This dialogue was originally written with the intention that all CH readers, with or without computers, could give their feedback. So your reactions to Professor Singer’s views on this blog are particularly needed. They will provide me with ammunition to respond in the paper to his views in due course. Thanks for you co-operation. Quentin
So the Spanish government is almost certain to grant allegedly human rights to the great apes (as reported in The Catholic Herald on August 8). I read this with mixed feelings; like many readers, I am strongly opposed to cruelty towards animals but that is a long distance from suggesting that we should recognise that they have rights. So I went to the fountainhead: Peter Singer, who – among other academic appointments – is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is regarded as the intellectual champion of the cause.
Professor Singer is a distinguished philosopher with a particular interest in ethics. But his views are seen by many as extreme. He has been nicknamed Professor Death; he has been attacked in Germany as having eugenic views akin to Nazism; Simon Wiesenthal the Nazi-hunter has been strongly critical; a prominent economist suspended his donations to Princeton when Singer was appointed; there have been loud outcries from organisations devoted to the care of the disabled.
A little imp in me suggests that such a chorus of indignation only musters when their target has something of threatening substance to say. And Singer wrote in 1995: “I sometimes think that (the Pope) and I at least share the virtue of seeing clearly what is at stake.”
The Catholic Herald prefers to reserve its indignation until it has listened to what a philosopher actually has to say, and then to make a reflective judgment of the points with which we, or more particularly our readers, agree or disagree. I must thank him for his cooperation in entering into dialogue with us.
Professor Singer described himself to me as a preference utilitarian. That is, he holds that the criterion for a moral choice is the best way of balancing the needs, or interests, of the parties affected by a decision. But the parties, he insisted, include all sentient beings. Singer argued that suffering is suffering no matter what sentient creature is involved. To think otherwise, he claimed, is to discriminate on the grounds of species – a characteristic which is no more relevant to moral decision than, for instance, colour or sexual orientation.
I asked how he could hold that all species should be treated identically. “To be sure, the species differ in their characteristics and therefore in the degree of suffering they may endure. The rights, which is a popular but potentially misleading term, of non-human animals can’t by definition be human rights; so moral judgments will vary from species to species according to their natures, and the circumstances of the decision.” He clarified this for me with an example. “Should we have to choose between rescuing a mouse or a human being from death, we would – other things being equal – give preference to a human being. When it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is one 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 understanding this.”
But, and it was a significant point: “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.”
The uncompromising application of the criterion of suffering had already led us into controversial territory. I felt this took us further. His principle, it seemed, must lead to the human foetus, before the stage when it is capable of feeling, having no special status. He concurred firmly. “And even when its capacity for suffering is developed, this will be long before it has a sense of its continuance of existence, and so no claim can be made on the basis of that either. The mature ape will have greater awareness than the new-born baby and so merits preferable consideration. Though the pain that may be caused to relatives should be taken into account, of course. The same could be said of any human being who lacks awareness through mental defect.” I instanced the objections made about this view by so many people of substance and concern. But he did not resile.
“I think that every sentient being is entitled to equal consideration of his or her interests. The joys and the pains of intellectually disabled people should be given equal weight with the similar joys and pains of everyone else – and here ‘everyone’ includes both you and me, and non-human animals. I don’t think that is devaluing the intellectually disabled.
“On the other hand, just as I think it is less wrong to kill a dog, say, than a normal human being (because the dog has less awareness of its existence over time, and so has less of an interest in continuing to live) so I think humans who don’t have awareness of their interest over time have less of an interest in continuing to live. I’m open to other arguments, but it isn’t easy to see what can justify us in granting a more serious right to life to a severely intellectually disabled human than we give to a non-human animal at a similar, or even superior, mental level.”
How about the use of non-human animals for medical research? He thinks that much more effort should be put into other methods which involve less or no suffering but he would not necessarily exclude this if the balance were right. “A good test would be whether experimenters who use animals would be prepared to carry out their experiments on human beings at a similar mental level – say, those born with irreversible brain damage.”
I put it to him that he is often quoted by militant animal liberationists. But he told me that he had no sympathy with this. “They do harm to the cause. Animal Liberation can only achieve its objectives by winning the moral argument and persuading the public at large that it is right. Harassing people is not the way to do that.”
The concept of the sacrosanctity of human life, as Catholics would see it, is derived from a belief system which Singer rejects. It can only be translated as a special status given to the human being, at any stage in its life or mental competence, because it belongs to a particular species. So I asked him how he saw the Catholic view that humans have an obligation towards animals as God’s creatures, and that cruelty is not only a defiance of God but a corruption of the individual who chooses to inflict pain. It comes, he told me, very close to his objectives – although the basis differs.
So what are we to make of Professor Singer? At the very least we cannot question his sincerity. His views have been well and consistently worked out and he has maintained them against manifold attacks over the years. And even if we disagree, perhaps strongly, with his basic criterion and where it can lead, I think that many of us would share some of his key objectives. I am left with a comment from my daughter, a zoologist who has written much about the great apes: “I’m not worried about the philosophy, but if giving them formal rights means that they are protected from cruelty and enabled to prosper, then I am all for them.”