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I am sure he would rather use humans with profound cognitive capacities, but at least Peter Singer has acknowledged that great good can come from medical research using animals—and monkeys, no less. (The experiments involved surgical procedures to help Parkinson’s patients, among other conditions.)

This is interesting news, and no doubt flows from Singer’s utilitarianism. As I understand Singer’s beliefs, he doesn’t believe in the concept of “rights”—either human or animal—but rather, in promoting “interests.” Thus, since an infant has no right to life and in Singer’s view is not yet a person because he or she is not self aware and cannot value their own existence, this means that parents can have their baby painlessly killed if that would better promote the interests of the family. (Singer uses the example of a baby with a disability to illustrate his thesis, but the existence of disability is actually not relevant, since it is the purported non personhood of the baby that makes him or her killable.) However, persons can value their lives, and thus have an interest in living, and so cannot be similarly killed.

It will be interesting to see how Singer squares his belief in monkey personhood with their use in sometimes lethal medical experiments. I suspect it will go along these lines: In utilitarianism, even persons don’t have rights, and hence, sometimes the interests of the majority (or their happiness) can overcome the interests (or happiness) of the minority—permitting the latter to be used instrumentally for the former’s benefit. And indeed, the Parkinson’s researcher told Singer that 40,000 human patients have been helped through the use of 100 monkeys, to which Singer stated, “Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment.”

Animal liberationists, however, tend not to be amoral utilitarians like Singer, but fervent ideologues who believe that the ability to feel pain is what brings moral value. (In this view, since a cow can feel pain and a human can feel pain, they are morally equivalent, and hence, cattle ranching is as odious as slavery.) And I have been wondering if this would eventually lead to a conflict between Singer’s personhood approach and the ‘painience,” or similar rights-oriented views of other liberationists. And indeed, as I discussed in a First Things blog entry, Gary Francione has decried Singer as an “animal welfarist” rather than an animal liberationist—a view that will certainly be reinforced with Singer’s new comments. Meanwhile, the purists are beginning to weigh in.

Singer’s acknowledging that animal research offers bona fide scientific benefits completely undermines the animal rights meme that such experiments are useless, as well as cruel, and hence, the worst of evils. This could splinter the animal rights movement.

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