What do we make of Singer?

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.”

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to What do we make of Singer?

  1. kouin says:

    Thankyou Quentin , an unjudgemental interview.

    Singer is merely proffessing ideas that occur and not implementing them into laws.
    His work gives him the company of students -unformed humans and any charges of nazism would be made only by extemperoneous aspects of his self.

    If one is a carer, one steps automatically and without hesitation past the norms.
    If one is placed in the position of carer through expedience then Karma takes it sweet revenge in the most unexpected ways.

    Singer is a natural and realises his limitations and might be getting at temporary (in)sanity or passion!
    A Truth Society or Inquisition has no judgement or inteligence only a guide and no considered position only habits.
    Given the socially moral stance of the common, one forgets that the present decision is only a moment and not eternal, the same choice will occur again to you.
    Integrity can be used here as the scan for the incomplete amongst us demote wrongly, judgements to a functionary level.
    PETA and the rest are beings of consciousness and responsibility which is where Jesus lives.

  2. Trident says:

    I fear that I don’t always understand Kouin, but I agree with his statement that Quentin’s interview was non-judgmental. And I think that we are expected to do the judging.
    I would start the contributions by recalling Chestertin’s remark that the insane are not irrational. Their insanity comes from carrying rationality to an excessive degree.
    Of course Singer is not insane, but he does provide an example of what Chesterton was getting at. He starts with a quite acceptable principle: we should act in a way that maximises the interests of everyone involved. But, instead of qualifying that principle he turns it into an absolute. And so quite logically he compares the interests (as defined by him) of all sentient creatures. And so he arrives inevitably, and remorselessly, at his conclusions. Sanity does not cause him to stop at any point and say: this is obviously absurd – and then go back to refine his principle so that it does not lead to absurd conclusions.

  3. claret says:

    It might be useful to actually ascertain what it is that the Spanish Government actually proposes before lurching into the realms of saving a mouse over a brain damaged human.
    Is the granting of human rights to apes not more of a ‘headline grabber’ than what is actually being proposed.
    As I read it there is a move to grant apes greater levels of protection than other animals on the grounds that they are so closely ‘related’ to humans. Questionable of course , but some way removed from granting all human rights as though they are human.
    The sight of an ape going along to the benefits office to collect his old age pension is surely not what the Spanish Govt advocates.
    I am at a loss to understand why we have to put our minds and thoughts to Peter Singer’s arguements. There is nothing I have read on here that is outside the ‘hard cases’ of the ‘what ifs’ or fanciful scenarios , that we can all play around with to our hearts content.
    The Nazis made a case for exterminating the jews, and backed it up with so-called reasoned arguement of sufficient weight to carry nearly a whole country into beleiving them.
    You only have to see the results of this policy to see that anything, no matter how grotesque, can be made justifiable.
    The whole sale, legally sanctioned, world wide killing of the unborn, is a case in point.
    Kill unborn children by the millions but be careful not to tread on an ant.

  4. Fariam says:

    I was introduced to the thoughts and writings of Peter Singer through a vegetarian atheist friend which in turn led to my reading three of his books: “Animal Liberation”, “Practical Ethics” and “Eating – what we eat and why it matters”.

    Reading Animal Liberation helped me to understand the similiarity between the development of the unborn and small children and animals, including their intelligence and their ability to feel pain. I think he gives some solid reasons for adopting a vegetarian lifestyle. It was the final step in my becoming a vegetarian in 2002, although since then I have come across two other books written by Christians: “Animal Theology” by Andrew Linzey, and “Dominion – the suffering of animals, the power of man and the call to mercy” by Matthew Scully.

    However when I read Practical Ethics, I found him turning his arguments on their head and using them to justify abortion, infanticide of babies up to one year old, and euthanasia for the handicapped and mentally impaired. He advocates these ideas on the basis of the distinction he makes between normal human beings and sub-normal human beings… In effect, he puts the lives of the weakest into the hands of the more articulate and the stronger. To my mind, this is the foundation on which any number of dangerous ideologies could be established. I am reminded of nazism, slavery and apartheid.

    More recently, I came across his opinon of bestiality which he does not find objectionable – although not normal – as long as there is “consent” and no suffering… This, while highly objectionable to most people, is the logical conclusion of his argument with regard to speciesism.

    I would like to add, in his favour, that on reading Animal Liberation, I wrote to Peter Singer and was impressed and surprised to receive a very pleasant and courteous reply from him. I also received an autographed copy of his book, “Eating- what we eat and why it matters” from my atheist vegeterian friend who had met him in London. Peter Singer signed the book, and seemingly remembered me!

  5. Brighton says:

    In answer to Claret’s first point, what Singer is quoted as asking for is that the great apes should have the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured. These are rights which humans are granted, through the UN Declaration, for instance. So they are human rights, but not as extensive. I notice that the Spanish Government have not aoproved rights for bulls. This make take a little longer.
    While Claret seems to imply that we are wasting our time discussing Singer’s position, which uses extreme examples to illustrate the points, Farlam makes it clear that Singer’s principles have real-life consequences. And although many luminaries dismiss his position with contempt (see Quentin’s interview) he has considerable influence. Our society is only too keen to remove any special qualities and duties to human beings. Many believe at heart that genetic principles (a side effect of Darwinism) make it desirable to get rid of the mentally unfit. Many are sentimental about animals and, if contributions to the RSPCA versus contributions to the NSPCC are a guide, they think them more important. For such people Singer’s views are very attractive and influential. Don’t underestimate his effect – however courteous Singer may be in person.

