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Lecture 04/Prompt 04: Introduction to Animal Rights and Liberation | Environmental Ethics

Lecture 04/Prompt 04: Introduction to Animal Rights and Liberation

Take Away Points:

  • Define individualist ethics
  • Define speciesism
  • Understand how intrinsic value is related to consequentialism and deontology
  • Understand the meaning and importance of the term personhood

Today you begin the first of three readings on animal liberation.  They are: Peter Singer’s A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation,  Tom Regan’s The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights, and Mary Anne Warren’s A Critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory.  There is a lot going on in all three of these articles.  However, I want to focus on one specific topic: individualism

It seems strange to start of talking about environmental ethics with individualism.  After all, it’s a concept that is most often closely connected with political rights and human freedom.  But those of you who read Palmer’s article yesterday will recall that she wrote about “Individuals” approaches to environmental ethics.  And it is important that you begin to understand why the world individual is important–it is the severest difference between the two central topics of this course: Animal Rights and Ecological Ethics.  Animal rights/liberation is an individualist ethics, while ecological ethics is a holistic ethics.  The difference is so severe that some have argued (and you will see this in Mark Sagoff’s Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Bad Marriage, Quick Divorce in the last “intermission” unit) that animal rights and liberation should not even be considered environmental ethics.  We’ll take up that issue during that intermission and we’ll take up the cause of holistic ethics in the next unit.  For now, let’s define the significance of individualist ethics.

Individualist Accounts of Ethics

When we think about ethics, we actually tend to think in terms of individuals.  What should I do?  What would it be right to do to that person there?  Even ethical systems that can take a broader picture (like utilitarianism) see the individual as the primary vehicle for morality.  That is, individuals are the “doers” of morality and it is for the good of individuals that morality is achieved at.  Or, put another way, even if our ultimate goal is to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number, that greatest number is always just an aggregate of individuals.  In other words, any whole can be reduced to its component parts.  And even when we talk about the whole what we are really concerned with is the parts that make up the whole.  So, when we want to improve society what an individualist is talking about is improving individuals within society.

This has two consequences: First, it is the features of individuals that are morally relevant.  To use the terminology from a lecture ago: moral units are things that individuals are capable of possessing.  Happiness is something that individuals can possess; respect or dignity is something directed at individuals.  Second, since the features of individuals are what are morally relevant, our moral actions should be primarily towards individuals.

This comes out strongest in Singer and his charge of speciesism.  Speciesism is the favoring of one’s own species over every other for no reason than that one belongs to that species.  In other words, someone who acts from speciesism has no further justification for his claim of the moral superiority of humans beyond the fact of species.  What is wrong about this is that individuals vary within a species.  Just as racism and sexism are wrong because they point to a feature that actually isn’t morally relevant, Singer argues that what is morally relevant about any individual also has nothing to do with species.  Although Singer does not explicitly argue for individuals being all that are morally relevant, his reduction of the problem of moral value to a matter of picking out features of individuals already assumes that individuals already matter.

I want to stop here and note an important piece of terminology.  When a philosopher talks about the moral status of an individual, she is talking about personhood.  If an individual has moral status, she is a person (which inevitably leads to the plural being the ridiculous “persons.”  I say ridiculous, but I still use it ;)).  Both Singer and Regan (as we will discuss in a moment) are figuring out what features an individual must have to be a person, to be worthy of moral consideration.  To use an example, in the US animals would typically not be considered persons.  This means they have no moral status and thus we don’t have to worry about them when we make moral decisions.  Put another way: non-persons, individuals who are lacking the relevant features that give them moral status, are not morally relevant to moral decision making.  So if a utilitarian, for example, is adding up the total pleasure caused by an action (yes, utilitarians do this) and if that utilitarian did not think animals were persons, then their pleasure and pain would not be added in.  Non-persons are, as the term rather nicely shorthands, non-entities.

