Skip to main content

An Argument for Animal Rights and an Analysis of Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation"

Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.


Animals Should Be Granted Rights in Respect to Their Nature

In chapter one of Animal Liberation, Peter Singer starts off by asserting that all animals are equal; this includes human animals such as man and woman, as well as nonhuman animals such as beasts. In doing so, he is not making the claim that these animals are equal in their capacities, such as reasoning, appearance, ability, or opportunities. Nor is he claiming that these animals should receive equal rights or treatments if he succeeds in proving the equality of such animals. Rather, Singer is arguing for equal consideration of the nature of such animals.

For, as he points out, it would be futile to say that man and woman are equal if we were considering their capacity to bear a child or have an abortion. Giving a man the right to have an abortion is like giving a fish the right to breathe air out of the water. It is an unnecessary right that should not go to the man, for it is not in his capacity to truly fulfill such a right. Equally, it is untrue to say that humans have equal ability when it comes to achieving something in the world. Some men and women are born to be athletes, some writers, and others laborers. It is not the case that most humans cannot perform these tasks, but rather that some humans will be better suited to perform these tasks naturally.

Humans Are Not Equal, but Should Be Treated Equally

To begin, Singer examines the natural inclinations people have when considering the topic of equality. He notes that today, at least in places similar to the United States and Britain, most people accept that all humans should be considered equal. However, there are those who believe differently; that their race or gender is superior to others.

Those who believe in their superiority based on skin color or racial background are called racists. Similarly, those who believe their gender to be superior to the opposite gender are called sexists. When formulating his argument, Singer takes the equal consideration a step further, adding that all animals both human and nonhuman alike should be considered equal. Those who do not believe in this notion, that their species is superior to another species, are called speciesists.

We have found, through considerable contemplation and evaluation, that one race or gender is not superior to another. When considering the equality of human beings, one must go past the tests which consider intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters. For if we test on such levels, it will not be difficult to find that humans are not equal in these respects. Furthermore, we cannot be sure that these differences are innate or if they have been taught to these humans.

Consider a farmer from the United States and a scholar from Africa. One will be better at farming while the other will be better at sifting through multitude lines of academia. This difference is mainly from the environment in which the human being was raised. If the humans switched environments, they theoretically would change what they excelled at.

If humans can theoretically excel equally when given the opportunity to do so, we should consider the equality of humans not as something that comes from skill or place of origin, but as an ability or capacity to fulfill or be something in their own respect. Therefore, Singer pursues the principle of equality of human beings not as a description of an alleged actual equality among humans, but rather how we should treat humans (Singer 5).

This principle does not suggest that a man has the right to an abortion, for a man cannot fulfill this right. This principle gives rights to humans in their own respect; a boy in the United States should be taught mathematics and a boy in Africa should be taught hunting, if this is what their society compels them to do or become. The principle of equality among humans determines to make humans prosper and fulfill whatever they are best capable of in order to achieve the most of the life they live.


The Principle of Equality Extends to All Beings

As Singer has stated, his argument is not for the equality of human beings, but for the equality of all beings—both human and nonhuman. He states, "...the taking into account of the interests of the being, whatever those interests may be must, according to the principle of equality, be extended to all beings, black or white, masculine or feminine, human or nonhuman" (5).

Those who agree to equality when considering race or sex are not uncommon. However, the true dilemma arises when considering the relationship of equality between humans and nonhumans. Those who do not agree that nonhumans should be equally considered to humans are called speciesists. "Speciesism is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species" (6). The groundwork for this argument is that if possessing intelligence of a higher degree 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?

Humans and Nonhumans Have Equal Interests Not to Suffer

As we have seen, the principle of equality is a principle which determines to take into equal consideration the interests of all beings affected by such a principle. The beings which are affected are those which have interests. In the article "Animal Rights: Equal Experiencers of Suffering," I argue that animals have an interest not to experience suffering.

To limit the principle of equality to humans would suggest that only humans have interests, but why would one suggest that? What is an interest and how does it come about? Singer, speaking from a utilitarian viewpoint, suggests that interests come about by beings having a capacity for pleasure and for pain; mainly an interest to receive or maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Anything else is a means in order to achieve pleasure or avoid pain. If the principle of equality is to be extended to all beings with interests, then Singer's next goal is to prove that nonhumans have any interests at all.

