Peter Singer’s claim that all animals are equal requires some clarification. He does not suggest that all animals should be treated equally—nobody wants to elect a dog mayor or allow the crazy neighbor down the street to shit in their yards. Rather, he wants to stress that anything with interests ought to have them considered in those Utilitarian calculations pertaining to them. In and of itself his claim is easily supportable, which makes its implications all the more disturbing; to the extent that we buy Utilitarianism as viable, we may have to make radical alterations in the way we behave toward every other species on the planet capable of feeling pain—and perhaps re-open the question of how fruitful our inquiries into what does and does not feel pain have been.
Whereas once we might have felt justified in inflicting pain upon animals during the course of slaughtering or using them as beasts of burden without regard to their interests, Singer has forced us to confront the inherent arbitrariness of our cultural concept of personhood; whereas once, we might have congratulated ourselves on the sensitivity and magnanimity of including women, children and those not of wealthy European descent in the big tent, we are again exposed as the small, selfish up-jumped cretins we’ve always been. Or so the implication seems to be. For Singer, the prejudicial exclusion of members of other species from moral consideration is as bigoted as treating any group within our own species in similar fashion. His assertions that our unwillingness to treat members of our own species with the same inhumanity that we treat members of other species is indicative of unthinking prejudice are equally compelling, betraying our sad tendency to view those persons with two wings or four (or six, or eight) legs as not really persons at all. Experimentation on, or utilization for nourishment of, animals without sparing even a thought for the suffering it causes them is callous and indefensible on moral grounds provided we’re not willing to apply the same standards to humans of comparable mental status.
All of this is rather uncontroversial, although issues regarding what “pain” is, and whether inability to communicate pain constitutes inability to feel it, &c. still need resolution, and issues of corporate and environmental personhood need fleshing out, but the fundamental principles seem easily defensible. Assuming we’re willing to accept that suffering is bad, and that our responsibility as moral individuals is to prevent undue suffering, the foregoing should give us pause only relative to the amount of suffering we’ve unconsciously participated in (here assuming we’re not participating in the conscious inflicting of suffering). Furthermore, the claim that such prejudicial thinking is just as bad as racism or sexism is easily explained on such grounds. Humans are not persons by birth, but because of their capacity to suffer; if individual animals are persons based upon their capacity to suffer, they are no less persons than humans are. There can be no three-fifths compromise on this issue.
Touching briefly upon counterarguments: some would say that certain animals (say, a hungry panther), given the chance, would not take our suffering into account when they decided to make a meal out of us. I think this misses the point; we are not demanding that all beings act morally—I doubt a panther has the equipment for complex moral reasoning and wouldn’t accuse it of being evil if it decided I’d be a delicious treat—but rather that certain standards of morality are established by which we might navigate the murky issue of how we ought to treat one another. Complaints that Singer trivializes civil rights movements by comparing speciesism to racism or sexism are petty and betray an inability to give equal credence to the suffering of those not in the group one is concerned with; they suffer from the same privileging of interests of certain individuals that Singer argues against. More potent, perhaps, is a claim made by Camilla Kronqvis: “To say that our morality rests on attending to somebody’s pleasure and pain, also seems to be a pretty crude description of what it is to be a moral being.” (Speciesism—Arguments for Whom?) I agree with her, but I do not think its crudeness works against it. It may be the mere rudiments of a more complex moral theory.
I’d like to end with a quote from Richard Dawkins, just because I like him and I think he’s a ballsy sack of neat opinions:
Such is the breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes, the abortion of a single human zygote (most of them are destined to be spontaneously aborted anyway) can arouse more moral solicitude and righteous indignation than the vivisection of any number of intelligent adult chimpanzees! […] The only reason we can be comfortable with such a double standard is that the intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead. (The Blind Watchmaker.)
Dawkins rightly apprehends that our inability to trace our ancestry visibly back to those we inflict suffering upon is the rather pedestrian reason for our unthinking cruelty to creatures that share virtually all of our genetic code. A profound lack of genetic understanding combined with a willful naïveté regarding the nature of other creatures is a potent cocktail, and girding ourselves against it is of paramount importance in becoming educated, moral beings.