In his work, Singer settles on the ability to experience pain as what makes an individual a person, but this does not have to be the only feature.  Singer is a utilitarian.  Regan, on the other hand, is a deontologist.  Remember that consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is an example) treats all things as instrumental to creating pleasure or decreasing pain.  Thus, the only thing that has intrinsic value for consequentialism is pleasure.  Regan objects to this lack of intrinsic value and attempts to formulate an alternative, duty-based account.  To do this, Regan picks out what is morally relevant in the world and thus is worthy on intrinisic value.  What is significant about this is how he determines what has intrinsic value: he picks out a characteristic of individuals and then talks about what this value will entail for the individuals.  Put more explicitly: what is wrong about the treatment of animals is wrong because of how the individual animals are treated.  In Singer’s case, certain individuals may fail to meet the criteria for personhood and thus unworthy of consideration.  Regan’s criteria for intrinsic worth is so broad that no living being can fail to meet the criteria (a point that Warren points out as problematic), but even though this is the case it is only because of the broadness of the criteria, not because individuals are not judged by their characteristics.

Pause to Consider:

  • Why is speciesism a problem?
  • What is individualist ethics?
  • Why is personhood so important to moral theorizing?

Writing Prompt

Purpose: It is appropriate that after talking so much about philosophy being a discussion and, thus, dependent on listening and understanding the other side of any problem we are going to start developing your writing skills by focusing on summarizing and reacting to what Singer has to say.  In this assignment, you will practice succinctly summarizing what someone else says, with an eye towards using what they say to talk about your own point.

Word Count: The best posts will be 600-800 words long.

Before Writing

Read Graff/Birkenstein: Chapter 1: They Say [19-29]; Chapter 2: “Her Point Is” The Art of Summarizing [30-41].  With the tips in that chapter in mind, start the Singer text and read with a mind’s eye towards how you are reacting to his arguments.

  • What does he say that you react against?
  • What does he say that you agree with?
  • What terms does he use that are confusing?

Perhaps more importantly,

  • What arguments does he disagree with?
  • Who is he responding to?
  • Why does he think what he is saying matters?

Immediately after you finish reading Singer (perhaps even as you read), jot down your immediate thoughts on a piece of scrap paper (or in a plain text editor).  Then look over the text again to identify where he focuses on those aspects that are most important to you.  Where does he introduce a concept?  Where does he set up the view he is opposing?

Pick out a paragraph in the text that focuses on a concept or argument.


At the top of your post give the paragraph you will be focusing on by citing author, page #, and paragraph #.  For example (and at random), if I choose the paragraph on page 87 that begins “There are some who resist . . . ,” I would write: (Singer, 87, 1st full paragraph).  If I choose the paragraph on page 86 that begins “But attempts to limit . . . ,” I would write: (Singer, 86, 6th paragraph).  Start the paragraph numbering with the first full paragraph on the page.

  1. If you chose a paragraph because of the argument, briefly summarize the important points of the argument.
  2. If you chose a paragraph because of a concept, briefly summarize the importance of that concept to the rest of the text.
  3. If you chose a summary of an opposing view point (i.e. someone Singer disagrees with), either summarize that viewpoint or summarize what Singer disagrees with.

While summarizing, keep in mind how you reacted to this paragraph as you were reading because you are now going to agree or disagree with all or part of the summary you just wrote.  Examine closely some aspect of the paragraph you chose that you think is interesting, wrong, right, or some combination.  As you do so explain how you reacted and why you reacted the way you did.

Tip: Look over pages 39-40 in the Graff/Berkenstein text for some ways of connecting your reaction to your summary.


(Singer, 87, 5th paragraph)

. . . what struck me the most was the idea that animal rights is not antagonistic to human rights.  In fact, quite the reverse.  Animal rights is directly in conflict with human rights.  If animals have rights and we must take into consideration their good, then we must sacrifice a lot of progress in terms of agriculture, lab science, and others.  I think that human rights require a bare minimum of subsistence living.  If you can’t survive, you can’t fulfill your rights.  While it is easy for Singer, living in the developed world, to argue for animal rights, the truth is that in less developed countries the kinds of animal rights he is talking about will me the rejection of human rights . . . .

To Do

  1. Read: Singer: A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation [71-80]
  2. Read: Graff/Birkenstein: Chapter 1: They Say [19-29]; Chapter 2: “Her Point Is” The Art of Summarizing [30-41]
  3. Post: Prompt 04 | Due 1:00 PM EST
  4. Comment: On Lecture 04 | Due Noon EST
  5. Comment: On all Group Member posts | 1st Due 8:00 PM EST | All Due Jan 14, Noon EST
  6. Take: Review Exam 01

45 Responses to Lecture 04/Prompt 04: Introduction to Animal Rights and Liberation

  1. avatar Asa says:

    Singer believes than in the US, animals are not persons. Singer also says the ability to experience pain is what makes an individual a person. Does that mean he doesn’t think animals can feel pain?

