Animal Liberation, 30 Years Later

Peter Singer’s Utilitarianism Breeds Ongoing Criticisms

NEW YORK, MAY 24, 2003 ( This year marks the 30th anniversary of an essay by ethicist Peter Singer in which he launched the phrase “animal liberation.” Singer’s article in the New York Review of Books over how animals should be treated marked the beginning of a controversy that continues even today, a Boston Globe commentary noted May 18.

A British group, Compassion in World Farming, argued recently that animals “often exhibit signs of morality which resembles human behavior,” BBC reported May 9. On May 20, BBC reported on a study published in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which claims chimpanzees are so closely related to humans that they should properly be considered as members of the human family. Scientists from Wayne State University’s School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan, examined key genes in humans and several ape species and found them to be 99.4% the same as chimps.

To mark the anniversary of his original essay, Singer published an article in the May 15 issue of the New York Review of Books, evaluating the concept of animal liberation and some of the reactions to his views. He recalled that in his original essay, “I urged that despite obvious differences between humans and nonhuman animals, we share with them a capacity to suffer, and this means that they, like us, have interests.”

Consequently, he continued, if we ignore these interests, then we commit the same mistake as those who are guilty of racism or discrimination on grounds of sex, a crime which he labels “speciesism.”

Thirty years later Singer notes that the concept of animal rights enjoys increasing support and that the bibliography of writings on the theme probably runs to thousands of items. In the face of his critics, Singer declares himself unconvinced by the attempts to prove that humans have some kind of special moral significance.

Singer’s opposition to speciesism, he explains, is based “not on rights, but on the thought that a difference of species is not an ethically defensible ground for giving less consideration to the interests of a sentient being than we give to similar interests of a member of our own species.”


One of the more recent criticisms of Singer’s views is the 2002 collection of essays edited by Gordon Preece, “Rethinking Peter Singer: A Christian Critique.” The articles are written by four of Singer’s fellow Australians, all members of Ridley College, an independent Anglican evangelical institution.

Preece identifies a number of problems with Singer’s arguments. First, they are “morally unthinkable”: Accepting Singer’s position that it would be ethically licit to kill newborn humans in the first weeks of life, or to practice bestiality, is a form of universal utilitarianism that runs counter to our conscience and our sense of humanity.

Second, Singer’s utilitarianism suffered a notable breakdown when it came to the case of his own mother, who died in 2000 after suffering from Alzheimer’s, notes Preece. In an essay written at the time, Singer admitted that his mother was a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and was no longer mentally self-aware. Yet he said he was unprepared to take the step of ending her life.

Third, Singer’s writings display a notable contradiction, says Preece. On the one hand he proclaims utilitarianism, but he also admits that it is legitimate for people to give special consideration to their family and relatives. This division, according to Preece, reflects a basic problem with utilitarian theory, which involves a split between a concept of universal utility and our personal, intuitive, moral obligations and motivations.

Fourth, Singer’s utilitarianism holds that the moral importance of a creature lies in its capacity to suffer. Yet — argues Preece — “all creatures and their purposes, especially humans, cannot be reduced to mere pleasure-pain machines.”

Andrew Sloane’s essay also examines the problems with a utilitarian ethical theory. A purely consequentialist and utilitarian calculus robs our lives of any ultimate meaning, he argues. Sloane points out that one consequence of such a theory is that it leads Singer to justify infanticide.

Singer advocates the legitimacy of killing newborn infants who suffer from problems such as Down syndrome. Singer maintains that killing is only wrong when the victim is a human person, and to be a person “an entity must be rational, self-conscious, aware of its own existence over time, able to communicate and so on.”

A species-selfish Genesis?

Graham Cole’s contribution to the book analyzes the theme of Singer’s views on Christianity. Not only does Singer declare himself a nonbeliever, but he also holds Christianity as being culpable for the exploitation of animals. Singer’s objections start with the Genesis creation story, which he sees as being “species-selfish” and as justifying the domination of animals. He also objects to Jesus’ sending of demons into a herd of pigs, causing them to drown, and to his cursing of a fig tree.

But Cole argues that Singer misinterprets the creation narrative in Genesis, conveniently ignoring how God installs Adam as a caretaker of Paradise, thereby implying a stewardship that involves responsibility for animals, and not just mere exploitation. And while Jesus does teach that people matter more than animals or property, he does not teach that animals are without any value.

Lindsay Wilson’s essay continues the theme of how the Bible deals with animals and provides a detailed analysis of the biblical theology of animals. He notes that the 19th-century animal welfare movements were largely Christian, predating by a century or so the secular animal rights trend.

Wilson observes that both the Old and New Testaments view animals in a positive light, as well as noting our human responsibility to care for them. Jesus assumes that humans should care for animals, even on the Sabbath — Matthew 12:11 — yet he also regards humans as being more valuable than creatures — Luke 12:7.

In terms of the difference between animals and humans, Wilson argues that it is neither established nor self-evident that the criterion of moral significance is the ability to suffer or experience happiness. Humans, he notes, are normally viewed as morally responsible beings in a way that animals are not.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, Nos. 2415-18, animals are “by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity.” However, it adds: “Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.”

Thus, it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. And it is also acceptable to conduct medical and scientific experiments on animals, when done “within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.” At the same time, we should exercise a “stewardship” over animals and not cause them undue suffering or death. This responsibility to animals is not due to their having intrinsic rights, but because “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”

A well-founded biblical theology of animals not only protects them from undue cruelty, it also avoids losing sight of human dignity.

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