Animal Protection > AR Interviews

August 28, 2005
Godfather of the animal rights mob
A philosophical work written 30 years ago inspired the activists.
Stuart Wavell asks its author if he feels guilty

In 1975 a young philosopher named Peter Singer published a book with the provocative title Animal Liberation, arguing that dumb beasts should be given some of the same rights as humans. It sold half a million copies and kick-started the animal rights movement.
Thirty years on an alarming escalation in animal rights activism dominates the headlines. A farm breeding guinea pigs in Staffordshire capitulates to six years of intimidation, including the desecration of a family grave. Amid campaigns by arsonists to block research laboratories, new laws threaten jail for economic sabotage.
What sort of monster has Singer created? Polite and the embodiment of reason, the 58-year-old professor of bioethics at Princeton University issues a weary disclaimer in the accent of his native Melbourne.
"I never regret having written Animal Liberation and having contributed to the animal movement," he says. "Although I would want to disassociate myself from some elements of that movement, they are a very small element and on the whole I think the movement has done an immense amount of good."
Tell that to people who have been firebombed, I suggest. He demurs: any movement of a certain size will attract people who are "a bit fanatical" but "youíre never going to agree with all of them".
He does not get off the hook so lightly. Surely he bears some responsibility for providing the intellectual ballast to what is being compared to a terrorist campaign? He looks mildly irritated. "I mean, you canít help that, right? You may have opposed apartheid in South Africa and yet you may not have accepted that terrorist tactics be used. But that doesnít in any way invalidate the case you make."
Appropriately, we meet in Oxford, where Singerís crusade began in the late 1960s amid the ferment of the anti-Vietnam demos and the music of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones. One evening Singer, on a scholarship from the Melbourne University, accompanied a fellow student to Balliol Collegeís dining hall, where his companion, a vegetarian, declined some meat sauce on his spaghetti. The moral implications of eating animals began to revolve in Singerís mind.
He had never been an animal lover, although he admits to once owning a cat called Max. Such "sentimental or emotional" attachments were not necessary in order to campaign for their rights, he believes. "It reminds me of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when people campaigning for black people were called Ďnigger loversí," he told The Australian Magazine earlier this year. "Those campaigners did not necessarily think black people were great. They were just outraged at injustice."
But it was a purely intellectual exercise in his case? "Absolutely." He credits Britain with a long tradition of caring for animals, which made people receptive to his message. The ethical issues were virtually ignored until Singer wrote an essay entitled Animal Liberation for The New York Review of Books in 1973, followed two years later by his bestselling book.
He argued against "speciesism", the notion that it was justifiable to ignore the interests of another being merely because it was not human. He was not saying that all the interests of humans and animals should be given equal weight, but where they had similar interests, such as avoiding physical pain, those were to be counted equally.
He rejects the sobriquet "father of animal rights" in favour of midwife and credits other philosophers with assisting the labour. "Previously (protests against animal testing) had been pitched at animal lovers and most of the literature was based on pictures of puppies and kittens being experimented on. The philosophers helped to break out beyond that so that it became a moral and political issue, like racism, sexism or gay liberation."
Singer went on to achieve even greater recognition with Practical Ethics, which remains one of the most widely used texts in applied ethics. His studies of famine relief, euthanasia and bioethics has earned him Time magazineís accolade this year as one of the top thinkers of our time. He donates a fifth of his salary to Oxfam and the animal rights movement.
I have caught Singer on a brief visit to Britain and bring him up to speed with events at Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), the Cambridgeshire research laboratory which activists are targeting through suppliers and shareholders. Arsonists have pledged to attack anyone they perceive as having links with the company.
Where would Singer ó an advocate of Gandhian civil disobedience ó draw the line? His solution would be a letter-writing campaign to suppliers, threatening to publicise their links and perhaps asking customers to avoid its products. "That seems to me totally reasonable. Standing outside the homes of employees of these other companies and harassing or abusing them or threatening physical harm to them seems to go over that line."
The big advances in European animal husbandry, he admits, were not achieved by Gandhian protests but changes in factory farming. "While I think closing down Huntingdon Life Sciences would be a great thing to do, itís a drop in the ocean compared to getting rid of sow stalls and changing the battery cage. Thatís a much bigger success than Cambridge not building its primate factory."
Singerís aversion to aggressive protest action may be related to his own painful experience of being picketed over his views on euthanasia. His proclaimed belief that not all human lives are equally valuable and that disabled newborn children should be killed rather than live a life of suffering, incensed pro-life activists and disability support groups in America.
"After all," he reasons, "such infants are commonly Ďallowed to dieí in intensive-care units in major hospitals all over the world, and an infant who is Ďallowed to dieí ends up just as dead as one who is killed. Indeed, one could argue that our readiness to put hopelessly ill nonhuman animals out of their misery is the one and only respect in which we treat animals better than we treat human beings."
There seems a disjunction between Singer creating new orders of human beings and his wish to dissolve the differences between man and the animals. No, he says, they are different sides of the same coin. "Once you get rid of the boundary of species, youíre going to have to look for something else that gives you criteria for saying when it is wrong to kill a being. I think itís got to be something to do with the mental life the being is leading. Thatís why I think that infants, in terms of their mental lives, are more like some non-human animals than they are like normal adults."
Did it strike him as ironical to find himself vilified in the same way that others are intimidated by animal rights activists? "I support the right to peaceful protest," he replies woodenly. "On the other hand, I did receive a couple of death threats and I think thatís deplorable."
The front cover of his updated book In Defence of Animals, recently published by Blackwell, features the photograph of a pig. Was that, I venture, a riposte to the right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton, who earlier this year hosted a meal composed of one of his own pigs named Singer?
He musters a smile. "I wasnít aware of that. But itís interesting that thereís a consensus between Scruton, who is very conservative on some things, and me on the issue of factory farming." Just as well: Scruton becomes a visiting professor at Singerís university next year.
Does he foresee a world in which animals provide us with neither food nor leather? He thinks thatís "a bit idealistic" in the foreseeable future. "Iíd be very happy if we could get rid of the worst forms of animal exploitation."
His thoughts turn to a stroll he took earlier that day across Oxfordís Port Meadow. "If we could have all the animals that we use for food or leather our grazing on the fields like those cows, I would feel I had accomplished a large part of what I had set out to achieve."
There is a contradiction here. Singer refuses to drink milk because it involves making cows repeatedly pregnant and taking their calves away. The Port Meadow cows would not long survive the death of the dairy industry.
Even oysters and mussels are banished from the Singer table. He is partial to wearing vegan Doc Martens but abjures woollen clothes.
Public taste continues to confound his hopes. "Most people still eat meat, and buy what is cheapest, oblivious to the suffering of the animal," he has written. "The number of animals being consumed is much greater today than it was 30 years ago."
So he thinks animal rights supporters should not ask, "When will we get there?" but rather the more modest question, "Are we moving in the right direction?" His answer is a resounding yes, even if the means are sometimes appalling.