Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Francione Totally Misinterprets Singer

Repeatedly in at least Rain without Thunder, Introduction to Animal Rights, his blog, internet forums, and he boasts also his latest book Animals as Persons Francione claims that Singer denies self-awareness and a sense of the future to farmed animals, and that Singer only objects to the manner of their killing rather than their actual killing since these animals could conceivably be "replaced" with equally happy animals. The replacement argument I will address in my book. Francione's above misinterpretation of Singer I will examine right now. Francione writes:

Singer maintains that animals—with the exception of chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas—are not self-aware and have neither a ‘continuous mental existence’ nor desires for the future. Animals have an interest in not suffering, but they have no interest in continuing to live or in not being regarded as the resources or property of humans. They do not care whether we raise and slaughter them for food or use them for experiments or exploit them as resources in any other way, as long as they lead a reasonably pleasant life. (Francione 2000, p. 136)

He adds, describing “…animals, most of whom are not self-aware, according to Singer.” (Ibid., p. 145) We find again: “…Singer maintains…animals are not self-aware…” (Ibid., p. 139) Francione makes it seem as though Singer rules out self-consciousness for farmed animals and so these animals should be treated as though they have no right to life. This is a complete falsification of the research record as to what Singer actually states, including in Practical Ethics, which Francione himself repeatedly cites. Francione also reports that Singer said a case can be made that other animals than gorillas are persons, but comes to no conclusion. (Ibid., 218) Francione is contradicting himself here. What is Singer saying, that he comes to the conclusion that animals are not self-aware as Francione usually writes? Or that Singer comes to no conclusion on the issue? It turns out that neither view is accurate. Singer does indeed come to a conclusion in no less than two distinct ways, and both are contrary to what Francione misinterprets.

So what does Singer truly say?

In Practical Ethics, Singer writes that the most dramatic evidence of self-consciousness in nonhuman animals is in apes using American Sign Language. (Singer 1993, p. 111) He notes that it may well turn out that whales and dolphins are both rational and self-conscious. (Ibid., p. 118)

Next Singer addresses whether dogs and cats are self-conscious. He finds that dogs evidently have a sense of the future. A guide dog took a human each Friday to places where they do the weekend shopping without being needed to be told the day, and feral cats also turn up on the right day of the week for feeding. (Ibid., p. 118) Singer concludes that claims to future-sense of dogs and cats is “plausible and in the absence of better studies they [everyday observations of this sort] should be taken seriously.” (Ibid., p. 119) Yet Singer is said not to grant that dogs have future desires by Francione. (Francione 2000, p. 140) He "disputes" Singer (a straw man argument), going on as follows: “If a dog were unable to anticipate the future,…” (Ibid.)

Singer then branches out in discussing farmed animals: “…if dogs and cats qualify as persons, the mammals we use for food cannot be far behind.” (Singer 1993, p. 119) He adds that if there is any doubt about whether an animal is a person, we should give that being “the benefit of the doubt.” (Ibid.) Specifically, Singer tells us:

...if it is wrong to kill a person when we can avoid doing so, and there is real doubt about whether a being we are thinking of killing is a person, we should give that being the benefit of the doubt. The rule here is the same as that among deer hunters: if you see something moving in the bushes and are not sure if it is a deer or a hunter, don't shoot! (We may think the human shouldn't shoot in either case, but the rule is a sound one within the ethical framework hunters use.) On these grounds, a great deal of the killing of non-human animals must be condemned. (Ibid.)

Singer is clearly finding here that we should give the benefit of the doubt that dogs, cats and farmed animals are persons (a topic he considers just before the above quotation), but also, earlier he said he finds it "plausible" that they are on the basis of the available evidence, and he himself therefore seems to have no overriding doubts. It is plausible enough to give the benefit of the doubt, or to overturn doubt practically. Note that for persons, Singer says we have an obligation not to kill them. He is unequivocal, killing farmed animals, which he was just talking about, "...must be condemned." This is a far cry indeed from Francione saying Singer has no problem with killing such animals, and is only concerned with their not suffering.

By contrast, it is uncontroversial that Singer calls fish impersonal beings without self-awareness (Dunayer well disputes this allegation about fishes elsewhere in her book Speciesism).

