Peter Singer and the Welfarist Position on the Lesser Value of Nonhuman Life

Dear Colleagues:

Some animal advocates maintain that there is no real difference between the abolitionist approach and the new welfarist approach of Peter Singer.

I have discussed Singer’s views in previous essays on this site (see, e.g., 1, 2) and in my books and articles, in an effort to illustrate what I regard as the significant theoretical and practical differences in our approaches. Another example appears in a recent interview that Singer did. He states:

You could say it’s wrong to kill a being whenever a being is sentient or conscious. Then you would have to say it’s just as wrong to kill a chicken or mouse as it is to kill you or me. I can’t accept that idea. It may be just as wrong, but millions of chickens are killed every day. I can’t think of that as a tragedy on the same scale as millions of humans being killed. What is different about humans? Humans are forward-looking beings, and they have hopes and desires for the future. That seems a plausible answer to the question of why it’s so tragic when humans die.

Singer quite clearly articulates the welfarist notion that the lives of nonhumans are of lesser moral value than the lives of humans.

Singer’s comments are problematic for several reasons. First, Singer assumes that chickens and other sentient nonhumans are not forward-looking beings. I have had little personal experience with chickens but I know enough about them to conclude that their behavior cannot be explained unless we attribute to them some sort of cognition that is equivalent to what we would characterize as forward-looking in humans. Chickens clearly have interests, preferences, and desires and are able to act to satisfy their interests and preferences. When we kill these nonhumans, we frustrate their ability to enjoy the satisfaction of their interests, preferences, and desires—just as we do when we kill humans.

I have had extensive experience with dogs and I can say quite confidently that I would be astonished if someone were to assert that dogs are not forward-looking beings or that they do not have hopes and desires.

The underlying premise in Singer’s position is that the only way to be forward looking, to have hopes and desires, is to have them in the way that humans do. But that is clearly a speciesist position. Humans have concepts that are linked inextricably with symbolic communication. The cognition of nonhumans is most likely very different from human cognition because nonhumans do not use symbolic communication. But that certainly does not mean that nonhumans do not have equivalent cognitive phenomena.

Second, and more important, is the moral value that Singer assigns to having the ability to plan for the future. What about humans who have transient global amnesia? They have a sense of themselves in the present but are unable to recall the past or plan for the future. Would killing them be morally wrong? Of course it would. Would we judge it as worse (morally or legally) to kill a person who did not have this condition? Of course not. We would regard both killings as equally culpable because in both cases, we have deprived humans of their lives, which matters to them. The life of a chicken is as equally valuable to her as my life is to me or as the life of the person with transient global amnesia is to her.

Moreover, on Singer’s analysis, the life of a human with more hopes and desires would be worth more than the life of a human who had fewer. So the life of a depressed person who may not be particularly excited about or plan for the future, or the life of a poor person, whose hopes and desires are focused on the next meal or a place to sleep for that night, is worth less than, say, the life of a Princeton professor who has lots and lots of hopes and plans for the future.

Singer’s comments reflect—once again—the welfarist notion that our use of animals is not the primary or even a moral problem because, as a factual matter, animals do not have an interest in their lives. That is, welfarists maintain that nonhumans have an interest in not suffering but as they do not have an interest in continued life because they do not have hopes or future desires, we can use them for our purposes as long we treat them ‘humanely.’ Singer clearly accepts the welfarist principle that nonhumans are of less moral value than humans. He clearly, explicitly, and repeatedly rejects the concept of animal rights despite his claim—made again in this interview—that he sought “to create an animal-rights movement.”

Singer’s comments in this interview represent nothing new. He has been saying these things for years starting in Animal Liberation, a book that was not about animal rights but earned Singer the title of “father of the animal rights movement.” It is, however, nothing short of astonishing that so many animal advocates claim that there is no real difference between Singer’s position and the abolitionist approach to animal rights.

To those animal advocates who do not see the differences, I express my sincere and profound dismay.

Gary L. Francione
©2009 Gary L. Francione

ADDED MARCH 22, 2009:

Yesterday, I received an email from someone who remarked:

I recently attended a talk by Peter Singer. I was horrified and mystified to hear him explicitly state that killing animals is not a speciesist act if done painlessly. I have read some of your work, and, of course, object to this assertion. I left the talk feeling angry and let down. Is this really the author of the “Bible of The Animal Rights” movement telling me that it’s ok to kill animals?

As I stated in the preceding essay, no one should be surprised or shocked that Singer does not regard killing animals as per se objectionable. He has been taking this position for at least the past 33 years–ever since he wrote Animal Liberation. Singer does not regard killing animals as speciesist because he does not think that animals have an interest in continuing to live so we do not harm them when we kill them painlessly. As I argued above (and elsewhere) Singer’s position that this is not speciesist rests on the explicitly speciesist premise that animals can have an interest in continuing to live only if they have the sort of reflective self-awareness that we associate with normal adult humans.

What is surprising and shocking is that an “animal rights” movement promotes Animal Liberation as the “‘bible’” of the modern animal rights movement” or embraces and promotes Singer as “father of the modern animal movement”.

Many people criticize Singer because he characterizes his position as the “animal rights” view. Peter should certainly not do that as it is not accurate and he knows that and has acknowledged it explicitly on a number of occasions.

But the primary responsibility lies with animal advocates who have apparently never even bothered to read Animal Liberation before making it the “bible” and who have in any event not taken the time to think critically about the meaning of “animal rights.”

Never before in human history has a social movement been so very deeply confused.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione