Animal Liberation Now releases today! I received an advance copy for review, so will share some thoughts and highlights. (It feels a bit presumptuous to “review” such a classic text—obviously you should read it, no-one needs to await my verdict in order to know that—but hopefully there’s still some value in my sharing a few thoughts and highlights that stood out to me.)
As Singer notes in his publication announcement, he considers it “a new book, rather than just a revision, because so much of the material in the book is new.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I never actually got around to reading the original Animal Liberation (aside from the classic first chapter, widely anthologized as ‘All Animals are Equal’, and commonly taught in intro ethics classes).So I can’t speak to any differences, except to note that the present book is very much “up to date”, focusing on describing the current state of animal experimentation and agriculture, and (in the final chapter) engaging with recent philosophical defenses of speciesism.
This book is not exactly an enjoyable read. It describes, clearly and dispassionately, humanity’s abusive treatment of other animals. It’s harrowing stuff. To give just one example, consider our treatment of broiler chickens: they have been bred to grow so large they cannot support themselves or walk without pain (p. 118):
The birds may try to avoid the pain by sitting down, but they have nothing to sit on except the ammonia-laden litter, which, as we saw earlier, is so corrosive that it can burn their bodies. Their situation has been likened to that of someone with arthritic leg joints who is forced to stand up all day. [Prof.] Webster has described modern intensive chicken production as “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”
Their parents—breeder birds—are instead starved to keep their weight at a level that allows mating to occur, and for the birds to survive longer—albeit in a state of hunger-induced aggression and desperation. In short, we’ve bred these birds to be physically incapable of living happy, healthy lives. It’s abominable.
Our treatment of dairy cows is also heartbreaking:
Dairy producers must ensure that their cows become pregnant every year, for otherwise their milk will dry up. Their babies are taken from them at birth, an experience that is as painful for the mother as it is terrifying for the calf. The mother often makes her feelings plain by constant calling and bellowing for her calf—and this may continue for several days after her infant calf is taken away. Some female calves will be reared on milk substitutes to become replacements of dairy cows when they reach the age, at around two years, when they can produce milk. Some others will be sold at between one to two weeks of age to be reared for beef in fattening pens or feedlots. The remainder will be sold to veal producers. (p. 155)
A glimmer of hope is offered in the story of niche dairy farms that produce milk “without separating the calves from their mothers or killing a single calf.” (p. 157) The resulting milk is more expensive, since the process is no longer “optimized” purely for production. But I’d certainly be willing to pay more to support a less evil (maybe even positively good!) treatment of farm animals. I dearly hope these products become more widespread.
The book also relates encouraging legislation, especially in the EU and New Zealand, constraining the mistreatment of animals in various respects. The U.S. is more disheartening for the most part, but here’s one (slightly) positive note (p. 282):
In the U.S. the joint impact of the changes in state legislation and the campaigns to persuade corporations to change their purchasing policies has increased the proportion of hens not in cages from only 3 percent in 2005 to 35 percent in 2022, and that should continue to increase as more corporations meet their commitments.
(On the other hand, remember that cage-free hens may be living with thousands of other hens in the ammonia-filled air of a crowded shed, never able to go outside in fresh air and sunshine. It’s better than cages, but still a long way from free range or pasture-raised hens.)
Yes, there are more vegetarians and vegans than there were in 1975, and some of the reforms mentioned in this chapter have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of animals. On the other hand, there are now more animals suffering in laboratories and factory farms than ever before. We need much more radical changes than we have seen so far. (p. 284)
What is to be done?
Singer recommends veganism, or at least taking care to avoid purchasing factory-farmed meat. In a helpfully pragmatic section comparing the relative moral risk of different kinds of meat, Singer explains:
A study by the Sentience Institute estimated that in the United States, over 99.9 percent of chickens raised for meat are kept in factory farms, 99.8 percent of turkeys, 98.3 percent of pigs, 98.2 percent of egg-laying hens, and 70.4 percent of cows.… At the present time fewer than 1 percent of sheep are kept intensively, so lamb and mutton are unlikely to be from factory farms.
