Peter Singer: it’s time to change our relationship with animals

Here’s more on Peter Singer’s beliefs on our relationship with animals. All this text is quoted from this Princeton website. Have a read, and if you have a question or point for Prof Singer , post it here.

Q. I’ve read that you think humans and animals are equal. Do you really believe that a human being is no more valuable than an animal?

A. I argued in the opening chapter of Animal Liberation that humans and animals are equal in the sense that the fact that a being is human does not mean that we should give the interests of that being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong. Pain is equally bad, if it is felt by a human being or a mouse. We should treat beings as individuals, rather than as members of a species. But that doesn’t mean that all individuals are equally valuable – see my answer to the next question for more details.

Q. If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?

A. Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens. Species membership alone isn’t morally significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different interests.

The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something — that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That’s really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us.

But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that he or she actually has a life — that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understand this.

Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time. I’m not sure that mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of a human being is a greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse – for the human, it cuts off plans for the distant future, for example, but not in the case of the mouse.

And we can add to that the greater extent of grief and distress that, in most cases, the family of the human being will experience, as compared with the family of the mouse (although we should not forget that animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates).

That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both. But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.

18 Responses to “Peter Singer: it’s time to change our relationship with animals”

  1. November 24, 2009 at 14:31

    This is a very immotive subject and would depend on your individual feelings towards another species in this case animals. My own consideration is ‘animals have as much right as human beings and deserve to be treated equally in law and any other aspect of existence. People adopt animals as pets and then think they have the right to play god with the pets life and treatment, and then dump them when they have had enough without thought or concern for the welfare, hurt and pain that pets suffer when this happens. My ‘pets’ are members of the family and treated as such, like you bring a child into the world and then take on responsibility for their life so the same applies to any other species you bring into your house. Like a child relies on you to feed it, care for it, love it and make it comfortable so the same applies to ‘pets’. Personally I would rather have the animal species as my friend, companion than I would most human beings. And I would trust the animal species more than the homo sapien. animals retain their wild side and this sometimes comes out when they get angry or frustrated but, then so do the human species but generally to a more devastating affect. Any human who abandons his/her pet should be treated the same as if they had abandoned a member of their own species and receive the same sort of punishment, their should be no differential in law

  2. 2 steve
    November 24, 2009 at 15:51

    So will animals stop eating each other?

  3. 3 paul bolton
    November 24, 2009 at 16:27

    Good Mr Govier, may I add that as humans cannot swim like dolfins nor communcate over long distances like whales or live our lives without making massive pollution, what I ask makes us the “superior animal” as for me, I have my pet dog Blue, she lives in the house and she is far from stupid in that she can signal what she wants, she will sit in front of me and raise her paw, that means “oy listen up” when I say “show me what you want” she will do just that, either go into the kitchen and ‘nose’ the fridge meaning she wants to eat, or go to the door meaning she wants to go out, she knows when I have a visitor long before I know they are there, and if I am ill she will not leave my side at all,,
    So to answer the question “should animals have rights” of course they should ,, there isnt an animal anywhere that isnt more intelligent than humans in there own environment,

    November 24, 2009 at 17:34

    I agree with peter that all animals should enjoy the same rights as we do because we seem to say we are created in the image of God though God himself never said that, then what could stop the animals from claiming to be the images of God in their own language and in their own Bible which they may be having?we have to respect all animals because they may be God in disguise that we are killing.

  5. 5 Tom K in Mpls
    November 24, 2009 at 18:33

    As I posted on the first related topic. This is an incomplete thought he is posting. The next question is why does he believe this. What he is talking about is reevaluating other species regarding sentience. I personally believe many higher mammals qualify. With these animals I have three ways of treating them, 1: I leave them alone. 2: I treat them with genuine kindness. 3: I kill them to stop a danger to people, to end suffering, or for food.

    Now, am I good, bad or practical?

    November 24, 2009 at 19:08

    Of course they should have the same rights, but I think when one considers this it is important to think of the roles all animals play in respective ecosystems as the basis of their worth. I am not much for belief structures, so it really isn’t a matter of religious, moral or ethical obligations. It’s more about sustainability than anything.

  7. 7 L. Kamp
    November 24, 2009 at 19:11

    I agree with Mr. Singer, we must not continue the antiquated and in many ways disproven belief that our species is somehow better than the rest. We have the highest intelligence in the world, but without our machines and inventions we are the weakest of the higher species.

    We are not somehow morally superior either. Other species also display altruistic and “ethical” tendencies, including gorillas, wolves, dolphins, and elephants.

    Hate to say it, but religion has largely caused this, particularly the Abrahamic ones. Native American and some Eastern religions preached respect and equality amongst all animals, including humans, but much of major theology perpetrated the unequal world in which we now live.

  8. 8 Tom D Ford
    November 24, 2009 at 19:28

    I appreciate that Singer thinks about these kinds of questions.

    I recall that there was a time in US history when black people were legally considered to be 3/5 of a white person. Then people like Singer thought that over and eventually we changed that relationship to full equality (theoretically).

    Now I’ll listen to what he says, though I currently consider myself a member of PETA, People Eating Tasty Animals and I have been a hunter.

