Turning 40: Animal Liberation in perspective

Practical ethics should be all about really having an impact on the world. This requires, among other things, working on the topic regarding which we are expected to produce the most good. Plausibly, these are topics that have been traditionally neglected or at least that remain under-researched. These are also moral issues that may seriously affect a great number of individuals.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Animal Liberation, in 1975. With it Australian philosopher Peter Singer initiated one of the highest impact careers in philosophy of the last century. It is not surprising that in 2005, Time magazine included him among the list of the 100 most influential people. It is remarkable, though, that the growing respect for Peter Singer has not been accompanied by a similar change of attitude regarding animal ethics —precisely the field in which he is recognised to have made a greater difference.

Animal Liberation boosted the contemporary academic debate on animal ethics and inspired the work of many other philosophers. This book contributed significantly to the growth of the movement for the equal consideration of nonhuman animals. It has influenced countless individuals to adopt veganism and to become activists in defence of animals. Even though the end of speciesist attitudes lies in the far future, very few other moral aims can produce a similar or greater good. Given the importance of the book, it is worth reviewing, on occasion of its anniversary, the position that Singer defended in it as well as some of the controversies it raises and issues it leaves open.

Animal Liberation is a non-academic book targeted at the general public. It is written by a  philosopher with a particular moral outlook —utilitarianism— and with particular views about specific moral problems. Its aim is clear: denouncing speciesism and abandoning the consumption of animals, especially for food. Its method is effective: using arguments that most people already accept without having to commit to some of the author’s most controversial views.

The book’s main thesis is that the interests of all those who can suffer and enjoy should be equally considered. This is derived from the combination of two premises many of us find uncontroversial. Firstly, the widely shared and robust intuition about the equal consideration of all human beings and, secondly, the need for consistency in moral reasoning. The acceptance of the first idea is what leads us to reject assigning different weight to the interests of some individuals based, for example, in certain biological attributes such as sex or skin colour. Analogously, inasmuch as species membership does not condition the weight of an individual’s interests, it should also be rejected as a morally relevant attribute. The unequal consideration of similar interests based on the species of individuals should thus, for the sake of consistency, be abandoned as another form of discrimination (speciesism).

Furthermore, the argument from ‘species overlap’ shows us that any attempt to draw a moral line between human and nonhuman animals will ultimately fail. No matter what attribute one may appeal to, some human beings will lack it and/or some nonhumans will possess it. Of course, it is implausible to derive from this that those humans who lack the selected attribute should be denied moral consideration. Instead, Singer claims, equality in the consideration of interests should be extended beyond the human species to cover all sentient individuals. Since suffering has negative value, we have reasons to prevent it or alleviate it whenever we can, no matter the species of the individual who experiences it.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect in Singer’s view has been the one related to the ethics of killing animals. As it is suggested in Animal Liberation, and later clearly stated in Practical Ethics (2011), Singer believed at the time that only those individuals with a capacity to see themselves as extended over time can have an interest in continuing to live and thus be harmed by dying. Singer took this to follow from his version of preference utilitarianism, according to which death can only be bad if it frustrates a desire in being alive. Given that most nonhuman animals lack the necessary psychological capacities to harbour the relevant desire, this would entail that death cannot harm them. Thus, their interests would give us no reasons against killing them. If those reasons exist they will be given by other considerations, such as the maximisation of net positive experiences.

However, recently, Singer changed his view about the badness of death, prompted by his transition from preference utilitarianism to hedonistic utilitarianism. In The Point of View of the Universe (Lazari-Radek & Singer 2014), he acknowledges that all sentient beings with a life worth living (understood in hedonistic terms as containing a surplus of positive experiences) are harmed by death, since they are thereby deprived of the benefits they would have otherwise enjoyed.

Nevertheless, Peter Singer has not yet completely fleshed out his new account of the badness of death and the wrongness of killing animals. In fact, in a recent talk, he identified this topic as one of three most important open questions in animal ethics. The other two are, according to Singer, (a) the problem of performing interspecies comparisons of well-being and (b) whether we have reasons to intervene in nature to prevent or alleviate wild animal suffering.

Even if we disagree with Singer’s general utilitarian approach (e.g., if one believes, as I do, that equality matters as such) we must concede that very few philosophers can be said to have had an equally high impact. Forty years ago, Peter Singer realised that working on animal ethics was one of the most effective ways of doing good. Given the work that needs to be done and the billions that can benefit from it (considering both animals under human control and those living in the wild), that is still true today.


Singer, P. (2004). Animal Liberation, 4th Edition. New York: HarperCollins.

Singer, P. (2011). Practical Ethics, 3rd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lazari-Radek, K. & Singer, P. (2014). The Point of View of the Universe. Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Science and Ethics: Deep brain stimulation for the treatment of anorexia

Hannah Maslen and Julian Savulescu

In a pioneering new procedure, deep brain stimulation is being trialed as a treatment for the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Neurosurgeons at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford implanted electrodes into the nucleus accumbens of a woman suffering with anorexia to stimulate the part of the brain involved in finding food rewarding. Whilst reports emphasize that this treatment is ‘highly experimental’ and would ‘only be for those who have failed all other treatments for anorexia’, there appeared to be tentative optimism surrounding the potential efficacy of the procedure: the woman who had undergone the surgery was reportedly ‘doing well’ and had shown ‘a response to the treatment’.

