Peter Singer’s concept of speciesism breaks down on several levels, both in its own internal logic and when applied to the real world. I will be illustrating how Singer’s argument fails to establish that interests can be defined only as suffering, and that they can in fact be any number of other things. I will illustrate how Singer’s argument, by defining interests merely as suffering, forces us to unintuitively include plants in our suffering calculations. I will then show how this forces Singer to acknowledge that certain beings have interests that are greater in kind, not just quantity, when compared to others(section 1.) I will then show speciesism is unavoidable for humans, and demanding that we not be speciesist violates the ought/can principle(section 2.) Singer’s logic fails because it does not remain consistent when defining interests as merely suffering, and forces us to acknowledge some beings’ interests as greater in kind, as well as not taking into account human psychology, demanding us to think in ways that we cannot.
Singer’s argument, briefly summarized, is that the only condition needed to have one’s interests considered is to have interests at all. If we define interests as suffering, then therefore, all that matters is suffering, and the condition of humanity should have no special bearing on our moral decision making. However, this statement, when thought through to its logical conclusion, conflicts with our intuitions so much that it becomes untenable.
First, I will establish that Singer’s own delineation between sentient/non-sentient life is as arbitrary as any other line we draw between beings. We, as moral agents, value all life at least to some extent, even non-sentient life. It seems cold hearted, especially for someone like Singer, to say that non-sentient life has no value whatsoever. For instance, one would be hard pressed to claim that breaking a brick has the same moral significance as uprooting a plant or chopping down a tree for no gain in utility. The plant is “suffering” in some way due to our actions in a way the brick is not. Therefore, since non-sentient life has some amount of moral significance, non-sentient life’s interests deserve equal consideration alongside sentient life’s. To say otherwise would draw an artificial line in the same way that Singer criticizes.
We must then determine what the interests of non-sentient life are, as they cannot suffer in the same way sentient life can. It seems plausible that the basest interest of every life would to not be destroyed. Which means that, since they are living beings, plants have an interest in not being destroyed. This therefore implies that, since plants have an interest in being alive alongside animals, it would be wrong to rank the life of an animal above that of a plant. This then implies that eating plants is just as immoral as eating animals (potentially even more so because plants live longer and we need to consume more of them to get the same number of calories.)
On its face, this conclusion seems ridiculous, how could plant life be just as valuable (or more valuable) than animal life? One way Singer could respond would be to acknowledge that interests are more than suffering, and that therefore some beings merely have more interests in quantity than others. For instance, plants cannot more around, act socially, etc… in the way many animals do, and therefore animals simply have more interests to balance the utilitarian scale in their favor. However, in the case of an animal eating a plant, all of those factors go out the window. The base interests of both beings come into conflict, in order for one to continue to live the other must die (by starvation or digestion.) If we view these two base desires, to continue living, as equal, then stopping the starving animal from eating the plant is a morally permissible thing to do(if not obligatory because the animal will eat more plants in the future, causing more suffering.) However, Singer would most likely not agree with this conclusion.
So since all living beings have an interest in not being destroyed, this implies plants have an interest in not being destroyed by animals. But since animals having more interests in quantity does not justify them destroying plants, Singer must be forced into the conclusion that certain beings have interests that are greater in kind, not just quantity, when compared to other beings. To further illustrate this, take a dog with ticks. A person would most likely be justified in removing that tick to ease the dog’s suffering. But if we see the tick’s interests as just quantitatively lower, that means that once a dog has a certain number of ticks, we are no longer justified in removing them. The only way we can remain justified in removing the ticks would be to acknowledge that no matter how many ticks there are, they can never equal the life of a dog as the dog’s interests are qualitatively better.
The reasons for this qualitative difference could be manifold, but the simplest explanation would be that the dog has a higher mental capacity when compared to the tick. If we continue to move this logic up, we are almost forced into the conclusion that human life is therefore superior in kind to animal life because we have a higher mental capacity when compared to people. Even if the explanation is not mental capacity, Singer would at least be forced to acknowledge that the hierarchy established by differences in kind puts humans at the top.
Singer believes that by defining interests as suffering he solves the problem of some people’s interests having more weight than others. However once we reach the conclusion that some being’s interests are greater in kind than others, we can see that he has failed in that pursuit.
Singer’s demand that we not take anything into account except having interests also fails to satisfy the “ought/can” condition, demanding a kind of thinking from us that we cannot perform. Not being speciesist demands that we discount not just all attachments to humanity as a factor in our decision making, but attachments to any reasons at all outside of a being having interests. This clashes with a basic fact of our human psychology: that we have and maintain relationships, and consider those we have relationships with to be more valuable.
Anyone would be hard pressed to say that I should consider a stranger on the street to be of equal value to those I am in relationships with. I (alongside every other human on the face of the earth) put a large amount of energy into making and maintaining relationships. And by definition, I consider those close to me more important than strangers. But Singer, by demanding that we only consider interests when making decisions, also implicitly demands that we value the well-being of strangers just as much as those close to us. This isn’t something Singer can effectively advocate simply because it’s impossible and violates the nature of relationships. If Singer demands we place equal value on every human’s life, then the concept of a relationship begins to break down, as a relationship by definition involves two people considering each other to be more valuable than a stranger.
This means that, since people are not conferred special status among animals (according to Singer) the best we can do is value the interests of all beings close to us equally. However, we then must take into account what gives a being the ability to become close to us. The most plausible explanation we could give as to how we establish relationships would be communication in some form. It would be very hard to become friends with a stranger if you two spoke completely different languages for instance.
We can generalize this with the statement “our ability to care about another being is contingent on our ability to relate to it somehow, as defined by the ability to communicate with it.” This statement excludes some(but not all) animals, and satisfies most of our intuitions. For instance, we have the ability to communicate(roughly) with dogs, meaning that we will most likely value them above other animals because we can have a “relationship” with them. But because that relationship cannot be equivalent to one with a human because of a language barrier, that dog will never be seen as similarly valuable to a friend or family member.
However, this generalized statement does present some morally problematic corollaries of its own. For instance, if I have a communicative relationship with my dog but none with someone across the world, does that mean that I am right to value my dog above that person? To that I would respond by saying that this is not meant to provide a normative account of our behavior in the way Singer’s thesis does. Instead this is merely supposed to be a descriptive account of how we behave and how we think. And I think that descriptively, most people would be hard pressed to, for instance, kill their dog to save someone they don’t know and have never met.
So, if our relationships lend value to other beings, and those relationships are dependent on communication, it follows that we would be mentally incapable of ascribing equal value to both beings we can and cannot communicate with. Singer could respond by saying that while we may be incapable of this kind of thinking, it is comparable to sexism and racism. An overwhelming majority of men are sexist for instance, and no matter how much we try it will be near impossible to eliminate that mindset completely, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to minimize it. However, I would respond by saying that the comparison to racism and sexism is a false dichotomy because there are societies that exist without sexism and racism (even if they are rare,) which implies that these traits are not hard wired into us, but are instead learned. Conversely, there is not a single recorded instance of a society completely without speciesism, implying that speciesism is hard wired in a way sexism and racism are not.
By using our moral inclinations to show that non-sentient life has some value, we can show that Singer’s delineation between sentient/non-sentient is just as arbitrary as any other line between groups. This then shows how Singer is forced to say there are differences in kind between beings to preserve the status of animals above plants, which then opens the door to saying that humans are greater in kind than animals. This, along with Singer’s violation of the ought/can condition, illustrates how his concept of speciesism, when closely examined, is untenable.