Peter Singer on Animals, Ethics and the Law

The Association of Lawyers for Animal Welfare (ALAW) recently hosted a dinner at Gray’s Inn at which the internationally renowned philosopher Peter Singer was invited to speak. Peter Singer, who was recently awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia is well known for his views on utilitarianism and the treatment of animals.

Mr Justice Singh and Peter Singer Mr Justice Singh Peter Singer

Peter Singer was introduced by Mr Justice Singh, who reminded the audience that the concern lawyers have had for animal welfare was not a recent phenomenon; Lord Thomas Erskine introduced the first bill to prohibit ‘malicious and wanton cruelty to animals’ in the House of Lords 1809 which failed at that time but set a precedent which became law later.

In his speech Singer spoke of the assumption he made as an undergraduate that there must be some crucial difference between humans and animals that meant humans had rights and a moral status and animals lacked this status of equality. When he started to look for this crucial distinction entitling humans to this moral status he turned firstly to the old philosophers, such as Aristotle whose position was that animals existed for the sake of man. However he concluded that this was based upon a pre Darwinian view which did not support such a purposive approach to evolution.

In the eighteenth century Emmanuel Kant propounded the view that animals were not an end to themselves and in order to be so you had to a self aware autonomous being, which animals are not. Animals were regarded as ‘things.’ Singer believes that this view confuses what it takes to be a moral agent (i.e. to be held to be fully morally responsible) with what it takes to be a moral patient – i.e. a being towards whom you can have duties.

Whilst Singer accepts that the possession of higher cognitive function is something of significance, he points out that it not the foundation of human rights as we understand them. Higher cognitive function clearly does not give humans an equal moral status as we extend rights to humans, such as those with intellectual disabilities and infants, who lack those qualifications. We would not think it right to treat them in the same way as non-human animals.

The position of Jeremy Bentham was therefore considered by Singer to be a more plausible position to defend, i.e. that it is being a sentient being, capable of feeling pleasure and pain, boredom, frustration, stress from over-crowding, fear of being attacked – is the crucial factor.

Singer therefore believes that society cannot justify drawing a line in the place we are doing it (starkly between human and non-human animals) and argues that in doing so society is taking part in a practice reminiscent of slavery or of patriarchy in its most extreme form.

Singer argues for a dramatic change to completely turn around the current status quo in our treatment of animals. He points to the progress that the animal movement has made over the past forty years or so, in campaigning for reforms to major industries, which has resulted in modifications to farming techniques to take into account welfare considerations of farmed animals and birds. He points also to the ban in the United Kingdom on fox hunting and improvements in the treatment of animals in other areas. However Singer also recognises that there is still a long way to go and that reforms are still called for that could result in significant benefits to hundreds of millions of animals. He argues that we are still not treating animals as they ought to be treated, they are still means to our ends, but we are treating them somewhat more kindly in the process of using them for our end and this is what has to change.

Singer highlights that the tradition of the utilitarian movement is that because a being is a member of a different species it does not mean that its interests count as less. That does not mean that animals should have the right to vote or freedom of religion or even that it is as bad to kill an animal as it is to kill a human being. The idea of equal consideration of interests does not mean that interests of different beings is the same. For example, there may be a stronger right to life in a being that has expectations of a future.

Singer’s view is that the law has a critically important role to play in bringing about change. In the same way that it has been recognised that lawyers have an important role in defending human rights he believes that this is overdue in relation to the protection of animals. It is not enough he says to solely appeal to individuals. For example highlighting the suffering of battery hens has reduced the market for battery eggs, but does not eliminate the practice, as a sector of the public will always purchase the cheapest option. He questioned however how far the law could be developed through case law in the absence of legislative change.

Singer regards factory farming as arguably the number one priority for legal reform because of the fact that farmed animals are by far the largest number of animals that humans are abusing. He quotes the astonishing statistic that in the United States the number of animals used in research is roughly equivalent to the population of Texas (around 25 to 30 million), whereas the numbers raised and killed for food in the US each year is more than the population of the world, over 9 billion. That is why he has emphasised this as a key priority to continue to improve across the European Union, the reforms for farmed animals.

Singer also highlights the plight of apes and Jane Goodall’s work in helping us to understand their similarities to humans, including evidence pointing to them exhibiting a degree of planning and demonstrating emotions such as grief and even showing signs of self-awareness; this against the concept that they can be locked up in zoos for our amusement or used in research.

Singer powerfully argues that the time has come to move forward to advance the idea of extending basic rights to all sentient beings.

The Association of Lawyers for Animal Welfare is a charity which aims to bring together lawyers interested in animal protection law to share experience and to harness that expertise for the benefit of the animal protection community, including by securing more comprehensive and effective laws and better enforcement of existing animal protection laws. If you are a lawyer interested in animal welfare please join us.

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