So, for those of us who aren’t (yet) strictly vegetarian, lamb may be the way to go. Beef is a gamble (I’m hoping the roast beef at Whole Foods is okay?), and for goodness’ sake, avoid chicken like the plague. Stick to “pasture raised” eggs. I wish we had more guidance on finding humane milk options; maybe all of the readily-available ones involve calf separation, but are some common brands (e.g. Organic Valley?) at least less harmful than others?
In any case, legislation seems more promising than individual consumption choices for achieving significant change here. (California’s proposition 12 being an encouraging recent example.) Perhaps the most important practical upshot of Animal Liberation Now is that we should all support animal welfare legislation to vastly improve conditions for animals on factory farms. Yes, this will make animal products more expensive. That’s the cost of reduced torture.
It’s just not possible, given current levels of demand, for meat to be both cheap and humane. Maybe cultured meat or other technological breakthroughs could eventually change this. But failing that, I think the morally best outcome would be for meat to become a luxury good, as would follow from the abolition of intensive (“factory”) farming.
I haven’t discussed animal experimentation yet. That chapter was also harrowing (including details of researchers deliberately traumatizing animals in hopes of inducing mental illness to study). Of course, Singer isn’t an absolutist about this:
If it really were possible to prevent harm to many by an experiment that involves inflicting a similar harm on just one, and there was no other way the harm to many could be prevented, it would be right to conduct the experiment. (p. 98)
But I wonder about the “no other way” clause here. A pertinent feature of non-human animals is that they cannot consent to harm. People can. Not that I think consent is morally magical, but it is a very useful tool for preventing mistreatment. If the benefits of research outweigh the costs, it should (in principle) be possible to sufficiently compensate participants for the harms they’re exposed to. Animals can’t tell us how much compensation would be necessary to make it worth it for them. People can. So the “other way” to go here would be to pay volunteers whatever it takes to convince them to consent. (Many medical ethicists hate this idea, but it is surely more ethical than experimenting on non-consenting beings without compensation.)
There’s obviously much more to be said here, especially when the risks are potentially lethal. But substituting compensated people in place of unconsenting animals strikes me as a possible way forward that was underexplored in this book. (Though Singer did flag that we should be more willing to experiment on human volunteers.)
Much of the book is indisputable in its criticisms of existing practices. Any reasonable moral view is going to entail that factory farming—effectively torturing animals just to make their products cheaper—is a moral abomination. While immensely practically important, such observations aren’t so philosophically interesting. What is philosophically interesting (and hence not strictly essential to the core practical upshot of the book) is Singer’s famous opposition to speciesism—giving less weight to an individual’s interests (e.g. in not suffering) simply because of the species to which they belong. The first chapter of ALN introduces and clarifies the equal consideration of interests principle (p. 4):
Precisely what our concern requires us to do may vary according to the characteristics of those affected by what we do: Concern for the well-being of children requires that we teach them to read; concern for the well-being of pigs may require no more than that we leave them with other pigs in a place where there is adequate food and room to roam freely. The basic element is taking into consideration the interests of the being, whatever those interests may be, and this consideration must, according to the principle of equality, be extended equally to all beings with interests irrespective of their race, sex, or species.
It is on this basis that the cases against racism and sexism must ultimately rest; and it is in accordance with this principle that speciesism must also be condemned.
Importantly, anti-speciesism is compatible with valuing typical human lives more highly than (say) chicken lives:
The evil of pain is, in itself, unaffected by the other characteristics of the being who feels the pain; while the value of life and the wrongness of killing may be affected by these other characteristics. To take the life of a being who has been hoping, planning, and working for some future goal is to deprive that being of the fulfillment of all those efforts; to take the life of a being with a mental capacity below the level needed to grasp that one is a being with a future—much less make plans for the future—cannot involve this particular kind of loss. (p. 27)
Despite these accommodations with common sense, anti-speciesism remains controversial when applied to the severely cognitively disabled. Many want to claim that all humans have “greater moral status” than non-human animals, even when the individual in question lacks the cognitive capacities typically appealed to in attempts to justify granting humanity such special status. Singer sees this as a mere bias. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that farming cognitively disabled humans would be even worse than farming pigs.
