The book that changed my life

Peter Tatchell chooses <em>Animal Liberation</em> by Peter Singer

There are many books that have influenced the way I see the world. One that stands out is Animal Liberation (1975) by Peter Singer. Probably one of the most important books of the last 100 years, it expands our moral horizons beyond our own species and is thereby a major evolution in ethics. Singer was not the first philosopher to articulate the concept of animal rights. Over 200 years ago, Jeremy Bentham argued that many other species experience pain similar to human pain and that a "day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny". He proposed that the capacity to suffer, not the ability to reason, should confer on other creatures the right to be spared pain.

Nor is Singer the last or most provocative thinker to the advance the rights of animals. With a glowing preface by African-American author Alice Walker, Marjorie Spiegel's book, The Dreaded Comparison - human and animal slavery (1988), compares the enslavement of animals on farms and in medical laboratories with the enslavement of black Americans.

Even more shocking, in his essay "Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?" (2006), David Sztybel suggests that despite some obvious differences, the mass slaughter of animals is ethically analogous to the Holocaust in the scale of suffering involved, and that there are significant similarities between the human abuse of fellow animals and the Nazi abuse of fellow humans.

It was not until 1983 that I read Animal Liberation. Singer was the first person I had come across who voiced animal rights as a coherent moral philosophy and as a liberation movement on a par with the freedom struggles of women, black and gay people. He argued that the abuse of animals was motivated and justified by speciesism - a notion of human supremacism that presupposes that the intelligence and technological mastery of our species gives us the right to oppress and exploit other species, regardless of the suffering caused. He proposed that speciesism is a form of oppression, comparable with racism, misogyny and homophobia.

Singer identified sentience, including the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, as the common bond that unites animals, human and non-human. It follows logically, as well as ethically, that if sentient human beings have a right to be spared physical and psychological suffering, then this right should be extended to sentient non-human animals that share our capacity to suffer. Their abuse in farming, sport, entertainment and medical research involves the violation of their right, as fellow sentients, not to suffer pain and distress.

Singer's philosophical framework linked together, in one seamless whole, the moral basis for both animal rights and human rights: if thinking, feeling beings have a right to be spared pain, we have a duty to oppose the abuse of both humans and other animal species. In Singer's moral universe, cruelty is barbarism, whether it is inflicted on human or non-human animals. The campaigns for animal rights and human rights therefore share the same fundamental aim: a gentler, kinder world, based on compassion and without suffering.

These ideas were eye-openers. I had previously only ever understood the issue in terms of animal welfare and the prevention of cruelty. My response? I phased out eating meat, ditched my leather jacket and began rethinking my politics. I had long been a left-wing socialist and had embraced the green agenda. Singer reminded me: socialism and environmentalism are not ends in themselves. Although progressive ideologies and social systems are valuable enablers of liberation, they are merely a means to an end, which is to maximise happiness and minimise misery.

Abuses such as factory farming and anti-Semitism are wrong because they cause suffering, not for theoretical or ideological reasons. The same is true of imperialism, war, discrimination, unemployment, vivisection, slum housing, racism, and climate destruction. They result in pain, which is why ending them is moral and necessary.

From Singer's animal rights philosophy I extracted a renewed understanding that the ultimate aim of all progressive politics should be to halt bodily and mental suffering. Losing sight of this aim has led to left-wing horrors such as Stalinism, where liberty is sacrificed, terror excused and suffering rationalised for the sake of the bigger, ideological goal of socialism. Too often, the left is consumed by grandiose abstract ideas and political objectives, forgetting what ought to be its raison d'etre: love, compassion and a world where no being, strong or weak, suffers.

For more information about Peter Tatchell's human rights campaigns:

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: His personal biography can be viewed here:

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide