Singer 1974

Singer, P. 1974. All animals are equal. Philosophic Exchange 5: 103 -116.

This a succinct early exposition of Peter Singer’s animal liberation ideology which has been one of the most influential positions within philosophical thinking about the non-human world (though whether it should form part of environmental ethics has been questioned by some). Singer developed this ideology in multiple venues in the early 1970s and this particular paper is not canonical in any usual sense. But it is often used, for instance, when teaching because it is short and the exposition (characteristically) clear. Here are some aspects of the piece that are of note:

  1. Perhaps the most important philosophical move is the call for an expansion of the moral circle (p. 103). In Singer’s reconstruction of the Western philosophical tradition and societal structure, first, the moral circle was restricted to white men. (Note that this is questionable: even if it is true that social power was restricted to white men, it does not follow that the moral circle was restricted to them insofar as it could be the case that there was a perceived ethical obligation to take into consideration the interests of others, for instance, white women.) Singer claims that the moral circle was then expanded to include women and, then, people of color. Now, according to him, the time has come to complete this process to include animals.
  2. According to Singer, this expansion cannot be legitimately avoided because the only criterion that provides its basis is the capacity to feel pain, that is, sentience. Singer both draws on Bentham and provides an argument for this claim. Drawing on Bentham is an appeal to authority, of more rhetorical than epistemological value. But, from Bentham, Singer adopts a principle that sentience is the source–and the only source–for an entity to have interests. There is no argument offered for this claim. Instead, Singer appeals to our intuitions and underscores this appeal for pointing out that other criteria invoked by philosopher, for instance, rationality do not delimit those with interests adequately. For instance, a pet dog is typically more rational than a newborn human baby (or for that matter, a certain U.S. President).
  3. Note that sentience can also be used as a criterion for attributing intrinsic value to a non-human entity (Sarkar 2005). However, that is not a strategy of choice for someone relying on Benthamite utilitarianism (like Singer).
  4. Note what Singer is not saying: in spite of the title, Singer is not claiming that animals should be treated exactly on par with humans in all respects. His admonition is more modes: because animals have interests, their well-being must be taken into consideration in all salient ethical deliberations. But even this modest imperative has some bite. Singer goes on to claim that many animals suffer pain because they are used to test cosmetics (though it is very hard to get exact figures about this–and Singer does not offer the evidence himself). Singer’s arguments provide strong reason to end this practice. Similarly, they provide strong reason to end animal experimentation for trivial scientific purposes.
  5. The more interesting question is whether it prevents all animal experimentation (as has been urged by many of Singer’s more militant followers). This piece is silent on the topic but seems implicitly to allow medically important animal experimentation.
  6. Does Singer’s argument endorse full-fledged vegetarianism? Singer gives compelling arguments about how inefficient protein intake from meet is. This may strongly suggest reduced meat consumption but does it preclude all meat consumption, for instance, in culturally important feasts? The piece is silent but Singer has not provided compelling arguments for strict vegetarianism. At least some elaboration is necessary.
  7. By relying on sentience, and contrary to the rhetorical flourish of the title of this piece, Singer’s argument really does not support the view that the expanded moral circle must include all animals. Not all animals can feel pain: they do not have a sufficiently complex nervous system. While the exactly neurobiological criterion that should be use to delimit sentience remains philosophically controversial, many neurobiologists believe that sentience is no longer found once we get to fish. We certainly have no good reason to attribute it to invertebrates. Consequently Singer’s arguments only elevate a tiny fraction of the animal world.
  8. Among other things, this means that SInger’s ethics provides no ground for the conservation of biodiversity.
  9. Moreover, the claim that sentience alone confers interests is dubious. There is a sense we can easily talk about a plant flourishing, or even a plant species flourishing. Is that not enough to have interests? What about having biological fitness (though this is a very problematic philosophical move)? Or how about a “will to live” (a view called conativism though that word is also used in other ways)?



Sarkar, S. 2005. Biodiversity and Environmental Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

28 August 2019

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