A Critique of Peter Singer

by Benjamin Studebaker

I had an interesting lecture today in which Peter Singer came up. Singer is an interesting philosopher in so far as he is, like me, a utilitarian and a consequentialist, but I nonetheless find myself from time to time in conflict with him. Today I seek to identify where precisely Singer and I differ, and why one should agree with me rather than with him.

So, in the context of the lecture I was in, Singer’s argument concerning animal ethics was the one put forward. As the lecturer described it, Singer’s argument goes something like this:

  1. Interests should receive equal consideration.
  2. Farming practices cause animals to suffer only in order to satisfy the palates of human beings.
  3. Animals have a major interest in avoiding suffering.
  4. Human beings have only a minor interest in satisfying their palates.
  5. Sacrificing a major interest of a being in order to satisfy a minor interest of another being violates the principle of equal consideration of interests.
  6. Therefore, some farming practices violate the principle of equal consideration of interests.
  7. Farming practices can be effectively changed only by stopping eating meat.
  8. Therefore, people should stop eating meat

There are lots of objections to Singer that pick at various small details of his thinking, but I think the problem runs deeper and applies not just to any given argument from Singer, but to his system of thinking as a whole. The trouble with Singer’s conception is that he has misconceived what an “interest” is. For Singer, interests are matters of preference satisfaction, where a preference is whatever a being desires. This variation of utilitarianism is termed “preference utilitarianism”. Many casual critics of utilitarianism assume all utilitarians to be preference utilitarians, but it is not so. The problem with preference utilitarianism is that it takes interests and desires to be synonymous.

Imagine that Jill wants to have sex with Bob. This is a desire and a preference that Jill wishes satisfied. What Jill doesn’t know, however, is that Bob has HIV. If Jill has sex with Bob, she will get the disease. I think it is self-evident that it is not in Jill’s interest to get HIV, but Jill does not realise that HIV will result from the satisfaction of her desire to have sex with Bob. As a result, Jill’s desires and preferences conflict with her interests. This presents the problem of ignorance for the preference utility position. People do not have perfect knowledge about what is good for them; they sometimes desire things that will lead to bad consequences not merely for others but even for themselves. There can be disagreement about what’s a being’s interests are, but that disagreement exists not because interests are inherently subjective, but because of imperfect knowledge about what consequences result from our actions. All a desire or preference really is is one’s own personal opinion about one’s own interests. It is by no means necessarily a correct opinion. It can be grounded in ignorance or deeply misinformed. More interestingly, one need not have an opinion for objective facts to exist. I may not have any desires, but I may nonetheless have interests. This opens some doors.

Singer argues that because animals desire not to have pain that they have interests in the same way that people do, but this is a result of the false equivalence between desire and interest, between opinion and fact. What does it really mean to have an interest? If a being has interests, then it is possible for good or bad things to happen to it. Generally, if something is alive, we say that its death is not in its interest. It does not matter if the death comes with or without physical pain or with or without the being’s self-awareness of death, it is beneficial to a bacterium to live and harmful to a bacterium to die. Life is in the interest of the living. There are exceptions to this, of course–one can imagine a being so depressed and so miserable that death is a form of release (though one could argue that this is always a false opinion on the part of the suicidal individual) –in cases of terminal illness, disability, or severe pain, however, I don’t think such an argument would hold. In any case, very stupid creatures, like bacteria, do not have the psychological capacity to have existential crises. It is safe to assume that death is never in their interest.

Now, one could argue back and say that if a being does not feel direct physical pleasure or pain, if it is not self-aware of whether it lives or dies, how can its existence be in its own interest? Individually, perhaps it cannot, but from an evolutionary standpoint, even the stupidest organism exists to replicate and continue forward the process of natural selection so that more sophisticated organisms can result from it. When the very first organisms came into being on earth, the organisms from which every person and species descend, it was in all of our collective interest in perpetuity that said organisms survived and reproduced. We could not be here if they did not. Evolution means that stupid organisms are necessary for the creation of more sophisticated organisms. Even if the reader does not think we can derive the interest of the less sophisticated organism from itself, we can derive it from the organism’s evolutionary potential to create higher order life–a potential that every organism on the planet still has. For if we could evolve from these critters, other highly intelligent species could evolve from them as well, given sufficient time.

