Peter Singer has become well known for his protection of animal rights’ equality. On the contrary, Aristotle was viewing animals merely as the source of food and other products, as well as being inferior to men. The work will be aimed at discussing both viewpoints.
Criticism of Peter Singer’s Theory of Animal Rights through the Prism of Aristotle’s Philosophy
Peter Singer’s theory of animal rights
Peter Singer has become well known for his theory of animal rights early in 1970s. He is associated for fighting for the animal rights’ equality and justifies his theory by the equality of sufferings both animals and humans can experience. Singer tries to be objective, admitting that animals are different from humans in many aspects, this is why many human rights cannot yet be granted to animals. Referring to the voting rights, Singer notes that “the case for equality between men and women cannot validly be extended to nonhuman animals” (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 150). This explanation is logical, because animals do not possess the required rationality and intelligence to vote. However, Singer refers to the question of intelligence as definitely inapplicable to the issue of rights equality. His argument leads the reader to the conclusion, that the level of intelligence is not determining, when one speaks about racial or sexual equality (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 152). In the same manner, the issue of intelligence should not serve the basic criterion in discussing animal equal rights.
According to Singer, the issue of animal rights equality is grounded in the equality of interests: one takes into account the interests of all members of the human society, without any referral to their race, sex, age, and other subjective characteristics. In the same manner, animals must express similar interests, the basic of which is the interests is not “not being tormented, because it will suffer if it is”. (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 152) Thus, sufferings and the ability to suffer serves the main criterion in granting animals with rights equal to the rights of humans. Singer considers the discussed principles moral and ethical. The author emphasizes the fact, that the greater portion of philosophic works is created within the framework of human equality; as a result, the issue of animals’ equality is not taken as an issue at all. However, the fact that an animal is capable of suffering should already serve the reason to grant equal rights to animals, as Singer asserts in his utilitarian framework (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 148).
Aristotle vs. Singer
Plants exist for the sake of animals, and brute beasts for the sake of a man – domestic
animals for his use and food, wild ones for food and other accessories of life, such as clothing and various tools. Since nature makes nothing purposeless or in vain, it is undeniably true that she has made all animals for the sake of man (Vardy & Grosch, 1997, p. 260).
Through the prism of Aristotle’s philosophy, Singer’s ideas cannot be taken seriously. Nature has created a well-designed hierarchy of live beings, in which humans occupy the superior position. Simultaneously, how one may refer to animal sufferings if they are inevitable in the natural circle of life? It is difficult to disagree that humans cause sufferings to animals, but with their inferior position it is inevitable to produce the products, for which nature had created them. Simultaneously, Singer does not speak about sufferings, which humans cause to each other. In case a human is killed or wounded by other human, does it mean that the one who suffers should be granted additional rights?
The approach seems to be weak and lacks consistence. Animals cannot be superior or equal to humans due to the role which nature had initially granted to them. The Aristotelian theory of virtue refers to the “excellence to fulfill this or that task” (Varner, 1996, p. 27). The rational ability of the human to possess theoretical and practical reason is the basis for the human to have rights. As long as animals cannot display virtue, as Aristotle puts it, they cannot be granted equal rights in the form, displayed by Singer. Singer relates to sufferings as a moral category, the category of feelings, through the prism of which equal animal rights seem the best solution. Aristotle views virtue as the category closer to the mind, than to the soul, the category which cannot be displayed by animals and which makes animals remain inferior to humans (Varner, 1996, p. 34).
The issue of sufferings is the most interesting in the present discussion. Philosophically, sufferings may seem to be improperly referred to by Singer. I will try to explain why I think sufferings are too narrow to cause the equality of animal and human rights.
The sufferings to which Singer refers, and which seem to be neglected by Aristotle, are the sufferings which humans cause to animals. These sufferings take place in two instances, as Singer puts it: when we eat animals, and when we subject them to medical or similar experiments (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 153). Simultaneously, eating animals is the most frequent case, when humans contact animals. As a result, Singer supposes that contemporary urban society treats animals “purely as means to our ends” (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 155). However, there are numerous smaller philosophical aspects, which Singer ignored or did not take into account.
First, what about the sufferings animals experience, when killed by other animals in the natural hierarchy of species? Does it mean, that the smaller species, victimized by larger predators, should be granted additional rights? If this is the case, what rights could these be? It is question of philosophy; it is the question which Singer has to answer to make his theory consistent. In his turn, Aristotle takes the fact of animal sufferings in nature for granted, relying on nature in distributing rights between the species, and making animals inferior to humans (Vardy & Grosch, 1997, p. 254). Singer can be right, stating that the criteria of intelligence are improper in judging the rights’ equality. However, he seems to forget that unintelligence and physical deficiencies among humans may legally become the basis for the rights’ limitations –criminals are deprived of the rights for freedom, and mentally deficient may be deprived the rights to vote, etc (Taylor, 2003, p. 29). Human society closely watches the set of rights granted to each individual. If mentally deficient people are deprived of some legal rights due to their irrationality and inability to be responsible for their actions, why should animals be granted equal rights, if they cannot be responsible for their actions, too?
Second, in order to make the category of sufferings consistent with Singer’s theory, it should also be applied to other areas of human and animal existence. In case a human causes sufferings to another human by murdering or wounding it, does this mean that the wounded person should be granted with additional rights based on the extent to which he (she) has suffered? Additionally, if this is the case, what rights should the wounded person be granted – should the human have the right for revenge? Objectively, the suffering human in the contemporary society has the right for moral or material compensation, but this right is granted to the human as a result of legal prosecution and on the basis of the court’s decision for each specific case.
Third, Singer seems to forget about sufferings, which an animal may cause to a human. How should these sufferings be evaluated? The philosophical issue here is what additional rights can be granted to a suffering human. On the one hand, the human having suffered from an animal has a full legal right to ask for moral and material compensation, as in case when the two humans are involved. Who will provide the realization of these rights, if they are granted to a human? What Singer implies in his theory, and what he openly neglects, is that granting animals with equal rights is making the whole society responsible for their irrational actions, which they cannot control. The sufferings’ criterion lacks profoundness. It is more inconsistent than one may think at first glance. Morally, sufferings should be accounted by people, but this criterion is more suitable to the cases, when the sufferings caused to animals have no social aims (e.g., producing food or other daily products, or performing medical researches). In case one accepts Singer’s theory, it will mean that each animal should be granted equal rights due to suffering from other animals within the natural hierarchy, and this results turning into social and legal chaos.
Singer, P. & Regan, T. (1989). Animal rights and human obligations. New Jersey: Prentice-
Taylor, A. (2003). Animals and ethics: An overview of the philosophical debate. Broadview
Vardy, P. & Grosch, P. (1997). The puzzle of ethics. M.E. Sharpe, 1st edition.
Varner, G.E. (1996). The prospects for consensus and convergence in the animal rights
debate. In L.M. Hinman (eds), Contemporary moral issues, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.