Peter Singer, arguably one of the most prominent living moral philosophers, has discussed moral status of animals in his seminal work ‘Animal Liberation’. In that book, he shed light on the various types of abuses human-animals carrying out on non-human animals. He innovatively coined the term ‘speciesism’ to point out the same fallacious reasoning humans use to abuses of non-human animals. He expressed that speciesism - belief in the superiority of one species over others - follows the same unsound rationale that ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ did. In other words, the belief that whites are superior to blacks, and Caucasoid race to native Indians, is similar to the idea that humans are superiors to non-human animals. Speciesism allows humans to impose their interest and needs over other species, even if the interests of the other species are greater than humans’ (Singer 1975, 1-7).
The most common argument philosophers used to develop was based on the premise that human animals have no moral duty towards non-human animals as they are not moral subjects. Furthermore, it used to be claimed that non-human animals do exist to serve humans’ needs and purposes, based on the same reasoning. The roots of this view can be traced back to Kant in the Enlightenment era and Aristotle in ancient Greece. Aristotle in ‘Animals and Slavery’ (Aristotle 1989) believed that as non-human animals have no faculty for reasoning, they have to be ruled over by the species that is more reasonable: humans (Regan and Singer 1989, 109). Kant built up his argument on the lack of self-consciousness in non-human animals. He argued that self-consciousness is essential for an agent to be able to judge a moral act, and as non-human animals have no self-consciousness they are not moral subjects and cannot judge humans’ moral actions. However, Kant (Kant 1989)in ‘Duties to Animals’ (Kant 1989) opposed the mistreatment of animals, only because of believing that it has an adverse impact on humans’ moral qualities they have toward each other (Regan and Singer 1989, 122). In ‘Animal Liberation’ Singer rejected the arguments that were based on the essentiality of having the faculty of reasoning and self-consciousness as a must to become a moral subject. Instead, he argued that ‘sentience’, which is the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, is what determines the status of being a moral subject. So any sentient being, either human animals or non-human animals, should be considered as moral subjects and deserve equal moral considerations (Singer 1975, 8-11).
Singer clearly established a distinction between self-consciousness and sentience and by this distinction he offers a ground for equal consideration of non-human animals as moral subjects. For Singer, sentience means conscious beings with the ability to feel pleasure and pain, and therefore, consciously they have the interest to be treated in particular ways, not like other inanimate subjects. Human and non-human animals, both, share this quality while humans benefit from self-consciousness also. In this context, self-consciousness is the capability of a being to utilise logical reasoning to assess her surroundings, to project herself in future situations, to perceive and evaluate consequences of her decisions, and to experience more complex feelings, emotions, and thoughts. In other words, all self-conscious beings are conscious ones, but not vice versa; and Singers’ criterion for considering a being as a moral subject is its consciousness, or sentience, not self-consciousness (Singer 1975, 8-10).
Although this difference between human animals and non-human animals should be carefully noted in its place and corresponding implications, it is what usually led opinions to believe that non-human animals, because of their inferiority in reasoning and self-consciousness, are not moral subjects. However, neither Kant nor Aristotle noticed the mutual basis that exists between animals, either human or non-human, which is their ability to become pleased or suffered. However, this ability was not completely ignored in the thoughts of early modern moral philosophers. Jeremy Bentham, in a very liberal view of his time, pointed out this common ground between humans and animals by challenging the belief that animals are not moral subjects for the entire cause of the absence of the faculty of reason in them, or their number of legs, or their skin villus. As he expressed, “The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?”(Bentham 1789, 311)
Following Bentham’s argument, Singer claims that beings with equal interests should be morally considered equally. If any kinds of animals, human or non-human ones, have sentience - the capacity of feeling pain and pleasure - then there is no justification for not considering their interest in avoiding pain and attracting pleasure. In other words, sentience is the only acceptable criteria based on which the interest of any being - arisen from its tendency to decrease or avoid pain and to increase or maximise pleasure - has to be considered. Choosing any other characteristic as the basis for moral considerations, like being self-conscious or benefiting faculty of reasoning, is nothing more than an arbitrary manner and it suffers the same fallacious reasoning as sexism and racism do, as they are not a common ground amongst all beings (Singer 1975, 8-9). The most direct implication of this distinction between sentience and self-consciousness is it becomes unavoidable to consider non-human animals’ rights and interests more or less, in the same way, we do recognise human rights and needs. This means careful considerations of animals’ welfare seriously in our daily decision makings and interactions with them.
