The book that changed my life
Peter Tatchell chooses Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
New Statesman – 29 January 2009
There are many books that have influenced the way I see the world. One
that stands out is Animal Liberation (1975) by Peter Singer. Probably
one of the most important books of the last 100 years, it expands our
moral horizons beyond our own species and is thereby major evolution
Singer was not the first philosopher to articulate the concept of
animal rights. Over 200 years ago, Jeremy Bentham argued that many
other species experience pain similar to human pain and that a "day
may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights
which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of
tyranny." He proposed that the capacity to suffer, not the ability to
reason, should confer on other creatures the right to be spared pain.
Nor is Singer the last or most provocative thinker to the advance the
rights of animals. With a glowing preface by African American author
Alice Walker, Marjorie Spiegel's book, The Dreaded Comparison – human
and animal slavery (1988), compares the enslavement of animals on
farms and in medical laboratories with the enslavement of black
Even more shocking, in his essay Can the Treatment of Animals Be
Compared to the Holocaust? (2006), David Sztybel suggests that despite
some obvious differences, the mass slaughter of animals is ethically
analogous to the Holocaust in the scale of suffering involved, and
that there are significant similarities between the human abuse of
fellow animals and the Nazi abuse of fellow humans.
It was not until 1983 that I read Animal Liberation. Singer was the
first person I had come across who voiced animal rights as a coherent
moral philosophy and as a liberation movement on par with the freedom
struggles of women, black and gay people.
He argued that the abuse of animals was motivated and justified by
speciesism – a notion of human supremacism which presupposes that the
intelligence and technological mastery of our species gives us the
right to oppress and exploit other species, regardless of the
suffering caused. He proposed that speciesism is a form of oppression,
comparable with racism, misogyny and homophobia.
Singer identified sentience, including the capacity to experience
pleasure and pain, as the common bond that unites animals, human and
non-human. It follows logically, as well as ethically, that if
sentient human beings have a right to be spared physical and
psychological suffering then this right should be extended to sentient
non-human animals that share our capacity to suffer. Their abuse in
farming, sport, entertainment and medical research involves the
violation of their right, as fellow sentients, to not suffer pain and
Singer's philosophical framework linked together, in one seamless
whole, the moral basis for both animal rights and human rights: if
thinking, feeling beings have a right to be spared pain, we have a
duty to oppose the abuse of both humans and other animal species.
In Singer's moral universe, cruelty is barbarism, whether it is
inflicted on human or non-human animals. The campaigns for animal
rights and human rights therefore share the same fundamental aim: a
gentler, kinder world, based on compassion and without suffering.
These ideas were eye-openers. I had previously only ever understood
the issue in terms of animal welfare and the prevention of cruelty. My
response? I phased out eating meat, ditched my leather jacket and
began rethinking my politics.
I had long been a left-wing socialist and had embraced the green
agenda. Singer reminded me: socialism and environmentalism are not
ends in themselves. Although progressive ideologies and social systems
are valuable enablers of liberation, they are merely a means to an
end, which is to maximise happiness and minimise misery.
Abuses such as factory farming and anti-Semitism are wrong because
they cause suffering, not for theoretical or ideological reasons. The
same is true of imperialism, war, discrimination, unemployment,
vivisection, slum housing, racism, and climate destruction. They
result in pain, which is why ending them is moral and necessary.
From Singer's animal rights philosophy I extracted a renewed
understanding that the ultimate aim of all progressive politics should
be to halt bodily and mental suffering. Losing sight of this aim has
led to left-wing horrors like Stalinism, where liberty is sacrificed,
terror excused and suffering rationalised for the sake of the bigger,
ideological goal of socialism. Too often the left is consumed by
grandiose abstract ideas and political objectives, forgetting what
ought to be its raison d'etre: love, compassion and a world where no
being, strong or weak, suffers.
Peace, justice and liberty are right because they end the pain of war,
injustice and tyranny, not because of any intellectual theory or
reasoning. Singer led me to realise anew that the real test of
progressive politics is very simple: does it decrease suffering?
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