  6. Horace says:

    Trident points out that Singer enunciates a quite acceptable principle: “we should act in a way that maximises the interests of everyone involved”.
    This can be phrased as the proposition that :- “balancing the needs, or interests, of [all sentient beings] affected by a decision” is the appropriate criterion for a moral choice.

    We are told that “to think [only of human beings rather than all sentient beings] is to discriminate on the grounds of species” but what do we mean by ‘species’? Darwin for example suggested :- “I look at the term species, as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other . . ”
    A sentient being can be defined as having the ability to feel or perceive subjectively [but this latter word is itself quite difficult to define except that it is in some way related to consciousness]. Alternatively a sentient being might be defined as “capable of suffering”. [Even more vague but still in some way related to consciousness].

    I would argue that since a ‘right’ without a countervailing ‘duty’ is meaningless it is better to conduct the argument in terms of ‘duties’ rather than ‘rights’.
    This does simplify matters considerably (what, for example, are the duties required of a mouse or even a mature ape?) which readily leads to the simple view that humans have (or should have) a duty towards animals not to inflict unnecessary suffering.

    Meanwhile I quite agree with Quentin’s daughter that if giving [animals] formal rights means that they are protected from cruelty and enabled to prosper, then I am all for them.

    btw “But he did not resile” (see Maxims 11.6).

  7. kouin says:

    Lest we forget what suffering is:
    A Survivalists construct

    Hiding ones’ light
    cannot compare
    with the dispair
    All grown
    My saints
    believe that probably
    you’re not a thought from me
    A miracle
    and if its you I love
    or her
    it’s true.

    If Singer thinks it might be kinder I’d hang my head.

  8. Trident says:

    I like Horace’s comment. And I like Kouin’s poem – perhaps it helps in understanding his complex comments as a form of poetry.
    But could Horace please unwrap his paragraph about right and duties a little more.
    How is it possible for a subhuman animal to have duries if it is not a moral being with obligations? Do we precisely have a duty to animals rather than a duty to ourselves and to God as the creator of ainimals?
    If we have duries to new born babies and to the deeply mentally disabled. what are, or could be, their countervailing duties to us? I am not disagreeing with Horace (yet!) I just want to understand his meaning.

  9. RBlaber says:

    Professor Singer’s line of reasoning neatly demonstrates the point that, if you start from false premises, you end up with false conclusions, no matter how sound your logic might be. As the computer experts say, Garbage In, Garbage Out.
    The thing about all members of species H. sapiens, which does not apply to species Mus musculus, Pan troglodytes, Gorilla gorilla, or any other species, sharing this planet with us, is that we have immortal, rational souls. That applies to newly conceived foetuses and the severely mentally disabled.
    Unfortunately, all too many people are willing to pay heed to the likes of Professor Singer, and ignore this fact. Souls cannot be perceived, weighed or measured – so, many think, they simply don’t exist. This would appear to include the Labour Government, pushing through the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill, with all that that entails.
    Of course, we can’t prove to Professor Singer, or to Gordon Brown, that a newly conceived foetus, or a severely mentally disabled person, has a rational soul, one that will survive for all eternity, but that is our faith, and it is not unreasonable. They can’t prove the contrary! Nor, it seems, can we get them to see that this means that the new foetus and the severely mentally (as well as physically) disabled are of infinite value, as are all human beings. (Yes, even Osama bin Laden!)
    Professor Singer has no hope beyond this life, and this world. Once he’s dead, on his own cognizance, that’s it. He will have ceased to exist. We know that there is a ‘life of the world to come’, and that we can look forward to it without fear, if we continue to trust in Our Lord’s mercy and love, and try to reflect that love in our lives.
    It seems to me that you don’t have to be a Blaise Pascal to work out which of these two visions of the future is preferable!

  10. tim says:

    It is reported (and I verily believe, though I may have been misinformed) that Professor Singer’s mother was seriously ill. According to his theories, she would have been better dead. However, he made great efforts to get her the best possible care. Reproached with inconsistency, he replied: “I know. But what can I do, she’s my Mum!”. Another philosopher commented: “The man is better than his principles. And you can hardly say worse about a man’s principles than that.”

  11. I am trying to stand back from this discussion, as I will eventually be summarising it (and comments from elsewhere) in print. And I am truly grateful for the contributions so far.

    However a thought has struck me this evening which may be useful. Some utilitarians (though not Singer on this showing) believe that, in the calculation of different interests, we should take into account the happiness of future generations. Indeed, the belief in the moral imperative to preserve the ecology of the world has almost become a universal religion in its own right.

    But if we are concerned to preserve those as yet unconceived (who, by definition can have no current interests) does it not follow, a fortiori, that we should be immediately more concerned with those who are conceived, and Singer’s new born babies to boot?

