Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Singer is Speciest [Scott]

I could be wrong, but I think I owe the following observation to J.P. Moreland.

In short, it appears Peter Singer himself can’t escape the charge of specieism. That is, not only is his criterion for persohnood ad-hoc and arbitrary (he never tells us why certain value-giving properties are value-giving in the first place), it distinctly favors his own species. For example, why are self-awareness and rationality—distinctly human traits—the standards by which we evaluate all living things, including non-human animals? Why are those things value-giving rather than, say, having traits that favor alligators, such as powerful jaws and tough skin? It seems that Singer’s own standard is no less specieist than the pro-lifer's.


  1. Wait, has Singer changed his view? Last I knew he thought the only thing that matters is pleasure, read in a very simplistic (i.e. Benthamian and not Millian) way. Where does he say this other stuff? It certainly sounds like it contradicts his other work, although it doesn't mean he holds contradictory views. He may just have changed his mind in his dotage.

  2. Jeremy,
    Yes, I agree: On one hand, Singer does say species membership is moot; what matters is whether a particular entity can suffer. He writes: “The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all." (Peter Singer, "All Animals are Equal," in Morality in Practice, 4th edition, ed. James P. Sterba, Wadsworth, 1994, p. 441, 478.) All (and only) beings that can currently experience suffering or enjoyment have interests and thus moral status (rights).

    However, Singer doesn't stop there. He also tosses into the mix self-awareness, rationality, a desire to go on living, and the immediate capacity to see one's self existing over time. From this he contends that a variety of non-human animals are rational, self-conscious beings that that can experience pain or pleasure and thus they qualify as persons in the relevant sense of the term. Consequently, it is morally indefensible for humans to value their own species above other sentient animals.

    Insofar as some human beings are incapable of reasoning, remembering, and self-awareness, they cannot be considered persons. “The embryo, the later fetus, the profoundly intellectually disabled child, even the newborn infant—all are indisputably members of the species Homo sapiens, but none are self-aware, have a sense of the future, or the capacity to relate to others” (Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. p. 86). Thus, Singer downgrades the newborn to the status of non-person because newborns, like fetuses, are incapable “of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time” (PE, pp. 171,188). Nor are they rational, self-conscious beings with a desire to go on living (PE, 169). Since personhood hinges on these things, killing a newborn (or fetus) is not the same as killing a person.

    It seems to me, then, that Singer does not think the only thing that matters is pleasure/pain. I don't think this contradicts his other stuff, but it does raise a question: Why should a strict consequentialist care about functionalist concerns over self-awareness, rationality, and a desire to go on living?

  3. Well, one way to make it consistent would be to say that these other features are contributors toward pleasure, so something that has such features is more able to experience pleasure. Each individual who experience pleasure and pain counts as much as any other, but the goal is to maximize pleasure, and it's easier to reach that goal by focusing more on those whose pleasure can be increased much more easily and to a much higher degree. Or perhaps he could say that pain is much more easily achieved with such beings, and so we need to pay more attention to them to guard against that. You then get an indirect means of paying more attention to some.

    So there are two issues: one is which beings count, and the other is ways that one's nature affects how one counts. He could be fully egalitarian among animals on the first question but not at all on the second. That's how Mill does it in Utilitarianism. I suspect Singer is making the claim about self-consciousness, rationality, and so on as part of the second sort of question, which means it doesn't have to conflict with his answer to the first question. But I'd have to see how he does it specifically to see if it amounts to an inconsistency.

    My skepticism about it is that I think he is on record disagreeing with Mill's conception of pleasure and pain that allows for some kinds of pleasure and pain to be incommensurably better than other kinds, which would allow a Millian to say that pleasures associated with higher mental capacities are more important, even if very low, hence Mills claim that he'd rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. But I thought Singer rejected such a view, so I'm not sure if this is available to him, unless he changed his mind on that (or unless I'm remembering it wrongly).


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