The controvertial Australian philospoher Peter Singer has been doing the publicity rounds for the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of his book Animal Liberation, the founding document of the modern animal rights movement. In this Guardian piece Singer outlines the mainstreaming of the idea of animal rights over the last three decades.

Next week, the prestigious American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences will publish an article arguing, on strictly scientific grounds, that chimpanzees should be included in the genus “homo”, hitherto reserved for humans. To people used to dividing the world up into “humans” and “animals” it comes as a shock to realise that the genetic differences between humans and chimpanzees are smaller than those between chimpanzees and gorillas. … Why, then, do we continue to insist that even the most basic rights, like those to life, liberty and protection from torture, are for humans only?

But it is not only with the species closest to humans that scientific research is providing insights into lives. Lynne Sneddon and other scientists at the Roslin Institute have given new life to the case against fishing, providing strong evidence that fish feel pain and that being hooked in the lips is painful to them. Though the research caused distress to fish, if it helps to turn the tide of public opinion against the “sport” of angling, it will have reduced the total amount of pain fish experience by millions of times that which the researchers caused.

A similar calculation has already justified scientific research using farm animals to ascertain their attitude to different forms of housing on intensive farms, like battery cages for hens and individual stalls for breeding sows. The hens, for example, were made familiar with cages and then with an outside run. Not surprisingly, they preferred the run, even if they were forced to peck on a button before the gate to the run would open. … As a result of this and other research, the European Union is now in the process of phasing in the most significant reforms of factory farming ever introduced. By 2012, hundreds of millions of hens will have more space, perches, and nest boxes, and veal calves and sows will no longer be housed in individual pens too narrow for them even to turn around, or walk a few steps. </blockquote>

Here is another example of why utilitarianism (like Singer’s) and “rights” — human or otherwise — are incompatible philosophical discourses. By Singer’s logic, wouldn’t a horrific experiment on humans that results in the recognition of a problem or the creation of more humane public policy be permissible? Of course. According to Singer, ethical claims of humans and animals carry equal weight and any other conclusion would be “speciesist”. Therefore, everything he says about fish and chimps must also apply to humans. And that is why many people are so suspicious of Singer. Utilitarianism is a modern idea that is concerned with the well-being of aggregate groups. It requires a conception of a finite social whole whose collective well-being is greater than any constituent individual’s. It is the logic of bureaucrats and officials, not of those seeking individual human — or whatever — emancipation.

I guess I’m a speciesist, although I the label “humanist”. Wasn’t, (and isn’t yet) one of the great political struggles of the 20th century that of overcoming the racist idea that we humans are anything but members of a single species worthy of equal respect?

To conceptualise humanity as a unified species requires an “other”. Social others are always artifacts of taxonomical convention, and are always flawed because very few categories are truely discrete. The reclassification of chimpanzees is based on a recognition of this fuzziness of categories and should be welcomed for this reason alone. I’m all for reducing the wanton cruelty human practices often exhibit towards animals. But recognising the continuity of humanity and animalia is not an appropriate basis for a utilitarian ethics which depends for its entire internal logic on the maintainance on the continuation of discrete categories. A truely liberating ethics would draw on Singer’s position by rejecting a basis in descrete categories but would abandon his utilitarianism and show much greater concern for individuals.

I feel myself slipping into a postmodern abiss, so I’m going to stop this rant right here.