Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

IS THIS A DANGEROUS PHILOSOPHER? The Peter Singer Interview

Somebody once said that a philosopher's job is to interest us and to infuriate us. Enter Peter Singer. Singer's views on euthanasia and his essay on Bestiality of late have caused a furor in America and Australia. Having finally managed to track him down at an ANZFAS Conference in New Zealand recently Singer was generous with his time and opinions. Certainly the media have had a field day in portraying him as a steely-cold, cerebral philosopher without feelings, who pontificates in his Ivory Tower on other peoples' mothers. Who seemingly doesn't mind the concept of sex with nonhuman animals.

However there were two broad issues that reoccurred in his lectures throughout the Conference. One theme was how to make a better world and the other was unquestionably concerned with the plight of the animals, especially factory-farmed animals. What else? He was honest, thoughtful and perhaps the biggest surprise of all, he has a well-developed sense of humour that doesn't necessarily transcribe successfully over from person to print. Does he feel betrayed by the sheer voraciousness of the attack on him from others in our Movement and from the media? You bet he does, and he's speaking about it here for the first time.

Interviewed by Claudette Vaughan, originally in Vegan Voice Magazine.

Q. Rational argument has not ignited revolutionary change that you had hoped for. The AR Movement has certainly challenged the way in which the human species thinks in all its hypocrisy. In a most definite way that attitude of "Me first" still prevails. Can you comment on this please?

A. To some extent I don't want to be quoted as saying that rational argument hasn't had any effect. I think we are (mostly) rational beings and rational argument does move people to action particularly when it gets them to see that what they are doing is inconsistent with other beliefs that they have and other values that they have that are important to them. But it is also true that we are self-interested beings to some extent. That's part of our nature and you can't get away from that, so I think that is one of the reasons why we haven't made as much progress as we would have liked. If we put a rational argument in front of people, some are moved by it a lot of the way, it moves others a little bit of the way and some people just shrug it off because it is too much against what they want to do.

Q. Arguably the only thing that has sent a shiver down the spines of vivisectors of the last decade or so has been the actions of the ALF. You have said that you don't support the small, marginal side of our Movement that embraces this form of direct action. If you're prepared to take such an absolutist stance then you would also have to condemn the actions of the French Resistance in WW2 against Nazism and the concentration camps for the Jews?

A. I don't think there is any logical connection between the two.

Q. Well I don't know if the animals would agree with you on that one.

A. You and I both know that the animals will not be able to assess that question. The difference between the situation of the French Resistance and our own situation and I write about this in my very first book, Democracy and Disobedience, is that we live in a society which is in some sense a democracy, that is a society that allows opposition, allows people to make statements contrary to the views of the government and has some procedures in place whatever they might be for actually changing things or whether you live under a tyranny or a dictatorship that locks you up and shoots you if you dissent, or one that allows you to try to persuade your fellow-citizens that you are right, is relevant to what forms of resistance you are justified in taking.

Q. I agree with you there but how many times does the AR Movement have to get sand kicked in it's face before we wake up to the fact that governments are not responding to our demands for the animals. Two express examples spring to mind here in Australia. The Egg labelling debacle of late and the voting in by the vast majority of Ministers for keeping the battery cage for another 20 years.

A. I don't think that you could conclude from that that you cannot make changes in the usual political channels because changes have happened through democratic political channels. They have certainly happened in Europe where major changes are under way in the farm animal industry and I think the view that you are taking is really too short-term. I know it's depressing to have to wait years and years for changes to happen but changes have happened in other areas and I think that they have improved the situation for animals. The farm-animal issues that you are talking about are particularly difficult ones to fight politically because farmers are significant political constituents in the community but I don't think that there is any better way. I mean you can point to countries where important improvements for animals have happened through democratic changes. I don't think you can point to any country where violence against people has lead to major improvements in the situation for animals.

