First published in 1975, Animal Liberation was a philosophical bombshell. It forever changed the conversation about our treatment of animals. It made people—myself included—change what we ate, what we wore, and how we perceived animals.
When a friend gave me a copy of Animal Liberation in 1980, it was an epiphany. I thought, “Here it is; this is what I’ve been thinking. Someone has given a voice to it.” Long after I finished reading the book, Peter Singer’s words kept echoing through my mind.
I had been working in animal protection for 10 years in Washington, D.C., as a deputy sheriff, cruelty investigator, and head of the animal-disease-control division of the D.C. Commission on Public Health. I had witnessed appalling acts of cruelty to animals, and I would cry as I drove home at night. I still ate meat and wore leather, as I had yet to make that connection, but I was plagued by an underlying sense that there was something inherently wrong with how animals were so easily subjugated and abused.
After reading Animal Liberation, I realized that just as social constructs such as race, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation are used to justify discrimination against minority groups, speciesism occurs when humans ascribe an inferior status to animals and regard them not as individuals but as objects and means to fulfill our desires.
I talked about the book, I wrote about it, I gave copies to everyone I knew. At that time, I was being honored as one of the Washingtonians of the Year for my work to create the country’s first spay/neuter clinic as well as an animal adoption program. During my speech, I quoted extensively from Animal Liberation, trying to change other people’s thinking the way Singer had changed mine. It was then that I saw a need for an organization that would educate people about animal suffering and work to achieve recognition of animals’ fundamental rights. That year, I started PETA.
—PETA President Ingrid Newkirk
Animal Liberation Now, the extensively updated and revised edition of Animal Liberation, is available for purchase. Here are a few excerpts from the book:
Quotes from Animal Liberation Now
“Animal Liberation” may sound more like a spoof of other liberation movements than a serious objective. The idea of “The Rights of Animals” actually was once used to parody the case for women’s rights. When Mary Wollstonecraft published her Vindication of the Rights of Women 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 this satirical work (now known to have been 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? …
Those who wish to defend hierarchical, inegalitarian societies have often pointed out that … it is not true that all humans are equal, in the descriptive sense of that word. Humans come in different shapes and sizes; they come with different intellectual abilities, different physical strengths, different moral capacities, different degrees of sensitivity to and compassion for the needs of others, different abilities to communicate effectively, and different capacities to experience pleasure and pain. In short, if the demand for equality were based on the actual equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality.
Fortunately, there is no need to pin the case for equality to one particular outcome of a scientific investigation. … There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: It is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.
Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the reforming utilitarian school of moral philosophy, incorporated the essential basis of moral equality into his system of ethics by means of the formula: “Each to count for one and none for more than one.” In other words, the interests of every being affected by an action are to be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being. …
It is an implication of this principle of equality that our concern for others and our readiness to consider their interests ought not to depend on what they are like or on what abilities they may possess. Precisely what our concern or consideration requires us to do may vary according to the characteristics of those affected by what we do: concern for the well-being of children growing up in America would require that we teach them to read; concern for the well-being of pigs may require no more than that we leave them with other pigs in a place where there is adequate food and room to run freely. The basic element is taking into account of the interests of the being, whatever those interests may be, and this consideration must, according to the principle of equality, be extended equally to all beings with interests irrespective of their race, sex, or species.
It is on this basis that the cases against racism and the case against sexism must both ultimately rest; and it is in accordance with this principle that speciesism must also be condemned. Speciesism, in its primary and most important form, is a prejudice or bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species, on the basis of species alone. A secondary form of speciesism occurs when we give more weight to the interests of some nonhuman animals of a particular species—dogs, for example—than we give to animals with similar interests but of a different species, such as pigs.
Many thinkers have proposed the principle of equal consideration of interests, in some form or other, as a basic moral principle; but few have recognized that this principle applies to members of other species as well as to our own. Jeremy Bentham was one of the exceptions. In a forward-looking passage written at a time when black slaves had been freed by the French but were still enslaved in the British dominions , Bentham wrote:
The 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. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
In this passage, Bentham points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. … If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that [their] suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—insofar as rough comparisons can be made—of any other being. …
Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favoring the interests of their own sex… Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.
Most human beings are speciesists. … [O]rdinary human beings—not a few exceptionally cruel or heartless humans, but the overwhelming majority of humans—are complicit in the continuation of practices that thwart the most important interests of nonhuman animals in order to promote far less significant human interests.
Even if we were to prevent the infliction of suffering on animals only when it is quite certain that the interests of humans will not be affected to anything like the extent that animals are affected, we would be forced to make radical changes in our treatment of animals that would involve our diet, the farming methods we use, experimental procedures in many fields of science, our approach to wildlife and to hunting, trapping and the wearing of furs, and areas of entertainment like circuses, rodeos, and zoos. As a result, a vast amount of suffering would be avoided.
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