Book Review: Animal Rights

by Dave Kopel

Relix magazine. More by Kopel on factory farming.

Want to upset all the pre-conceptions of your life, and look at the world around you in a radically new way? Then read Peter Singer's book Animal Rights. Written by an Australian philosophy professor in the 1970s, Animal Rights is the founding book of the modern animal rights movement. As such, Animal Rights may be one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

When Singer's book first appeared, animal rights was on the fringe of the fringe. Animal rights advocates, to the extent that they could get any attention from the press at all, were treated as a bunch of nuts. CBS Evening News compared British animal rights advocates to Monty Python. But today, especially among young people, animal rights is a major part of political and social activism. So even if you think you're inflexibly opposed to animals having rights, Singer's book will help you understand the millions of people who disagree with you.

Folks who believe that animals have no rights will often assert that because animals are animals, they should have no rights. As Singer points out, the argument is simply a tautology. To say that animals should have no rights because they are animals is no more logical than to say that women should not have rights because they are women, or that Blacks should have no rights because they are Blacks. To say that status as a woman must, in itself, imply that women have no rights is sexism; to say the same about Blacks is racism. And, Singer demonstrates, to say the same about animals is "speciesism."

Interestingly, when reformers in the late 18th century began arguing that Black should not be enslaved merely because of of their race, pro-slavery advocates had an immediate reply: Arguments which questioned the subordination of Blacks could also be used to question the subordination of women, and the subordination of animals. The defenders of slavery had a point, notes Singer. Once you knock out one kind of subordination, it's harder to defend the subordination that remains.

So if simplistic speciesism is an insufficient basis for denying animals rights, what logical justification is there for current treatment of animals?

It is true, of course, that animals can't do lots of things that humans can, such as write, build complex tools, or describe a religious belief system. But if you compare a profoundly retarded child with one of the higher primates, the primate may have much more advanced skills in the traits that we consider human (such as use of language or tools) than does the profoundly retarded child.

If we acknowledge that the retarded child has rights, then what philosophically plausible claim can be made that the primate does not?

The best test for rights, argues Singer, is a test first articulated by the 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham: "Can it suffer?" If you saw someone using an electric cattle prod to torture an adult human, you would say that the person's rights were being violated. If the severely retarded child were being tortured, you would likewise say that the child's rights were being violated. And because gorillas, dogs, and eagles also feel intense pain when being attacked with electric cattle prods, their rights are likewise violated when they are tortured. In contrast, trees and rocks do not feel pain, as far as we know, and therefore using a cattle prod on a rock is merely a waste of electricity, and not the violation of rights on the part of the rock.

"How can you tell that animals feel pain?" is one rejoinder to the argument above. The theory that animals are mere automatons, and have no more feeling than does a clock, was first articulated by the French philosopher Rene Descartes.

In reply, Singer points out that: First of all, animals react in a manner which we would expect from a being in pain -- they scream, and they try to avoid the source of the pain. Second, all of the evidence we have regarding the nervous system of animals shows that their pain-sensing capacity is structurally similar to the pain-sensing portion of the nervous system in humans.

Having set up a philosophical basis for animal rights, Singer then examines current treatment of animals by humans, to see if violations of rights are involved.

Singer's approach has no sentimentalism about animals in it. He describes his disgust as meeting a woman who gushed "Don't you just love animals!" -- and then offered him a ham sandwich.

The book's discussion of factory farming of animals is particularly powerful. He describes how almost all of the chickens, pigs, and cattle that end up in a supermarket meat tray are subjected to squalid conditions of confinement that can be described as torture. Chickens are confined in cages too small even to lift a wing, and cages are stacked on top of each other so that the top chickens' feces falls on the ones below. To deal with the high death rates that result from these disgusting conditions, the animals are pumped full of high doses of antibiotics.

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