The Single Most Influential Document in the History of Animal Welfare (Book Review)

Book Review: Animal Liberation by Peter SingerIt's my opinion that the core of the spirit of veganism can be summarised in one word: non-speciesism. So to live a vegan lifestyle means the daily practice of non-speciesism. Even though I most definitely have not read all the books on the subject (yet), I find it hard to believe that there could be a better document that exists to describe exactly why the daily practice of non-speciesism is the most logically justifiable lifestyle than Peter Singer's classic Animal Liberation.

First written in 1975, before most people who currently call themselves vegan were even born, this is the book responsible for kick starting the Animal Liberation movement that has physically freed so many animals from slavery, and no doubt also for kick starting or reaffirming the daily practice if veganism in many more people.

The author, a fellow Aussie, achieved this not only because Animal Liberation is one of the first popular published books on the subject, but because of how he wrote it. Had he pleaded with the reader to adopt his way of thinking (and therefore eating), or tried shamelessly to appeal to our emotional sides and pull heart strings with sad stories of injustice, sure, the book would have had some effect based just on the volume of information included alone, but I think it would have also cheapened it.

By keeping his arguments completely logical, factual and devoid of any hint of emotive persuasion, Singer appeals instead to the side of us that makes lasting logical decisions based on facts, as opposed to fleeting emotional impulses that end up as memories of a "phase" we went through. This is what he does immaculately: He lays out in front of his audience with precise clarity, leaving no two ways to view it, exactly what animals go through in factory farms and research labs, and, more importantly, brings our attention to the ways of thinking that enable these things to happen in the first place. By doing this, he treats his audience like mature adults capable of making their own decisions, not naughty children who have been misbehaving and are in need of a telling-off.

Before I read this book, I wasn't sure how well the cruelty that I had seen so clearly in documentaries would translate to words on a page. But after reading it, all doubts are gone. The amount of detail he goes into when explaining, for example, the size of cages and the exact restrictions this has on the animals was, shock factor aside, actually more powerful than any doco I've seen because in equal amount of detail he describes why and how these restrictions effect their physiology and their psychology. This applies to nearly every aspect of the factory farming and research processes, he breaks it all down objectively, using industry literature as his sources to be as unbiased as possible.

Peter Singer Quote

One of the most memorable chapters was the second chapter, entitled "Tools for Research" which details what goes down with animals enslaved for medical, military and psychological research. This is something not only no documentary I've seen has discussed, but is also an oft-forgotten aspect of going vegan, and for this reason stuck out nicely in my mind.

My favourite chapter was definitely the opening chapter. It's full title is "All Animals Are Equal... or why the ethical principle on which human equality rests requires us to extend equal consideration to animals too." This to me is the heart of the book, and the following chapters are just backing it up, providing further evidence to it's truth.

Basically what he says here is: If a severely permanently disabled adult has the same sensory capacity and can contribute the exact same amount to society that a pig can (which if you haven't heard, are very smart animals), then why do we enslave and murder pigs with zero sincere regard for their well being while spending hundreds of thousand dollars keeping the human alive and comfortable? The only answer, as Singer makes clearer and clearer as the book continues, is the prevailing ideology of speciesism, that humans value human life higher just because it is human.

The later chapters go into environmental effects of adopting a vegan diet and potential roots of speciesism, which include religion, and he discusses how several major thinkers from throughout history were able to apparently grasp (or almost grasp) the idea of speciesism, some even openly writing of it, but nearly all were unable, for one reason or another, to actually practice it.

To quote Singer himself from the book, "It is easy to take a stand about a remote issue, but speciesists, like racists, reveal their true nature when the issue comes nearer home. To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada, while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages, or veal from calves who have been deprived of their mothers, their proper diet, or the freedom to lie down with their legs extended, is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbours not to sell their houses to blacks.”

I am going to actively search for one, but I can not imagine a more comprehensive and convincing text for objectively explaining the moral reasoning for adopting a vegan diet than this book. The beauty of Animal Liberation, Singers first of many books, is that he achieves this all without ever seemingly trying to make you agree with him. He just lays the brutal facts and lets your conscience do the rest.

To anyone with a shred of compassion left in them, and regardless of their diet and disposition prior to reading this book, I honestly do not think it is possible to read it to the end and still disagree with the argument for global animal liberation and the switch to a vegan diet. I am not really surprised that the Animal Liberation movement of brave activists working worldwide was born of this book. The quote from the Guardian newspaper included on the back cover sums it up well when it says that this is "probably the most influential document in the history of animal welfare."

The only issue is, how many people will actually read it to the end? Singer's writing style here (I am yet to read any of his other books, so can't comment broadly on his style yet) is not the easiest to consume. The text is small, paragraphs are long and sentences are even longer... He's clearly an intellectual and is not afraid of writing like one. Aside from chapter titles, there are no headings in the book at all, which leaves each chapter reading like a huge wall of text, and can be, for lack of a better term, overwhelming. Make no mistake about it, I was glued to this book from the first page, but some simple formatting changes would have undoubtedly made it a lot easier to read, which would have then attracted more people and so got his views into more peoples minds.

But really though, the aesthetics are all secondary to the meaning that all the words add up to. And the information contained on these 250 40-year-old A5 pages is extraordinary, the only thing more extraordinary being the undeniable logic with which Singer frames his point of view of the morally indefensible way in which meat, milk, cheese and egg eaters live. In true philosophic fashion, he leaves the choice of what action to take out of the book up to each reader, but I think that the only logically justifiable thing to take from it became clear early on.

I would not hesitate to call this essential reading for all vegans, and especially vegetarians and omnivores... if they're interested.

- Benjamin

PS. If you're in the US you can use this link to buy Animal Liberation on Amazon for kindle or in print form, but for Australians and elsewhere I would definitely get the print book from Book Depository. I buy nearly all my books from bookdepository.com because their prices are often the cheapest on the internet and, even though the warehouse is in the UK, their shipping times are ridiculously fast. I get my books delivered to Perth usually within 5 business days, which is faster that some things I buy online from inside Australia! If you want to read this book please use my links here because you will not only get them for the cheapest price online but also be supporting Vomad.

PPS. Feel free to place a comment below or recommend me any books to add to my list that you think I might enjoy.