In this paper, I will argue that Peter Singer’s hypothetically proposed analogy between animal species and pieces of art works to a limited extent. However, the extent to which it works does not frustrate Singer’s larger purpose, which is to argue that the well-being of non-human animals ought to figure in our calculations concerning environmental issues. Therefore, while Singer thinks that the argument fails he need not reject its lessons altogether.
Singer’s problem, which is largely incidental to his overall project, is how to motivate on utilitarian principles the idea that animal species—as opposed to individual members of these species—ought to have some moral considerability. By ‘considerability’ I mean that animals who have such considerability have interests that are relevant to debating moral issues. Singer’s view is that moral considerability derives from sentience, and ultimately from the ability to feel pain. This is why he thinks that it is arbitrary and morally unacceptable wholly to discount the suffering, or possible suffering, of non-human animals. Some such animals have, as we do, the ability to feel pain; and since it is our ability to feel pain that provides us with moral considerability, it is arbitrary and capricious to deny such considerability to other animals that can feel pain.
Consider two situations. In the first, an animal of a well-populated species suffers and dies. In the second, the animal suffers the same fate, but it happens to be the last of its species. One way of putting Singer’s problem is to explain how, if at all, the second situation is morally worse than the first. Singer proposes that while there is no difference in suffering between the two cases one might argue that nevertheless something is lost in the second situation that is not lost in the first. Of course, no one would deny that something is lost. A species would cease to have members. Yet what matters is not merely this but that the thing that is lost has value, and perhaps moral value (in our language, moral considerability). Singer supposes that one might argue that what is lost has value in the same sense in which the destruction of a work of art has value. Destroying the work of art might cause no suffering, but it still seems to many to be wrong.
Now it is necessary to be careful here. For, just as Singer points out at the beginning of his paper, many have been willing to concede that non-human animals have moral considerability—but only insofar as their suffering or death would somehow negatively impact human beings. For example, he points out that thinkers such as Kant have held that cruelty to animals is not intrinsically wrong, but it is yet morally objectionable because it is likely to lead to cruelty to humans. To isolate the fundamental issue concerning species we must banish such human-centered considerations from our reflection. For what is at issue is whether the preservation of a species is intrinsically morally important. Somewhat as Singer does, we can prevent the relevant human-centered considerations from polluting our reasoning by imagining that just before the world ends, a person faces the choice over whether to destroy a valued piece of art. Similarly, we can ask the analogous question concerning animals and their species.
Singer thinks that this argument does not quite work, though he is not dogmatic on the point. The reason it does not work is that ultimately, assuming we exclude also effects on non-human animals, there is no moral basis for condemning either the destruction of the work of art, or the extinction of a species. Suffering is involved in neither case, and that is the only thing that matters morally for Singer, ultimately. Singer could have made his case against the moral considerability of species-preservation stronger if he had emphasized more heavily the fact that many zoos treat animals poorly, and that zoos often justify their existence by pointing to their necessity with respect to preserving the existence of certain animal species.
The most interesting objection to Singer’s refutation of the view that the analogy of art to species is one that goes to the heart of his overall position. For it is arguable that for any living thing (even a plant) there is a difference between that thing flourishing and failing to flourish—and that this is a morally relevant distinction. Singer rejects this of course. For the argument effectively rejects Singer’s sole criterion of moral considerability—the ability to undergo suffering and pain. But consider again two situations. In each, the world is just about to end, but in situation A a healthy tree stands in its majesty. In situation B, by contrast, someone burns or otherwise harms the tree for no reason. It is arguable that situation A is, if only very slightly, morally better than situation B. If this is so then Singer cannot appeal to the lack of differential suffering, in the analogy between the destruction of a work of art and a species, as implying a lack of moral relevance.
Singer could respond to this objection by pointing out that it is unstable. While there is a difference between a living thing flourishing and failing to flourish, it is not in every case a morally relevant difference. For we kill bacteria, for example, which are after all living things, when we wash our hands or clean our kitchens; and killing something is surely incompatible with its flourishing. The point is the more potent when we reflect that we would not necessarily risk ill-health by washing our hands, or cleaning our kitchens, slightly less often. Yet we assign no moral significance to these frequencies, and the killings that they inevitably involve.
This paper has explored Singer’s interesting argument for the probable lack of moral significance of the extinction of a species, on analogy with the destruction of a work of art. An objection to the argument was presented, and it was in the end suggested that Singer has the resources to respond effectively to the objection.