Lunch with the FT: Meaty arguments
Peter Singer arrives for lunch with the liberated air of an east coast intellectual taking a break from George Bushís America. The other diners at Woodlands, a Tamil vegetarian restaurant near Piccadilly Circus, donít look up as he and his wife, Renata, pass by. Doubtless none of them realise that the lightly tanned man with wisps of white hair is one of the most consequential thinkers of our time: a radical philosopher whom many regard as the father of the animal liberation movement.
The restaurant was my choice, not his. Singer asked me to book an old vegetarian haunt called Hare Krishna. I could not find any trace of it, so we have ended up here. The decor is faded, and the flute music threatens to drown our conversation, but the steady stream of Indian office workers suggests the kitchen knows what it is about.
Singer - or rather his views - often attracts rather more attention. His appointment as professor of bioethics at Princeton University six years ago provoked anger from people outraged at his support for abortion, euthanasia and infanticide of the severely disabled.
Matters did not improve in 2001, when he reviewed a book on bestiality for an online sex magazine, Nerve.com, and suggested the main moral issue at stake in such acts was whether animals suffered.
He is visiting London to give a lecture on "Our Future and the Genome" at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and to promote two new books: In Defence of Animals, a collection of essays, and The Moral of the Story, an anthology of ethics in literature, which he edited with Renata, which is why he insisted that she come along for lunch too.
Renata, who has just returned from a trip to Africa with Oxfam America, races through the menu with enthusiasm. "Whatís chaat? Does it have potatoes in it? Maybe Iíll try the uthappam."
Singer is more considered, or perhaps just confused. "Is it all vegan, or do they cook with ghee?" he says. In the end the waitress chooses for him: kancheepuram idli (a lentil donut) followed by a spicy Mysore masala dosa.
An Australian accent lightens Singerís words. He was born in Melbourne to a family of Jewish refugees from Austria, not long after three of his grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps.
Ordering done, I ask Singer if he is surprised or disappointed at how much has changed in the 30 years since he published his groundbreaking Animal Liberation.
"Both, I guess," says Singer. "When we started people told us youíll never change this. There have been significant changes, particularly in Europe." He pauses. "On the other hand, when I was writing Animal Liberation it seemed to me that the arguments were so clear that what we were doing was wrong and indefensible that I hoped people would just read it and say that has got to stop. And it hasnít." I ask why he thinks his argument has been only half-persuasive. Renata laughs. "There are a lot of people who like eating meat and they are not really open to ethical arguments."
Singer is proud of the movement he helped to inspire - "full of wonderful people". But he regrets the emergence of a violent "tiny minority". "They are sincere, and I think they are right. But what would I say to people who are equally sincere in opposing abortion?" he asks.
The starters arrive. Renata is excited by her chaat. Singer slices off a corner of his idli. After a while, without exchanging a word, they swap plates to try each otherís dishes.
Singer famously contends that some animals, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, have more moral significance than severely mentally disabled human beings. It may be hard to consider humans the only beings worth moral consideration - a belief Singer labels "speciesism" - when we know we share 99 per cent of our genetic code with chimpanzees and 50 per cent with bananas. But I tell him I find his argument disturbing because it undermines the sense that every human life has unique value.
"I would not really want a sense of the unique value of each human life. There are cases where that is actually a harmful thing, where it may cause suffering, because we do not accept euthanasia for example," Singer says.
The main courses arrive. Singer samples his dosa, a kind of pancake. Renata tries her uthappam, a rice-based pizza. Again, after a while, they swap without a word. Then, a bit later, they swap back.
There is a question I am keen to ask Singer: what is the right exchange rate between human and animal interests? "That is an impossible question."
I insist: it is a necessary question. If he were faced with the choice of rescuing one baby or 200 animals from a burning barn, which would he choose?
"A normal human child, whose mother would be utterly devastated?" He pauses. "I would choose the child." But if the child was severely mentally disabled, and an orphan, would his answer be different? He answers with quiet honesty. "Yes, it would." I say that plenty of disabled people would find that offensive. He is unperturbed. "Some. Not all. Some."
In The Moral of the Story Singer poses himself the question Dostoevsky asks in The Brothers Karamazov: would he torture to death an innocent child if by doing so he would secure happiness for the rest of mankind? Dostoevsky, through Alyosha, says no. Singer says yes.
This project was a real husband and wife partnership: she picked the extracts, he posed the ethical questions. They took it on after reading the best-selling The Book of Virtues by William Bennett, Ronald Reaganís education secretary, a collection of literature aimed at building moral character. "The Book of Virtues is full of tedious extracts of 19th-century literature. You must do this. You must do that. It is really depressing," says Renata.
I venture the thought that the ethics debate is increasingly dominated by Singer and his radical utilitarianism on one hand, and the Christian sanctity of life school on the other. Singer gets animated about the latter. "I donít think their position is consistent." Briefly, he slips into the language of Michael Moore. "Bush talks about the sanctity of life while bombing villages in Iraq and Afghanistan." But normal service resumes. "Also, this business about life existing from conception is starting to crumble because of the possibility of taking human cells and creating life."
Genetics cuts both ways, though. I ask Singer if he would be in favour of genetically re-engineering animals so they do not suffer from factory farming.
"The quadruped that wants to be eaten?" he laughs, in reference to the cow in Douglas Adamsí satirical book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. "That is totally hypothetical."
But what about re-engineering chickens with soft beaks, so that they do not peck each other, or sterile pigs that do not need to be violently castrated? He pauses for a moment. "Suppose that you could engineer a pig that did not have to be castrated? I would have to say - that would be a good thing."
What of the potential for human genetic re-engineering? "First of all it is almost inevitable - it is going to happen. Parents will want to enhance their children," Singer says thoughtfully. He toys with his glass. "The problem is to see how we can regulate it... I think there are genuine ethical objections in a society in which if you are rich you can ensure your children have genetic advantages. You would get a permanent aristocracy, like France before the Revolution."
A state such as Singapore might buy enhancement for all its citizens. But what if the cost is too great? "You could have a lottery system in which nobody could do it unless they have the lucky ticket. Or you could have a system in which people who can afford to do it themselves do it themselves and the rest get a ticket to the lottery."
So are philosophers keeping up with the dramatic advances in genetic science? "If you are talking about professional ethicists, bioethicists, yes. If what you mean is have we produced a public consensus on the way we should go, absolutely not."
I put it that the US - with its stark divide between the secular and religious - may be incapable of ever reaching such a consensus. "It is a serious possibility, I have to admit," he says.
It is time for Singer and Renata to leave for a meeting with their publishers. I apologise to Renata for going over what must be very familiar territory.
"Thank you for refreshing me on his thinking," she says. I look a bit perplexed. They both smile. "Itís not as if we talk about this over breakfast every day," says Singer.
Interview over, we head for the door, with Singer and Renata talking enthusiastically about being in Britain. "The British have such a great sense of irony. Americans have no sense of irony," says Renata. As Singer scoops up a handful of Indian sweets by the exit he says how surprised he and his wife have been to see on British television a comedian joking irreverently about Prince Charles and the Queen: "The comedian steps up and says, ĎI donít care if sheís your mother. Just put a pillow over her head!í On public television! You would never get that in America." And out they step into the London rain.