Thursday, December 23, 2010

Animal Liberation -- from Peter Singer's FAQ


As with much content on this site, posting here does not imply an endorsement of the views expressed.

II. Animal Liberation

Q. I’ve read that you think humans and animals are equal.  Do you really believe that a human being is no more valuable than an animal?

A. I argued in the opening chapter of Animal Liberation that humans and animals are equal in the sense that the fact that a being is human does not mean that we should give the interests of that being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong. Pain is equally bad, if it is felt by a human being or a mouse.  We should treat beings as individuals, rather than as members of a species.  But that doesn’t mean that all individuals are equally valuable – see my answer to the next question for more details.  

Q. If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?

A. Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being.  But not because the human being is human, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens.  Species membership alone isn't morally significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different interests. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something -- that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That's really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that he or she actually has a life -- that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understand this.

Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time.  I’m not sure that mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of a human being is a greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse – for the human, it cuts off plans for the distant future, for example, but not in the case of the mouse.  And we can add to that the greater extent of grief and distress that, in most cases, the family of the human being will experience, as compared with the family of the mouse (although we should not forget that animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates). 

That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both.  But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.

Q: Is it true that you have said that an experiment on 100 monkeys could be justified if it helped thousands of people recover from Parkinson's disease?

A: I was asked about such an experiment in a discussion with Professor Tipu Aziz, of Oxford University, as part of a BBC documentary called “Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing" that was screened in November 2006. I replied that I was not sufficiently expert in the area to judge if the facts were as Professor Aziz claimed, but assuming they were, this experiment could be justified. 

This response caused surprise among some people in the animal movement, but that must be because they had not read what I have written earlier.   Since I judge actions by their consequences, I have never said that no experiment on an animal can ever be justified. I do insist, however, that the interests of animals count among those consequences, and that we cannot justify giving less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than we give to the similar interests of human beings.  

In Animal Liberation I propose asking experimenters who use animals if they would be prepared to carry out their experiments on human beings at a similar mental level — say, those born with irreversible brain damage. Experimenters who consider their work justified because of the benefits it brings should declare whether they consider such experiments justifiable. If they do not, they should be asked to explain why they think that benefits to a large number of human beings can outweigh harming animals, but cannot outweigh inflicting similar harm on humans. In my view, this belief is evidence of speciesism. 

Even if some individual experiments may be justified, this does not mean that the institutional practice of experimenting on animals is justified. Given the suffering that this routinely inflicts on millions of animals, and that probably very few of the experiments will be of significant benefit to humans or to other animals, it is better to put our resources into other methods of doing research that do not involve harming animals.  

Incidentally, it is important that there be room in the animal movement for a variety of views about ethics, including views that are rights-based and views that are consequentialist. Debate over such issues is a sign of an open and sound movement.  On the other hand, it is also important to focus our energies on attacking speciesism, and not those who, although opposed to speciesism, do not share the particular set of moral views we may hold. 

Q: I've heard about the possibility of growing meat in a laboratory, just by cells reproducing.  Should this lab reared meat prove ecologically safe, cost and energy efficient and safe for human consumption, is this an ethically acceptable way in which animal meat can be developed and consumed? To avoid discrimination on speciesist grounds, providing the meat can be sufficiently engineered for safe human consumption taking into account the accusations aimed at cannibalism, would it be required that laboratories should also grow human meat for consumption?

A: Yes, this would be ethically acceptable, because no animals would suffer or die to produce it.  There's nothing wrong with meat in itself.
If people prefer the taste of meat grown from the cell of a cow to meat grown from the cell of a human, that's fine too.  So there's no ethical requirement to grow human meat for consumption, just because we're growing meat from other animals.

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