    But if we are to look to the reasonably predictable future interests of organisms, then the great apes – important though they be – will always come a long way behind those of the human species.

    Incidentally, in a week where the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill is to get its third reading, the argument that the existing embryo has no interests because of its immaturity looks pretty thin in the light of this.

  12. Fariam says:

    “But if we are concerned to preserve those as yet unconceived (who, by definition can have no current interests) does it not follow, a fortiori, that we should be immediately more concerned with those who are conceived, and Singer’s new born babies to boot?”

    I think you have something there, Quentin!

    I hope you will develop it more as I think it is vitally important.

  13. Horace says:

    “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley”

    Perhaps ‘countervailing’ was a bad choice of word, I could have said ‘corresponding’ but I was looking for something stronger. As I see it, you can’t have a right (of the kind we are discussing) without a duty (to respect that right) and vice versa.

    “What, for example, are the duties required of a mouse or even a mature ape?” This was intended as a rhetorical question implying the answer “None”. The point is that when we talk of ‘rights’ we are considering not only ‘human rights’ but also ‘animal rights’ and even ‘new born babies rights’ and ‘deeply mentally disabled persons rights’ – all of which are difficult and confusing to define.
    If we confine our considerations to ‘duties’ we only have to worry about ‘the duties of human beings” which, if not simple is at least simpler.

    One approach to this was outlined by Quentin:- “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”.

    A basically similar point of view is put forward by RBlaber.

    Prof Singer starts from the premise:- That “balancing the needs, or interests, of all the entities affected by a decision” is the appropriate criterion for a moral choice.

    The question is rather how you do the “balancing” and I feel that if you consider duties rather than rights it is easier to understand.

    For example:- “Should we have to choose between rescuing a mouse or a human being from death, . . . 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.”

    The balancing weight appears to be sentience or ‘consciousness’; the mouse is less-conscious as compared with the human.

    Things get complicated when we are invited to consider, not consciousness as a characteristic of the entity but the conscious state of the entity at the time of the decision, i.e. we perhaps don’t have a duty to save the human if he is in an irreversible state of unconsciousness. Of course we still have a duty to save him if he has just been knocked out and will recover. Now apply this reasoning to a human foetus whose state of minimal consciousness will develop into full human consciousness. Surely we have an overriding duty to the foetus.

    But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,

    Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
    The present only toucheth thee:
    But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
    On prospects drear!
    An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
    I guess an’ fear!

  14. Fariam, your request to me to develop my idea further has caused me to think rather hard. And my answer here is only tentative. But this is the way I see it. RBlaber reminds us that a wrong starting point leads to a wrong ending point. Singer’s starting point is “interests”. He divides this into pain (which we can ignore for the purpose of this) and conscious interest “..that is, (it) 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.” But he confines himself here to the conscious interest at the time of the moral decision. Even he would not deny that if the competing entity were a mature human it would take precedence over the ape.
    But if we rephrase the premise in terms of value, and ask which out of the human being from conception onwards or the mature ape has the greater value we get a different answer. This value arises from the potentiality of the conceptus to mature and ultimately function with full personal characteristics.
    But we have to remember that “potential” has two meanings, which should not be confused. When we say that someone has the potential to become a good musician we are using the word in the sense that he has the capacity, if he chooses, to become a musician. But the potential of the conceptus means that is so ordered that, given the right environment, it will eventually function as person, and is dynamically progressing so to do. The brightest ape doesn’t have this potentiality and so is of lesser value.
    Of course, as Christians we would want to add other values to the human but this doesn’t help us in dispute with secular humanists.

  15. Fariam says:

    Quentin and Horace, I just wish to say thanks for outlining your thoughts. I wanted to see where they went. Being an average human, with no philosophical training, but nevertheless in discussion with an atheist, I have presented my thoughts and arguments along the very lines which both of you mention. Personally, I think it is the way forward.

    I also think it is vital that Christians make a much stronger and more coherent argument regarding the treatment of animals and our duties towards them. Matthew Scully thinks along the lines Horace mentions in his book, Dominion. If we fail to do address these issues, militant animal rights activists will highjack the failings of Christians in this regard to attack Christianity. In fact, some are already doing so.

  16. Fariam says:

    Some more thoughts with regard to the case Mr. Singer makes for animals which I would like to share.

    I will do so by sharing two incidents in my own life which give plenty of food for thought and reflection.

    The first incident concerns someone close to me who is very gifted with horses. In the course of her day´s work, she had to visit a stud farm. As I was on holiday and had some free time on my hands, I went along with her for the ride. The aim of the journey was to collect semen from a stallion. I had never spent much time reflecting on this and knew little about the process.

    The procedure started – without going into the details – when the stallion was led by a man into a cubicle and the door was closed. A few minutes later, both emerged, the stallion obviously in a state of excitement. He was met by no less than three other men who circled him around an enclosed yard in an attempt to have the stallion do his duty into something which was, I suppose, meant to resemble the genitals of a mare. Finally, the operation was finished, only to have one of the men proclaim that they had not collected enough semen. So the dance started all over again, only this time the stallion was less willing to co-operate, with the result that the four men ending up circling him and chasing him around the yard while myself, and two other people looked on.

