Firstly, in March, you can take a free online course on Practical Ethics taught by Peter Singer author, ethicist and professor of bioethics at Princeton University — how fantastic! — go sign up now. Singer’s book of the same name, Practical Ethics (1979), is his second most reprinted work.
Secondly, if you haven’t read Singer’s most reprinted and translated work, Animal Liberation — it’s time! It’s a valuable re-read, too, if it’s been awhile.
Animal Liberation, originally published in 1975, is “the definitive classic of the animal movement” and a seminal work on animal rights. The book is the reason I went meat-free (on Thanksgiving Day 25 years ago) — however, that’s far from a unique experience.
Singer makes a strong ethical argument throughout Animal Liberation that 1) it is morally indefensible to eat animals and 2) boycotting meat is the best thing you can do today to reduce animal suffering. While it’s common now to talk about the value of emotional appeals to stimulate behaviors, Singer’s approach is logical, reasoned — and persuasive.
“What we must do 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.”
When we don’t consider animals, we create and condone suffering.
Singer’s approach persuades because of his utilitarian ethics, his structured argument, and his choice, at each opportunity, of the most conservative tack as he makes the case for extending the principle of equality to all beings.
The aim is to prevent suffering and Singer shows that vast grievous suffering can be avoided with little sacrifice — but sweeping changes — from humans.
Conversely, giving animals no consideration results in egregious (in terms of quantity, severity and uselessness) suffering.
Singer focuses on just two issues — experimentation on animals and rearing animals for food — because these affect the largest number of animals and are the ones in which people have the most direct relationship: We fund the studies and eat the animals.
The chapters which detail the animal suffering and the reasons for it, in both cases, are difficult reading as Singer acknowledges. However, as he says, if the animals must endure the suffering, the least we can do is be informed. Again, even in these dramatic chapters, he conservatively chooses examples sourced from the industries most motivated to justify and downplay the routine horror of the animals’ treatment.
Ignorance, willful and orchestrated, allows suffering to be perpetuated whereas, informed, it would not be tolerated.
After laying down his argument and providing examples, in the fourth chapter, “Becoming a Vegetarian,” Singer talks about the solution. Again, Singer steers the reader toward the most lenient and unassailable course to live a life “as free of cruelty as we can.”
“I hope that anyone who as read this far will recognize the moral necessity of refusing to buy or eat the flesh or other products of animals who have been reared in modern factory farm conditions. This is the clearest case of all…”
As a book rich with ideas, Animal Liberation bears rereading. It’s likely to steer the thoughtful reader in new directions. There’s much to explore in the final chapters about the philosophical underpinnings of views on human and nonhuman animals’ place in the world and about the history of the animal liberation movement.
On my most recent reading, the five freedoms of animal welfare, which originated from the United Kingdom’s Farm Animal Welfare Council, Brambell Report, 1965, particularly caught my attention. The report concluded that farmed animals be given:
Freedom to express normal behavior.
Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
Freedom from hunger and thirst.
Freedom from fear and distress.
Freedom from discomfort.
These freedoms are far from the rule today. Instead, humans continue to inflict lifetimes of suffering on nonhuman animals (in staggering numbers: see factoryfarmmap.org) for trivial purposes.
Certainly, Animal Liberation does not go far enough. It’s a laser not a floodlight. Singer leaves out a lot of arguments and takes a stringently rational approach with the view that this will be most universally compelling. Modern day marketing might disagree, but many have been clearly pointed to a new diet, in counter to the strong calculated influences that resist change, because of this book.
From the security of this base, the animal liberation movement now works to broaden its appeal with fresh outreach and tactics.
What to read next?
In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave (2013), a collection of essays by philosophers and activists edited by Singer would be a great companion read.
Along the lines of new tactics, look for Veganomics: The Surprising Science on What Motivates Vegetarians, from the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom, veganomicsbook.com, by Nick Cooney, founder of The Humane League, just out from Lantern Books.