I wonder if the best defense of humanismhere would be on multi-level utilitarian grounds. Even if it’s true in principle that sufficiently cognitively disabled humans have similar moral status to (cognitively comparable) non-human animals, it may be that the best practical morality for us to inculcate is one that is more protective of all humans (or all beings of a rational species—we’re not discriminating against Martians here). Compare: in principle, it would be a good thing to farm short-lived happy humans (perhaps for their organs) who would otherwise not get to exist at all. But we find the idea repugnant, and that’s probably also a good thing. It causes us to lose out on some life-saving organs, and the value of the farmed lives themselves; but it may also prevent us from committing worse atrocities against each other.
Another unaddressed challenge to Singer’s view is that the very notion of a “disability” rests on kind-specific norms. It seems tragic for a human to be stuck with the cognitive capacities of a chicken—we feel that they’ve been deprived of capacities that they ought to have had. By contrast, it isn’t tragic for a chicken to have the cognitive capacity of a chicken. If we possess a magic pill that would provide typical human intelligence to either individual, it seems we have stronger reason to give it to the cognitively disabled human than to the chicken (bracketing extrinsic factors, like how others would react). If this judgment is “speciesist”, then maybe speciesism isn’t necessarily unreasonable? Alternatively, if we are to truly give up on assigning any moral significance to species, we may be committed to greater conceptual revisions than we’d realized. We may also need to give up on the distinction between treatment (of disability) and enhancement, for example.
Other philosophers have tried to defend speciesism in ways that Singer aptly addresses in the final chapter. For example, he notes (p. 272) that Kagan’s modal personism wrongly distinguishes between two equally capable human individuals on the basis of irrelevant details about the causes of their disability (i.e. whether genetic or accidental). And against Bernard Williams’ defense of ‘The Human Prejudice’ (in which Williams imagines asking, “Which side are you on?”, in the face of an alien invasion), Singer responds:
“Which side are you on?” appeals to some of our worst instincts. Wherever there is racial or ethnic violence, and a member of the dominant group that is inflicting the violence tries to dissuade their fellow Whites, Nazis, or Hutus from attacking Blacks, Jews, or Tutsis, that question will be asked. If it is, “I am one of you, and therefore I am on your side” is precisely the wrong way of answering it. That answer abandons the attempt to solve problems in the light of justice and reason, leaving the resolution of the disagreement to force. (pp. 270-71)
Animal Liberation Now is a vitally important book—living up to the reputation of the original, while updating its discussion to match the current state of the world. Humanity’s treatment of non-human animals may be the gravest ongoing moral disaster of our times, and I know of no other work that so clearly brings this fact to light.
For those who wish to support the book, ordering it within the first week of publication can help it to get on bestseller lists. Booking tickets to Singer’s speaking tour could also help spark media interest. (Use code SINGER50 for 50% off if you wish, or pay full price knowing that all profits will be donated to effective charities opposing intensive animal production.)
[Disclosure: Singer was one of my professors at Princeton, and I continue to regard him as a mentor. More recently, we’ve co-authored work together on pandemic ethics. So I’m admittedly personally biased to think well of him & his work. Of course, in light of the objective reasons, I’m inclined to think my bias entirely redundant!]
Incidentally, I’m planning to write a utilitarianism.net Study Guide on the first chapter, soon!
Thanks for the comments on chicken. I sometimes eat chicken, which I justified by loose appeal to some sort of cognitive hierarchy. I hadn't considered (and didn't know) that broiler chickens actually have it much worse than cattle.
Incidentally, this reminds me of Scott Alexander's post about moral offsetting- the idea that (e.g.) $70 donated to PETA undoes the entire lifetime of animal harm caused by a carnivore. I'm not sure what I think about it. At a micro level it makes sense (with the obvious caveat that it's better to do the offset without eating the meat.) But on a macro-level it fails a sort of categorical imperative- if everyone offset their own meat consumption, there would be no meat consumption.
One objection to Kagan's view comes from Dustin Crummett. The idea is that what matters to one's well-being is how nearby the possible world is where they are a person. But if this were true, then if one created a button that would turn all animals into people if pressed, and then destroyed it before pressing it, this would make factory farming vastly worse, because it would make the possible world where they are persons much more nearby. This is clearly wrong.