Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation
Animal rights is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many attribute its popular appearance to 1975 when the Australian ethicist Peter Singer published a seminal work titled Animal Liberation. Singer belongs to the utilitarian school of philosophy, emphasizing the greatest good for the greatest number. In Animal Liberation, rather than emphasizing inherent rights of animals, he focused on the elimination of suffering. He also introduced the word “speciesism” into the ethics of human relations with animals. Similar to racism where one race claims superiority over another race, speciesism claims superiority of the human species over all other animal species. In application, speciesism supports and sustains a viewpoint that animals are objects or property and leads to their oppression, particularly suffering.
In a brief span of thirty years, animal rights/liberation as an ethical area has emerged and rather astonishingly become mainstream. In this regard Europe has led the way, but even in conservative America the basic ethic of not to inflict suffering on animals is gaining momentum. This is progress, not just for the sake of other species, but for the human species as well, we reform our understanding of our place in Nature and our ethical relationships in the Web of Life. We acknowledge, at the very least, that suffering is suffering, whether in human being or animal; and it is an ethical principle not to inflict suffering.
There is a spiritual dimension to this growing understanding of our human relationship to animals. It relates to the notion of “anima” or soul, that essence of life that you and I experience; and to which we give ultimate value. When we become sensible to that essence in all other sentient beings, as well as our own self, a transcendence occurs. When we add to the equation a scientific awareness of a great Web of Life, an awe-inspiring interdependence, that transcendence expands. Of course, we must be ever vigilant to anthropomorphizing; and that is good from the spiritual dimension as we gradually transcend the merely human.
Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life
The best expression of this spiritual dimension, in my understanding, is the Reverence for Life philosophy/ethic that Albert Schweitzer proposed a century ago. (Schweitzer had quite an influence on post war Unitarianism. He was, of course, a towering figure of the first half of the twentieth century: a significant Christian theologian, an accomplished organist and major interpreter of J. S. Bach, and a missionary doctor to French Equatorial Africa. He also affiliated with the Unitarian Church of the Larger Fellowship. My previous church in Youngstown had a Schweitzer Lounge with a handsome, leonine bronze bust of the good doctor.) Schweitzer once declared, "True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness and this may be formulated as follows: 'I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live'."
From this fundamental realization, Schweitzer proposed an ethic for the post-modern era that simply said it is good to enhance life, and it is evil to detract from life. Suffering and death detract from life, one’s actions-- each and every action, then,-- must be done with awareness of the consequences on self and other life forms.
Practically speaking, our focus is on preserving our own life, often at the expense of other lives. And this ambivalence chastens and humbles us, always pressing upon us the sacrifice made, a sacrifice that is unilateral and imposed by us. Always in mind, with every act, is the value of life--the anima of each creature. As Schweitzer emphasized, this rational process brings us into a harmony with Life and Life’s Source.
He summarized this spiritual equation by contending that Reverence for Life “…is the nature and origin of ethics. We have dared to say that it is born of physical life, out of the linking of life with life. It is therefore the result of our recognizing the solidarity of life which nature gives us. And as it grows more profound, it teaches us sympathy with all life. Yet, the extremes touch, for this material-born ethic becomes engraved upon our hearts, and culminates in spiritual union and harmony with the Creative Will which is in and through all.”
UU Animal Ministry
Our UUist religious way continues to be at the cutting edge of progressive religion and ethics in America and that now includes the ethical cause of Animal Rights/Liberation. An affiliate organization to our Association, previously called UUs for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (UFETA), has reformed as the UU Animal Ministry (UUAM).
The UU Animal Ministry has these Guiding Principles:
The seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism calls us to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. We of UUAM understand that human beings are only a strand in the intricate web of life.
While our Unitarian Universalist principles affirm the "inherent worth and dignity of every person and call us to seek justice and compassion in human relations, we extend these principles to include other species who also possess an intrinsic value.
Recognizing the beauty and interconnectedness of all species that call us to wholeness and toward justice for all beings, we dedicate ourselves to:
Growing our Unitarian Universalist faith in the interdependence of all life that reveals itself in the inherent worth and dignity of all beings.
Informing ourselves about nonhuman suffering
Seeking and promoting ecological justice
Inspiring respect and reverence for the earth all its creatures
Living in harmony with the natural world, which includes a deep respect and commitment to human as well as nonhuman animals.
As you now know, we have a recently organized chapter of UUAM—our very own animal ministry. This group has begun to plan activities, including a blessing of the animals as a possible summer Sunday service.
I’m pleased that this chapter has formed here, at UCH, especially by the leadership and enthusiasm of several new members. They reflect the tide our ever-evolving free religious and ethical way. They accept, without the scrupulosity of previous generations, the notion of ministry implicit in Animal Ministry.
Following today’s second hymn, I have a few insights to make regarding our human relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.
Animal Liberation Rather Than Animal Rights
Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher/ethicist, advocates utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. His 1973 book Animal Liberation challenged a species-centric point of view relative to human kind and the rest of the animal kingdom. He refers the notion of animal liberation rather than the notion of inherent animal rights, reducing the argument to the existential reality of suffering. In the simplest sense, according to Singer, whatever needlessly causes suffering on other fellow animals is wrong—in the popular sense, it is an evil. His reasoning seeks to free animals from manifest human oppression. This approach is more elemental and easily comprehended that the charged notion of animal rights, relative to the sort of rights we American citizens have long known as unalienable rights.
