The Frontal Cortex

Peter Singer Changes His Mind

Peter Singer, a bioethicist at Princeton, is the brain behind the animal rights movement. He has provided their sole moral argument – animals have the same rights as humans – with a rigorous philosophical foundation. But now he appears to modifying his stance:

One of the most important figures in the animal rights movement has publicly backed the use of living creatures in medical experiments. The endorsement – by the philosopher Peter Singer, who coined the phrase Animal Liberation and whose Seventies book on the subject led to the creation of the animal rights movement – has surprised observers.

Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton, is renowned for insisting animals should have equal rights with humans but is quoted, on camera, backing research in which experiments on monkeys are carried out to develop surgery for Parkinson’s and other patients.

‘It is clear at least some animal research does have benefits,’ Singer admits on Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing, which will be screened on BBC2 tomorrow. ‘I would certainly not say that no animal research could be justified and the case you have given sounds like one that is justified.’

The admission has delighted scientists, including the Oxford surgeon Tipu Aziz, the doctor involved in this work. ‘It is a very encouraging sign,’ he said.

This is a welcome shift. In recent years, Singer has spent more time focusing on the animal food industryThe Way We Eat is a harrowing read – and less time worrying about animal experimentation. It’s high time animal rights activists realize that the “animal holocaust” isn’t taking place in science labs. (That is, unless you count drosophila and c.elegans. I’ve killed more than my fair share of those two species.) If you want to improve the lives of animals, focus on chickens and cows, not mice and chimps.


  1. #1 coturnix
    November 27, 2006

    Well, I am glad to hear that. I had a feeling that he was wavering as his emphasis lately has been different than in the past. As for philosophical soundness, Singer and Regan managed to totally demolish each other’s logic a couple of decades ago, so both of them have been shown to have been quite sloppy.

  2. #2 chet snicker
    November 27, 2006

    tipu aziz is a brother!

  3. #3 quitter
    November 27, 2006

    Singer definitely has contributed more than any other to the form of arguments about animal testing. He successfully shifted the conversation into this perpetual slippery-slope of trying to identify which animals are more conscious or sentient than other and creating a value-scale to their lives based on this bone-headedness. Christ, just last week wasn’t PETA complaining that the turkey pardoned by Bush won’t really be pardoned because the working farm it goes to wouldn’t be “intellectually stimulating”? Thanks a lot Singer, that’s all you right there, we have to think about turkey intellect as a result of his BS. I’m an advocate of the “any non-human is fair game” school of research ethics as a result of this annoying nitpicking and prioritizing of the cute and cuddly as somehow the most sacrosanct of lives.

    However, isn’t it pathetic that we celebrate that this guy has finally decided that all animal research doesn’t deserve to be stopped? Did someone finally teach him biology and the dependence of nearly 100% of biological research on animals and animal products? Isn’t it disturbing that the previous Luddite/anti-science point of view was ever taken seriously? Or that so very few people understand the nature of biological research?

    Oh, and I’ll be called a Nazi in 3….2…..1….

  4. #4 Baratos
    November 27, 2006

    “Oh, and I’ll be called a Nazi in 3….2…..1….”


  5. #5 Tyler DiPietro
    November 27, 2006

    Oh, and I’ll be called a Nazi in 3….2…..1….


    J/K. I agree with quitter in that we shouldn’t exactly be celebrating the fact that Singer has inched a little closer to sanity in his stance on animal testing. His ideas have had bad consequences, and they aren’t going away anytime soon if history has anything to say about it (James Lovelock took a load of poo-flinging from the radical environmentalists when he endorsed nuclear power as a way to wean of fossil fuels).

  6. #6 Monson
    November 27, 2006

    What is the point of pardoning the Turkey?

  7. #7 revere
    November 28, 2006

    My understanding of Singer is not that he says animals have rights but that animals have interests. That’s quite a different thing. I am a biomedical scientist and I use and endorse animals in biomedical experiments. But I have also seen a huge change in how animals are treated in the 40 years I have been an academic scientist and pretty much the change has been for the better. It has improved the science as well.

