to consider the interests of animals.


Why is it surprising that I have little to say about the nature of rights? It would only be surprising to one who assumes that my case for animal liberation is based upon rights and, in particular, upon the idea of extending rights to animals. But this is not my position at all. I have little to say about rights because rights are not important to my argument. My argument is based on the principle of equality, which I do have quite a lot to say about. My basic moral position (as my emphasis on pleasure and pain and my quoting Bentham might have led Fox to suspect) is utilitarian. I make very little use of the word 'rights' in Animal Liberation, and I could easily have dispensed with it altogether. I think that the only right I ever attribute to animals is the "right" to equal consideration of interests, and anything that is expressed by talking of such a right could equally well be expressed by the assertion that animals' interests ought to be given equal consideration with the like interests of humans. (With the benefit of hindsight, I regret that I did allow the concept of a right to intrude into my work so unnecessarily at this point; it would have avoided misunderstanding if I had not made this concession to popular moral rhetoric.)


His books include:

One World: The Ethics of Globalization
The Darwinian Left
How Are We to Live?
Animal Liberation
The Great Ape Project, with Paola Cavalieri
In Defense of Animals, editor
Animal Rights and Human Obligations, editor
Animal Factories, with Jim Mason
Practical Ethics


Various Peter Singer Quotations

Animal factories are one more sign of the extent to which our technological capacities have advanced faster than our ethics.




An animal experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a brain-damaged human would be justifiable.


The animal liberation movement is saying that where animals and humans have similar interests - we might take the interest in avoiding physical pain as an example, for it is an interest that humans clearly share with other animals - those interests are to be counted equally, with no automatic discount just because one of the beings is not human.



I hope that all those who eat animals and yet consider themselves to be living religious lives will read [Diet for Transcendence], and that it will lead them to see that the exploitation of animals is incompatible with any religion which professes compassion.


Iím disappointed that there are still people in the world who are not vegetarian.

I still want to influence people to move to a lifestyle that does not involve inflicting unjustifiable suffering on any beings at all.

Since factory farming became dominant, the overwhelming majority of farmed animals have lived miserable lives.

Why do we lock up chimpanzees in appalling primate research centres and use them in experiments that range from the uncomfortable to the agonising and lethal, yet would never think of doing the same to a retarded human being at a much lower mental level? The only possible answer is that the chimpanzee, no matter how bright, is not human, while the retarded human, no matter how dull, is.

This is speciesism, pure and simple, and it is as indefensible as the most blatant racism. There is no ethical basis for elevating membership of one particular species into a morally crucial characteristic. From an ethical point of view, we all stand on an equal footing -- whether we stand on two feet, or four, or none at all.

The animal liberation movement . . . is not saying that all lives are of equal worth or that all interests of humans and other animals are to be given equal weight, no matter what those interests may be. It is saying that where animals and humans have similar interests - we might take the interest in avoiding physical pain as an example, for it is an interest that humans clearly share with other animals - those interests are to be counted equally, with no automatic discount just because one of the beings is not human. A simple point, no doubt, hut nevertheless part of a far-reaching ethical revolution.
In Defence of Animals

The sphere of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation, race, and now to all human beings. The process should be extended ... to include all beings with interests, of whatever species. But we cannot simply propose this as the ultimate ethical standard and then expect everyone to act accordingly. We must begin to design our culture so that it encourages broader concerns without frustratiug important and relatively permanent human desires.
Expanding Circle

A selection of other writings by Peter Singer

Equality for Animals?
Peter Singer
Excerpted from Practical Ethics, Cambridge, 1979, chap. 3

In the previous chapter I gave reasons for believing that the fundamental principle of equality, on which the equality of all human beings rests, is the principle of equal consideration of interests. Only a basic moral principle of this kind can allow us to defend a form of equality which embraces all human beings, with all the differences that exist between them. I shall now contend that while this principle does provide an adequate basis for human equality, it provides a basis which cannot be limited to humans. In other words I shall suggest that, having accepted the principle of equality as a sound moral basis for relations with others of our own species, we are also committed to accepting it as a sound moral basis for relations with those outside our own species - the nonhuman animals.

This suggestion may at first seem bizarre. We are used to regarding the oppression of blacks and women as among the most important moral and political issues facing the world today. These are serious matters, worthy of the time and energy of any concerned person. But animals? Surely the welfare of animals is in a different category altogether, a matter for old ladies in tennis shoes to worry about. How can anyone waste their time on equality for animals when so many humans are denied real equality?

This attitude reflects a popular prejudice against taking the interests of animals seriously - a prejudice no better founded than the prejudice of white slaveowners against taking the interests of blacks seriously. It is easy for us to criticize the prejudices of our grandfathers, from which our fathers freed themselves. It is more difficult to distance ourselves from our own beliefs, so that we can dispassionately search for prejudices among them. What is needed now is a willingness to follow the arguments where they lead, without a prior assumption that the issue is not worth attending to.

Continue reading:

Do Animals Feel Pain?
by Peter Singer
Excerpted from Animal Liberation, 2nd edition, New York: Avon Books, 1990, pp. 10-12, 14-15

Do animals other than humans feel pain? How do we know? Well, how do we know if anyone, human or nonhuman, feels pain? We know that we ourselves can feel pain. We know this from the direct experience of pain that we have when, for instance, somebody presses a lighted cigarette against the back of our hand. But how do we know that anyone else feels pain? We cannot directly experience anyone else's pain, whether that "anyone" is our best friend or a stray dog. Pain is a state of consciousness, a "mental event", and as such it can never be observed. Behavior like writhing, screaming, or drawing one's hand away from the lighted cigarette is not pain itself; nor are the recordings a neurologist might make of activity within the brain observations of pain itself. Pain is something that we feel, and we can only infer that others are feeling it from various external indications. [Ö]

If it is justifiable to assume that other human beings feel pain as we do, is there any reason why a similar inference should not be justifiable in the case of other animals?

Continue reading


Articles and other writings of Peter Singer on various issues, many on animal liberation


Photo: Peter Singer

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