    For everyone else, it seemed to be a casual day´s work as they observed and chatted. I felt sickened and left the yard. I am not a prude, but I simply could not reconcile myself with the sight of an animal in a state of erection being chased around a yard by four men. The entire situation was degrading and stripped both man and animal of their dignity. Furthermore, I knew no one there would understand my point of view.

    I ask myself, is this degradation of man and animal necessary? Is it natural? Is it what our Creator intended? Had the nature of animals been respected and had they not been sacrificed on the altar of ‘progress’ and profit, would we have arrived at the point where humans are also been artificially inseminated, cloned and combined with animals to form hybrids?

    The other incident happened one day when I decided to take five or six eight year old boys down to the seashore where they could climb the rocks, explore the water life in the rock pools, create and act out pirate and hero adventure stories, and enjoy the fresh air. A couple stood near us, although we did not pay much attention, apart from being aware of the fact that one of them had a fishing rod. A short while later, one of the boys drew our attention to a medium sized fish in a large rock pool. He called the other boys over to examine it and admire it, while I warned them not to hurt it. Unfortunately, none of us associated the fish with the couple nearby…

    After a while, the boys returned to their play, and I returned to supervising them so that they did not come to any harm. Then, quite suddenly, the couple prepared to go, and as they did so, the man took the fish out of the water and put it into a plastic bag. We stood dazed, speechless and helpless. The fish was obviously struggling and alive, but the man calmly shoved it into his rug sack and walked away with his partner – presumably to cook dinner… I still feel guilty to this day, but felt powerless to do anything. I could not leave the children in my care, and I could not risk causing a scene in which he might become aggressive and threaten the children.

    I spoke to the children about the cruelty of what we had seen afterwards and they knew I was a vegetarian, yet, I wonder what message I gave them by my inaction at the time? And what makes human beings capable of leaving an innocent, living creature to slowly suffocate in a plastic bag? In this example, it is a fish, but are the animals on our factory farms, in sporting arenas and in science experiments treated any better? Here again, we have lost the sense of sacredness regarding these living creatures. Is it any wonder then that we have lost the sense of sacredness of human lfe in the womb and elsewhere?

    For me, and I think for every Christian who wishes to build a “culture of life”, the two are entwined. It is within this context that I say it is vital that Christians make a much stronger and more coherent argument regarding the treatment of animals and our duties towards them. I do not believe we can continue to ignore the plight of animals today while making a case for the unborn human child. And while I do not agree with the basis of Mr. Singer´s argument, I think he has something valuable to tell us in this regard.

  17. Stair Sainty says:

    Being sometimes forced by my travel schedule to enjoy my cherished editions of The Catholic Herald weeks after they are delivered I was only able to read your article discussing your interview with Professor Peter Singer a few days ago.

    Having been brought up on a farm, with dogs as pets and horses to ride I am acutely aware of our responsibility to treat animals with proper respect and kindness. But I strongly dissent from the view that animals have rights, not out of any belief that humans have the “right” to treat them as we please, but because it is impossible to claim rights without responsibilities.

    Our “human rights”, however they may be defined in law, may be more clearly stated in moral terms for Christians and, in particular, Catholics. In both instances we know the extent of our responsibilities – legal and/or moral – and we also know when we fail to live up to them. That we may so fail does not deprive us of our contingent rights any more than a restriction of those rights spares us from our responsibilities. This reciprocal relationship is both individual and general; these rights are common to all humans but the extent of individual responsibility may depend on capacity.

    While Professor Singer urges us to extend such rights to every one of a particular animal species he does not demand anything of them in return, either collectively or individually. On the other hand, he demands of us that we grant particular rights to animals – and even on occasion preferential rights over those of a particular human where the latter is physically or mentally retarded and thus, in his view, less worthy of preferential treatment than the individual animal.

    Yet our general rights confer general responsibilities; where a person is incapable through physical or mental incapacity from carrying out his or her responsibilities that does not deprive them of their rights. Equally, where a person’s capacity exceeds that of other individuals their duty is greater. This applies where, for example, someone is blessed with great wealth and by its astute application may have the ability to act for the greater good more than another person without such good fortune. But in this case their reciprocal rights are no greater than the person with lesser capacity.

    One of the great social problems of our age is the popular belief that our rights always trump our responsibilities; indeed, for many the former are demanded without any attempt at all to recognise the latter. From this self-centred view developed the centrist state which promises so much but demands so little, aside from the payment of taxes which – when expended by a supposedly prudent government – will remove any need for individual responsibility.

    Professor Singer believes that we have responsibilities to animals that he defines as rights; we do indeed have a responsibility to treat animals with dignity and care. But the reciprocal right is not the animal’s but ours, and comes along with individual choice and free will.

    Guy Sainty

  18. Fariam says:

    While I agree with much of the above, I am puzzled by the last statement: “we do indeed have a responsibility to treat animals with dignity and care. But the reciprocal right is not the animal’s but ours, and comes along with individual choice and free will”

    Is this true? Is it enough to bring the matter of animal welfare down to individual choice and free will? Would this arguement be acceptable in the case of other blatant cruelties such as abortion, torture, child abuse, starvation, war, environmental destruction, corruption?