    Singer is a serious ethicist. Demonizing him doesn’t seem appropriate to me. I’ve only read one book of his (on world government) and some shorter pieces as I am not particularly interested in the animal rights movement but I think we can be a bit more nuanced in how we discuss it. Singer isn’t PETA nor does PETA represent what I know of his views.

  8. #8 Caledonian
    November 29, 2006

    I agree with quitter in that we shouldn’t exactly be celebrating the fact that Singer has inched a little closer to sanity in his stance on animal testing.

    I’ve read a few of his works, and he’s one of the most sane individuals I’ve ever encountered, in person or in print.

    I think you’re confusing ‘sanity’ with ‘approving of your preconceived positions’.

  9. #9 quitter
    November 29, 2006

    Sorry, but I’m going to stay pissed at Singer for framing the conversation about animal rights to be about some insane intellectual scale of sentience rather than acknowledging that death is a part of life, and it’s ok to kill living things for survival, comfort, and even knowledge. Making this whole damn thing about the intellect of the animals is just a slippery-slope to Jainism and is just so tiresome.

  10. #10 Lizzie
    November 29, 2006

    Your last sentence is intriguing- “focus on cows and chickens, not mice and chimps”. You didn’t really support your statement. I think I understand the first part of your statement- the number of animals not just killed but raised in depraved conditions warrants our urgent concern. Point well taken.

    But I don’t understand what is self-evident about not worrying about mice and chimps.

    I find the issue of using animals for medical research an extremely complicated one. And it is always interesting and a little disappointing to me how scientists so often seem to righteously believe in their entitlement to any and all medical research on animals, without further investigation into these complexities.

    In particular, one of the major implications of Darwin is that nature doesn’t reinvent, and instead reuses, with tiny, incremental adjustments, the same basic machinery across species. So, if we are to be ethical, the same reasons that make other mammals such good ones to test our own medicines on should lead us acknowledge a likely possibility: that these creatures have nervous systems that motivate and allow them to suffer, physically and in some ways emotionally, as we do.

    To glibly disregard such concerns diminishes science. Without consideration of these ethical questions, we are merely following primitive, self-serving interests – hardly an acceptable reflection of the rigorous ethical standards of the discipline.

  11. #11 quitter
    November 29, 2006

    His last sentence is well justified. Part of the problem with communicating what animal research is is that people don’t see the level of care and concern that is taken to avoid suffering.

    Not only do animal protocols get subjected to a really rigorous level of review by fellow scientists, vets and members of the community (the ACUC committee it’s usually called), but the animals are treated with a great deal of care, are not crowded, and are under constant veterinary supervision. I don’t see animal suffering as the problem in science, because they really aren’t. If an animal is to suffer from an experimental protocol, it has to be extensively justified, minimized, and ultimately will likely be forbidden by the ACUC unless you can show an extremely compelling reason to do the experiment. Minimization of pain and minimization of use are the major concerns in science. Yes the animals are almost always killed at the end of biological experiments. Really unless you’re doing studies in geriatrics, you ultimately need to sacrifice the animal for molecular or histologic studies to figure out what happened. So we kill animals, no denying that, but making them suffer? Not so much.

    So, when people say that scientists (or at least academic scientists with ACUCs) are callous or causing wanton suffering to animals they’re full of shit. Factory farming? Sure, it’s a terrible thing for many, many reasons, not just the suffering of animals, which I’m somewhat callous about as an affirmed speciesist, but also for humans as they create huge toxic waste problems, antibiotic resistance, and terrible conditions for the human workers. I prefer tasty locally-grown and organic-raised cow.

  12. #12 revere
    November 29, 2006

    quitter: I don’t know how long you’ve been around medical research, but the level of care that is taken today is light years from the way things were before Singer and others started raising these issues. It still has a way to go in many institutions but there is no comparison. This also makes the science better. The way experimental animals were kept was a major problem in interpreting some experiments.

    IACUC compliance is a development that came out of a concern about animal welfare that was not at all present in the research community prior to Singer’s era. It is not all due to him. He is just one voice, but an intellectually honest one, which is more than I can say for many animal rights activists and many of their scientist opponents.

