July 17, 2008

Peter Singer: Of great apes and men

Peter Singer says that, as Spain takes one great step forward for animal rights and liberty, activists elsewhere are persecuted:
If we regard human rights as something possessed by all human beings, no matter how limited their intellectual or emotional capacities may be, how can we deny similar rights to great apes? To do so would be to display a prejudice against other beings merely because they are not members of our species - a prejudice we call speciesism, to highlight its resemblance to racism. The Spanish resolution marks the first official acceptance of that view. The use of the term "slavery" in relation to animals is especially significant, for it has been assumed that animals are rightly our slaves, to use as we wish, whether to pull our carts, be models of human diseases for research, or produce eggs, milk, or flesh for us to eat. Recognition by a government that it can be wrong to enslave animals is a significant breach in the wall of exclusive moral significance we have built around our own species. -- Peter Singer
Entire article.

6 comments:

Carl's Haunted Turtleneck said...

I'm not a fan of Peter Singer- in fact i think he hurts the movement and is inconsistent in his own dietary dalliances. But that said, i think he makes some very good points here.

Ryan McReynolds said...

Let me paraphrase Singer for my reaction to the Great Ape Project:

If we regard rights as something possessed by great apes, no matter how limited their intellectual or emotional capacities may be, how can we deny similar rights to other sentient animals? To do so would be to display a prejudice against other beings merely because they are not members of the various great ape species - a prejudice we call speciesism, to highlight its resemblance to racism.

Believe me, I am all for granting great apes basic rights, but the idea that they deserve them in particular for being similar to humans is as speciesist as denying them in the first place. I know some GAP supporters see it is a "first step" toward recognition of other rights in other non-human animals, and one that can plausibly be argued to nonbelievers in animal rights, but the language used by the project tends to alienate me.

Great ape similarity to humans is not a more compelling reason to grant them rights, because the relevant characteristics that those rights are designed to protect are not held only by those beings so similar to humans. Any being capable of suffering ought to have an inherent right not to suffer as a mere means to another's end, and the onus is on those who exploit them to prove that the suffering is in the direct interests of the individual animal having it inflicted upon them or is unavoidable to prevent more infringements upon the rights or others.

In every morally relevant sense, the "community of equals" hailed by the GAP includes any animal capable of suffering, and their focus on only those who happen to resemble us cognitively is the very speciesism they decry. As Singer himself said, we grant rights to humans "no matter how limited their intellectual or emotional capacities may be," so why stop here?

George said...

Ryan, your point is very well taken, but I believe that Singer is merely being political. I sincerely believe that the language he used was carefully selected so as to not alienate the growing number of supporters. I think he realizes that this is a small step in the larger struggle for 'personhood' considerations which may or may not have distinctly 'human' characteristics as part of it.

Further, when he says "we" grant rights to humans no matter what, I don't think he's including himself. Singer, if you'll remember, is notorious for his position on the merciful euthanizing of infants born into chronic pain and who are terminally ill.

Something tells me that if you two sat down for a private conversation you'd have little to argue about in this regard.

m. s. said...

@Ryan McReynolds:

And isn't "capable of suffering" another arbitrary line?

Full disclosure: I am a speciesist (even if I agree with great ape rights).

Ryan McReynolds said...

Oh, am am well aware that Singer is being political. I've read virtually everything he's written. I am generally skeptical of being political, though. I don't think an incremental approach can or will work in this case, because it encourages people to think of intelligence as a morally relevant capacity. Singer, while a utilitarian unlike myself these days, like me considers sentience the morally relevant criterion. Being political is intentionally misleading supporters about your position. It's lying.

But as a utilitarian, Singer must believe that as long as the good that comes from this deceit outweighs the minor harm of the deception, it is justified. So at least it isn't hypocritical. I would rather we convince people of what we actually believe than what they're merely willing to accept, even if it means slower going.

Ryan McReynolds said...

@ m. s.

No, sentience is very much non-arbitrary. After all, morality is essentially just a method of determining when it's OK or not OK to harm someone. Sentience is by definition the point at which a being is capable of experiencing harm; i.e., having a welfare. Anything not sentient may be "damaged," but it can't be said to be experiencing anything without pain receptors and some sort of nervous system to process the reaction.

It may well be that there's a gray area here, and that's fine. I err on the side of caution and as far as is feasible just don't mess with the whole of kingdom Animalia rather than try to pick and choose who I can squish with impunity.