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Animal Liberation at 30


The phrase “Animal Liberation” appeared in the press for the first time on the April 5, 1973, cover of The New York Review of Books. Under that heading, I discussed Animals, Men and Morals, a collection of essays on our treatment of animals, which was edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris.1 The article began with these words:

We are familiar with Black Liberation, Gay Liberation, and a variety of other movements. With Women’s Liberation some thought we had come to the end of the road. Discrimination on the basis of sex, it has been said, is the last form of discrimination that is universally accepted and practiced without pretense, even in those liberal circles which have long prided themselves on their freedom from racial discrimination. But one should always be wary of talking of “the last remaining form of discrimination.”

In the text that followed, I urged that despite obvious differences between humans and nonhuman animals, we share with them a capacity to suffer, and this means that they, like us, have interests. If we ignore or discount their interests, simply on the grounds that they are not members of our species, the logic of our position is similar to that of the most blatant racists or sexists who think that those who belong to their race or sex have superior moral status, simply in virtue of their race or sex, and irrespective of other characteristics or qualities. Although most humans may be superior in reasoning or in other intellectual capacities to nonhuman animals, that is not enough to justify the line we draw between humans and animals. Some humans—infants and those with severe intellectual disabilities—have intellectual capacities inferior to some animals, but we would, rightly, be shocked by anyone who proposed that we inflict slow, painful deaths on these intellectually inferior humans in order to test the safety of household products. Nor, of course, would we tolerate confining them in small cages and then slaughtering them in order to eat them. The fact that we are prepared to do these things to nonhuman animals is therefore a sign of “speciesism”—a prejudice that survives because it is convenient for the dominant group—in this case not whites or males, but all humans.

That essay and the book that grew out of it, also published by The New York Review,2 are often credited with starting off what has become known as the “animal rights movement”—although the ethical position on which the movement rests needs no reference to rights. Hence the essay’s thirti-eth anniversary provides a convenient opportunity to take stock both of the current state of the debate over the moral status of animals and of how effective the movement has been in bringing about the practical changes it seeks in the way we treat animals.


The most obvious difference between the current debate over the moral status of animals and that of thirty years ago is that in the early 1970s, to an extent barely credible today, scarcely anyone thought that the treatment of individual animals raised an ethical issue worth taking seriously. There were no animal rights or animal liberation organizations. Animal welfare was an issue for cat and dog lovers, best ignored by people with more important things to write about. (That’s why I wrote to the editors of The New York Review with the suggestion that they might review Animals, Men and Morals, whose publication the British press had greeted a year earlier with total silence.)

Today the situation is very different. Issues about our treatment of animals are often in the news. Animal rights organizations are active in all the industrialized nations. The US animal rights group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has 750,000 members and supporters. A lively intellectual debate has sprung up. (The most comprehensive bibliography of writings on the moral status of animals lists only ninety-four works in the first 1970 years of the Christian era, and 240 works between 1970 and 1988, when the bibliography was completed.3 The tally now would probably be in the thousands.) Nor is this debate simply a Western phenomenon—leading works on animals and ethics have been translated into most of the world’s major languages, including Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.

To assess the debate, it helps to distinguish two questions. First, can speciesism itself—the idea that it is justifiable to give preference to beings simply on the grounds that they are members of the species Homo sapiens —be defended? And secondly, if speciesism cannot be defended, are there other characteristics about human beings that justify them in placing far greater moral significance on what happens to them than on what happens to nonhuman animals?

The view that species is in itself a reason for treating some beings as morally more significant than others is often assumed but rarely defended. Some who write as if they are defending speciesism are in fact defending an affirmative answer to the second question, arguing that there are morally relevant differences between human beings and other animals that entitle us to give more weight to the interests of humans.4 The only argument I’ve come across that looks like a defense of speciesism itself is the claim that just as parents have a special obligation to care for their own children in preference to the children of strangers, so we have a special obligation to other members of our species in preference to members of other species.5

Advocates of this position usually pass in silence over the obvious case that lies between the family and the species. Lewis Petrinovich, professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, and an authority on ornithology and evolution, says that our biology turns certain boundaries into moral imperatives—and then lists “children, kin, neighbors, and species.”6 If the argument works for both the narrower circle of family and friends and the wider sphere of the species, it should also work for the middle case: race. But an argument that supported our preferring the interests of members of our own race over those of members of other races would be less persuasive than one that allowed priority only for kin, neighbors, and members of our species. Conversely, if the argument doesn’t show race to be a morally relevant boundary, how can it show that species is?

The late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick argued that we can’t infer much from the fact that we do not yet have a theory of the moral importance of species membership. “No one,” he wrote, “has spent much time trying to formulate” such a theory, “because the issue hasn’t seemed pressing.”7 But now that nearly twenty years have passed since Nozick wrote those words, and many people have, during those years, spent quite a lot of time trying to defend the importance of species membership, Nozick’s comment takes on a different weight. The continuing failure of philosophers to produce a plausible theory of the moral importance of species membership indicates, with increasing probability, that there can be no such thing.