Singer has written, “A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons and an extension or reinterpretation of the basic moral principle of equality. Practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable come to be seen as the result of an unjustifiable prejudice. Who can say with confidence that all his or her attitudes and practices are beyond criticism? If we wish to avoid being numbered amongst the oppressors, we must be prepared to re-think even our most fundamental attitudes. We need to consider them from the point of view of those most disadvantaged by our attitudes, and the practices that follow from these attitudes. If we can make this unaccustomed mental switch, we may discover a pattern in our attitudes and practices that consistently operates so as to benefit one group—usually the one to which we ourselves belong—at the expense of another. In this way, we may come to see that there is a case for a new liberation movement. My aim is to advocate that we make this mental switch in respect of our attitudes and practices towards a very large group of beings: members of species other than our own—or, as we popularly though misleadingly call them, animals. In other words, I am urging that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to all members of our own species. …
“Surely, every sentient being is capable of leading a life that is happier or less miserable than some alternative life, and hence has a claim to be taken into account. In this respect, the distinction between humans and nonhumans is not a sharp division, but rather a continuum along which we move gradually, and with overlaps between the species, from simple capacities for enjoyment and satisfaction, or pain and suffering, to more complex ones.”
I recommend that you think of other than human animals in Singer’s terms, that a first step is not so much animal rights as we understand rights them from the human perspective, rather from the perspective of liberating animals from all needless acts of human oppressions that causes suffering to them. I know in my own experience this sort of thinking leads me toward a realization of that which is naturally right and good—right and good relative to each creature’s inherent nature in Nature.
In this light, I like what entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood, who calls himself a spiritual scientist, has said about his area of expertise, grasshoppers. In his book Grasshopper Dreaming, he asked, “What is good a grasshopper good for?” He answered, “Its presence is of no significance—an ultimate zero. Its value is in being a grasshopper, nothing more. The grasshopper just is. And that is enough.”
Women’s Rights/Animal Rights
Peter Singer has helped to revive a doubly ironic line of argument against animal suffering,, as told in Singer’s book Animal Liberation:
“Animal Liberation may sound more like a parody of other liberation movements than a serious objective. The ideal of ‘The Rights of Animals’ actually was once used to parody the case for women’s rights. When Mary Wollstonecraft, a forerunner of today’s feminists, published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, her views were widely regarded as absurd, and before long an anonymous publication appeared entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. The author of the satirical work (now known to be Thomas Taylor, a distinguished Cambridge philosopher) tried to refute Mary Wollstonecraft’s arguments by showing that they could be carried one stage further. If the argument for equality was sound when applied to women, why should it not be applied to dogs, cats, and horses? The reasoning seemed to hold for these ‘brutes’ too; yet to hold that brutes had rights was manifestly absurd. Therefore the reasonings by which this exclusion had been reached must be unsound, and if unsound when applied to brutes, it must also be unsound when applied to women, since the very same arguments had been used in each.”
So, the implication is clear. What now holds for women, long denied rights, might one day hold for animals.
Contemporary Science and a New Appreciation of Animals
The antique, judgmental term brute, rather than animal, is slowly being eroded by science’s careful consideration of genetics and behavior. Which is to say, that distinctions between human beings and all other animals are gradually eroding. Obviously, the most startling advancements relate to evolution, genetics, and the preponderant percentage of DNA we share, converging on common ancestors.
Perhaps easier to appreciate because it involves human traits we’ve long extolled as unique are such attributes as tool making and using, emotions of love and grief, and language. Tuesday’s NY Times Science section offered an article about a Border Collie that can identify and fetch over a thousand named objects—an astonishingly large, and as the article explains, nuanced vocabulary. The Times article recommends a February Nova PBS program on animal intelligence in which Chaser, the Border Collie will star. Two aspects of the dog’s training fascinated me: 1) that the dog’s learning of language can shed light on how children learn; and 2) the psychologist who trained Chaser is now trying to teach it rudimentary grammar, toward the goal of enhanced communication between human beings and animals.
PC Speak and Consciousness Raising
I conclude with a recommendation that might change your consciousness/understanding of creatures other than human. It’s a simple step and a matter of language. If you “own” a dog or cat or perhaps another animal species, don’t call that creature your pet. Rather, call the creature a companion animal. I know this smacks of political correct talk/think. But the upside of PC language far outweighs the downside. And it is attitude altering/consciousness raising, relative to the mutual relationship between human and animal not to perceive yourself as owner or master, that is to live with a companion animal rather than own a pet.
In this regard, it’s a good ethical exercise to consider the standard distinctions we apply to animals from the traditional human perspective: wildlife, game, domestic, livestock, service animal, companion, pet.
To conclude these remarks, I looked through my collection of quotes about animals in my Skinner House collection titled In Praise of Animals. I settled on a quotation by Mechtild of Magdelburg, a medieval mystic. “The truly wise person kneels at the feet of all creatures and is not afraid to endure the mockery of others.”