Disavowing Peter Singer


“It’s a waste of time us to start yelling at each other, ‘I’m an animal rights person, and you’re a utilitarian.’ The important thing that we have in common is that we’re not speciesists, our interests overlap. And given where we are, that’s really more important than we insist that one take a particular systematic position.” ~Peter Singer, interviewed in Herbivore, July 07 online issue

It has become increasingly common for animal activists to renounce Peter Singer as grandfather of the movement. That his utilitarian philosophy is not always in sync with the convictions of many activists is more apparent than ever. Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights and Gary Francione’s Introduction to Animal Rights both argue that Singer’s philosophy should be rejected when it comes to animal rights. As I have not read Singer’s Animal Liberation in its entirety I was hesitant to write about Regan and Francione’s debunking of utilitarianism. However, by some lucky coincidence, Herbivore magazine’s July online issue featured a highly relevant interview with none other than Singer himself. This pertinent interview, while thought provoking, reaffirmed my opinions about Singer and provided additional material in support of Francione’s abolitionist position.

Utilitarianism, which Peter Singer espouses, is a philosophical approach to comprehending morality. It determines “what is morally right or wrong in a particular situation” by “the consequences of our actions,” favoring whatever “brings about the best results for the largest number of those affected” (Francione, 131). In the context of animal rights, interviewer Yxta Maya Murray succinctly explained that utilitarianism does not “require us to say that killing animals is always wrong, or that animals shouldn’t be killed because they have a right to live. It’s wrong to kill them because killing and eating animals doesn’t contribute to maximum welfare.” In other words, it is not about ‘rights’ at all. The rights of animals are irrelevant.

Indeed, Singer does not even believe that animals have inherent rights. He specifically said that he does not believe that “it’s always wrong to kill animals based on an idea of inherent or intrinsic rights.” While he is “prepared to talk about animal rights as a rhetorical tool as part of a political campaign,” and believes there is a need for “a system of laws that gives rights to animals,” he does not think that system should be “based on inherent rights.” This is in significant contrast to Regan and Francione who both argue for the rights of animals and the recognition of their inherent value.

Francione devotes much of his book to outlining and rebuking Singer’s philosophical flaws. Francione describes Singer as a modern version of Jeremy Bentham. The latter was utilitarian philosopher of the 19th century who introduced the humane treatment principle, laying the groundwork for the creation of animal welfare laws. Interestingly, Bentham also decided that eating animals was acceptable. What Francione finds most unforgivable in both of these philosophers’ approaches to animal rights is that neither confronts the property status of animals. Instead of questioning the status or usage of animals, utilitarianism questions their quality of life. In fact, Singer (like Bentham) argues that while animals have interests in the quality of their lives, they do not in whether they live or die. Francione resolutely refutes this notion. “To be a sentient being means to have an experiential welfare,” writes Francione, “In this sense, all sentient beings have an interest in the quality of their lives but also in the quantity of their lives” (Francione, 137). Utilitarianism allows room to interpret quality life in terms of ‘humane’ usage of animals for human benefit, which Francione considers unjustifiable in all circumstances.

While Francione’s critique of Singer is bold and, at times, incensed, Regan’s detailed deconstruction of Singer’s utilitarianism is almost apologetic. Could it be because Regan’s 1983 publication of his book was so soon after Singer’s successful Animal Liberation of 1975? Perhaps that would explain why Regan ends his analysis with such a weak conclusion: “If the criticisms raised against Singer are fair and on target, neither those who seek a solid foundation for the obligation to be vegetarian nor those who seek a sound theory will find it in his preference utilitarianism” (Regan, 231). What an anticlimactic finale to a twenty-five page critique. Why the ‘if and implication that, quite possibly, his arguments are lacking in fairness or aren’t on target? Does Regan doubt himself, or doubt that his reader will be willing to doubt Singer?

Disregarding Regan’s wishy-washy conclusion, his scrutiny of Singer’s preference utilitarianism is not shy about exposing the “insuperable objections” of “hedonistic utilitarianism” (Regan, 202). His chief objection is that utilitarianism does not support individual rights and builds only a shaky case for vegetarianism. Furthermore, utilitarianism’s emphasis on the consequential benefit of actions for the majority allows for exploitation of the minority. As he politely asserts, “The modest point being urged here is that, for all its emphasis on equality, utilitarianism would sanction recognizable forms of sexism and racism, if the facts happened to turn out a certain way” (Regan, 227-8).

It seems likely that Singer would not disagree. When asked about feminist veganism, Singer informed the interviewer that, “It’s always been my argument that racism, sexism, and speciesism is all part of the same attitude of one group dominating or making use of an allegedly inferior group.” Yet how utilitarianism combats these oppressions is less clear. If the oppressor is in the majority, and benefits from the oppression, does that benefit outweigh the suffering of oppressed minority? Sometimes it does. As Singer demonstrated on a BBC documentary, he believes that some animal experimentation “could be defensible” if the benefit greatly outweighed the plight of those vivisected.

Singer proposes that activists “shouldn’t get too involved in philosophical differences.” Yet these differences cannot be avoided when it comes time to take action. While some work tirelessly on animal welfare campaigns, others argue that these very campaigns are not only a waste of effort, but are detrimental to the cause. Activists are taking sides. This is one of the stickier situations within the movement that I will discuss further in future posts.

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