That takes us to the second question. If species is not morally important in itself, is there something else that happens to coincide with the human species, on the basis of which we can justify the inferior consideration we give to nonhuman animals?

Peter Carruthers argues that it is the lack of a capacity to reciprocate. Ethics, he says, arises out of an agreement that if I do not harm you, you will not harm me. Since animals cannot take part in this social contract we have no direct duties to them.8 The difficulty with this approach to ethics is that it also means we have no direct duties to small children, or to future generations yet unborn. If we produce radioactive waste that will be deadly for thousands of years, is it unethical to put it into a container that will last 150 years and drop it into a convenient lake? If it is, ethics cannot be based on reciprocity.

Many other ways of marking the special moral significance of human beings have been suggested: the ability to reason, self-awareness, possession of a sense of justice, language, autonomy, and so on. But the problem with all of these allegedly distinguishing marks is, as noted above, that some humans are entirely lacking in these characteristics and few want to consign them to the same moral category as nonhuman animals.

This argument has become known by the tactless label of “the argument from marginal cases,” and has spawned an extensive literature of its own.9 The attempt by the English philosopher and conservative columnist Roger Scruton to respond to it in Animal Rights and Wrongs illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. Scruton is aware that if we accept the prevailing moral rhetoric that asserts that all human beings have the same set of basic rights, irrespective of their intellectual level, the fact that some nonhuman animals are at least as rational, self-aware, and autonomous as some human beings looks like a firm basis for asserting that all animals have these basic rights. He points out, however, that this prevailing moral rhetoric is not in accord with our real attitudes, because we often regard “the killing of a human vegetable” as excusable. If human beings with profound intellectual disabilities do not have the same right to life as normal human beings, then there is no inconsistency in denying that right to nonhuman animals as well.

In referring to a “human vegetable,” however, Scruton makes things too easy for himself, for that expression suggests a being that is not even conscious, and thus has no interests at all that need to be protected. He might be less comfortable making his point with respect to a human being who has as much awareness and ability to learn as the foxes he wants to continue being permitted to hunt. In any case, the argument from marginal cases is not limited to the question of what beings we can justifiably kill. In addition to killing animals, we inflict suffering on them, in a wide variety of ways. So the defenders of common practices involving animals owe us an explanation for their willingness to make animals suffer when they would not be willing to do the same to humans with similar intellectual capacities. (Scruton, to his credit, is opposed to the close confinement of modern animal raising, saying that “a true morality of animal welfare ought to begin from the premise that this way of treating animals is wrong.”)

Scruton is in fact only half-willing to acknowledge that a “human vegetable” may be treated differently from other human beings. He muddies the waters by claiming that it is “part of human virtue to acknowledge human life as sacrosanct.” In addition, he argues that because in normal conditions human beings are members of a moral community protected by rights, even deeply serious abnormality does not cancel membership of this community. Thus even though humans with profound intellectual disability do not really have the same claims on us as normal humans, we would do well, Scruton says, to treat them as if they did. But is this defensible? Certainly if any sentient being, human or nonhuman, can feel pain or distress, or conversely can enjoy life, we ought to give the interests of that being the same consideration as we give to the similar interests of normal human beings with unimpaired capacities. To say, however, that species alone is both necessary and sufficient for being a member of our moral community, and for having the basic rights granted to all members of that community, requires further justification. We return to the core question: Should all and only human beings be protected by rights, when some nonhuman animals are superior in their intellectual capacities, and have richer emotional lives, than some human beings?

  1. 1

    Taplinger, 1972.

  2. 2

    Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York Review/Random House, 1975; revised edition, New York Review/ Random House, 1990; reissued with a new preface, Ecco, 2001).

  3. 3

    Charles Magel, Keyguide to Information Sources in Animal Rights (McFarland, 1989).

  4. 4

    See, for example, Carl Cohen, “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research,” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 315 (1986), pp. 865–870; and Michael Leahy, Against Liberation: Putting Animals in Perspective (London: Routledge, 1991).

  5. 5

    See Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter (University of Georgia Press, 1984); Jeffrey Gray, “On the Morality of Speciesism,” Psychologist, Vol. 4, No. 5 (May 1991), pp. 196–198, and “On Speciesism and Racism: Reply to Singer and Ryder,” Psychologist, Vol. 4, No. 5 (May 1991), pp. 202–203; and Lewis Petrinovich, Darwinian Dominion: Animal Welfare and Human Interests (MIT Press, 1999).

  6. 6

    Petrinovich, Darwinian Dominion, p. 29.

  7. 7

    Robert Nozick, “About Mammals and People,” The New York Times Book Review, November 27, 1983, p. 11; I draw here on Richard I. Arneson, “What, If Anything, Renders All Humans Morally Equal?” in Singer and His Critics, edited by Dale Jamieson (Blackwell, 1999), p. 123.

  8. 8

    Peter Carruthers, The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  9. 9

    Daniel Dombrowski, Babies and Beasts: The Argument from Marginal Cases (University of Illinois Press, 1997).

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