Here, for the sake of analysis of Singer’s argument, I do agree with his point of shifting from self-consciousness as the criterion for recognising a being as a moral subject, to sentience. However, I do believe that non-human animals have not the same moral status to human animals, or at least, it is not easy to claim equal moral status between all kinds of animals and humans epistemologically or based on evidence. Here there are some considerations. Firstly, I do believe that the concept of ‘being a moral subject’ is not an unequivocal notion. Instead, it has a gradation. In other words, although Singer’s argument, given valid and persuasive, alleviate animal sufferings and brings out more considerations in humans’ interactions with animals, it cannot provide enough to show that animals have the same degree of moral status as humans do. So this question is a valid one to ask that what will be a moral action or decision in a situation that humans’ and animals’ interest conflicts.
Furthermore, Singer has not provided a precise definition of ‘animals’, not a lexical one but functional. In contrary to humans that based on a common sense all fell under only one species - Homo sapiens - animals have hundreds of thousands of species. Singer’s argument does not specify that if its criterion of being sentient will apply to all kind of animals or there are some superiority and inferiority in the kingdom of animals either. Affirmatively answering this question, the same objection that Singer himself imposed on ‘speciesism’ is applicable here. Also, it can be argued that any other characteristic we choose in order to resolve the possible conflict of interest between various animal species, it can be interpreted as an arbitrary characteristic like ‘self-consciousness’ does. Also, here it can be found out that Singer’s moral argument, contrary to what broadly misinterpreted even amongst professional philosophers, is not based on utilitarianism but by ‘not causing unnecessary harm’(Llorente 2009). However, avoiding pain is also subjective and hardly can find any objective criterion for it except some measurable and observable brain activities.
It also can be objected that it is not practical for humans, at least in their day-to-day operations and interactions with animals, to figure out animals’ pains and pleasure, its motives and causes, and its level, intensity and durance. Furthermore, pain and pleasure, even if not to believe in the strong account of functionalism, are intrinsic experiences and cannot be easily compared across individuals, let alone species. Given that humans can induce the similarity of feelings from the similarity of reactions - and to some extent the intensity of the feelings - but this induction argument can only be applied to a few species that fell in the circle of our knowledge e.g. sheep, cows, dogs, and dolphins. However, there are a considerable number of species that we do not know enough about the mechanism of their feelings, sentience and brain activities if any.
Singer based his argument against speciesism on a very common ground amongst animals - avoiding pain. He granted moral status to non-human animals as long as they are sentient, and refuted reasoning that used to claim only self-conscious animal - human - can be a moral subject. Singer’s argument may alleviate some sorts of animal sufferings as it brings more attention to humans’ responsibility to other moral subjects - animals. However, it lacks a precise functional definition for animal and pain and also misses sufficient resolution on the situations in which there is a challenging conflict of interest between humans’ and animals’ moral rights.
Aristotle. 1989. "Animals and Slavery." In Animal Rights and Human Obligations, edited by Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Bentham, Jeremy. 1789. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. London.
Kant, Immanuel. 1989. "Duties to Animals." In Animal Rights and Human Obligations, edited by Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Llorente, Renzo. 2009. "The Moral Framework of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation." Ethical Perspectives Ethical Perspectives 16 (1):61-80.
Regan, Tom, and Peter Singer. 1989. Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Singer, Peter. 1975. Animal Liberation. New York: Random House.