Peter Singer on Animals and Ethics

Video of the lecture is now available online.

By Chloe Reichel

Last Friday, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer joined Petrie-Flom for a lecture on “Ethics and Animals: Where are we now?” Singer began his talk with a historical look back at various religious and philosophical views of the relationship between humans and animals. He traced the lineage of thought from the view of dominion, which entails the idea that man has been granted free reign over animals by God (first found in Genesis, and also espoused by Aristotle); to the notions developed by Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, who believed that abuse of animals was not itself morally problematic except to the extent that it may inculcate bad habits in those who practice it; to the early English Utilitarians, who recognized the capacity of animals to suffer; to Charles Darwin, whose groundbreaking theory of evolution muddied previous distinctions between human and non-human animals.

Singer went on to discuss modern views of proper animal treatment. He articulated the prevailing view that humans have some obligations to treat animals well and without cruelty, but that human interests exceed those of animals. Singer then laid out his main principle regarding the treatment of animals—that of equal consideration of interests. In other words, the interests of non-human animals should be considered equally with human interests. To favor human interests over animal interests is a speciesist stance, similar in nature to other –isms, like racism and sexism, and equally morally indefensible, in Singer’s view. Singer carefully noted that while equal consideration of interests would mandate better treatment of many animals, such as those raised as livestock, his principle does not imply that humans and animals should receive the same treatment.

Next, Singer addressed ethical questions relating to this principle. For example, he brought up concerns about the ways in which animals are killed. He also considered what animal consciousness might be like, and how this compares to human consciousness. He raised the provocative question of human relations to wild animals, and whether humans ought to interfere with nature in order to minimize their suffering.

In the next segment of his talk, Singer discussed the most pressing issues regarding animal welfare. He focused on animals used in food production, because of the scale of such operations. Detailing a list of abuses against animals in commercial agriculture, Singer went on to discuss various laws passed around the globe to protect animals’ welfare.

Finally, Singer engaged with moral questions relating to the current state of animal welfare and its future. He presented an optimistic view that the treatment of animals has improved over time. He did, however, articulate continued concerns for animal welfare, and associated factors relating to the production and consumption of meat, such as health and environmental issues. In particular, Singer worries about the effects that the growing and unregulated market for meat in developing nations like China might have on animal welfare. But, looking to the future, Singer believes that new technologies (e.g., lab-grown meat) have the capacity to alleviate animal suffering and reduce environmental harms.

Check out the Harvard Crimson’s write-up of the event here.