Pete Singer’s 1974 essay “All Animals are Equal,” originally published in the journal International Exchange and later included in a collection of similarly-themed essays edited by Singer and Tom Regan titled Animal Rights and Human Obligations, makes an impassioned argument for animal rights and their protection from human abuse. In fact, more than a plea for the protection and equal treatment of animals on par with how we treat fellow human beings, Singer calls for the beginning of a “liberation movement” similar to those that were sprouting up during the period in which he wrote his essay and focused on such issues as gay, women’s and African-American rights. Noting how previously “legitimate” forms of discrimination and prejudice, over time, correctly came to be viewed as unfairly and immorally prejudicial towards certain categories of people, Singer argues that the time as come for a similar commitment to the rights of species that walk on four legs instead of two. As he noted in his essay:
“A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons and an extension or reinterpretation of the basic moral principle of equality. Practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable come to be seen as the result of an unjustifiable prejudice.”
In positing the argument that species other than humans are equally deserving of the treatment we afford each other, Singer points out that the distinctions among species, while certainly unequivocal in terms of ability to reason, are nevertheless illegitimate grounds upon which to treat each other:
“There are many other obvious ways in which men and women resemble each other closely, while humans and other animals differ greatly. So, it might be said, men and women are similar beings and should have equal rights, while humans and nonhumans are different and should not have equal rights. . .
“The basic principle of equality, I shall argue, is equality of consideration; and equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights.”
Citing noted utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and Henry Sidgwick, Singer emphasizes the fundamental equality to which all living beings should be treated. Quoting Sidgwick ("The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other”) Singer proceeds to make his case for the treatment of animals on the same moral and practical plane as that for humans.
Throughout his essay, Singer refers to contemporaneous debates regarding civil rights for blacks and equal treatment of women, both of which involved centuries-long struggles. It is his objective, in “All Animals are Equal,” to place animals on the same level of “humanity” as with human beings of different skin colors and physical and mental abilities. Just as there should never have been discrimination against blacks and women, there should never be discrimination against animals. If it is a living, breathing, thinking and feeling being, then it should be treated equally. As he articulated it,
“If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—in so far as rough comparisons can be made—of any other being.”
Counterarguments exist on two levels, theological and practical. The theological arguments are, of course, drawn from holy texts, mainly the Bible. For example, Genesis 9:3 states
“Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.”
The Bible includes numerous additional references to the consumption of meat, with Leviticus being particularly detailed in specifying precisely what types of animals may be eaten. [Of course, animal-rights activists are quick to counter with the Bible’s numerous demands that animals be treated with dignity.] Orthodox or fundamentalist or Evangelical Christians frequently argue that God put animals on the planet for human exploitation.
On a more practical level, many people point to the barbarity native to most animal species and to the food chains the top of which are dominated by humans. If a bear, tiger or lion can get its paws on and teeth into me, it will do so without a moment’s hesitation, so why shouldn’t I be able to kill and eat other species? Many species of animals kill each other and kill smaller, weaker species for the sole purpose of eating. Humans are natural consumers of meat, as has been the case throughout eternity, so where is the sin?
These counterarguments are not without counterarguments of their own. Studies have been conducted for the purpose of demonstrating that humans are physiologically and physically structured for a vegetarian diet, from the type of teeth we have to the artificial means required to process meats for human consumption. At the end of the day, it is up to the individual to decide.