If we accept this argument, then interests are not confined merely to humans, but they are not confined merely to animals either. Plants have interests; bacteria have interests; protists have interests; viruses, even, have interests, in so far as they all have purposes and functions. They may not be conscious of these functions, but they nonetheless have them and are to be considered successful in so far as they perform them and unsuccessful in so far as they do not. Here’s where this particular argument from Singer concerning animal ethics really gets undermined. If my conception of interests is better than Singer’s, and I think it is, then Singer’s central premise, that “interests should receive equal consideration” looks extremely weak. If I contract a bacterial infection, it would seem ridiculous to say that my interest in surviving the disease needs to balanced against the interest of the bacteria in performing its functions of replication and evolution. If we follow Singer all the way here, the fact that there are millions of bacteria and only one of me would imply that I should lose the argument. A single bacterium’s interests would have to be taken to be equal to mine, so the interests of an entire body’s worth of them would seem rather to countervail me. I may not be morally obliged to allow the bacteria to kill me (if you, like me, do not think an organism is ever obliged to self-harm), but doctors certainly would not be obligated to help me, and might even be obligated to stop me from helping myself. The principle of equal concern for all beings with interests seems false; there’s something about human beings that makes them count for more than bacteria.

Singer maintains that the difference is capacity to feel pleasure and pain–that’s what sets animals apart from other organisms. So let’s say that this is the case–maybe non-animal life has interests, but those interests do not count morally because they are not aware of success or failure via the pleasure/pain mechanism. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we change the deadly bacterial infection a little bit. Say that each individual bacterium is given an intense understanding of what it means to suffer. In every other respect, it remains an intellectually vacuous bacterium. However, when you kill the bacterium, it will know precisely what you are doing and it will suffer intensely. Imagine that when you kill a bacterium, it experiences the human equivalent of being crucified and set on fire. Does this in any way diminish your determination to fight off a bacterial infection? I don’t see why it would. Experiencing suffering does not make the bacterium more valuable to us. Come to think of it, what does make something valuable to us? Its ability to contribute, its capacity for social benevolence, something like that, surely? The problem with the bacterium, even the pain-experiencing bacterium, is that it does not do anything for us. We gain nothing from treating it morally as if it were a person.

In order to matter morally, suffering is not what matters. Contributing is. People matter because people contribute to society. No one individual necessarily contributes to each and every one of our individual lives, but someone gets some benefit from them, even if it’s just the joy of knowing they’re alive, as might be the case for the parents of mentally deficient children. No one cares about infectious bacteria, and no one would care about them even if they could feel pain like we do. The only reason anyone cares about animals is because some people like them. It is has nothing to do with any inherent moral standing that animals have and everything to do with their desire that animals not suffer for their own personal satisfaction, because they find animals cute or enjoy knowing they exist or what have you. Most animals matter morally only to the extent that the people who care about them matter morally, no further.

I do have one considered category of exceptions, however. There are some animals that perhaps could be said to contribute to some degree beyond merely appealing to people’s compassion:

  1. Industrial animals–work horses, mules, donkeys, elephants. If an animal contributes its labour to the economy, that is good enough reason to see it included in our society morally. Since these animals do not benefit from wages, we can give them that much.
  2. Service animals–seeing eye dogs, rescue dogs, undersea mine detecting dolphins, pets that give genuine psychological comfort, and so on. These animals improve the productive efficiency of people by improving their quality of life or protecting them from harm, contribute in a genuine way like the industrial animals, and are worthy of moral consideration as well.
  3. Agricultural animals–meat/glue horses, cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, and so on. These animals derive their usefulness entirely from their being eaten or having pieces of them broken off and used industrially, however, so they cannot be taken more seriously morally than can wheat or rice.
  4. Research animals–mice, non-human primates, the various animals used by scientists to conduct research. These animals derive their usefulness from processes that are inherently harmful, so while we should do our best to minimise the harms they endure, the usefulness from which they derive that consideration is itself dependent upon their suffering.

Update:

I have since written an additional piece on Singer that deepens and in some places supersedes this one, entitled “A New Critique of Peter Singer“. In particular, it dispenses with the claim I made regarding how “interests” should be conceptualized. While I still think that it is possible to have interests without being aware them, I now agree with Singer that these interests must necessarily consist of concrete benefits and harms, albeit potentially future ones. However, I still agree with the claims I made beginning with “so let’s say this is the case”. It is the argument after that point that I deepen in the new piece.