Animal-rights activists are up in arms about a recent statement by Peter Singer¯a bioethics professor at Princeton’s Center for Human Values who was, once upon a time, beloved by those activists for his 1975 book Animal Liberation .
The problem seems to be this: A neurosurgeon Tipu Aziz told Singer that "to date 40,000 people have been made better" by his research, while "I would guess only 100 monkeys were used." And, according to the Times of London , Singer replied: "Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment. I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided¯I take it you are the expert in this, not me¯that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see that as justifiable research."
Well, the animal-rights types weren’t having any of that. "The man talks rubbish and the sooner the notion that he has any place in the modern animal rights movement is dispelled the better," said one UK group , a sentiment also echoed here .
In interviews and letters , Singer has tried to clarify his view¯the most interesting part of which is his accusation that his opponents are guilty of "speciesism." If people weigh no more than animals, then a consistent utilitarian philosophy has to admit that animals weigh no more than humans: "I’m not saying you can’t do any research, obviously. You should ask yourself: Do I think this experiment is so important that I would be able to perform it on a human being at a similar mental level if that alternative were open to me?"
What are we to make of this? According to Singer, newborn babies should not be treated differently from other animals. This would logically suggest that animals not be treated differently from babies. And since Singer, interestingly, is willing to admit that infanticide can be justified on certain occasions, then the killing of animals can be justified as well¯which is what’s gotten him in hot water with the animal-rights folk.
But no one should buy into Singer’s talk of "speciesism" (which, I suppose, is a second-cousin of "racism" and "sexism"). Human experience itself reveals that human beings differ from other animals, not only in degree, but in kind. Some people may root this experience in religious belief, but the point does not depend on divine revelation.
The ability to search for and deliberate about truth, to express conclusions in propositional language, and to act freely on the basis of reason: Human beings possess these rational, personal capacities in virtue of the type of animal they are. These capacities do not belong to spirits that inhabit animals, centers of consciousness that are somehow associated with material bodies, nor "ghosts in machines." Rather, they belong to the human person¯a rational, bodily, animal organism. And the basic human capacity for personal life¯a capacity we possess from the moment we come into existence until the moment we pass away¯provides the basis for our intrinsic dignity and profound worth. It’s also what sets us apart from other animals.
Singer’s failure to recognize this common experience of the human difference¯combined with his utilitarian mode of moral reasoning¯means, finally, that he cannot defend the idea of human rights. Or animal rights, for that matter. Peter Singer has always admitted this, more or less, but it comes as a shock to the animal-rights activists who used to admire him so.
Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things . He is also the assistant director of the Program on Bioethics and Human Dignity at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J.
In his trademarked incisive prose, Cardinal Dulles shows how Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est , brings together centuries of theological reflection to connect eros with agape , and how C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves has much to add to the conversation. It’s a feature in the January issue of First Things , available now on newsstands¯but easier to get as a subscriber. Aren’t you subscribing yet ?