Animal Liberation (book)

Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals is a 1975 book by Australian philosopher Peter Singer. It is widely considered within the animal liberation movement to be the founding philosophical statement of its ideas. Singer himself rejected the use of the theoretical framework of rights when it comes to human and nonhuman animals. Following Jeremy Bentham, Singer argued that the interests of animals should be considered because of their ability to experience suffering and that the idea of rights was not necessary in order to consider them. He popularized the term "speciesism" in the book, which had been coined by Richard D. Ryder to describe the exploitative treatment of animals.[1]

Animal Liberation
Cover of the first edition
AuthorPeter Singer
CountryUnited States
SubjectAnimal rights
Publication date
1975 (first edition)
1990 (second edition)
2002 (third edition)
2009 (fourth edition)
2015 (40th anniversary edition)
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback) and eBook
Pages311 (2009 edition)
ISBN978-0-06-171130-5 (2009 edition)


Singer's central argument is an expansion of the utilitarian idea that "the greatest good" is the only measure of good or ethical behavior. He argues that there is no reason not to apply this principle to other animals.

Although Singer rejects 'rights' as a moral concept, his position is derived from utilitarian principles of minimizing suffering.[Notes 1] Singer allows that animal rights are not the same as human rights, writing in Animal Liberation that "there are obviously important differences between humans and other animals, and these differences must give rise to some differences in the rights that each have."[2]

In Animal Liberation, Singer argues against what he calls speciesism: discrimination on the grounds that a being belongs to a certain species. He holds the interests of all beings capable of suffering to be worthy of equal consideration and that giving lesser consideration to beings based on their species is no more justified than discrimination based on skin color. He argues that animals' rights should be based on their capacity to feel pain more than on their intelligence. In particular, he argues that while animals show lower intelligence than the average human, many severely intellectually challenged humans show equally diminished, if not lower, mental capacity and that some animals have displayed signs of intelligence (for example, primates learning elements of American sign language and other symbolic languages) sometimes on a par with that of human children. Therefore, intelligence does not provide a basis for giving nonhuman animals any less consideration than such intellectually challenged humans.[3] Singer concludes that the most practical solution is to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. He also condemns vivisection except where the benefit (in terms of improved medical treatment, etc.) outweighs the harm done to the animals used.[4]


Activist Ingrid Newkirk wrote of Animal Liberation, "It forever changed the conversation about our treatment of animals. It made people—myself included—change what we ate, what we wore, and how we perceived animals."[5] Other activists who claim that their attitudes to animals changed after reading the book include Peter Tatchell[6] and Matt Ball.[7]

Singer has expressed regret that the book did not have more impact. In September 1999, he was quoted by Michael Specter in The New Yorker on the book's impact:

It's had effects around the margins, of course, but they have mostly been minor. When I wrote it, I really thought the book would change the world. I know it sounds a little grand now, but at the time the sixties still existed for us. It looked as if real changes were possible, and I let myself believe that this would be one of them. All you have to do is walk around the corner to McDonald's to see how successful I have been.[8]

The book has also received a wide range of philosophical challenges to his formulation of animal rights. In a lengthy debate in Slate Magazine, published in 2001, Richard Posner wrote, among other things, that Singer failed to see the "radicalism of the ethical vision that powers [his] view on animals, an ethical vision that finds greater value in a healthy pig than in a profoundly intellectually challenged child, that commands inflicting a lesser pain on a human being to avert a greater pain to a dog, and that, provided only that a chimpanzee has 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being, would require the sacrifice of the human being to save 101 chimpanzees." Singer replied to and rejected this claim, engaging in a lengthy debate with Posner.[9]

In addition, Martha Nussbaum has argued that the capability approach provides a more adequate foundation of justice than Utilitarianism can supply. Utilitarianism, Nussbaum argues, ignores adaptive preferences, elides the separateness of distinct persons, misidentifies valuable human/non-human emotions such as grief, and calculates according to "sum-rankings" rather than inviolable protection of intrinsic entitlements.[10]

