Book Review – Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
While searching for photos to accompany this book review, we found large numbers of appalling examples of animal cruelty – in both food production and product testing. Readers should be forewarned that scrolling down this page will reveal photographs that may be very disturbing, and all the more so because they are real. – Publisher
The third edition of Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, includes a dedication to “all of you who have changed your lives in order to bring Animal Liberation closer. You have made it possible to believe that the power of ethical reasoning can prevail over the self-interest of our species.” Readers not acquainted with the context may feel distanced by the dedication, at least until realizing there are three prefaces to the book. The first edition was published in 1975, and the preface begins, “This book is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals.” The last edition was published in 2002, twenty-seven years and thousands of protests later. Singer may well be correct in dedicating the book to an audience that has built momentum in the movement for animal rights and maintained the book’s importance throughout the decades.
It is a testament of society’s inertness that I was surprised by the book’s exposure of the severe mistreatment of animals. In Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan attributes Animal Liberation as an infallible argument for vegetarianism and animal rights. In a fairly comic scene, Pollan, who has been reading Animal Liberation, sits down with a steak, supposing his gut will win the debate. Like most Americans, Pollan found that the appeal of meat — its affordability (due to government subsidies which reduce the cost by as much as 15 times) and ease of preparation, as well as the fact that it is the social norm — affected his dietary choices, without his having rationally considered the effects of his meal. Singer’s work is the rationale needed to overcome “humanity’s” dependence on animals as food.
For his argument, Singer uses the word “speciesism,” a word that Spell Check does not recognize, but which is found on Dictionary.com: “discrimination of one species in favor of another, usually the human species, over another, esp. in the exploitation or mistreatment of animals by humans. Origin: 1970-1975; species + -ism.”
Singer states, “[T]he word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better term.” His definition: “[A] prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species against those of members of other species.” It encourages and heartens me, as it may readers of the book, as I’m sure it does Peter Singer, to see that the term speciesism, on which the argument relies, has been accepted by external resources as a viable term.
In my experience discussing speciesism, I have encountered strong resistance when I compare the animal rights movement to the human rights movements. These objections are, as far as I’ve been able to measure, emotional, rather than logical, responses. I cannot present the entire argument in the article to attempt to persuade you of the similarities between sexism or racism, and speciesism, but I will share the book opening with you.
When Mary Wollstonecraft … published her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, her views were widely regarded as absurd, and before long an anonymous publication appeared entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. The author of this satirical work (now known to have been Thomas Taylor…) tried to refute Mary Wollstonecraft’s arguments by showing that they could be carried one stage further. If the argument for equality was sound when applied to women, why should it not be applied to dogs, cats, and horses? The reasoning seemed to hold for these “brutes” too; yet to hold that brutes had rights was manifestly absurd. Therefore the reasoning by which this conclusion had been reached must be unsound…
Singer goes on to explain that what seems logically absurd is actually a solid argument. The fundamental point he makes is his definition of equality.
Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.
Today, we view sexism and racism as immoral and unjust because they do not give equal consideration to fellow human beings. Speciesism, however, receives a more complicated judgment. Like Pollan sitting down to eat his steak, most people are speciesists because it is convenient, and because society is not sympathetic toward “special” equality. Animals, however, because they are living creatures with functions similar to our own, deserve consideration for their rights. “What we must do,” Singer writes, “is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have.” The primary basis for our judgments should be the suffering our acts might cause animals.
The capability of an animal to suffer, in case you are questioning it, is proven through the same physical responses to pain as humans. Vocal responses such as cries or yelps, and physical responses such as contortions, writhing, or spasms are also evidence of suffering. Humans and animals share these signals, and if we do not deny the suffering of humans, Singer states, we cannot deny the suffering of animals. The argument from here develops into a problematic, though thoughtful and interesting, consideration of whose pain is more significant (a human’s or a horse’s). The important thing to remember is that to promote equality for all species is, according to Singer, something one must avoid, wherever it is not in our necessary interest to cause an to animal suffer.
“There can be no moral justification for regarding the pain (or pleasure) that animals feel as less important than the same amount of pain (or pleasure) felt by humans.” To think of an example of speciesism, then, one needs only imagine an instance when the suffering was inflicted on an animal(s) without preventing, in opposite and equal or greater measure, the suffering of a human(s). Thus, acts that are conclusively speciesist include purchasing beauty or cleaning products that were tested on animals, eating factory farm raised animals, or supporting a government that funds psychological and military experiments on animals. The book discusses these examples at length.