  9. 9 Tom D Ford
    November 24, 2009 at 19:37

    There was some talk about no longer eating animals but I have been wondering if we will come to a time when our runaway human population growth will bring a return to cannibalism, to people eating excess people. I hope that will not happen but human history shows that it happened in the past and we humans don’t seem to be very good at learning from history.

    I don’t know the history of cannibalism, why they began eating people, was it from lack of food or some other reasons?

    Soylent Green anyone?

  10. 10 Fred Greatorex
    November 24, 2009 at 19:43

    I disagree with Mr. Singer.

    Suffering is a natural part of life. And if the example of the Christian Missionaries of the lat 19th and 20th centuries is any example (where through innoculations and increased survivorship at birth family size and famine increased). We need to think in different terms.

    On the mistreatment of animals i wholly agree, though I would ask, what would happen to cattle? actual wild cattle called Aurouchs went extinct some time ago (I belive around 1905 in Poland) and all we have left are various breeds that in many countries (the Americas, Australia) Should all those cattle be euthenized as they are not a natural part of the landscape?

    It’s interesting to hear your arguments, as in my Environmental Ethics Class you were often cited, and I posed the same questions there, so it might be interesting to hear your answers.

  11. 11 Tom D Ford
    November 24, 2009 at 20:11

    @ Fred Greatorex
    November 24, 2009 at 19:43


    If I recall correctly, those huge “red Ox” went extinct about thirty thousand years ago. Maybe some other name?

    I am interested in the extinction of wild cattle in Poland, can you provide more information or point me in the right direction?

  12. 12 patti in cape coral
    November 24, 2009 at 21:19

    I was just curious, I know humans can live without meat, but what do I do if I have carnivorous pets? Won’t these animals (a dog and a cat) get sick if they don’t have animal protein sources? Even though I am not specifically slaughtering animals to give them, I do buy dog and cat food which contain animal protein. Plus the cat eats an occasional lizard (yuck). Come to think of it, it is rather cruel the way he hunts them down and plays with them, and I will usually come to the lizard’s rescue if I get there in time, but more often then not it comes to a sad end.

  13. 13 Kevin PE
    November 24, 2009 at 21:33

    The answer to this question is a resounding yes – but not for the reasons most expected. The mistake is to believe that all animals are potential “friends” and as such are waiting for us humans to “liberate” them with great acts of kindness and protection. Too many people make the mistake, especially with domestic animals, of treating them “like humans” – whatever that means. In a nutshell, the greatest love you can give an animal is to understand what makes them tick, what their values are and to try to bond at the same level. For example a dog is a pack animal with hard wired rules – be mindful in your interaction. All creatures react to stimuli of comfort, threat or danger and we are in a unique position to proffer all. The best thing we could do for “wild” animals is leave them alone. Lastly – eating animals is not the only way of killing them – not eating or utilizing their bounty is a sure one way trip to extinction for all “ex” food.

    • 14 L. Kamp
      November 24, 2009 at 22:29

      I agree with you- too many people treat other animals as humans, as if they are simply less intelligent simians. This is not true. Canids, felienes, simians, dolphinae, etc should all be treated differently- for a start. Individual species each both “prefer” and deserve different kinds of treatment, and to proffer up a general idea of proper treatment is perhaps a nice gesture, but ultimately incorrect.

      This, I think, also comes from human exceptionalism, when we think we are the “best” and the culmination of everything, we limit our understanding of other thought processes, event hose within our own species- let alone those of others.

      I also agree that being killed for food is not the worst thing possible- sport hunters and the so-called “fur farmers”, and “species lynching” (ie, when one species is falsely villified to the point of mass killings and torture) are far worse than the somewhat natural act of killing to eat.

  14. 15 steve
    November 25, 2009 at 01:43

    I wish someone asked him his views on animals vs other animals. I have cats, and they are obligate carnivores. People kill animals and make food out of them for cats.. If they didn’t, they would have to hunt for rodents, which I don’t have, and they would starve. How would pets survive? Should people not have pets, and thus not have the demand food food? Is it selfish to want familiars?

  15. 16 John Doe (A dear)
    November 25, 2009 at 02:14

    We might as well arrest carnivores for murder. We’re near the top of the food web. That’s why we are superior. It’s just too bad for these other species.

  16. 17 Ram Ramakrishnan
    November 25, 2009 at 09:54

    My approach to the question of animal rights is that we should recognize the fact of inequity being the basis of existence. Anything short of that is a utopian thought that can never be realized in practice. Arguments for or against a notion are just that – notions, with no possibility of ever being decided and agreed upon conclusively. However, a bit of respect and kindness towards all beings, recognizing them to be sentient and having as much right to life as we do, will go a long way in making living a happy experience for every one concerned.
    Ram Ramakrishnan

  17. 18 Sanjeev
    November 26, 2009 at 19:40

    I agree entiely with Professor Singer on speciesism, and on his idea about the constitution of persons (“not all humans are persons, some animals can be persons..”). On his views about deformed babies, I’m not sure I understand him. So I try to keep an open mind about it till such time as I have stuff enough to decide..

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