This book was first published in 1975 and it’s considered by many to be profound and groundbreaking. And with good reason. Let’s explore some of these reasons here and try to look at why is it so profound, why after 45 years it’s still very relevant and why you should read it.
The topics of this book, as you might have guessed from the title, are the status and current treatment of non-human animals in our societies, whether in the laboratories or factory farms and arguments to abolish such practices.
You probably expect the author to talk about pets and compare them to pigs or cows or talk about sufferings of cute animals like dogs, cats or horses that are kept in cages and slaughtered around the world in order to elicit sympathy which then he hopes to extend to cows and pigs?
Well, you’re wrong.
The book is a classic exactly because the author does not do that. He makes no extra-special mention of animals we westerners normally use as pets and he does not use emotional trickery. He does describe experiments that are done on dogs, for example, but he does not attempt to argue that because you feel bad about those experiments, you should also oppose eating meat.
“Nowhere in this book, however, do I appeal to the reader’s emotions where they cannot be supported by reason”Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation . Random House. Kindle Edition.
In fact, he is making no effort to focus on emotions, instead, he just provides almost objective descriptions of what happens in factory farms and laboratories. Of course, a description can elicit your emotional response but nowhere in the book emotions are the focus. As a matter of fact, the author is almost more focused on reason and logic.
We as a society need to know the truth about laboratory experiments and factory farms and this book provides that description. That’s all.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves as the book does not start in that way at all. Instead, the author starts almost in the abstract, talking about the moral principle of equal consideration of interest, which, he hopes, if we’re logical enough and his argument is good enough, should convince us to stop eating meat without any involvement of emotions. He explicitly states that you do not have to love animals to be persuaded by the argument, much in the same way you do not have to especially love minorities and other races in order not to be a racist.
The entire chapter 1 is devoted to defending this principle of equal consideration of interests, so he makes a moral case for not eating meat and for animal liberation even before he begins talking about the specifics of animal suffering at all. He explains why moral standards should not extend only to humans but also to other animals.
Note that word “OTHER”, as the author reminds us here that we humans are animals as well, biologically speaking, and that the separation of humans and other animals when considering interests of each member of our species, does not make much more sense than the separation of humans into blacks and whites when considering interests of minorities.
Indeed, the first Chapter is supposed to show “why the ethical principle on which human equality rests requires us to extend equal consideration to animals too“.
It starts from the very roots of equality, with sex and race equality, then proceeds to dismiss the idea that equality can rest upon what science tells us about intelligence – not only that there is a possibility that that would somehow, someday make racism defensible, but it would make a sort of master/slave hierarchy between the humans of various degrees of intelligence somehow okay. So, the book argues, equality cannot be based upon what science tells us about intelligence.
Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the property or persons of others.Thomas Jefferson as quoted in Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation . Random House. Kindle Edition.
In essence, it is argued that equality lies in the consideration of interests instead.
Of course, this blog post cannot hope to surmise the entire moral argument, not only because it is comprehensive but because to surmise it by a non-philosopher is to do injustice to it.
Suffice to say, the argument is not based upon emotions but upon reason and logic and it is indeed quite persuasive.
It is almost impossible for the non-philosopher to find a strong enough objection to it and – as this is the revised editions that I am reading – the author successfully tackles even the objections of professional philosophers in the last chapter. So, even if the book were only chapters 1 and 6 it would still be worth your time.
In chapter 2, the author looks at the animals in Laboratories, describes what is happening to them and asks whether the goals of the research are worthy enough to justify such suffering. Of course, you can say that probably some animals are being tortured to find medicine or so and the author leaves out such instances, but his point is that it happens also for frivolous reasons. And of course, if you take the arguments from chapter one seriously enough, you might come to a conclusion that the importance of any medicine should be balanced with the interests of animals.
Chapter 3 takes us around factory farms and casts a harsh light on what actually happens not only on the farms themselves but also in the whole production chain. And again, even if you dismiss the arguments from the first chapter, you will surely find areas where you think our treatment of animals should be improved.
Chapter 4 is about becoming a vegetarian. Here the author makes an additional ecological argument to stop eating meat and tackles objections about vegetarianism quite effectively – how the food is lacking in nutrients, how it is not tasty, etc.
Chapter 5 looks at the treatment of animals through history, teaches us how the things came to be the way they are and what were some steps along the way.
Chapter 6 is tightly coupled with Chapter 1 as in chapter 6 the author looks at what are some objections and rationalizations to his arguments and to eating meat in general and tries to disprove them or offer his perspective.
In my opinion, chapters 1 and 6 are the most important in the entire book as they provide a moral reason (principle) for each of us to try and change things or at least to think deeply about our own role in the way things currently are. It is up to you to read the book and decide if the author has a point or not.
And considering that the book is really a classic that has had profound implications, you’ll be doing yourself a great favour by reading it, not only so that you can say that you’re familiar with the issues and the arguments for and against and objections to those arguments but also to gain a deeper insight into what is certainly an important issue in our society.
After all, shouldn’t we all, at the very least, be just a bit more interested to learn just where does the food we eat come from and what ethical price are we paying for it?