    Surely according to Genesis 1:25, animals have inherent value in themsleves as they were acutally created before man. They are also included in the Covenant which God made with Noah (Gen.9:12-17) and in the Beatific Vision (Isaiah 11:6-9). This suggests to me that animals have basic needs and rights written into the very nature of their being; the need of and right to water, suitable shelter, food, natural light, fresh air, space to move, companionship, in order develop and live as their Creator intended. It suggests to me that to have a basic and genuine need is to have a right to have that need tended, and that to ignore this is an offense against the animal, against ourselves as human beings, and against God the Creator.

    Matthew Scully puts it well when he says,
    “…Cruelty is not only a denial of the animal´s nature but a betrayal of our own. If we are defined by reason and morality, then reason and morality must define our choices, even where animals are concerned.”

    And in fact, it is here with regard to reason and morality that I think Peter Singer´s argument falls down. He holds us responsible for our treatment of animals on the basis of speciesism which is rooted in the belief that animals and humans are sentient beings – in itself compatible with Christian belief. However, in the case he makes, WE ARE ALL ANIMALS – human or non-human animals… (I wonder why he doesn´t speak of animals and non-animal humans!) So my question to Mr. Singer is how can humans be both animal and moral? Surely we cannot have it both ways; either humans are animals and cannot be moral or humans are not animals and can be moral. Or am I the only one who sees this contradiction?

    As an aside, anyone interested is reading more about the issues of animal welfare and the Christian vocation might be interested in the following books,

    Dominion: the Power of Man; the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully

    Animal Theology by Andrew Linzey

  19. Frank says:

    Fascinating debate; I agreed especially with RBlaber and Fariam. It is interesting to note the ‘bond’ that has existed between various saints and animals: viz St Cuthbert and the seals, St Francis and the wolf (and birds), St Jerome and the lion etc. It seems that some mystics have an extra-sensory or intuitive relationship with the animal kingdom – and this arises from their sense of reverence for everything God has created. In other words, we care for animals because we are human and therefore utterly distinct from them in respect of our souls.

  20. chauffer says:

    After the rash reportage and Editorial on animal rights which appeared in the Catholic Herald of July 18th it was certainly a bold and enlightened step to afford the “fountainhead” philosophy of Peter Singer an unfettered hearing.

    (I use inverted commas partly for citation but also because Professor Singer speaks largely for secular animal liberationists. Christian advocates of animals’ interests are usually informed by the writings of clergy spokesmen and theologians.)

    It is not only the impetus behind the current debate (ie an honest and fearless attempt to get to the truth rather than reacting to the human chauvinism of a particular Spanish bishop last summer) that is refreshing and indeed unprecedented but also the calibre of the contributions.

    I would briefly like to respond to two themes: I can see no reason to graft ‘duties’ on to genuine criteria for the recognition of rights ie that others may have intrinsic interests violated by our behaviour. This is far more important than the concept of awarding perceptive sentients due rights ‘by proxy’ on behalf of their Creator – valid though the sense of reverence may certainly be.

    Secondly, I have yet to discover a plausible basis for the lingering but prevalent belief among fellow Catholics that only humans posses an immortal soul. Perhaps those who have had contrary near-death experiences should be afforded closer proximity to the truth than theologians although the Bible itself reveals that creation shares in God’s plan of redemption. L’Osservatore Romano (3-15 January, 1990 edition) published the weekly address of Pope John Paul ll to a General Audience in Rome, in which His Holiness reflected on the Hebrew ‘Breath of God’ (ie ‘soul’) as described throughout Genesis without distinction between human and animal lifeforms.

    Maybe it’s time to take the next step and admit to centuries of disastrously erroneous doctrine and begin to spread the Good News to those who know full well that their animal fellows share a spiritual existence with eternal prospects anyway!

    If I may mention the details of two pertinent websites; the latest edition of the Christian Vegetarian Association (UK) newsletter contains a compilation of historical clergy statements in support of animal rights (pp 18-19) http://www.articles.homecall.co.uk/pdf/NLNov08.pdf

    The CVAUK was largely preceded by the informal ‘Fellowship of Life’ whose website features an ongoing archive of Church-related animal rights advocacy, much of it Catholic, from recent decades http://www.all-creatures.org/fol

    If there’s a significant area of common ground between Peter Singer and contemporary Catholicism, it may be that both extol a doctrine which gives way to conscience when one takes a look at the everyday consequences, in terms of suffering for others.

  21. Tribunus says:

    I see no virtue in being “non-judgmental” when a judgment is called for. How would it be if a judge were to say to litigants, “sorry – I’m not giving judgment as I do not wish to be judgmental”? Sometimes judgments are called for.

    Would it have been right for a journalist in 1930s Germany to interview Hitler “non-judgmentally”? Could that person escape the later charge of being unduly uncritical of him and his odious regime?

    I leave the question open for others to consider.

    Appeals to emotion tend to characterise discussions of animal rights. Cute, doe-eyed baby seals invoke sentiments of sympathy which are unlikely to be invoked by the sight of a Grizzly bear, or a Great White shark or a lion ripping up a human child.

