Singer starts his argument by making clear that prejudice is often latent and many never realize their prejudicial attitudes until they are highlighted. For example, it was an assumed fact that blacks were second rate citizens who did not deserve equal treatment with the white folk. Until the black liberation movements highlighted class and racial discrimination, it was assumed that the blacks deserved the treatment they received.
Having learned from the black liberation movements, other groups were able to reflect on their circumstances. In short, the black liberation activities were like an opener to a Pandora’s Box. Minority groups found a voice and have successfully agitated for the recognition of their rights. According to Singer (254), the women emancipation efforts were considered as a fight against ‘the last remaining form of discrimination.’
The notion of ‘last remaining form of discrimination’ is misleading because prejudice, the stereotype is always latent i.e. we engage in prejudicial or stereotypical behavior unknowingly. It is not easy for the perpetrator of prejudicial attitudes or behaviors to notice that they are such unless they are ‘forcefully pointed out’ (Singer 254).
Through a switch in thinking or disposition, especially about ‘we’ vs. ‘they’, Singer (254) envisages an opportunity for individuals to appreciate how unwittingly prejudicial mankind can be. A little scrutiny into our thinking and attitudes towards ‘other’ should help individuals realize that we all think in favor of our in-group. For example, the whites definitely think they are inherently better than the blacks and the same is true of the blacks. This latent feeling and thinking predispose individuals towards prejudicial behavior with regard to the ‘other’.
Singer (254) urges individuals to consider their attitudes towards non-human animals. A mention of “animal rights” sounds or is logically absurd for many people across the world. The objection to the idea of ‘animal rights’ arises from the thinking that animals and human beings are different and thus cannot have ‘rights’ in the same sense as applied to people.
The basis for women rights is their similarity to men thus meriting equal treatment as men. However, Singer (255) questions the idea that non-human animals are totally different from human beings and thus do not have entitlements like humans (Singer 255).
Singer argues that if the difference is the determining factor on how to behave towards beings or things, then even equality among men has to be qualified (Singer 255). He points out that people are genetically, physically, emotionally and psychologically different. However, these differences manifest at the individual level i.e. when individuals are compared and cannot be generalized on a race or sex.
The difference does not necessarily mean inequality. If one should argue that animals have no moral entitlements just on the basis of difference, such an argument does not hold much water. Singer (255) concludes that if we cling to the idea that all men are equal, despite obvious differences, then we should accommodate the idea that in some way we are equal to the other animals.
The “essential basis for moral equality” in Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian formulations is “Each to count for one and none for more than one” (Singer 255). Basically, Jeremy meant that each being’s interests have to be considered as equally important. Therefore, if we acknowledge a certain level of fundamental similarity with other animals, to that extent, animals’ entitlements should equal our entitlements.
Applying himself to the question of suffering capacity, Singer (261) points out that animals suffer as much as humans do when subjected to harsh conditions. The only reason why we rationalize animal suffering is prejudice. Therefore, the idea of distinctive human dignity, Singer (267) argues, is only but prejudicial against other animals.
Objection to this view from the perspective of Bonnie Steinbock
Steinbock objects to Singer’s idea that we need to treat members of other species as we would comfortably treat members of our own species. According to Singer, we treat members of other species with cold indifference as a result of “speciesist attitudes’ i.e. prejudicial thinking in favor of our own species (Steinbock 247).
According to Singer, basing moral consideration on given accidentals or differences is basing moral consideration on irrelevancy (Steinbock 247). For example, basing unequal treatment of individuals on race or sex is wrong because race or sex is irrelevant when it comes to moral treatment. What is relevant when it comes to equal treatment of men is the fact that they are all men despite their manifest differences (Steinbock 248).
Steinbock (250) is in agreement with Singer; however, based on the argument by Hart, he is of the mind that other animals do not have rights because they do not have the awareness or capacity to conceptualize rights; the animals “lack certain minimal conceptual capabilities for having rights”. According to Steinbock, the fact that other animals are not rational and are not morally accountable denies them ‘rights’ as applied to human beings.
For Steinbock (251), the issue of cruelty toward animals is not of philosophical interest. A certain level of cruelty i.e. inflicting pain on animals is necessary and good for human survival. He challenges Singer’s argument that animals suffer in equal measure as humans when subjected to pain. For Singer, given the capacity to suffer is equal for all animals (including people), when it comes to suffering, it is morally necessary that equal consideration is applied (Singer 261).
