Book Review: Animal Liberation by Peter Singer

I received this book as a Christmas gift and by New Year’s Eve I was nearly done with it. This work by Peter Singer, an Australian born moral philosopher, was first published in the 1970s, but most of what it contains is still relevant going into 2018. This book has had a tremendous impact on me and Singer’s arguments echo many of the thoughts I’ve had about humankind’s relationship with animals.

The central idea of this book is that humankind has almost always viewed animals as merely objects put on this earth to be utilized for our purposes. There have been few exceptions in some cultures over the course of human history, but for the most part we have dominated them, eaten them, killed them for certain parts of their bodies only to throw the rest to rot, experimented on them; in essence, caused immense amounts of suffering and legitimizing it through our beliefs that they are not human and therefore not worthy of the same considerations. Even when we are convinced that an animal can feel pain and experience suffering, we then justify their suffering as good for the whole of humanity, whether that is through the use of their flesh for food, skins for clothing, or bodies for testing.

This is because, as Singer argues, we look at animals through the lens of our own speciesism – our systematic disregard for anything that is not human.

He cites several studies in which the failure of researchers to produce scientific gains through the use of animal experimentation causes those same experiments to be performed over and over again as “more research is necessary to reach a conclusion”, killing thousands of animals in the process. Singer also ponders the motivation of pharmaceutical companies:

“When experiments can be brought under the heading “medical” we are inclined to think that any suffering they involve must be justifiable because the research is contributing to the alleviation of [human] suffering. But we have already seen that the testing of therapeutic drugs is less likely to be motivated by the desire for maximum good to all than by the desire for maximum profit…Very often, too, basic medical research has been going on for decades and much of it, in the long run, turns out to have been quite pointless.”

While on the topic of what may be justified as medical research for the good of humankind, he broadens his argument to include the need for continuing tests on animals for such trivial uses as cosmetics and household cleaners.

It was not until 1983…that U.S. federal agencies stated that substances known to be caustic irritants, such as lye, ammonia, and oven cleaners, did not need to be tested on the eyes of conscious rabbits.”

Singer also includes more disturbing evidence of our abysmal treatment of animals such as cows, chickens and pigs raised on factory farms. From the way in which these animals are contained, managed when exhibiting stress behaviors, and viewed as materials to provide profit to the way mothers react to the removal of their young after birth, it is a difficult segment to read for an ardent animal lover. When pigs – who have the intelligence, sensitivity, and sociability on the level of our precious pups – are treated in such a way, it does get one thinking about how we pick and choose which animals we love and which we ship off to the grocery store in clean little packages.

Singer also offers readers suggestions on how to make an impact in changing the way companies use and treat animals. We can become more knowledgeable about how our food is raised and make decisions on where we draw the line when it comes to our diets. We can become familiar with companies that test on animals when purchasing our cosmetics and cleaners. We can align ourselves with organizations aimed at ending needless animal suffering from experimentation. We can be their voice.

I have believed for a very long time that humans do not have dominion over other animals. I do not believe that we have an unquestionable right to use animals however we wish and totally disregard their capacity for fear and suffering simply because we are human and they are not. I highly suggest that anyone who feels the same should take the time to read this book and join in the examination of our culture’s view of nonhuman animals.

-JB

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