Peter Singer

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.

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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Risky Giving

I highly recommend Leif Wenar’s essay “Poverty Is No Pond” – especially to those not yet familiar with, but interested in, the empirical complexities involved in giving to overseas poverty-fighting charities.  Wenar’s main aim in his essay is to criticize Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save for (i) being overly optimistic about the quality of information available on the effects of giving to various charities, and (ii) failing to emphasize that every charitable donation also comes with some risk of harming people living in extreme poverty.  I’ll only briefly address (i), and then turn to and focus primarily on (ii).

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Being a Good Person by Deceit?

By Nadira Faulmüller & Lucius Caviola

Recently, Peter Singer, Paul Bloom and Dan Ariely were discussing topics surrounding the psychology of morality. Peter was emphasizing the importance of helping people in need by donating money to poverty fighting charities. That’s easier said than done. Humans don’t seem to have a strong innate desire of helping distant strangers. So the question arises of how we can motivate people to donate considerable amounts to charity. Peter suggested that respective social norms could be established: in order to make people more moral their behaviour needs to be observable by others, as Dan pointed out, only then they will be motivated to help strangers on the other side of the world. Is this true? – do people only behave prosocially because they feel socially pressured into doing so?

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Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization

For those of us doing Catholic moral theology, we most often hear and read the name “Peter Singer” invoked by our colleagues in a dismissive way.  Indeed, if one can somehow show that another’s argument is heading in a Singer-like direction, then for many of us one essentially has reduced it to the absurd.  Furthermore, and very unfortunately, Singer remains consistently dismissed as a ‘popularizer’ who can’t be taken seriously as an academic given how widely his work is read.

But when I actually look carefully and systematically at his work I see not only how consistent and even rigorous it often is, but also how much it common it has with Christian Ethics.  Consider, for instance, the topic of abortion.  Though Peter Singer is pro-choice for abortion and infanticide, and the Catholic position condemns the intentional killing the fetus and early embryo as intrinsically evil, the actual disagreement between the two on this very complex topic turns out to be very narrow. Both believe that public policy cannot retreat into a privacy-centered moral neutrality with regard to (1) the moral status of the fetus and (2) whether one can kill or refuse to sustain a fetus.  Both also agree, assuming for the sake of argument that a fetus is a person, that no unintended negative effects of making abortion illegal would justify allowing for the legal killing of fetuses. Both reject the American Supreme Court abortion decision Roe v. Wade.  Both agree (again, assuming a fetus is a person) that not only would it be morally wrong to kill a fetus, but that one has a moral duty to support a fetus for nine months with one’s body.  Both reject the idea that viability is a morally significant dividing line.  Both also see a strong logical connection between one’s view of abortion and one’s view of infanticide.  In fact, it is my contention that the wide divergence in their ultimate conclusions comes from a very complex argument involving the distinction that Aristotle and Thomas made between “active” and “passive” potential.  On every issue but that one, Peter Singer looks a lot like John Paul II on abortion.

Singer also criticizes Christianity for being speciesist, but he (along with, to be fair, many Christians) is largely unaware of how complex the tradition is on this topic. For instance, the traditional definition of a person is “an individual substance of a rational nature”—with no mention of biological species as morally significant. Indeed, the Christian tradition makes explicit room for non-human persons (angels and aliens are good examples) and even (in the past) for the concept of human non-persons (human beings who are “slaves by nature”, for instance). Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that it is seriously morally wrong to needlessly cause non-human animals pain and suffering, and even PETA has used the words of Pope Benedict (now known as “the Green Pope” for his heroic ecological work) criticizing factory farming in their advertisements. This should not be a surprise to anyone who reads Genesis and learns that not only are non-human animals created “good” without any reference to human beings, but that God intended other animals to be our companions, not our food.

The most overwhelming case of all for overlap involves how each understands our duties to the poor. Singer broke on the academic scene with his 1972 article on Famine, Affluence and Morality, and continues to hammer away at the problem of poverty through his continued work (especially his recent book: The Life You Can Save) and personal giving. Modern-day Roman Catholic movements to aid the impoverished (led by the American Bishops via their poverty arm called Catholic Relief Services) are not only absolutely massive in scale and trend-setting among their peer organizations, but their roots go back to the very beginnings of Christianity. Indeed, though Jesus himself rarely speaks of Hell, when he does so it is almost always connected to a failure of one’s duties to the poor, and the early Christian Church largely served as the social welfare system of the ancient world.  Singer himself built on precisely this point when, in the second edition of Practical Ethics, he suggested we give 10% of our resources to those in absolute poverty in part because this was the tithing percentage required by the social welfare mechanism of the age: the Catholic Church. In a shocking indictment of most of us, I suspect, both approaches insist that a selfish failure meet one’s duty to aid the global poor is seriously immoral behavior—akin to something like indirect homicide.

Those who are familiar with ethical theory are probably the most skeptical of conversation between Peter Singer and Christian Ethics—especially because Singer is utilitarian and the Church is a big fan of exceptionless moral norms. But even here the possibilities for overlap are striking and important. The Catholic Church has a teleological ethic which, yes, is ultimately directed toward union with God, but is proximately directed at the flourishing of the “universal common good.”  Even exceptionless moral norms are teleological in nature given that they are at the service of this kind of flourishing. Furthermore, Singer is exploring a new kind of objectivity in his moral theory—even to the point where it is no longer clear that he will remain a preference utilitarian. Indeed, in his latest edition of Practical Ethics he admits that preference utilitarianism is at variance with his moral intuitions about replacement theory (especially of persons), the good of distant future persons, and whether the existence of persons at all is a morally good thing. Especially as Singer moves to include more objectivity into his theory and go beyond preference utilitarianism, he becomes an even better conversation partner for Christian Ethics.

Much more needs to be said to back up these ideas and arguments, of course, and I try to do just that in my new book Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization—just released this weekend in the United States by Cambridge University Press. (Available in both paperback and Kindle versions.)  I’m certainly interested in any feedback about the book, so feel free to send me a note (either here or via e-mail:, or join the discussion on the book’s Facebook page.  The book will also serve as the basis of an exchange/debate between Julian Savulescu and myself next Autumn, so if you are in or around Oxford October 17th-19th, come by and see us.

Charlie Camosy

Fordham University (webpage is here)

What is it like to be a bee?

Do bees have feelings? What would that mean? And if they do have feelings, how should we treat them? Do we have a moral obligation toward insects?

Honeybees “exhibit pessimism” according to a recent study published in Current Biology, and summarized in this Wired Science article. Pay attention to the Wired headline – “Honeybees might have emotions” – and to these choice clippings as well: “You can’t be pessimistic if you don’t have an inner life.” And, “invertebrates like bees aren’t typically thought of as having human-like emotions.” The implication, of course, is that these invertebrates have been shown to have them.

Inner life? Human-like emotions? Is there “something it is like,” then, to be a bee?

From an ethics standpoint, questions like these make a big difference. Continue reading


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