    Also, if things are only valued as instrumental if they provide pleasure or alleviate pain, what is something that creates pain?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      No, Singer thinks that what is being done in the US is wrong. That animals do feel pain and thus they should be treated as persons.

      If something creates pain, then it is negatively valued. In other words, it is morally wrong.

  2. avatar N.Marshall says:

    Lecture four was filled with terminology I found confusing at times. I am a business major and an athlete and therefore a lot of the information presented are concepts that I have never heard of. What spoke loud and clear to me was the portion of the lecture that spoke about individualist accounts of ethics. I try to relate what I learn in class to my life and own set of moral reasoning. When I think of ethics, I think in terms of individuals. I play lacrosse at a division I university, the coach expects each individual player to maintain the ethical conduct that reflects the image of the team. The individual players are the “doers” for the morality of the team. The disruptive action of a few players can bring the morale of the whole team down which demonstrates to me how any whole can be reduced to its component parts.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Good analogy. An individualist ethics will see those components as the important part of the system. What about when we talk about a team being strong without attributing that to an individual, what does that mean?

  3. avatar Anonymous says:

    I feel that the definition of “person” is poorly interpreted. Defining person as an individual with moral status leaves what a person is up to interpretation. Is moral status only applicable if the individual has a say in the government, or is capable of having emotions/morals? I personally believe that animals do have emotions and morals to an extent. They may not be able to vote, and they are not people, but they are “persons” according to the definition.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Think of person as a conceptual category like moral standard or moral unit–the answer is going to vary depending on the ethical perspective you take, but we want to understand that we are talking about different interpretations of the same thing. Thus, we want to know that we are having a debate about personhood when one person claims it is defined by pain and another by rationality.

  4. avatar Emily says:

    I was confused by the “features of individuals”. Did you mean as in what they do in reference to the rest of the world? As in have happiness and give off respect or dignity? Are what they have and give off their “features”?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Right. For instance, features are: color of hair, intellectual ability, sensitivity to pain, goal-setting ability. We most likely don’t want to say that color of hair is a morally relevant feature (Singer says species is like this), but many people have argued that the other three are morally relevant features.

  5. avatar Kellyn says:

    To me one of the most interesting parts about speciesism, is that the idea of being better because you belong to a certain group of individuals occurs all the time. In high school, jocks thought they were better than the rest of the school because they belonged to a team; the United States is a great example because we are known around the world to believe we are better than everyone else, and each state believes they are better than all the others. The idea of belonging to a group makes people feel important, and that importance makes them believe they are better than those around them.

  6. I can see the flaws in speciesism for the reason that there is no justification for moral superiority of humans other than the fact of species. Because of this flaw, do people look down at this idea and try to avoid it or is this an excepted idea that people use as a subjective truth?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Well, think about it a moment: Many of us actually do fall into the speciesism trap; it’s simply that we don’t know we are doing it. If we think generally think that non-humans animals can be used for food, but not humans, we need to justify that reason in a way that is not based simply on something that belongs to humans.

      So, when we say something like humans have greater intellectual ability or are conscious, this could be considered a form of speciesism. What Singer is objecting to is the idea of taking a feature that generally belongs to humanity and saying that is what gives us moral status alone even when (1) certain animals don’t have that feature, yet (2) we give some humans who don’t share those features (think babies, in the case of cognitive impairment and intellectual ability, humans in persistent vegetative states, etc.) moral status.

  7. avatar Thomas M. says:

    I’m beginning to disagree with Singer on the idea of Speciesism. While I agree with his description of why racism and sexism have flawed arguments, I do not see the same flaws in speciation. For example, no matter which human, they will always be more intelligent than say a pig. Or at least, able to make a difference in the world. While I understand Singer is looking at this from a Utilitarian perspective of pleasure/pain, I think that there are many other aspects that need to be taken into consideration, especially when dealing with the allocation of resources.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      The best way to think of Singer is this: just because a being is capable of less pleasure does not mean that pleasure is not worth anything. So, we could say that in most cases, human needs end up trumping animal needs. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we should ignore those needs.

