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4.8 out of 5 stars
31
4.8 out of 5 stars


on 22 December 2015
Profound and influential book that I originally passed on due to £9.99 price but later bought anyway after seeing it mentioned positively in various other books and articles. This book could change the way you think about animals. In my case, it finally answers a question that I have been musing on for some years: we laugh at our grandparents for their sexism and racism; what are we doing that our grandchildren will laugh at us for? The answer is speciesism and animal rights. The book focuses on a logical and moral argument, but without shoving it down your throat.

Minor quibbles:

---I would have preferred to see the unedited text of the original edition with comments in brackets or at the end of each section about what has changed since then rather than a completely updated work.

---The chapters, especially 2 and 3 are very long and could have been broken up, e.g. with spaces or stars or lines simply, to give a place to break them up.
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on 2 August 2017
(review of the 1995 edition)

AUDIENCE: For a book written by an academic, it is remarkably accessible and jargon-free. Any person interaction with animals would do well to read this book. Animal professionals must read it as it is a classic in the animal rights literature.

Style and contents

At about 250 densely packed pages, you won’t be done in a couple of days, but it’s no War and Peace either.

The book is divided into 2 chapters examining widespread abuses by the research and intensive farming industries. It also devotes a couple of chapters to the philosophical arguments supporting the equal consideration of animals. Finally, one chapter covers tips and views on vegetarianism.

The gems

The book in itself is a gem. It is THE classic in the animal rights’ literature and is on every animal rights and bioethics course reading list. These were some of the tidbits that I found particularly interesting:

The chapters detailing the abuses of the research industry were shocking and depressing. Knowing what I know of ethics committees in the EU and UK protecting mammals at least (except rats and mice…), I think things have changed a lot there. Not enough, but a lot. Sadly, not much has changed in the intensive farming industry, where regulatory bodies are more committed to pleasing crowds than effective action.
His chapter on animal research gave me pause, particularly the species-specific idiosyncracies that are discovered after the fact again and again. Take the fact that morphine is a neurostimulant for mice (it is a neurodepressant for us)! Countless products have been tested on animals and have been revealed, come human trial times, to have paradoxical effects in humans. The fact that promising animal models have to be taken lightly was not news to me, but the book opened my eyes to the horrifying scale of the problem. A ‘sad tale of futility’, as he calls it.
His reviews of the futile psychology experiments also made for depressing reading: studies on maternal deprivation, stress, learned helplessness/experimentally induced neurosis are classics in our field. Little did I know that so many subsequent – and useless – variations were carried out, putting millions of animals through unspeakable suffering for no reason.
I loved the passages on influential thinkers’ views through the ages. Having taken my last history course on the topic ages ago, it was a welcome refresher on the views of Descartes, Montaigne, Rousseau, Hume, Bentham, Thomas of Aquina, etc.
I was surprised by the list of animal-based products. I had never stopped to consider whether my candles, soap bars and perfume bottles had been were ethically sourced. Like I needed something else to feel guilty about.
As a veggie, I am wary of having to justify my dietary choice all the time, particularly from people who imply you are an irrational softie for caring about killing animals. He has a great way around that. He just says he is boycotting the intensive farming products. Effectively, unless you are getting your animal produce from your cousin or your neighbour, it means you are a veggie.
It was interesting to see that these assumptions were STILL being made by many meat eaters and needed addressing…
That you supposedly need meat to live (patently untrue)
That all veggies oppose the killing of animals to eat (I certainly don’t. I oppose their life of suffering and painful death)
I liked that he called meat ‘flesh’. It is less easy to hide from the horrifying truth when you don’t use an impersonal word.
An interesting passage on plants and pain, and the methods used to gain our knowledge (neurology, evolutionary function and behaviour)

Possible points for optimization

Stupidly, I read the 1995 edition instead of the 2015 one. That’s how long it had been on my ‘to read’ shelf… So I don’t know whether what I point out below has drastically changed in the latest edition.

I found the chapter on vegetarianism out of place. It fell into prosaic topics like how easy it is for friends to accommodate for your change of diet and that really vegetarian recipes are more diverse, if anything, than ones based on meat. I am a veggie myself so this argument doesn’t come from some defense mechanism or anything. The chapter was simply not intellectually interesting – nor logically or factually rigorous.
The logic (and realities) underlying his equal consideration arguments was occasionally weak, and it was a little repetitive. This is disappointing considering he is a professional ethicist. Take these examples:
Comparing speciesm to racism doesn’t hold water not just in degree, but also in kind.
Dodgy logic (p. 92) arguing that relying less on experimentally induced disease (on animals) would have somehow changed the focus of medicine towards prevention and healthy living. Yes, it would have, as a necessity. Surely he is not arguing that we should forego researching treatments and ONLY focus on prevention? For every disease?
On p. 229, his logic becomes outright tortuous. This is the predictable product of hard utilitarianism.
He says that the only defense of speciesm (namely to privilege members of our own group), is unjustifiable. It only is if you are a hard-line utilitarian. Take the classic thought experiment where you know your brother is evading his taxes on a grand scale, and you are asked whether you would report him. Of course the circle of empathy rings deeper the closer the person is to our inner circle: immediate family, friends, community, country, species. Whilst I tend to abhore nationalism, I can still see the evolutionary function of this selective empathy along lines of closeness to oneself.
A couple of statements are factually incorrect.
On p. 222, for example, he claims that no other animal, aside from man, prolongs the suffering of their prey. I can think of two counter-examples in less than a second: cats and killer whales.
I was surprised that he did not mention cognitive dissonance. Sure (most of) his arguments supporting vegetarianism are sound (better ecologically, medically and ethically). But the problem isn’t the weight of the arguments, it’s cognitive dissonance. Meat eaters are so committed to the idea that any argument opposing their worldview will just entrench them further.
Whilst I also (still) eat eggs and drink dairy product, I am aware of my hypocrisy. He, on the other hand, conveniently breezed over the horror that is the egg and leather industries when discussing the impracticality of veganism and not wearing leather.
He does not condemn the free-range egg industry explicitly enough, nearly trivializing its abuses (male chicks are still crushed alive by the millions).