    There is an illogical elision in the argument which is unwarranted and consists in claiming, from the view that needless cruelty to animals should be avoided, that animals thereby have rights akin to human rights.

    This is, in effect, to equate animals and humans which is, effectively, what Peter Singer does. He gives no special place to human beings. To do so, he says, would be “Species-ist” and we should not accord any special rights to any one species but should weigh off the interests of each according to their sentience and self-perception.

    This utilitarian calculus sets its face against any recognition that humans and animals are different, that man is a rational being with free will and animals are not.

    Yet, the differences are patently obvious. If a lion walked into your house would you attempt to sit it down and reason with it? No.

    Where are the animal law codes, works of art, architecture, poetry, literature, science, theology and medicine? Where are the animal achievements like the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral or Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks or the Eiffel Tower? How many animals have built a moon-rocket or a Particle Accelerator? Where is the animal Westminster system of government and/or cabinet responsibility?

    Where are the animal Sts Francis and Dominic or, for that matter, the animal Hitlers and Stalins?

    Where is the Court of Animal Rights in which animals appear and argue their case for their rights, as humans do, for example, in Strasburg Court of Human Rights?

    Above all, why, if animals have rights, do they not respect each others’ rights? And can they be morally or legally blamed for not doing so?

    To suggest that an animal is superior to a human because it has no moral faculty and so cannot do wrong (as some Animal Libbers do) is a plain non-sequitur. If a mancannot see is he thereby physically superior to a man who can see? Then why should a being with no moral power be intrinsically superior to a being with a moral power?

    Nature, often described as “red in tooth and claw”, routinely sees one species savagely attack, kill, rip up and maim other species and, often enough, for fun and not just for food.

    The real danger with the radical Animal Liberationist view is that its moral equation of men and animals means, in effect, that the basis of all human rights disappears.

    This is because our human rights simply become the same as animal rights and, as Peter Singer makes clear, a retarded human may then be accorded fewer rights than a healthy gorilla.

    We are, per Singer, to be treated as no more than another animal. If we are but animals and no more then why should we not behave like other animals and devour each other or even eat our own offspring, if we choose? Are we to behave like Cronos the Titan, son of Gaia and Ouranos in Greek legend, who devoured his own offspring?

    If other animals do it, then why not the human “animal”?

    The simple answer is that humans, unlike animals, are rational beings who can choose good and evil and are subject to the Natural Law. There are no animal Ten Commandments, despite the best efforts of sentimentalists to pretend that there are.

    Such sentimentalism can be lethal. Those who think that animals ought to be treated like humans ought to try hugging a Grizzly bear.

    If we are to use sentimental or emotive arguments then I suggest looking at Google images under the heading “Bear attack”. There are some horribly unpleasant sights of the aftermath of a bear attack.

    It is also a matter of historical fact, too, that Hitler was a supporter of animal rights and a vegetarian. He was also, by the way, a teetotaller and a non-smoker, for what it’s worth.

    Moving from natural arguments to Scriptural ones, we see in Genesis 1:26-29, that animals are under our “dominion” and in Genesis 9 that “every thing that moveth and liveth shall be meat for you”. What could be clearer? How can Christian Animal Liberationists avoid these inconvenient verses?

    The Animal Liberationist movement is, in fact, completely incompatible with Christian revelation or, indeed, even with Humanism.

    If men are only animals then they can be treated like animals and can allow themselves to behave like animals which means that abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, cannibalism and, indeed, any horrors, are, in that view, to be treated as morally neutral, as they are when animals do them. When is the last time anyone saw a tiger in the dock for murder? Why, then, should men go into the dock if they, too, are no more than animals?

    Herein lies the fundamentally uncivilised, dangerous and anti-social nature of the Animal Liberationist error.

    I return to my first remarks. Can society afford to be “non-judgmental” about a philosophy that is so much at odds with the sustainability of a peaceful and just society, as Animal Liberationism clearly is?

  22. Fariam says:

    With all due respect, this above comment is exactly what isolates poeple concerned about animal welfare from Christianity.

    Caring about animal welfare and demanding that their inherent dignity as God´s creatures be respected does not mean becoming animals. Indeed, I would think that our capacity to exercise restraint and mercy towards animals is a measure of our humanity in general.

    It is a sobering fact to think that many psychopaths start out their “careers” by maiming and abusing animals.

    And indeed, while it seems Hilter was a vegetarian – so was Gandhi! So am I! Does that make me a budding Hitler?

    The texts from Scripture quoted above conventiently ignore the fact that already in the very first chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve were directed towards a vegetarian diet, and that animals were created BEFORE them, thereby highlighting the fact that they have an inherent value in themsleves as God´s creatures, apart from and beyond their service to humans. Incidentially when the covenant referred to above was made with Noah, it was with Noah and all living creatures – man and animal – and both were told they would be accountable for every drop of blood shed.