  8. avatar Kirsten T says:

    I am confused about the differences between Singer and Regan. I know from the lecture that Singer is a utilitarian and bases his classification of a person as something that can bring pleasure or decrease pain, and can then be classified as a person that has intrinsic value. Regan is a deontologist so he believes in the intentions of both humans and non-humans for his classification of personhood. Is the fact that we assume that living things do not intend to inflict pain on each other as the basis for their personhood, and thus every living creature is a person with intrinsic worth? Does Singer mean that humans are the only beings capable of creating pleasure, and thus they considered persons with intrinsic value? Animals like dogs and cats can bring pleasure to pet owners, although they are not people, do they technically have intrinsic value then?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Singer is not concerned with intrinsic value, while Regan is. So, for Singer we just want to maximize happiness, the question is whose happiness? Whose happiness matters?

      Regan would not think that dogs and cats have value because they bring people happiness because this is merely instrumental value. Instead, Regan is arguing that animals have intrinsic value and it is because of this intrinsic value that animals have moral status.

      The respective questions are:

      For Singer: Whose happiness matters?
      For Regan: What gives a being intrinsic value?

  9. avatar Cherieyw says:

    When saying “Individuals are the “doers” of morality and it is for the good of individuals that morality is achieved at.” Does it mean that moralities we have are for our own improvement and benefit? Is that true when creating the greatest happiness for the society, what we cared the most is always the individual? According to Singer’ speciesism to discrimination on nonhuman species, can we say his morality it is one kind of moral relativism? Since animals have no moral status, it that the reason makes him decides to not consider their pleasure?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Singer actually thinks animals’ pleasure should be considered: he is arguing against those who don’t.

      What individualist ethics refer to is that we are concerned with individuals. So, not just our own improvement (to take your example), but the improvement of other individuals. Even when we focus on improving society, for instance, it is for the good of all the individuals that make up society.

      The contrast would be the claim that the relations between individuals make the whole something fundamentally different from the individuals that make it up and we should be concerned with the good of the whole, rather than the individual.

  10. avatar Sbranch says:

    I am a little confused by the definition of a person. If they have to have moral status then what of people with developmental disorders. They may not have the full capacity to have moral status because of their disorders and thus, by Singer and Regan’s definition would not need to be considered when making moral decisions?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      This all comes down to the definition of personhood. Singer says ability to experience pain is what matters. So for him someone who has a developmental disorder is going to be a person. For a hardcore Kantian, being a person requires having a certain kind of cognitive ability; thus, people with developmental disorders would not be persons. This really brings out the importance of this debate because I think most of us cringe at the thought of stripping moral status from humans of any kind.

  11. avatar Preet says:

    Personally, the reading has changed my opinion on the views of equality. I think Singer has a solid argument regarding the extension of many of our current views to other species.
    Also, I see somewhat of a relationship between anthropocentricism and speciesism. Is speciesism not just the result of anthropocentricism, or maybe just a variety of it?

  12. I don’t agree with Singer’s view of American morality. Even though in the US animals might not be considered “persons” it is in the forefront of animal rights and protection. Just because animals aren’t considered “persons” doesn’t mean that animal cruelty is tolerated. I think Stingers view of what is considered to be a person is too restrictive.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Singer’s account might be too broad, but I don’t think it’s too restrictive. His account is: anything that can feel any degree of pain–anything that can suffer.

      On the other hand, Singer’s account of American morality might be strong, but you have to keep in mind that American consumption of meat (and thus use of factory farming) is massive. Even though America is a center of animal rights it is also a center of animal suffering.

  13. avatar Andrea says:

    Singer believes that animal can feel pain therefore they are considered “persons”. In consequentialism all things are treated as instrumental on creating pleasure or decreasing pain, and that pleasure is the only thing with intrinsic value. With that said, If they were equal populations of humans to animals, our happiness would be considered more important because we have a more objective means in measuring pleasure in humans than animals?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Not necessarily that it is more objective, but that we have a wider range of experiences due to intellectual development and thus are able to suffer to a greater extent. Singer wouldn’t be against the idea that human’s still have ethical priority, but he is against the idea that this means animals have no moral status at all.

