Peter Singer is regarded by many as a founder of contemporary animal rights, largely based on his book Animal Liberation. But few realize that he has also taken public and influential stances on family and population policies, in this 2018 public lecture, for example. He avoids making concrete conclusions about population policies in this lecture and elsewhere,
Nowhere has he advocated for effective interventions – like overriding property rights to wealth in order to fund Fair Start family planning incentives/entitlements – and other peremptory norm measures would have bent the arc of unsustainable growth downwards towards what many see as optimal world population ranges. Those ranges, like all population matters, actually involve people – and the fundamental creation of power relations between them. And power and population ethics begin with human rights, the objective frame that after WW2 should cabin utility, Effective Altruism, and all other lesser and more subjective forms of policy Singer normally employs.
These are the facts. The growth Singer did not seriously address put more animals in places like factory farms than his ethics – interpreted by many as promoting mere dietary changes – took out. That growth also fundamentally exacerbated the climate crisis, which will be the greatest source of human and nonhuman suffering.
And while fertility rates may be falling, we are far from optimal and many – including Singer’s followers – are pushing to reverse that trend and increase family size to drive economic growth.
How is animal liberation possible in the face of a wave of human population growth causing massive extinction? How is promoting veganism for what is effectively a small percentage of a growing human population that mostly exploits, tortures, and kills nonhumans true animal rights? How does that growth further human rights when the growth enriched relatively few people, at cost to equality and the political stability it brings?
Singer’s work is based on an error called the constitutive fallacy, or ignoring the way our creation and development do and (assuming we use baselines like the Children’s Rights Convention) should – fundamentally – constitute actual power relations, between humans, and between humans and nonhumans. Who we are might be different mixes of nurture, or nature, or influential power relations, but all flow (and among self-determining peoples should flow) from our creation. We cannot separate values like nature and equity from who we are and our power relations with others, which stem from our creation.
For example, our economic birth position mostly determines whether we are rich or poor as adults. Another example would be that it is impossible to ensure the empathy people need to treat nonhumans well without addressing the conditions in which people are born and develop because empathy largely depends on years zero to three in childhood maturation.
Another example would be that if we assume we ought to treat nonumans well, we would have to structure an effective legal system that would obligate that. But because there is such massive attenuation (caused by the growth that is eradicating the nonhuman world) between people and their representatives, we cannot do this. Another example would be world leaders attempting to determine the costs and benefits associated with Anthropocentric environmental baselines like the Paris Agreement, a mistake that only accelerated ecocide, rather than using an organic baseline like being relatively self-determining people and the conditioning of wealth on equitable family planning investments that make that possible. (This last example gels with the constitutive fallacy as political adherence to national constitutions, or even international law, as basic and overriding norms, as opposed to adherence the obviously antecedent and more basic family planning norms that create us, the people.)
In other words, in Singer’s prescriptions for animal liberation come from outside of who people ought to actually be, in terms of the creation of the fundamental power relations that define them.
Some have argued that it’s unfair to say that Singer’s population comments (or lack of comments) have “undone” his work for animals, given that virtually no one knows what his views on population are. Per this argument, there are probably zero policy-makers who’ve done anything based on Singer’s population views. Perhaps few or none have decided to procreate or not procreate based on Singer’s silence on the issue.
This response treats population as something, an issue, that we can separate from what we do. But how can we do anything, or suggest that others should do something, without first determining the acceptable power relations that determine who we are, and should be? We cannot separate what we narrowly think of as population – or who we are – from what we do. The former is always a factor and precedes the latter.
Singer never seriously addresses this issue, through redistributive birth entitlements that empower us in terms of who we are before turning to what we should do, for example. That mistake of ignoring the primacy of who we should be (and the best answer is fair), given his position of influence and the crucial time for mitigating the climate crisis in which he was working, harmed future generations.
And as a result his work does not effectively protect nonhumans, promote equity, restore democracy, or even protect considered parental desire. An alternative approach which does not make the error would value each person born, and the value of self-determination, above the growth Singer never seriously opposed.
Is this type of fairness a threat to the ongoing processes of decolonization. antiracism, and other forms of anti-oppression? Eliminating the massive birth inequity caused by colonization – the one that disempowers the majority of people, those who will live in the future – and doing so while restoring nonhuman autonomy is the height of anti-oppression. Though admittedly, all of this argument flows from Eurocentric framing and should also be done from more indigenous frames.
It would treat ensuring minimum levels of welfare, and freedom, as more important than total welfare indictors like gross domestic product. It would elevate ethics in the creation of people – and the conditioning of political obligation on family planning policies that ensure people will matter – over the constitutions and governments whose authority to assign property and other rights derive from such people, again something Singer never considered.
TAKE ACTION: Urge Singer to #tellthetruth and admit that his family and population ethics undid his animal liberation ethics. Urge him to support a pivot from parent-centric family planning to child-centric planning. He should admit that before we can engage in Effective Altruism we are politically obligated to constitute just communities – and total liberation – through socially and ecologically regenerative family reforms like Fair Start.
Without this, his work could in the end do more to protect concentrations of wealth and power than nonhumans.
He should not allow his work on animal ethics to mislead people from the truth that we are committing ecocide through poor family planning, and should support paying back the costs to freedom that population growth has imposed on future generations. Also urge him to lead by example and treat property claims – like the extreme wealth he helped create in the plant-based industry – as conditional on our fulfilling every child’s right to a fair start in life. That wealth, and the power disparity it represents, is defended by the threat of state violence, not the true justification possible amid fair power relations.