If you happen to be reading this article over a piece of dining hall tilapia, then hold up: You may be about to sink your teeth into a kitten, sort of.

According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, fish are badly in need of an image makeover. Hence they are no longer to be called “fish,” but rather, “sea kittens.” The PETA Web site now boasts a “Save the Sea Kittens” petition, along with an adorably illustrated storybook telling the tales of a number of bright young sea kittens whose lives are ruined by fishing.

Reactions to the “sea kitten” initiative on the blogosphere have — as one might expect — ranged from the obvious to the asinine. One commenter on the blog “The Oyster’s Garter” daringly mixes both elements: “Plants have feelings too, should plants be next? Why don’t we just stop eating altogether! Sheesh PETA has sunk to a new level of dumbness!”

Harmony Wayner, an 11-year old from a commercial fishing family, offers a more reasoned analysis. “They say that [sea kittens are] intelligent, but they’re not really,” Harmony told an NPR interviewer. “They have tiny, tiny, little brains. Very miniature.”

Harmony is quite right; sea kittens do have miniature brains. In fact, a cursory glance at Wikipedia tells us that sea kittens generally have brain-to-body ratios that are one-fifteenth those of mammals such as “land kittens.” Why, then, does PETA make such a big fuss about their well-being?

We find our answer in Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” a seminal book within the animal rights movement and one that is frequently quoted by PETA. According to Singer, it is not the ability to reason that makes a creature worthy of having rights, but the ability to suffer. He further posits that the sufferings of all animals — people included — must be considered equally. Any contention to the contrary is evidence of speciesism, an offense that Singer considers to be tantamount to racism or gender discrimination.

Let’s provide, if we can, an example of this sort of moral philosophy. There’s an old thought experiment in ethics that goes like this: Say you’re standing next to a railroad switch, and you see a train coming. You notice that if the train continues on its path, it will hit five people who are standing on the track. But if you flip the switch, the train will be rerouted onto another track, where it will only kill one person. What is the proper course of action? This scenario poses all manner of interesting moral — not to mention legal — questions, none of which I will attempt to address.

Instead, I will modify the problem. Once again, the train is headed toward a group of five people, only this time, if you flip the switch, the train will instead hit a barrel containing 100 sea kittens, causing them gruesome, painful deaths. Assuming none of the humans are PETA activists, what do you do?

If you’re like most people, you’re probably thinking of sacrificing the sea kittens, however adorable, in order to save the five humans. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Wrong, you dirty speciesist. According to PETA’s moral philosophy, because all species possess an equal capacity to suffer, their suffering should be considered equally. “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness and fear,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk is quoted as saying on the organization’s Web site, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

Lest you imagine I am putting words in PETA’s cavernous collective mouth, consider its stance on lifesaving animal research, as summarized on its Web site: “PETA supports charities that do not support animal testing and disapproves of charities — such as the March of Dimes, the American Cancer Society and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, all of which PETA also campaigns against — that fund cruel animal experiments because they drain money away from relevant and effective projects that could help save lives.”

This position statement goes on to make a bold claim: “Meaningful scientific conclusions,” it says, “cannot be drawn about one species by studying another.” (Sorry, biologists, your centuries-long sham has ended.) And even if it turns out that animal research might lead to a cure to a disease such as AIDS, Ingrid Newkirk remains steadfastly opposed. “Would you be opposed to experiments on your daughter,” she asked a New Yorker reporter, “if you knew it would save fifty million people?”

Yes, I might answer, if my daughter were a chipmunk. But then again, not everyone is as speciesist as I am. For instance, the largest charitable donation of 2008 came from Leona Helmsley, who bequeathed her $5.2 billion fortune to “support the care and welfare of dogs.” PETA, which will almost certainly receive some of the funds, hailed the move.

No doubt Helmsley’s support will free up money for PETA’s other important initiatives, including their giant Sea Kitten Empathy Quilt, or their “too hot for TV” commercials depicting scantily-clad women cavorting with various vegetables. Nevertheless, I wish there were some way to convince PETA to use their windfall to, for instance, provide for the survival and basic needs of the millions of human beings displaced in Darfur.

Perhaps the problem is that the people who inhabit the region just aren’t cute enough for PETA. What if we call them Darfish? How about Afrikittens?

Michael Zink is a senior in Saybrook College.