Roger Scruton, a moral philosopher who criticised Singer's work for what Scruton said was false equivalence between animal and human consciousness and the pejorative use of utilitarianism, singled Animal Liberation for criticism. He wrote that Singer's works, including Animal Liberation (1975), "contain little or no philosophical argument. They derive their radical moral conclusions from a vacuous utilitarianism that counts the pain and pleasure of all living things as equally significant and that ignores just about everything that has been said in our philosophical tradition about the real distinction between persons and animals."[11]

Personal background

In an essay entitled "Animal Liberation: A Personal View", Singer describes the personal background that led to his adoption of the views he sets out in Animal Liberation. He writes of how he arrived in Oxford in October 1969, and in 1970 had lunch with a fellow graduate student, Richard Keshen, who avoided meat. This led Singer to inquire as to why. Singer then read Ruth Harrison's book, Animal Machines, as well as a paper by Roslind Godlovitch (who would later co-edit Animals, Men and Morals), which convinced him to become a vegetarian and to take animal suffering seriously as a philosophical issue.[12]

See also


  1. This follows his fellow utilitarian John Stuart Mill, whose defense of the rights of the individual in On Liberty (1859) is introduced with the qualification, "It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right as a thing independent of utility".

. This grossly oversimplifies Mill's position as regards 'act' and 'rule' utilitarianism, which is usefully summarised here Can a utilitarian respect rights? by Chris Lyons


  1. Peter Singer, “A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation,” in Environmental Ethics, ed. Louis Pojman (Stamford, CT: Wadsworth, 2001), 35."
  2. Op. cit., p. 2.
  3. Singer, Peter. "On Humans and Animals". IAI TV. Retrieved 11 December 2013.
  4. Gareth Walsh, "Father of animal activism backs monkey testing", The Sunday Times, November 26, 2006.
  5. "What Is Animal Liberation? Philosopher Peter Singer's Groundbreaking Work Turns 40 | A Message From PETA's President | All About PETA | About". PETA. 2015-04-14. Retrieved 2015-07-26.
  6. Tatchell, Peter (29 January 2009). "The book that changed my life - Animal Liberation". The New Statesman. UK. Archived from the original on 26 August 2017. Retrieved 23 December 2016.
  7. Back cover of the October 2015 Vintage edition of Animal Liberation. “Few books can honestly be said to have launched a major social movement. Animal Liberation is one. Peter Singer’s work has changed millions and millions of lives, including mine. Much more importantly, though, Professor Singer’s book helped define and build the movement that is fundamentally shifting the way humans relate to our fellow animals and that will eventually end the barbaric treatment of billions of sentient individuals.” —Matt Ball, author of The Accidental Activist and senior adviser for VegFund.
  8. Michael Specter, "The Dangerous Philosopher", The New Yorker, 6 September 1999
  9. "Animal Rights: Debate between Peter Singer and Richard Posner (collection of letters)". Utilitarian. June 2001. Archived from the original on 2015-05-09. Links to individual letters of the debate on the Slate website: First letter; Singer to Posner, June 12, 2001:; second letter, Posner to Singer, June 12, 2001:; third letter, Singer to Posner, June 13, 2001:; fourth letter, Posner to Singer, June 13, 2001:; fifth letter, Singer to Posner, June 13, 2001:; sixth letter, Posner to Singer, June 14, 2001:; seventh letter, Singer to Posner June 14, 2001:; eighth letter, Posner to Singer, June 14, 2001:
  10. Nussbaum, Martha and Cass Sunstein, eds. Animal Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 299–320.
  11. Scruton, Roger. "Animal Rights", City Journal, summer 2000.
    • Scruton (1998).
  12. Singer, Peter (2001). "Animal Liberation: A Personal View". Writings on an ethical life. London: Fourth Estate. pp. 293–302. ISBN 1841155500.
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