A Book Review
Peter Singer is a Jewish-Australian philosopher who studied in England and came to share the local progressive ideas on the moral status of non-human animals. In 1974, he published an essay titled "Animal Liberation" which drew much attention and was soon expanded into a book with the same name. The book was published in 1975, and helped establish Singer as one of the world’s leading (and most controversial) applied-ethics philosophers. Since then, Singer has written extensively on various ethical questions, and has given numerous talks; he visited Israel in 1996, and was a guest at the Anonymous center. Singer currently lives in the United States and teaches at Princeton University.
A Winning Formula
"Animal Liberation" was a success in part due to its unique combination of three key elements: factual research on animal abuse, philosophical arguments for animal protection, and practical advice for new vegetarians. This formula is exactly what a person who has just begun to explore animal rights issues, needs. Not many writers are capable of properly addressing such diverse topics in a single book, and rarer still are they able to present the ideas in as fascinating a manner as Singer.
Singer's moral philosophy is simple: if someone suffers, their suffering is meaningful and is morally relevant. Therefore, every creature who can feel, whether that feeling is pain, fear, or pleasure, has moral status. Furthermore, it is immoral to automatically place more weight on one’s own suffering than on another's—the suffering's worth is determined by its intensity, and not on who is experiencing the suffering. To value one type of animal’s suffering over another is irrational discrimination.
Singer dubs this discrimination “speciesism” and likens it to both racism and sexism. In the latter cases, one places more value on a person based on their physical characteristics and not on their capacity for suffering. Speciesism, similarly, is the reduction of the value of another's suffering, simply because they belong to a different biological species. Most of us take part in speciesist actions when we apply more weight to the momentary pleasure we get from eating meat, than to the deep and ongoing suffering of the animals raised in abhorrent factory farm conditions. A proper moral balance of our interests with animals’ interests requires abstaining from animal products that were produced through animal suffering.
Singer is well aware that any philosophical discussion of animal welfare is meaningless when most people are ignorant of the institutionalized animal abuse occurring daily. He therefore dedicates two comprehensive chapters to the egregious ethical violations commonplace in the food industry and in research laboratories where animal testing occurs. Singer presents a straightforward list of facts without any attempt to manipulate readers’ emotions or understanding—the truth speaks for itself. Notably, Singer’s research comes primarily from farmers' and scientists' own professional literature. Out of the information that they themselves choose to present, it is possible to reconstruct the horrible treatment the animals are subject to.
The Practical Advice
Avoiding consuming animal products is the first step one must take once they accept the moral conclusions made in "Animal Liberation". Here, Singer provides practical advice for transitioning from an omnivorous diet to vegetarianism, and dispels the nutritional and health fears that often concern new practitioners. Additionally, he discusses the many advantages of a vegetarian lifestyle, which often help all of humanity, as there are distinct ecological benefits to relying on plant-based foods instead of meat-production. Singer also equips readers with an abundance of factual and philosophical arguments to help them withstand attacks from avid meat-eaters or those who are heavily in favor of animal testing.
"Animal Liberation" in Perspective
The Hebrew edition of the book was released in 1998, and was based on updated research from 1990. It also includes an introduction and further updates from 1995. Since then, animal welfare legislation in Europe has improved, and the number of vegetarians and vegans has increased. Unfortunately, both Israel and the United States lag behind Europe, with many of their farming practices having become even crueler. And yet, it is now easier than ever to transition to an animal-free diet given the superb range of vegan products that are now available.
Since “Animal Liberation” was first published, the philosophical field has made significant advances. During that time, Singer's book was used as a punching bag for both sides of the animal rights debate. Still, "Animal Liberation" hangs on, withstanding criticism and perhaps even growing stronger from it. Singer succeeded in clearly explaining the most fundamental arguments for animal welfare without getting entangled in esoteric philosophical doctrines. His arguments remain valid and "Animal Liberation" is as relevant today as ever.