In order to prove his argument that nonhumans have interests, Singer states that any being with the capacity for suffering or enjoyment is one that has interests; for the capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all. "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" (8).

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

When considering suffering, any being who suffers should have their suffering considered equally to any other being who suffers. If there is such a being that does not have the capacity to suffer, then they should not be considered when receiving any sort of equality. Therefore, Singer notes, "the limit of sentience (using the term as a convenient if not strictly accurate shorthand for the capacity to suffer and/or experience enjoyment) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others" (8). To further prove his argument, Singer must now display that nonhuman beings are sentient; that they can experience, at the very least, suffering.


Language is Not a Prerequisite to Animal Rights

Finding that nonhuman beings can suffer due to an experience of pain is not a difficult thing to determine. Although there may be some Descartians around who still believe that animals are strictly highly functioning automata, it is generally considered that animals can experience and receive pain. The author of a book on pain which is quoted in Singer's Animal Liberation writes, "Apart from the complexity of the cerebral cortex (which does not directly perceive pain) [higher nonhuman mammalian vertebrates'] nervous systems are almost identical to [humans'] and their reactions to pain remarkably similar..." (12).

It seems that the only difference is the ability to express pain in terms that we humans understand. This ability of expression is called language and it should not be considered a detriment to the principle of equality for all sentient beings. For, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once stated, "Language may be necessary for abstract thought, at some level anyway; but states like pain are more primitive, and have nothing to do with language" (14). To those who do not agree with this statement, I implore you to put out a cigar on an infant or to cut off the leg of a handless mute, for they obviously feel no pain according to your requirement of an expression of language.

Pain and Equal Consideration of the Rights of Animals

When considering the infliction of pain upon a sentient being, it must be clarified that it is not the action which brings about pain that should be considered as equal, rather it should be the amount of pain felt by the receiver of pain. Like Singer noted, slapping a horse will not hurt the horse as much as slapping a small child would. However, breaking the horses leg with a baseball bat would be equal to breaking a child's leg with a bat, since both sentient beings are experiencing the pain of a broken leg.

Also, and again, the level of intellect the sentient being has should not elicit any form of difference in the equal consideration a being experiencing pain could have. This is noted because there is an argument which is commonly used that states that adult humans have more capacity for suffering because they can anticipate some sort of pain they might receive in the future. An example of this anticipation would be if scientists were kidnapping adults out of parks and performing terribly painful experiments on them, then this would most likely result in adults staying away from parks. The terror and fear they would form when thinking about what might happen to them if they were to enter into the park would be a form of suffering. The argument suggests that since animals cannot cognate such anticipated experiences, then human suffering must be more so than animal suffering.

However, as Singer has noted, if one does take this position, then they should be fine with these scientists kidnapping and experimenting on infants and a person with an intellectual disability. For infants and intellectually disabled humans can no more foresee the intense pain they might receive upon entering the park than can an animal. Their lack of foresight does not mean that they can experience any less suffering than can an adult human being.

The Principle of Equality Amongst All Sentient Beings

To conclude the first chapter of Animal Liberation, Singer, believing that he has successfully posed a valid and convincing argument for the principle of equality amongst all sentient beings based on the infliction of pain and suffering on said beings, turns to the topic of killing nonhuman sentient beings. This topic, Singer admits, is a bit more difficult than equal consideration of the rights of animals, because there is still an ongoing debate whether it is right to kill certain humans or not. Fortunately, though, Singer determines to argue against the killing of nonhuman beings. In doing so, he adopts the 'sanctity of life' view and extends it to all sentient beings.

The Sanctity of Life View Extends to All Sentient Beings

Commonly, the 'sanctity of life' view is a speciesist view which makes the claim that it is wrong to take an innocent human life. Singer wants to extend this view to all animals, both human and nonhuman alike, by allowing that, "...beings who are similar in all relevant respects have a similar right to life--and mere membership in our own biological species cannot be a morally relevant criterion for this right" (19).