It goes without saying that successful treatments for otherwise intractable conditions are a good thing and are to be welcomed. Indeed, a woman who had undergone similar treatment at a hospital in Canada is quoted as saying ‘it has turned my life around. I am now at a healthy weight.’ However, the invasive nature of the procedure and the complexity of the psychological, biological and social dimensions of anorexia should prompt us to carefully consider the ethical issues involved in offering, encouraging and performing such interventions. We here outline relevant considerations pertaining to obtaining valid consent from patients, and underscore the cautious approach that should be taken when directly modifying food-related desires in a complex disorder involving interrelated social, psychological and biological factors. Continue reading

Is privacy to blame for the Germanwings tragedy?

Since it was revealed that Andreas Lubitz—the co-pilot thought to be responsible for voluntarily crashing Germanwings Flight 9525 and killing 149 people—suffered from depression, a debate has ensued over whether privacy laws regarding medical records in Germany should be less strict when it comes to professions that carry special responsibilities.

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Editing the germline – a time for reason, not emotion

Gyngell, Douglas, Savulescu

There are rumours in the scientific community that the first studies involving the genetic modification of a human embryo are about to be published.[1] If true this would be the first case of an experiment in which genes in germ cells (sperm and egg cells) have been intentionally modified.  This has caused some concerns in the scientific community due to the fact that these modification are potentially heritable.  A commentary in Nature, (written by four leading scientists and one philosopher) published an appeal that we “Don’t edit the human germ line”.  Science meanwhile published a commentary which outlines “A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification”. The fact that two of the world’s most prestigious journals are publishing commentaries on human genetic modification shows just how powerful gene editing techniques have become. The rapid speed with which these technologies have developed has taken the scientific community, and everyone else, by surprise. Just three years after the DNA cutting nuclease Cas-9 was first used to modify DNA, scientists have been able to make heritable modifications to yeast, plants, mice, rats, pigs and even primates. It has been claimed that experiments conducted in China, currently under review, have used these same technologies to modify the DNA of human embryos.[2] Continue reading

There are things that even lawyers won’t do

Despite all the jokes there are, in fact, a lot of things that lawyers won’t do. Or at least shouldn’t do. In many jurisdictions qualified lawyers are subject to strict ethical codes which are self-policed, usually effectively, and policed too by alert and draconian regulatory bodies.

Is there any point, then, in law firms having their own ethics committees which would decide:

(a)        how the firm should deal with ethical questions arising in the course of work?; and/or

(b)       whether the firm should accept particular types of work, particular clients or particular cases? Continue reading

The Ethics of Giving:  How Demanding?

How much of your money should you give to effective charities?  Donors are often made considerably happier by giving away substantial portions of their income to charity.  But if they continued giving more and more, there’d surely come a point at which they’d be trading off their own well-being for the sake of helping others.  This raises a general question:  how much of your own well-being are you morally required to sacrifice, for the sake of doing good for others?  I’m currently in Australia giving some talks on the ethics of giving (at the ANU and at CAPPE in Melbourne and Canberra), and have been thinking about this topic a bit more than usual.

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The discussion that the scientists in Nature and Science called for should remain in realism, not go on to superhumans

Just over a week ago, prominent scientists in Nature and Science called for a ban for DNA modification in human embryos. This is because the scientists presume that now it actually would be possible to alter the genome in a human embryo in order to treat genetic diseases. Consequently, this would result in modified DNA in germ cells that would be inherited to future generations. The scientists wish to have a full ethical, legal, and public discussion before any germ-line modifications will be made. Furthermore, issues of safety are of importance.

The scientists’ statement is of utmost importance and hopefully this ethical, legal, and public discussion will emerge. However, the discussion on germ-line DNA modification is at danger if the debate will be taken to the level of science fictional superhumans, as already has happen. Not only can such discussion cause unnecessary public worry, it also leads the deliberation away from the actual and urgent questions.

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Success, Self-esteem, and Human Enhancement

The philosopher turned theologian Jean Vanier was recently awarded the Templeton Prize for his work on behalf of the mentally disabled, and he spoke eloquently of the damage done to that group in particular by our culture of individual success.

Vanier’s point — that we judge people by what they do — is well taken, and it has some broad and important implications. Even those usually thought mentally and physically able may be unable to achieve enough to win the esteem of others, or to gain self-esteem. Of course, success has its benefits for those who succeed and often for others. But because of the close relation in our culture between self-esteem and accomplishment, many are left unsatisfied or even depresseed because of their ‘failure’.

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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can the Concept of Species Specific Animal Dignity Refute the Argument From Marginal Cases?   by Henry Phipps

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Henry Phipps,  is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Can the Concept of Species Specific Animal Dignity Refute the Argument From Marginal Cases?    

The argument from marginal cases notes that certain severely disabled humans have cognitive capabilities comparable to certain animals. These humans are not thought to have the status of rational persons, yet we believe that they possess significant moral status and rights. But simultaneously most people believe that animals with comparable cognitive capabilities are not possessed of the same moral status; for instance we regularly kill them for food and in medical experiments. The argument from marginal cases claims that these humans do not differ in any morally relevant respect from certain animals and that therefore we ought to treat these like cases alike. We are then faced with a choice of two options, either extend the moral status and rights that severely mentally disabled humans have to like cases of animals or deny that such humans have significant moral status and rights. Since the latter option seems repugnant, proponents of the argument then claim we have no choice but to adopt the former position that many animals have moral status and rights comparable to those attributed to severely mentally disabled humans. Continue reading

Mind wars: do we want the enhanced military?

Jonathan Moreno presented a special lecture the 18th about “Mind Wars”, the military applications of neurotechnology. Here are some of my notes and comments inspired by this stimulating lecture. Continue reading