Animal liberation

PUBLISHING YEAR: 1995 ed. (originally published 1975)

SUMMARY: A worrying review of the institutional animal abuses of the food and research industries; and a summary of the ethical arguments for granting animals equal consideration.

AUDIENCE: For a book written by an academic, it is remarkably accessible and jargon-free. Any person interaction with animals would do well to read this book. Animal professionals must read it as it is a classic in the animal rights literature.


The author
Peter Singer is an Australian ethicist, famous for his utilitarian views and his defense of animal rights.

Style and contents

At about 250 densely packed pages, you won’t be done in a couple of days, but it’s no War and Peace either.

The book is divided into 2 chapters examining widespread abuses by the research and intensive farming industries. It also devotes a couple of chapters to the philosophical arguments supporting the equal consideration of animals. Finally, one chapter covers tips and views on vegetarianism.

The gems

The book in itself is a gem. It is THE classic in the animal rights’ literature and is on every animal rights and bioethics course reading list. These were some of the tidbits that I found particularly interesting:

  • The chapters detailing the abuses of the research industry were shocking and depressing. Knowing what I know of ethics committees in the EU and UK protecting mammals at least (except rats and mice…), I think things have changed a lot there. Not enough, but a lot. Sadly, not much has changed in the intensive farming industry, where regulatory bodies are more committed to pleasing crowds than effective action.
  • His chapter on animal research gave me pause, particularly the species-specific idiosyncracies that are discovered after the fact again and again. Take the fact that morphine is a neurostimulant for mice (it is a neurodepressant for us)! Countless products have been tested on animals and have been revealed, come human trial times, to have paradoxical effects in humans. The fact that promising animal models have to be taken lightly was not news to me, but the book opened my eyes to the horrifying scale of the problem. A ‘sad tale of futility’, as he calls it.
  • His reviews of the futile psychology experiments also made for depressing reading: studies on maternal deprivation, stress, learned helplessness/experimentally induced neurosis are classics in our field. Little did I know that so many subsequent – and useless – variations were carried out, putting millions of animals through unspeakable suffering for no reason.
  • I loved the passages on influential thinkers’ views through the ages. Having taken my last history course on the topic ages ago, it was a welcome refresher on the views of Descartes, Montaigne, Rousseau, Hume, Bentham, Thomas of Aquina, etc.
  • I was surprised by the list of animal-based products. I had never stopped to consider whether my candles, soap bars and perfume bottles had been were ethically sourced. Like I needed something else to feel guilty about.
  • As a veggie, I am wary of having to justify my dietary choice all the time, particularly from people who imply you are an irrational softie for caring about killing animals. He has a great way around that. He just says he is boycotting the intensive farming products. Effectively, unless you are getting your animal produce from your cousin or your neighbour, it means you are a veggie.
  • It was interesting to see that these assumptions were STILL being made by many meat eaters and needed addressing…
    • That you supposedly need meat to live (patently untrue)
    • That all veggies oppose the killing of animals to eat (I certainly don’t. I oppose their life of suffering and painful death)
  • I liked that he called meat ‘flesh’. It is less easy to hide from the horrifying truth when you don’t use an impersonal word.
  • An interesting passage on plants and pain, and the methods used to gain our knowledge (neurology, evolutionary function and behaviour)

Possible points for optimization

Stupidly, I read the 1995 edition instead of the 2015 one. That’s how long it had been on my ‘to read’ shelf… So I don’t know whether what I point out below has drastically changed in the latest edition.

  • I found the chapter on vegetarianism out of place. It fell into prosaic topics like how easy it is for friends to accommodate for your change of diet and that really vegetarian recipes are more diverse, if anything, than ones based on meat. I am a veggie myself so this argument doesn’t come from some defense mechanism or anything. The chapter was simply not intellectually interesting – nor logically or factually rigorous.
  • The logic (and realities) underlying his equal consideration arguments was occasionally weak, and it was a little repetitive. This is disappointing considering he is a professional ethicist. Take these examples:
    • Comparing speciesm to racism doesn’t hold water not just in degree, but also in kind.
    • Dodgy logic (p. 92) arguing that relying less on experimentally induced disease (on animals) would have somehow changed the focus of medicine towards prevention and healthy living. Yes, it would have, as a necessity. Surely he is not arguing that we should forego researching treatments and ONLY focus on prevention? For every disease?
    • On p. 229, his logic becomes outright tortuous. This is the predictable product of hard utilitarianism.
  • He says that the only defense of speciesm (namely to privilege members of our own group), is unjustifiable. It only is if you are a hard-line utilitarian. Take the classic thought experiment where you know your brother is evading his taxes on a grand scale, and you are asked whether you would report him. Of course the circle of empathy rings deeper the closer the person is to our inner circle: immediate family, friends, community, country, species. Whilst I tend to abhore nationalism, I can still see the evolutionary function of this selective empathy along lines of closeness to oneself.
  • A couple of statements are factually incorrect.
    • On p. 222, for example, he claims that no other animal, aside from man, prolongs the suffering of their prey. I can think of two counter-examples in less than a second: cats and killer whales.
  • I was surprised that he did not mention cognitive dissonance. Sure (most of) his arguments supporting vegetarianism are sound (better ecologically, medically and ethically). But the problem isn’t the weight of the arguments, it’s cognitive dissonance. Meat eaters are so committed to the idea that any argument opposing their worldview will just entrench them further.
  • Whilst I also (still) eat eggs and drink dairy product, I am aware of my hypocrisy. He, on the other hand, conveniently breezed over the horror that is the egg and leather industries when discussing the impracticality of veganism and not wearing leather.
  • He does not condemn the free-range egg industry explicitly enough, nearly trivializing its abuses (male chicks are still crushed alive by the millions).

The verdict:
The book is a classic and must be read by every professional working with animals, and even by laymen.

Sometimes his arguments smacked of post hoc rationalisations and got tangled up by his hard line utilitarianism, but the central point is valid: we should view speciesm critically (he would like us to condemn it altogether, which I find neither feasible nor desirable). We should grant animals equal consideration of interests.

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Author: Singer Peter
Genre: pop science
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