Singer, Peter Alfred David (1946 – ) Australian Philosopher and Animal Rights Activist
Peter Alfred David Singer (1946 – )
Australian philosopher and animal rights activist
Philosopher and leading advocate of the animal liberation movement, Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia . While teaching at Oxford University in England, Singer encountered a group of people who were vegetarians not because of any personal distaste for meat, but because they felt, as Singer later wrote, that "there was no way in which [maltreatment of animals by humans] could be justified ethically." Impressed by their argument, Singer soon joined their ranks. Out of his growing concern for the rights of animals came the book Animal Liberation,a study of the suffering we inflict upon animals in the name of scientific experimentation and food production. Animal Liberation caused a sensation when it was published in 1972 and soon became a major manifesto of the growing animal liberation movement in North America, Australia, England, and elsewhere.
As a utilitarian, Singer—like his nineteenth-century forebear and founder of utilitarianism , the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham—believes that morality requires that the total amount of happiness be maximized and pain minimized. Or, as the point is sometimes put, we are morally obligated to perform actions and promote policies and practices that produce "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." But, Singer says, the creatures to be counted within this number should include all sentient creatures, animals as well as humans.
To promote only the happiness of humans and to disregard the pains of animals Singer calls speciesism—the view that one species , Homo sapiens, is privileged above all others. Singer likens speciesism to sexism and racism. The idea that one sex or race is innately superior to another has been discredited. The next step, Singer believes, is to recognize that all sentient creatures—human and nonhuman alike—deserve moral recognition and respect. Just as we do not eat the flesh or use the skin of our fellow humans, so, Singer argues, should we not eat meat or wear fur from animals. Nor is it morally permissible for humans to kill animals, to confine them, or to subject them to lethal laboratory experiments.
Although Singer's conclusions are congruent with those of Tom Regan and other defenders of animal rights , the route by which he reaches them is quite different. As a utilitarian, Singer emphasizes sentience, or the ability to experience pleasure and pain. Regan, by contrast, emphasizes the intrinsic value or inherent moral worth of all living creatures. Despite their differences, both have come under attack from the fur industry, defenders of "factory farming," and advocates of animal experimentation. Singer remains a key figure at the center of this continuing storm.
[Terence Ball ]
Ball, T., and R. Dagger. "Liberation Ideologies." In Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991.
——. Animal Liberation. 2nd ed. New York: Random House, 1990.
——. Ethics into Action: Henry Spim and the Animal Rights Movement. Latham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
——. Practical Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
——. Writings on an Ethical Life. New York: Ecco Press, 2000.
——, and Helga Kuhse, eds. Bioethics: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
——, and T. Regan, eds. Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976.