To the Editor:
Marc F. Plattner’s review of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation [Books in Review, March] misses the main points of Singer’s book. Singer admits in several places that killing human beings is worse than killing other animals. But he argues that it is speciesist to try “to make the boundary of the right of life run exactly parallel to the boundary of our own species.” Animals can enjoy life and suffer and therefore killing them or inflicting pain on them always requires serious justification. Perhaps finding justification comes more easily than Singer supposes, but that does not mean we can dispense with offering it. A speciesist is one who sees no need to bother justifying the use of animals for human purposes beyond merely pointing out that it is for human purposes. Mr. Plattner gives no argument, serious or otherwise, that undermines Singer’s view in this matter.
Mr. Plattner further states that Darwin “portrays a world whose essence is an unrelenting competition for survival among the various species—a competition that routinely involves the eating of one animal species by another. The suggestion that, in such a world, any species should forsake its own ‘naked self-interest’ to give equal consideration to the interests of other species is preposterous.” I don’t find it preposterous, but even if it were, Mr. Plattner ignores the fact that Singer devotes a chapter to the claim that it is actually against our interest to eat meat; Singer contends that our interest might be better served by using grain to feed ourselves directly. . . .
Mr. Plattner says that likening the moral status of animals to that of severely brain-damaged infants is “less likely to extend men’s moral sympathies to pigs or rats than to weaken the inhibitions that restrain their behavior toward other human beings.” But this is only conjecture . . .; it has no bearing on whether Singer’s claim . . . is correct. Shall we denounce a theory as untrue because some people will find ways to abuse it?
Finally, Mr. Plattner does not like the term “speciesist,” which he calls “infelicitous.” He wishes that Singer had coined another term for the concept, though, in fact, it was not coined by Singer but by Richard Ryder. . . . Singer mentions this in his book . . . and says the term is not euphonious. Perhaps this is what Mr. Plattner means too, but . . . I find the term quite felicitous.
Eastern Michigan University
Marc F. Plattner writes:
Sidney Gendin’s letter misses the main point of my review. What requires justification is not the use of animals for food, which is the common and legally sanctioned practice of most human communities, but the call for a prohibition of this practice. I believe Peter Singer fails in his attempt to show that men have a moral obligation to refrain from eating animals, and in my review I explained why. Singer bases the case for “animal liberation” not on an upgrading of the moral status of animals, but on a downgrading of the moral status of human beings. Thus, although he intends to show that men owe other animals as much consideration as they owe their fellow men, he winds up undermining any possible basis on which human beings could be required to forgo their own self-interest.
I ignored Singer’s argument that vegetarianism could help alleviate world food shortages because he himself cautions that it is “quite independent of the question of animal welfare” emphasized in his book. No doubt he realizes that a case for vegetarianism founded solely on human self-interest could also justify the wholesale slaughter of animals that feed on substances edible by human beings.
Based on an “analogy with racism,” the term “speciesism” implies that distinctions between species are no more morally relevant than racial differences. Yet as Mr. Gendin himself indicates, not even Singer is really willing to admit this. Thus I find the term “speciesism” wholly misleading and inappropriate. I regret having assigned the dubious honor of coining this word, which is neither felicitous nor euphonious, to Singer rather than to Richard Ryder.