Recently, upon re-reading George Orwell’s penetrating fable Animal Farm, I was reminded of the enormously influential utilitarian bioethicist Peter Singer. Singer is one of the founders of the Animal Rights movement. One of his mottoes, and the title of one of his most famous essays, is “All Animals Are Equal.”
This is also the culminating Seventh Commandment of the animals who drive out Farmer Jones, the drunken representative of humanity, and take over the farm for themselves. But there is a catch. As the pigs, the revolutionary leaders, tighten their grip on power, they secretly alter the Commandments during the night.
“No animal shall sleep in a bed” changes to “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets,” since the pigs have become fond of laying on the farmhouse beds. “No animal shall drink alcohol” changes to “No animals shall drink alcohol to excess,” since the pigs have discovered that they like getting drunk. “No animal shall kill any other animal” changes to “No animal shall kill any other animal without cause,” because to protect their reign, the pigs begin a round of executions, and send injured animals to the knacker to be rendered into useful by-products.
Professor Singer does not propose sending nonproductive humans to the knacker. But he might as well, because in the name of efficiency, he does think they ought to be euthanized.
The paradox in his motto “All Animals Are Equal” is that by “equal” he doesn’t mean any of the things usually meant, such as “of equal essential worth” or “of equal inviolability.” He couldn’t; he doesn’t believe in things like essences, much less inviolability. All he means is that all animals with a sufficiently complex nervous system experience preferences and aversions. There is nothing special about the joy and suffering of rational beings like humans. But here is the catch: The preferences of some animals can be more important than the preferences of others.
So Professor Singer reasons that perhaps we should not perform experiments on an adult chimpanzee for the benefit of others, because he would be aware of what was happening to him -- but we might perform them on a human infant. Preferably an orphaned infant, he says, because then the decision would not be complicated by parental feelings. I am not making it up; this is how establishment bioethicists talk these days.
The upshot is that Professor Singer’s kind of equality is much like the kind we end up with in Animal Farm, when the pigs secretly change the Seventh Commandment to “All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others.”