For Steinbock (252), the equal capacity to suffer does not warrant equal moral treatment as prescribed by Singer. Appealing to common sense, Steinbock (252) asserts that it would be counter-intuitive to favor animals against humans. He agrees with the singer that human dignity does not annul the dignity of animal life. However, people favor fellow humans over non-humans because humans are capable of rational actions and moral responsibility; unlike non-humans. It is rationality and awareness of such abstract concepts like the freedom that make it imperative not to enslave a fellow man (Steinbock 253).
How the singer could respond to the objection
In answer to Steinbock, Singer would first reiterate the importance of thinking differently to gain a new perspective. The idea that killing animals for food is out of necessity seems to be self-evident. However, if one posed to think, it appears the necessity is only in thinking. Animals are not the only source of human food. Therefore, the idea of necessary killing results from prejudicial thinking or, basically, speciesist attitudes. Eating vegetables and fruits is a sure way to good health. If people chose, they could eat only vegetables and fruits and no animal would have to die in the hands of man.
The argument for treating animals humanely, as people would treat fellow human beings, due to equal capacity for suffering, holds water. According to Steinbock, such an argument would lead to counter-intuitive results. However, Singer would point out that although Steinbock’s argument makes a lot of sense, it only applies in extreme cases. For example, Steinbock uses a situation in which one has to feed either his dogs or his children. If such like an extreme situation were to occur, for a majority, children come first.
However, there are cases where both the dogs and children would be fed in equal measure with the understanding that they both need nourishment and would undergo much suffering if not fed. If the food is not enough for the dogs and children, definitely it should not last the children long. Singer’s argument is not about preferential treatment of animals but equal treatment and appreciation that their pain is as much as what a human would feel if subjected to the same conditions.
Finally, Steinbock appeals to rationality to argue for preferential treatment of human beings over animals. Relying on common sense, Steinbock offers a valid argument. However, Singer would again point out that common sense is the bedrock of all prejudices. It is only through thinking beyond what people consider as common sense that new perspectives are established. Secondly, although rationality accords human beings a higher standing than animals, to the extent that they are equal, equality in treatment should apply.
Human beings are rational and can thus not be subjected to say enslavement; given they have conceptual capabilities that help them recognize such injustice. However, when it comes to suffering, animals feel just like human beings. Therefore, it is only proper that they are treated with as much consideration as it would be the case for fellow human beings. If considerations are not taken just because they are non-humans, then truly that is prejudiced and unjust.
Both Singer and Steinbock present very compelling accounts. However, a synthesis between the two accounts would provide a more acceptable position or account. Singer’s assertions are right and acceptable. However, there is a need to define to what extent humans are equal to non-human animals or what rights are sharable between animals and humans.
Singer points out that it is prejudicial to assert that ‘animal rights’ is an absurd concept. If to any extent humans are similar to non-human animals, there should be some rights in which they all share as animals. There should be some rights we are entitled to because we have ‘animal’ characteristics.
Steinbock implied that animals have no rights because they lack the conceptual capabilities to identify their rights. However, not all rational animals have the conceptual capability to identify their rights. For example, there are many mentally retarded individuals in the world. It is kind of universally agreed that it is not morally right to experiment on such people.
Moreover, it is morally unacceptable to experiment on the terminally ill. The fact that we cannot experiment on the terminally sick but eagerly test on healthy nonhuman animals only points to Speciesist attitudes.
Based on the two accounts, it is, in my opinion, that debate should not be on whether animals have rights or not. What the two-point to need to focus more on what the possible ‘animal rights’ are. The rights of animals, it follows, are not dependent on conceptual capability but sentient qualities in which we share as animals.
If humans go beyond speciesist attitudes, then considerations such as ‘do animals have a right to life’ become relevant as opposed to absurd. However, in line with Steinbock, considerations into killing animals as ‘a necessary evil’ are worth looking into.
Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. New York: New York Review Book, 1975.
Steinbock, Bonnie. “Speciesism and the Idea of Equality”. Philosophy 53. 204 (April 1978): 247 – 256.