However, Singer reflects:

In the present state of our knowledge, this strong case against killing can be invoked most categorically against the slaughter of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. On the basis of what we now know about these near-relatives of ours, we should immediately extend to them the same full protection against being killed that we extend now to all human beings. A case can also be made, though with varying degrees of confidence, on behalf of whales, dolphins, monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs, seals, bears, cattle, sheep and so on, perhaps even to the point at which it may include all mammals—much depends on how far we are prepared to go in extending the benefit of the doubt where a doubt exists. (Singer 1993, p. 132)

Here he casts some doubt on the personhood of dogs, cats and cattle, but he is apparently talking about other peoples' doubts. For again, earlier he finds it most "plausible" to find cats and so cattle have a sense of the future as his own view and recommends extending the benefit of the doubt regardless. That is very far from denial, isn't it? Singer is indeed cautious here, typical of a theoretician and philosopher, but Francione confuses this with a flat-out denial that these animals are self-consciously aware of the future. Since Singer views it as plausible on the basis of evidence that animals are persons, as is clear from his writing (and that we should shore up our doubts—including those expressed in the above passage of course--by extending the benefit of the doubt), he must think this contributes to what he calls a “case against killing” these animals, as he writes in the above quotation.

Singer calls it a “questionable assumption” to assume that birds are not self-conscious, (Ibid., p. 133), implying that he tends to think that chickens are self-aware, and certainly that they must be extended the benefit of the doubt too, as he wrote on p. 119.

I am not saying that Francione is willfully misrepresenting Singer. Only that he offers an erroneous and not particularly competent reading. In summation, I have shown that Francione denies self-awareness and awareness of the future to, say, farmed animals on Singer's world view. I have also printed Singer’s actual view that:

  1. he regards self-awareness and a sense of the future in cats and cattle as “plausible” based on evidence that he considers, implying the opposite idea is "implausible" since he cites no evidence for that denial but rather compelling evidence for the affirmation;
  2. he suggests that anyone with doubts should extend these animals "the benefit of the doubt."

These are two theoretical routes, one epistemic and the other ethical, for affirming the opposite of the view that Francione mistakenly ascribes to Singer. Note that above, Francione concedes that a case can be made for farmed animal personhood, but that Singer comes to no conclusion. I have clearly shown he has relevantly concluded in two explicit ways.

To head off an anticipated objection, it is true, anyone who reads Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics closely will find that if it is a choice between lives, a sense of the future (along with self-awareness, etc.) is one of Singer's criteria for deciding whom to save. However, it would simply be a mistake to interpret this as Singer's view of normal practice.

Francione keeps waving his misinterpretation around like a stick. There is a difference between studying Singer and muddying Singer, and Francione has only done the latter. It is a pity no one called him on his inaccuracy sooner. It might have spared him a long record of embarrassment. People tend to regard these sorts of errors more strongly because they are more elementary and everyone can agree on them. But errors in logic are really no different and those sorts of points I have made ever so many times before.

Works Cited

Francione, Gary. 2000. Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Singer, Peter. 1993. Practical Ethics. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


A Selection of Related Articles

Sztybel, David. "Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism". Journal for Critical Animal Studies 5 (1) (2007): 1-37.

go there

Short version of "Animal Rights Law".

go there

Sztybel, David. "Incrementalist Animal Law: Welcome to the Real World".

go there

Sztybel, David. "Sztybelian Pragmatism versus Francionist Pseudo-Pragmatism".

go there

A Selection of Related Blog Entries

Anti-Cruelty Laws and Non-Violent Approximation

Use Not Treatment: Francione’s Cracked Nutshell

Francione Flees Debate with Me Again, Runs into the “Animal Jury”

The False Dilemma: Veganizing versus Legalizing

Veganism as a Baseline for Animal Rights: Two Different Senses

Francione's Three Feeble Critiques of My Views

Startling Decline in Meat Consumption Proves Francionists Are Wrong Once Again!

The Greatness of the Great Ape Project under Attack!

Francione Totally Misinterprets Singer

Francione's Animal Rights Theory

Francione on Unnecessary Suffering

My Appearance on AR Zone

D-Day for Francionists

Sztybel versus Francione on Animals' Property Status

The Red Carpet

Playing into the Hands of Animal Exploiters

The Abolitionist ApproachES

Francione's Mighty Boomerang

Dr. David Sztybel Home Page


  1. thanks for this post. I've just been reading Practical Ethics and too was confused with Franciones opinions on Singer. I never saw in Singers writing a belief that the animals that we exploit do not have such a self-awareness.

  2. I'm glad you found the posting to be helpful. You're not alone. I do not think Francione ever had the good grace to retract and apologize though.

  3. Late to the party, but this has been insightful. I was recently booted off Francionce's facebook page after he and his followers attacked me for being a vegetarian. Of course, it was soon after I defended myself that he deleted my post and banned me. Just my opinion but he appears to have a common trait among lawyers of being an arrogant prick.

  4. If I were to have the choice of dinner with Francione and dinner with Singer, I would choice Singer, because he seems like an open-minded character. Francione is very arrogant and rigid with his views and incapable of seeing it. It would be very frustrating trying to have any kind of discussion with him as he sees morals as absolutes.