Q. So are you against what's happening over in England with the Huntingdon Life Sciences Campaign?

A. Well Huntingdon hasn't been closed. I don't think you can point to that as a successful campaign.

Q. Nevertheless, it has certainly given the abusers a run for their money quite literally. I think what the Huntingdon situation shows is that we in the Movement are not up against animal rights/welfare concerns but up against the massive corruption engendered by global corporatism and all that that implies.

A. As I have said, there are imperfections in the democratic process. Those are important issues that you have to grapple with whether you are concerned about animals or concerned about the environment, Fair Trade issues or whatever else they might be. These are huge issues but what are we saying here? What are the alternatives to the methods that I have supported and endorsed and that people like Henry Spira have used with good effect? I don't think there is any evidence that violence is a way to change this and I think that if you look at what happened a few weeks ago in Genoa, the vast majority of people who went to Genoa to peacefully and non-violently protest against corporatism and so on I think most of these people were extremely upset and yet it was a minority that caused the violence at these events. Frustrating, as things are the way we're going, there's no basis for saying that we will do any better by violence.

Q. Feminist analysis has addressed social theory by dealing with some issues on a subjective basis. By that I mean dealing with a particularised-situational response that considers context and history in the equation. This is basically what you are saying about your views on euthanasia isn't it? Your view is designed to reduce the power of the State and allow parents to make crucial life and death decisions both for themselves and in consultation with their doctors. Is that a fair assessment?

A. That would certainly be a fair assessment of what I am saying about Euthanasia in the case of disabled new-borns and infants. I'm simply saying that you have to look at the consequences of what you are doing and the consequences will vary according to the views of the parents and the specific situation.

Q. I wonder whether you, yourself have taken into consideration the consequences not so much for or against the moral argument of Euthanasia but the offshoot political consequences from that. I mean to say would you like a bureaucrat making a life and death situation on your life if you were unable to make that decision yourself?

A. But that's exactly the reverse of what I'm saying. Currently bureaucrats make the decisions preventing me or my loved ones or my doctor from doing what I would want. So the present situation is that bureaucrats decide and they decide that I basically have to go on living unless I find a doctor who is prepared to break the law. What I want is the reverse of that I want the power of the bureaucrats to be reduced.

Q. What are your views on stem cell research especially with what's going on in the States at the moment?

A. The issue in the States that concerns President George W Bush is the fact that embryos would be destroyed to produce a wider, more diverse, more useful range of stem cell lines than is currently in existence. To strike a middle position on the issue he has come up with a rather uncomplimentary compromise of saying you can use the existing cell lines, and claiming that there's 60 of them, but no scientist that I've heard of is aware of that. Quite a few of them turn out to be owned and patented by various corporations. What Bush has done is lock in their profits in a very neat package by saying that no one else can now produce their own stem cell lines. Certainly this means that research will evolve faster in Britain and possibly Australia, as they don't have such prohibitions placed upon them.

I don't see a problem with the use of embryos. They are clearly not sentient beings. Just because they are biological members of the species Homo Sapiens doesn't give them the right to live. Bush has come out and said something like ... "I value medical research but you can't push ahead irrespective of ethical costs". He said that thinking about the ethical costs for non-sentient single cell organisms. He didn't apply the same logic to research that's going on with rats, dogs, chimpanzees and so on. It's so obvious that that is a far greater concern.

Q. Using human embryos for a bit of market research is an example of not taking the political consequences into account. The embryo might be non-sentient, but the mother is not. I mean, what happens after the usual "embryo" source runs out? Do we start "farming" embryos and justify it much the same way as we justify "farming" animals today for market research. Is nothing sacred any longer?

A. You are suggesting that the use of embryos to create stem cells will be the first step down a slippery slope, but I'm not sure what you think the bottom of that slope will be.

What's so bad about researchers advertising for embryos? Is it bad to advertise for sperm donations? Is it bad to advertise for egg donations? Are you assuming that the researchers are offering to pay large sums to obtain eggs and embryos? If so, is it bad that people with few opportunities to earn money will now have new opportunities available to them? I am not saying that there is nothing wrong with any of these practices, I am just asking what is supposed to be wrong with them?