  14. avatar Smalls says:

    If a person loses there “personhood” are they considered to be immoral? Because as we discussed in the first lecture even a lack of a philosophy is still considered to be having a philosophy couldn’t it also be argued that a lack of morals is still considered have morality and thus worthy of personhood?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      A lack of personhood does make someone immoral, it simply makes them fall out of the moral universe: so they cannot be moral, they cannot be given moral consideration (except incidentally).

      The proper term would be amoral–without morality, neither moral nor immoral.

  15. avatar Shawn says:

    I don’t think I agree with Singer’s views on animals being ‘persons’. Though I kind of agree that animals aren’t as important as humans, I don’t think it’s fair to say that “we don’t have to worry about them when we make moral decisions” because they will feel the outcome of our decisions, such as deciding to chop down trees to make houses, and this for me makes them worthy of consideration and I guess then ‘persons’ too.

  16. avatar Allie says:

    I believe Singer’s definition of what constitutes a person is fundamentally wrong.
    I put it better in my blog but Singer states in his writing that we have to reach a “lowest common denominator” as to what qualifies foe personhood. So how can he then proceed to say some individuals are unworthy of consideration?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Note that what Singer is saying is that if we take our current standards and apply them without speciesism, some humans fall out of the moral universe. He suggests that instead we should expand our definition of person to include animals and thus the humans that would have had to be stripped of moral status (personhood) otherwise. In this way he claims that we can expand the moral universe to include more people without falling to speciesism. However, this does mean that certain humans (brain dead infants, for instance) would not fall under moral consideration and so it would make more sense to conduct medical experiments on them than a normal monkey.

  17. avatar Cindy says:

    I thought it was interesting that Singer would suggest that animals do not have morals. How do we know this? I feel like animals have a sense of right and wrong, such as when parent animals defend their young babies against predators, isn’t that morally right?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      It’s a question of what we take to be the moral standard. A Kantian deontologist says rationality not instinct. If we take animals to be acting from instinct, then the examples you give are not examples of morality. If we take utilitarianism (Singer’s position), then the moral standard if the creation of pleasure or the prevention of pain. In that case, a parent defending their young might be considered a moral agent.

  18. avatar Leah says:

    I was aware of the existence of speciesism but i never gave it much thought until i read today’s assignments. Why is it that people don’t necessarily equate speciesism as a form of discrimination when it comes to dealing with other species?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      There’s a definite tradition of treating human beings as a special category, and there’s definite arguments for that being the case. Notice that Singer has to change the way we might usually think about racism or sexism to equate speciesism with them. We typically think of sexism and racism and holding the view that people belonging to a certain sex or race are inferior to another. Singer argues that the problem isn’t that one sex or race might be inferior (he isn’t arguing that they are, btw) but that we don’t even take the needs that they do have into consideration. So, according to Singer, what is wrong with sexism or racism is that we don’t give equal consideration to the needs on individuals because they belong to a different category. They may still be importantly different. The traditional understanding of sexism and racism treats the idea that sexes and races are different as the problematic claim.

  19. avatar Wilma Chen says:

    For prompt 03, I think I confused antropocentrism for speciesim. I stated that those against the methods of mass meat production do not agree with antropocentrism because they care about the well-being and livelihood of non human beings. However, the comments from the other students help me understand that though one can believe that humans are the central feature of the world, doesn’t mean they care about the livelihood of animals any less. What I was referring to was closer to speciesim. One who concepts dip into speciesim would not care about how animal products are prepared because any non-human beings do not mater.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      I think you are now on the right track. Someone who is anthropocentric, but not speciesist could treat animals as mattering less than humans. But they couldn’t treat animals as not mattering at all. On the other hand, a speciesist would have to think that the good of non-human animals is unimportant.

  20. avatar Dom says:

    What prevents advocates of speciesism to develop similar arguments for other forms of life, for natural resources who inherently cannot speak for themselves because they have no life? I find this question problematic because it opens the door to a mode of thinking that will not allow space for a line to be drawn on what we can or cannot do and be morally responsible.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Of course those who argue against speciesism do have a standard and that is suffering. Notice that the argument for speciesism proceeds from the claim that suffering is what matters not simply from teh fact of favoring one’s own species, but favoring one’s own species in the face of a standard that doesn’t line up with the category of species. An animal rights advocate can argue in this way without setting up an argument for rocks to have rights.

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