    Again too, “dominion” should be seen in the light of stewartship, not least in the light of Jesus Christ, our SERVANT King. I am sure it is safe to presume that Jesus would not advocate the terrible abuse of peaceful, domestic and farm animals in modern factory farms where they can neither move, see the light of day or breathe fresh air, and where they are pumped full with hormones and dead carcasses, with life spans reduced from 15 years to six months…

    No, you claim we are not animals; we are rational creatures. Then, let us see this cruelty for what it is: an utter distortion of God´s revealed plan for his creatures. This is NOT his revelaed plan for his creatures. Animal Liberationists may be starting at the wrong end of the stick, but they see this cruelty for what it is. So should we…

  23. chauffer says:

    When the Minister of Agriculture during 1990, John Selwyn Gummer, attempted to adopt the Bible as a meat eater’s manifesto the commentary in Church newspapers (from fellow meat consumers) was entirely critical because of the necessarily glib approach to scripture that such a position depends on.

    Unfortunately the Bible has been requisitioned by defenders and critics of vegetarianism alike since the earliest days of the Vegetarian movement but it remains our source of inspiration (subject to ethical, responsible and benevolent discernment) as Christians.

    An important role for any religion within (or beyond) civilised society is surely to nurture the growth of compassionate concern for others and today that concern has inevitably reached those that face the sharp end of the slaughterman’s knife. If we are going to consider the everyday application of ancient Scripture in relation to this issue then let us at least concede that the theology of vegetarians is by no means devoid of Messianic merit: http://www.ivu.org/news/evu/other/jewish.html

    As far as ‘animal rights’ (a doctrine rarely adopted by Peter Singer unless I’m mistaken) is concerned the term is far from modern. Indeed an editorial in The Times dated October 18th 1860 declared “England is the first, perhaps even now the only nation, in which the rights of animals are recognised – and we mean nothing more by the term than the right of animals to immunity from unnecessary suffering and wrong.”

    Few would have challenged the theological acumen, or indeed the Christian credentials, of the Rev Basil Wrighton, M.A. during his lifetime (See Tibernius’ response to critics of the manner of views expressed on his website: http://romanchristendom.blogspot.com/2008/11/animal-rights-sentimentalism-irrational.html ) and the Catholic priest wrote in The Ark (August 1982 edition):

    “Animals obviously do not have human rights, for their life has a different purpose and function. They would have no use for our social and political rights. But what of those other “rights” (there is no other word for it) which their Creator must have given them (not against himself but against us) when he placed them on this earth – rights which follow from the physical nature they share with us humans, from the needs and appetites we have in common and our common capacity for pleasure and pain?”

    (From anpublished letter to a columnist in The Universe dated 19th July, 1982)

    And so the endless debate on ‘rights’ is proliferated whereas what the world really needs to cultivate (and Christians nurture) is the practical growth of humane awareness.

    Or as the Rev Prof. Andrew Linzey, Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics has rather succinctly put it in the past: “One less chicken eaten is one less chicken killed.”

  24. chauffer says:

    Ps ‘Tibernius’ above – should have been ‘Tribunus’

  25. Tribunus says:

    Fariam, who is an Irish nun living in the Faroes, is obviously a lovely lady with a gentle soul but her own blurb on her web-site demonstrates some muddled thinking.

    She says she became a vegetarian in July 2002 as a result of an encounter with a “searching atheist” who is also a vegetarian. His “questioning” (questioning what?) helped her see the link between the development of unborn children and the intelligence and capacity of animals to feel pain.

    What link? Was he suggesting that an unborn child is somehow more animal than human?

    She decided that she could not “continue to speak out against torture, the death penalty and abortion, yet remain indifferent to the suffering of animals in so many avoidable circumstances”

    Well, fine but why does that logically necessitate vegetarianism? It simply means the avoidance of modern factory-farming methods which are, in any case, just as much opposed by meat-eaters who want to eat proper meat.

    She says that neither could she continue eating meat knowing that the grain being used to feed animals in order to produce meat for human beings could go directly towards feeding many desperately poor and hungry people.

    That is simply not the case: there is more than enough food to feed the whole world and everyone in it. The problem is not food production. The problem is unjust governments. Simply becoming a vegetarian will not turn unjust governments into just ones.

    Her reply hardly addresses my arguments.

    “Caring about animal welfare and demanding that their inherent dignity as God´s creatures be respected does not mean becoming animals”.

    No-one suggested that it did. What I argued was that MORALLY EQUATING men and animals does so. And that is what Singer does.

    “Indeed, I would think that our capacity to exercise restraint and mercy towards animals is a measure of our humanity in general”.

    So be it. But that means that she fundamentally disagrees with Singer since he does not see any moral difference between humanity and animality.

    The fact that some psychopaths start out their “careers” by maiming and abusing animals makes not the slightest difference to the argument. It is the usual appeal to emotion over logic – like the pictures of doe-eyed baby seals instead of poisonous snakes or sharks.

    And Fariam’s web-site is full of cuddly animals and studiously avoids the ones that rip out the guts of other animals!

    It is a fact that Nazi propaganda made much of the fact that Hitler was an animal-lover and had a “soft heart” that recoiled from animal suffering. Well, he wasn’t too bothered about human suffering, was he!

    Fariam tries to tell us that in “the very first chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve were directed towards a vegetarian diet, and that animals were created BEFORE them, thereby highlighting the fact that they have an inherent value in themselves as God´s creatures, apart from and beyond their service to humans.”