There are many assumptions to your question, and I think you would need a lot more defence before I would regard them as a reason for not permitting any research on human embryos.

Q. What Thomas Kuhn did for science (he wrote the book "The Structures of Scientific Revolution") by articulating new paradigmatic shifts within mechanistic science (i.e. not more animal testing) I personally don't see why revolutionary change can't be positive and creative. The human species seems to only learn by being on the brink of disaster (Mad Cow's Disease etc). Do you think this is some kind of perversity of the human spirit that never learns by their mistakes?

A. I think it's too strong a word to call it "perversity". Perhaps it's apathy; perhaps it's being a bit inherently conservative. You know, thinking that the status quo isn't too bad then we're better to muddle along with that. From that it takes a major catastrophe to get people to see that you've really got to do something about it.

Q. Correct me if I'm wrong but you once paralleled the animal situation to the slave trade. All the other liberation movements women, gays and slaves all won their freedom of sorts by becoming economically viable, therefore tolerated in the market-place. Will the Animal Liberation Movement be the first Movement that wins on moral grounds alone?

A. The parallel I made was essentially this: in both cases there is a dominant powerful group, which essentially defines itself as the repository of the highest moral worth and of the highest values. It says that those outside of this group are lower beings that can be treated as things, brought and sold. Essentially seen as property. I've used that analogy to try and get people to see that for us today animals have that status and we think of ourselves as superior to them and therefore as entitled to use them as a means to our ends. In the same way that white slave traders did with Africans during the slave era. Really what I'm trying to say is: reflect on your own attitudes and ask yourself if you think that slavery is wrong. If you do, can you really defend the attitude that we have towards animals at present?

Q. What was your motivation behind reviewing Midas Dekker's Dearest Pet: On Bestiality?

A. I was asked to review the book and I thought the book raised some interesting questions and it was worth reviewing.

Q. I think your motivation behind it had something to do with your work on Darwinism. Is that correct?

A. No. I don't think it had anything to do with that at all. It had to do with my broad interest in relations between humans and animals, and the attitudes of humans to animals. This book seemed to say something about that and to say it by studying an area of human/animal interactions that usually is considered a taboo subject.

Q. Yes but in that taboo-ness lie two important factors. a) It's marginal, although probably more prevalent than what any of us care to admit and b) It's already illegal in comparison to say, factory-farming. So why go there?

A. Well as I say I was asked to review the book. My interest in the topic was simply the extent of writing a short review of this book. It's not something that I have ever intended to make a major area of study or anything of that sort but if someone asks me to review a book that has some interesting things to say about humans and animals then why not?

Q. Karen Davis has said that your essay on bestiality should encourage us to think about the manual milking and artificial insemination of parent turkeys in modern food production. When you see a man pushing a tube into a turkey hen's vagina, and massaging a male turkeys genitals to get him to ejaculate into the tube then the so-called wholesome and upright "tradition' of Thanksgiving Day takes on a completely different hew. She cites this as an example of humanities bestial behaviour in areas normally considered as sexless and innocuous. Would you agree?

A. Yes, we draw the lines in strange places. That's what Karen's point is all about. Karen Davis and Ingrid Newkirk made sensible comments about the article. Some other people got a bit hysterical about it.

Q. Why with all our technology do you think that we are unable as a species to solve our own problems like poverty or wealth distribution?

A. That's a huge question but I think some of it goes back to where we started. We are beings who are selfish, we look after our own interests, and we focus on the interests of family and close friends. So many of the problems that we deal with need to be solved on a much larger scale I mean a global scale. The question of poverty is one of those. Climatic changes and greenhouse gases is a classic example of an issue that you can only solve on a global scale. And we don't have the sort of concern for others that would make it easy to solve that. I mean we have the understanding to solve it but we lack the readiness to make sacrifices for the sake of strangers in Bangladesh that would motivate us to solve that.