Chapter 2 reveals a plethora of appalling experiments conducted on animals for military, economic, or scientific purposes. This chapter will surprise — and probably shock — anyone who has not researched animal testing. The experiments are presented as immoral for a number of reasons. The most obvious case is unnecessary experiments, such as mutilating cats to see the effect on their sexual habits. Another example is experiments carried out without scientific rigor, leading to their being disregarded as scientific evidence. Experiments exposing dogs to high temperatures until they die have been repeated multiple times, with similar results, and again, for no apparent reason. The last example discussed, and the most broad, though not as overriding as the other two, is when the viability of an experiment depends on an animal suffering the way a human suffers. In this instance, the experimenters cannot deny that they are causing suffering to animals, because for their results to be applicable to humans, their subjects must react as a human would.
The chapter provides extensive examples of testing conducted on animals. Information about common procedures were the most compelling.
LD50 stands for “lethal does 50 percent”: the amount of the substance that will kill half of the animals in the study. To find that dose level, sample groups of animals are poisoned. Normally, before the point at which half of them die is reached, the animals are all very ill and obviously in distress. In the case of fairly harmless substances it is still considered good procedure to find the concentration that will make half the animals die; consequently enormous quantities have to be force-fed to the animals, and death may be caused merely by large volume or high concentration given to the animals. This has no relevance to the circumstances in which humans will use the product.… The U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment has estimated that “several million” animals are used each year for toxicological testing in the United States. No more specific estimates for the LD50 test are available.
The prevalence of these experiments, or similar ones, is not definite, mostly because of a lack of government regulation. Singer cites some numbers, however: “The National Institute of Mental Health funded over 350 experiments on animals… This government agency spent more than $30 million dollars on animals experiments in one year.” And, “Estimates of the animals used in the United States each year range from 10 million to upwards of 100 million.” He adds, “This is a conservative estimate.”
Singer reveals one example of an especially cruel experiment, though not alone in its horrific nature. “Harlow and Suomi describe how they had the ‘fascinating idea’ of inducing depression by ‘allowing baby monkeys to attach to cloth surrogate mothers who would become monsters’: The first of these monsters was a cloth monkey mother who, upon schedule or demand, would eject high-pressure compressed air. It would blow the animal’s skin practically off its body. What did the baby do? It simply clung tighter and tighter to the mother….” The results of these experiments, Singer says, are meaningless.
To end this type of suffering, one can take several steps. The first is to make your objections known to your politicians and to the public through letters and protests. The second is to stop purchasing products tested on animals: These products are labeled with an icon that says, “This product was not tested on animals.” Otherwise, Singer writes, “we should just do without any new but potentially hazardous substances that are not essential to our lives.” To adjust one’s habits and life may seem difficult, but when it is done out of respect and consideration for animal rights, then it becomes a moral imperative.
Another imperative, which you may consider as Pollan did, when you sit down to eat a steak for your dinner, is that we cease to eat meat or animal products that come from factory farms. The suffering that our diets impose on animals is immense, yet extraordinarily well concealed. Corporations raise the animals that feed America, and they take advantage of lax government standards to treat animals like “machines that convert fodder into flesh.” In order to make their products cheaper, animals are raised in poor conditions and fed unnatural food and chemicals that accelerate their development. “Once we place nonhuman animals outside our sphere of moral consideration and treat them as things we use to satisfy our own desires, the outcome is predictable.” The condition of the animals is deplorable.
In mass-market agribusiness, the chicken, for example, whose natural life span is seven years, lives only seven weeks. In the United States the average bird has 375 square centimeters of living space, too small for it to even stretch its wings. One farmer may be in charge of 250,000 chickens, who live in a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) in which it is poisonous to breathe. “When the birds must stand and sit on rotting, dirty, ammonia-charged litter, they also suffer from ulcerated feet, breast blisters, and hock burns.” Most chickens never see daylight until they are taken out to be slaughtered. Every year in the US, 5.3 billion birds are killed for meat. That’s about 25 birds for every citizen. They take the form of nuggets, wings, legs, breasts — fried, roasted, broiled, sliced, deboned, or stuffed. Fifty percent of the birds are sold by only 8 corporations, which signals a death of family farms.