    They were not DIRECTED to a vegetarian diet at all. They were OFFERED it. Neither does the order in which creatures were made signify that they are higher than man.

    However, I agree with her entirely about factory farming but not because animals have rights – still less souls – but because the end product is bad, unhealthy and disgusting food.

    Every hunter who hunts animals knows this and is the first to protest at factory-farmed food. Hunted wild animals, as every hunter knows, is the best and most tasty food with the least harmful content and the least cholesterol. It is the best kind of meat for humans.

    Factory-farmed food is disgusting muck mass-produced to line the pockets of greedy producers.

    Fariam pretends that God did not mean what He said to Noah when he said at Genesis 9:1-3:

    “And let the fear and dread of you be upon all the beasts of the earth, and upon all the fowls of the air, and all that move upon the earth: all the fishes of the sea are delivered into your hand. 3 And every thing that moveth and liveth shall be meat for you: even as the green herbs have I delivered them all to you”.

    Chauffer, on the other hand, says that “animal rights’ [is] a doctrine rarely adopted by Peter Singer unless I’m mistaken”.

    He is mistaken. It IS adopted by Singer.

    He then quotes – of all people – the Rev Andrew Linzey, Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics who says that “One less chicken eaten is one less chicken killed.”

    You might as well say that one less tomato eaten is one less tomato killed; or one less mosquito swatted is one less mosquito killed.

    As moral theology it is incoherent.

    The fact is that animals do not, and cannot, have “rights” in any moral or legal sense and it is simply dishonest to pretend that they do. Wanton cruelty to animals is bad because it is bad for the human doing it not because animals have enforceable legal or moral rights.

    The real danger comes when those, like Peter Singer, try to pretend that humans have no more moral status than animals so that unwanted humans can be killed like unwanted animals thus legitimising abortion, infanticide and euthanasia and – in the case of the vegetarian Hitler – the mass murder of innocent Jews, not even excluding innocent little children.

    Such moral equivalence is incoherent and inevitably leads to human degradation and even horror.


  26. chauffer says:

    “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal” (l Cor 13:1)

    If only the same could be construed of the Rev. Prof Andrew Linzey (“of all people”) who appears on the ‘Good List’ compiled by The Independent newspaper in 2006, of 50 people who have changed Britain for the better.

    It follows his award of a Doctorate of Divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2001 (the highest honour that an Anglican prelate may bestow upon a theologian) in recognition of Linzey’s “unique and massive pioneering work in the area of the theology of creation with particular reference to the rights and welfare of God’s sentient creatures.”

    At risk of unduly agitating Tribunus’s strange hostility towards the Anglican communion (see previously mentioned link to his website castigation of history teacher Barry Miles whose exposition of Hitler’s actual diet was evidently too burdensome a factual substitute for cheap swipes at benevolent vegetarianism) allow me to quote an important excerpt from an article by Linzey which was published in the March 6th 1998 edition of the Church of England Newspaper:

    “Every year, I receive hundreds of letters from people who are no longer sure they want to remain in the same church as people who cannot see cruelty for what it is: a sub-Christian activity offencive to God.”

    I doubt if he was referring to the ill-treatment of tomatoes in the course of human sustenance but it is always touching to hear of concern for vegetable rights from ethically irate consumers of meat.

    I can only hope that the average Catholic may feel embarassed at such a revival of callous attitudes towards creation in the name of Christ – the likes of which may have been in vogue during the 1890’s but by the 1930’s, Catholics in Britain were so sick of their caricature that the editor of the Tablet spent months seeking a ‘retractatio’ from Jesuit theologian Joseph Rikaby.

    (Go google Rikaby’s draconian disregard for animal rights in ‘Moral Theology’ – or the deplorable attempt to augment his opinion in the Catholic Dictionary of 1897, if you haven’t already obtained first editions, Tribunius!)

    Now if you’ll excuse me while I return to those inevitable preparations for an iminent, exclusively vegetarian campaign of genocide; I’ll afford Tribinus, in turn, an opportunity to get back to his customers in whatever fur shop, butchery or hunting supply store that may afford a relatively healthy basis for his indulgence in the proclamation of dynamic unconcern for other creatures.

  27. Fariam says:

    I wish to respond very briefly to some of the comments made by Tribunus.

    I am disappointed to see that I have become the subject of a personal attack. What or who am I, and where I live is not – nor should it be – the subject of conversation here. But for those who are interested in hearing what I have to say, the site to which Tribunus refers may be located at http://www.myspace.com/maria_franciscan . Anyone visiting it will discover very quickly that the quotations place here by Tribunus have been taken out of context and misrepresented for the most part. Furthermore, anyone taking the time to read my blogs, and watch the videos on the site, could be in absolutely no doubt that I hold a strong pro-life position and that I am not a fan of Peter Singer.

    Articles worth reading in the blog section of the site in question include:

    Dominion – how do we relate to animals?
    Thought Provoking Encounters
    Whaling on the Faroe Islands
    Peter Singer and Bestiality
    Forbidden Grief – the unspoken pain of abortion

    Other than that, I have nothing further to add. I have already presented my arguments in the earlier comments on this thread

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