Q. You've been severely criticized by other activists in the movement for your views. Take Gary Francione for example. What do you think of his work?

A. Look, we've been at a meeting today at which we've had people from a range of different groups talking about the importance of working together. I think it was Hans Kriek from NZ's SPCA who said about the sow stalls that we can win this campaign because we are united and have actually divided the pig producers some are opposed to sow stalls, others are not. And I think that that's really important that we recognize who are people on the side of the animals and who are the people who are the abusers and exploiters and are making their living from that.

Gary, for all his intelligence, loses sight of that. He devotes most of his energy and intelligence to attacking people who are on the same side as him. I think that's a terrible shame.

Q. You also spoke today of the problem of In-fighting in our movement.

A. That's right. I think we have limited resources and energy. We are a small Movement and we can't possibly win if we expend some of these resources and energy on fighting against each other that are also opposed to animal abuse.

Q. So what your basically saying then is "Know your Enemy".

A. Yeah, know who your real enemy is. That's the point.

Q. In "The Darwinian Left" you have called upon the Left, much like the early Socialist Movement, to work upon a new paradigm. Correct?

A. Yes but it's not a paradigm that's opposed to Socialism. That's a very broad term anyway and means different things to different people. It's a paradigm that I guess is opposed to Marxist understanding of human nature. I think the Left has assumed, generally speaking, that human nature is sufficiently pliable so that if you change the economic structure of society then you'll change the way that human beings behave and I think that that's a mistake.

Q. Well it hasn't worked in any countries where it's been set up anyway.

A. Exactly. If you look at various countries that tried to set up Communist regimes, human nature did not change and the same sorts of things emerged struggles for hierarchy and dominance and so on emerged so I think that it has to essentially recognise that things are a little bit more difficult than if they would be if human nature were that flexible. They have to think about therefore trying to understand human nature and make changes that are therefore compatible with the way in which human nature is likely to go.

Q. If you look at the Left today in Australia there's only one party and that's called "Business Interests". For all the Left's rhetoric about exploitation why do you think that they have never united on AR Issues, even if it was only under the banner of a safe food supply?

A. Well it depends on whom you are talking about "the Left". Certainly the Labor Party has moved very much towards the Centre although there are elements of the Left in the Labor Party. But if you look at the Greens they are in a sense not the old Left sort of party but they incorporate a lot of concerns that Left parties have and I think there's a lot more support for the Animal Movement than there is in either of the two major parties.

Q. Would you like to make a comment on your new book Peter. I believe it was put together as a statement against having been misrepresented by the media and people who have not even bothered to read your work in full.

A. "Writings on an Ethical Life" is a collection of my writings on the sorts of things that I've been working on over the past thirty years. Obviously questions about animals figure predominantly however among that, it's broader than that. I put it together because I thought it was important that people understand what I'm saying in my own words. There's been a lot written about me that's tried to summarise what I say. Sometimes it gets it more or less right; sometimes it gets it pretty seriously wrong. I think that people need to read it and understand it in the context to see where I'm coming from. With "Writings from an Ethical Life" it's now possible to do that in one volume rather than in several volumes.

So to arrive back at where we started and know that place for the first time. Is Peter Singer a dangerous philosopher? Undoubtedly he is still dangerous. Dangerous to the farmers, the abusers, those that insist on maintaining the status quo at all costs. When Singer spoke at OINK! The Animal Liberation shop recently, somebody from outside through a steak into the jammed-packed audience causing a minor scuffle while he was speaking. Making change by encouraging a freer debate in a "civilised" society can be dangerous sometimes. A lasting impression of Singer is that he prizes the freedom of enquiry above what personal cost to himself has been. And that cost has been significant (i.e. death threats, hate-mail, security guards etc). Does he enjoy pushing the envelope? That's for you to decide.

Peter Singer is currently working on a book about globalisation and poverty.