As for pigs and cattle, the industries that raise our food have become more abusive, confining animals to space so small they cannot even turn around. The mother animals are systematically raped or bred, then separated from their children. The animals suffer a brutal, accelerated cycle of life and death for the benefit of the companies who own them. Their suffering is evident in this observation made by G. Cronin, writing about tethering pigs with a collar or chain to keep them from escaping from their open-ended stalls. “The sows threw themselves violently backwards, straining against the tether. Sows thrashed their heads about as they twisted and turned in their struggle to free themselves. Often loud screams were emitted and occasionally individuals crashed bodily against the side boards of the tether stalls. This sometimes resulted in sows collapsing to the floor.” Singer writes, “Their violent attempts to escape can last up to three hours.”
“The factory farm is nothing more than the application of technology to the idea that animals are means to our ends.” Tail docking, debeaking, and castrating are the deliberate physical mutilations used to control animals in extremely close conditions and states of suffering as a means to the end: money. The “end” has a catastrophic effect on the environment. “A modest 60,000 bird egg factory produces eighty-two tons of urine… In the United States, farm animals produce 2 billion tons of manure a year — about ten times that of the human population.” Singer tells us there were 3,500 incidents of water pollution from farms in 1985. “Here is one example from that year: a tank at a pig unit burst, sending a quarter million liters of pig excrement into the River Perry…”
Besides what comes out of the animals, what goes in is alarming. A 1000-lb. steer requires enough water to float a destroyer. If each pound of beef erodes 35 lbs. of eroded topsoil (as Singer claims), that would mean nearly two tons of valuable soil is lost. Further, the number of calories in the resulting beef we get as food is only 1/33 the number of calories in the oil that was used to produce it. This is most alarming, considering some corn grown in Mexico produces 83 calories of food with one calorie of fuel. Clearly a vegetarian diet is critical to sustaining our environment, as well as maintaining respect and equality for all living creatures.
Singer describes the vegetarian diet as a boycott against the way animals are treated. By refusing to purchase meat, the corporations responsible for raising the animals that produce the meat will be forced to use their resources in other ways — or go bankrupt. He sets the standards of the boycott: “replace animal flesh with plant foods; replace factory farm eggs with free-range eggs… replace the milk and cheese you buy with soymilk, tofu, or other plant foods, but do not feel obliged to go to great lengths to avoid all food containing milk products.” He admits, however: “Eliminating speciesism from one’s dietary habits is very difficult to do all at once. People who adopt the strategy I support here have made a clear public commitment to the movement against animal exploitation.”
As Will Tuttle, Ph.D. explains in World Peace Diet, our food choices are affected by the culture we have inherited from 2000 years of western culture. To recognize animal rights is a “radical break” from this culture. It is a just one, however difficult. Our culture has thrived by ignoring the immoral consequences of using animals for our pleasure or purpose. While we are deeply involved in humanity’s own importance, it is important to see the significance of all living creatures. “It is only when we think of human beings as no more than a small subgroup of all beings that inhabit our planet that we may realize that in elevating our own species we are at the same time lowering the relative status of all other species.”
The isolation of humanity has been profitable for few, and harmful all. To quote the French poet Francis Ponge, “Il faut mettre homme a sa rang dans la nature, il est assez haut. Il faut mettre homme a sa place dans la nature, il est assez honorable.” My translation of this is that humans (man, actually, though I’ll take the liberty of saying humans) should accept their rank in nature, which is high enough, and their place in nature, which is honorable enough. In essence, we must think of ourselves as one with nature, not outside of it.
Someone once asked me why lions should eat meat, but humans should not. Aside from the obvious physical evidence — that we have only two canine teeth designed for eating meat and that we are reared for walking, not for speed (a lion runs on four legs, not two) — the most important reason is that our ingenuity enables us to hunt with weapons and presents us with the choice between killing for food and finding alternative ways of eating. If everyone in America would recognize this choice and eat a vegetarian diet, the impoverished people in the world could be fed eight times over. If it were possible to teach a lion how to eat corn, I would suggest it. As it is, I propose we respect the lion’s place in nature, as we should respect the place of all living creatures, human or non.
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