Reflections on “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer


Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” is deeply surreal, even by Kafka’s mind-bending standards.

This is the story’s mise en scene: an unnamed military officer in an unnamed tropical colony is demonstrating the operation of a killing machine. He is about to use it to execute a prisoner. The machine does its work over the course of 12 hours, slowly inscribing the text of the traduced law onto the condemned man’s torso, with ever deeper needle punctures.

Kafka’s machine does a job that many civilized people agree needs to be done–eliminating capital criminals–but why must it be done by means so cruel and bizarre?

With slight adjustments, this was the question I was asking myself as I read in Peter Singer’s classic 1975 book Animal Liberation* how beef cattle are slaughtered. Hanging upside down from a conveyor belt ten feet off the floor, the cattle approach the killing line. They are required by law to be alive during this process. They are supposed to be unconscious, but–mistakes are made, mechanisms falter, especially under the pressure of haste, and–sometimes the cattle are awake and aware. What happens then?

The animal, upside down, with ruptured joints and often a broken leg, twists frantically in pain and terror, so that it must be gripped by the neck or have a clamp inserted in its nostrils to enable the slaughterer to kill the animal with a single stroke, . . . .

The strange thing is, it is laws promoting humane slaughter and food purity that result in this nightmare scene of unrestrained sadism. The Food and Drug Act of 1906 requires that slaughtered animals not fall into the blood of other slaughtered animals; other laws protect the faith-based traditions that say food animals must be “healthy and moving” when killed. Taken together, the law, Singer points out, turns what is supposed to be an efficient if not quite benign method of slaughter into “a grotesque travesty of any humane intentions that may have once lain behind it.”

(Image: Animal Welfare Institute)

There are many philosophers with greater name recognition than Peter Singer–Kant, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Nietzsche. But unlike Singer, none of philosophy’s stars founded real-life social movements. Singer has. Go ahead and Google ‘Animal Liberation Front’.

None of philosophy’s pantheon had such immediate and profound life-changing effects on their contemporary world as Singer has. Granted, this is mostly because Singers’ old-fogey predecessors didn’t even try, but that is kind of the point. Singer is alone among his peers in imagining the philosopher’s role to be a doer, not just a thinker. (If you want to throw out Marx as a challenge to this claim–don’t even. How many years did he spend in his London living room writing Das Kapital? And how many years did he spend on the barricades? Marx may have written that the job of philosophy is to change the world and not just describe it, but that’s all he did: write.) Singer believes that the purpose of ethics is to reduce harm done to any sentient being, right here and right now. Therefore his measure of success is not book sales, not endowed professorships; it is not debate-winning arguments at conferences; it is his power to cause more and more people to adopt values that demand the reduction of harm to other sentient beings.

By this measure, Singer has been the most successful philosopher in history. Though he would not claim personal credit for the whole scope of animal rights work accomplished since 1975, it is fair to say that the movement Singer created has (a) changed laws in many countries curtailing and regulating scientific experimentation (much of it pointlessly cruel) on animals; (b) created powerful civil society groups that protect animals from harm, including PETA and the SPCA; (c) exposed the massive waste and cruelty of factory farming, which has led to significant, if far from complete, reduction of harm to food animals; (d) inspired the decision by millions to stop regarding animals’ interests as morally negligible, and, more or less concomitant with this; (e) inspired millions to stop consuming animals or animal products; and (f) informed the widespread realization that using animals for food is disastrously inefficient and globally unsustainable. There is simply not enough Earth to support animal farming on a scale that would provide meat to even a fraction of humans who might desire it. Even providing meat to the tiny fraction who can presently afford it in “Western” quantities is scorching the Earth. People should know that they are not just fiddling but feasting as they actively turn our earthly paradise into a hell.

Pardon me. I am breaking one of Singer’s most important rules. The economic and environmental disaster of meat-eating is so pressing that we proponents of animal liberation cannot afford the kind of pious dudgeon I just worked myself into. It puts others off and–the last 15 years of history notwithstanding–the purpose of rational argumentation is not to incapacitate one’s opponents with outrage. It is to make the world a better place by changing minds.

Weird as it seems, Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” is actually a straightforward piece of consciousness-raising literature. There’s a reason the action takes place in a colony. Because in a republic, as Cesare Beccaria first argued in 1764, the state has no right to deprive its citizens of their lives, else it is no republic. Killing by the state may only be done in territories where violent subjugation is the definitive method of governance. (Orwell expresses the sentiment behind this argument simply and powerfully in his 1931 essay “A Hanging.” I recommend it.)

There’s also a reason why the colony and the executioner go unnamed in Kafka’s story. In an “enlightened” society, outrages on morality can only be sustained if they are easily ignored. They must be hidden. They must happen off-stage, done by non-persons in non-places. Before Singer wrote Animal Liberation–in particular the 60-page long chapter “Down on the Factory Farm”–citizens of our liberal democracy might have plausibly pleaded ignorance to the mass-scale harms done to our food animals and the environment by factory farming. But now the institutionalized slaughter has been unmasked, and our citizens need not even be literate to know this. Because of the success of Singer’s writing, the practices of factory farming have been reported on by scores of journalists and documentary filmmakers.

One of the purposes of “In the Penal Colony” was to jolt the polite, educated Europeans who read short stories into asking what kinds of moral travesties were being carried out in their “interest” in the real world. (For an idea of the extent of these, see Adam Hochshcild’s 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa.)

At one time, mass ignorance of factory farming and other instances of cruelty to animals was excusable. It was all so well hidden. But like Kafka, Singer unmasked the cruelty, brought it right before our eyes for inspection.

Orwell told his contemporaries the uncomfortable truth that “ordinary” middle-class English prosperity was rooted in the colonial system of violent subjugation. Only the enslaver’s whip could produce sugar cheaply enough to provide it to all of England’s clerks, shop-keepers and other workers at an affordable price. Singer tells us a similar uncomfortable truth: the the ordinary practice of meat-eating depends for its viability on a vast system of cruel tyranny and organized coverup. Make meat less cruel, and you price it out of practically everyone’s reach. The system, with its bizarre killing machines (and countless other outrages), is what turns out the ordinary, plastic-wrapped pound of ground beef that you (may) consider your due as an ordinary consumer in a developed country. But read Animal Liberation and see if it does not upset this view by noting your role in this system–where you stand with respect to the killing line, with its Kafkaesque upside-down conveyor belts of “healthy and moving” beef cattle. A heavily moneyed system of propaganda has been set up to prevent you from knowing these things. But, again, read Singer. See if he doesn’t make you want to rebel. See if he doesn’t help you reject the idea that people with money can tell you what to think.


* I read the 2009 updated edition.


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