The verdict:
The book is a classic and must be read by every professional working with animals, and even by laymen.

Sometimes his arguments smacked of post hoc rationalisations and got tangled up by his hard line utilitarianism, but the central point is valid: we should view speciesm critically (he would like us to condemn it altogether, which I find neither feasible nor desirable). We should grant animals equal consideration of interests.
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on 28 September 2017
I feel like I have my eyes opened.I am a better person because I read this book .
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on 12 September 2017
Excellent
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on 25 August 2017
A true classic, and easy to read. Turned me vegetarian, and I'm hoping to go vegan in the future.
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on 12 August 2017
It can get a bit 'dense' at times but the overall message is extremely strong. It has completely changed the way I think about other species and opened my mind. Fantastic read.
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on 13 September 2014
Came quickly and as described
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on 31 March 2003
This books is widely credited for setting off the animal "rights" movement. Singer really brought the issue into the public arena, and caused people to question their presumptuous beliefs - this book was first published in 1975, and sparked off the writing of literally hundreds of other books about animal "rights". He describes our traditional view of animals as "speciesist" - arbitrarily discriminating simply on the basis of species - comparable to sexist or racist views. In the book he argues rationally and convincingly for animal "rights". Although a work of philosophy, the book is written to be easily accessible to the lay-person.
The book explains why we must extend our moral principles to other animals, describes the cruelty occuring in laboratories and factory farms, tells how and why we should become vegetarians, gives a short history of our views of animals and where they came from, and refutes common arguments against animal "rights".
In the 1990 preface to this book, Singer writes of its arguments "I have lectured on them, given talks to conferences and philosophy department seminars, and discussed them at length, both verbally and in print; but I have come across no insurmountable objections, nothing that has led me to think that the simple ethical arguments on which the book is based are anything but sound. It has been encouraging to find that many of my most respected philosophical peers agree with this view - so many, in fact, that in reviewing the revised edition Colin McGinn, who holds a distinguished chair of philosophy at Rutgers University, described the ethical core of the book as, in theory if not in practice, 'a won argument'".
If you find that hard to believe, then read the book and see if you can refute its claims!
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on 17 October 2005
I read this book partly out of curiosity and partly out of a wish to confront a position that I found challenging to my own hazy sense of ethics. Specifically, I love cooking but was beginning to wonder if I didn't eat more meat than was really a good idea.
The fundamental insight I got from Singer's book is that the human tendency to elevate the interests of our species over those of other species is an entirely irrational prejudice, with no authority other than tradition. This is not to say that the interests of other species are always to be preferred to our own - that would also be illogical. But they must be taken into consideration, if our ethics are to have any rationality whatsoever.
As far as I'm concerned, this argument demolishes the objection often made to Singer's work by e.g. some religious people - that his concern for animals, coupled with his belief that abortion is sometimes morally justified, means that he "dehumanises" people, or "lowers them to the level of animals". The unspoken assumption here is that humans are self-evidently above animals to begin with. This argument fits much ancient theology but is not consistent with reason (or, it might be added, with science). It is nothing more than bigotry for religious authorities to claim that humans are in any way superior to other creatures.
So did it turn me into a vegetarian? No. I probably read too much Nietzsche when I was young. But I know now that the continued presence of meat in my diet is the result of nothing other than force and self-interest working in harmony. Humans eat meat because they can get away with it, and any other attempt to justify it is hypocrisy. One day, when I can't live any longer with the contradiction, I'll probably become a vegetarian, but in the meantime I have to find more ways of making mushrooms interesting.
Incidentally, Singer is also eloquent about the sheer wastefulness and incompetence of the meat industry. If we didn't eat so many hamburgers, it would be possible to do a lot more for the starving in the rest of the world. (If beef, pork, lamb and chicken were farmed less intensively and more in harmony with traditional methods, we would undoubtedly pay more for them, but they'd also start tasting better. But unsurprisingly, Singer doesn't make that particular point.)
This is undoubtedly one of the most challenging and rigorous works of philosophy of the last century. Insofar as it has a power of making us examine our own attitudes and behaviour, it's also one of the best.
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on 18 June 2001
Well, I was already converted, but I have found that I now have the ability to present a coherent argument on the subject, thanks to this book.
Those books that claim you'll have given up smoking by the end? Pah! This is the animal equivalent. As a scientist I really appreciate the logical structure and the strength of some of the scientific arguments, but the book is a really easy read - on all levels but an emotional one, so it's one of those rare books that will appeal to anyone with an open mind.
If you think you can't be changed - take the challenge!
Julian
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