  13. #13 Devery
    November 29, 2006

    Lizzie is absolutely right to say that “he same reasons that make other mammals such good ones to test our own medicines on should lead us acknowledge a likely possibility: that these creatures have nervous systems that motivate and allow them to suffer, physically and in some ways emotionally, as we do.” Thank you for your elegant response.

    Unlike quitter, I do not find ethical considerations “tiresome,” and I don’t think it is right to kill other animals for comfort, and I think there are serious ethical considerations involved in any kind of animal use. I gave up eating meat and dairy when I realized there was little difference between paying large corporations to abuse animals (not to mention their employees) and torturing an animal myself. It is sheer wishful thinking, sheer sentimentality and un-reason to declare factory farming anything but animal abuse. Why is the person who say, lights a stray dog on fire a sociopath but the person who consumes pork is not? Yes much biological research is predicated on animal experimentation, but does that make any and all animal research acceptable? How does asking these questions make one a de facto “Luddite”? Per revere, changes in animal experimentation protocol have “improved the science as well.”

    When people get all sarcastic about how “tiresome” these questions are, and what pains-in-the-ass animal advocacy groups are, I can’t help but see how that defensive sarcasm just underscores the importance of the question: what we ethically owe other animals. That question is always the elephant in the room, so to speak. [Perhaps one of the PTSD adolescent males on a rampage, recently covered in SEED.] To not engage with that question is intellectually dishonest, as is just suddenly assuming all non-human animals instantly become mere biological automata just whenever it is convenient for us.

  14. #14 quitter
    November 29, 2006

    All non-human animals do become mere biological automata when it is convenient for us, admit it. And we ethically owe them nothing. This bizarre survival guilt some liberals have for becoming the dominant species on the planet is pointless. And very few among us can honestly admit they’d swerve to avoid a dog in the street to hit a child. When it comes to us vs them, we (should) always choose us, that’s ok, that’s nature and a requirement for the continued survival of our species. That attitude is largely why we exist. We use it as a rule even to kill other humans, for self defense, for their organs if we decide their brain is dead, for ideology (I mean justified ideological struggles like against fascism – not just any disagreement), etc.

    Our whole existence we’ve been at war with nature, she’s been trying to kill us, and we’ve adapted by becoming some of the best killers on the planet. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I believe people who advocate this idea we can exist without killing are just deluding themselves and avoiding acknowledgment of all the animals and lower forms of life they’re killing all the time to survive. Everything from the bacteria/fungus/viruses trying to kill us that our body kills automatically, to the hundreds of millions of bugs we smoosh against our windshields, the squirrels we run over, to the habitat we destroy for development, birds killed by tall buildings and radio-towers, etc. For you vegetarians out there, you don’t think animals are killed in the process of farming? Go to a freaking organic farm and you’ll see organic means they just use a different breed of pesticides, not that they’re not killing to protect the food supply. For everyone who doesn’t buy every single thing organically (because it’s often too expensive or unavailable), you’re products are killing animals by poisoning the environment.

    So when you tell me that killing animals for comfort is wrong, you are full of shit. You are not evaluating your interactions with nature. Have you stopped driving to avoid killing things as inevitably is the case? Have you stopped using cell phones to save the poor birds that have been killing themselves flying into the towers? Have you figured out how to grow crops without even organic pesticides? When you moved into your house did you inquire about the welfare of the moles, rats, mice, and birds that were displaced in the construction of your habitation? If a big fat plage rat moved into your house would you kill the little monster or try to be its friend? Should we stop all construction because it destroys animals and kills habitat? Do you wear leather? Wool?

    Admit it, we all kill for comfort, convenience, etc., we just don’t think about it, or just dismiss any animal that is ugly or has too many legs as unworthy.

    It is impossible not to kill things in this world, and you know what, that’s ok. Life requires death. We have to defend our bodies, our food supply, and our lives from what nature would ordinarily do with it by whatever means necessary. What irritates be about the ARAs is their completely unexamined, unrealistic, and unscientific worldview about what life is, how the food-supply (even vegetarian) works, how science works, how important animals and animal-derived products are for science etc. I guess growing up in North America, where every predator has been killed, malaria has been genocidally exterminated, screw-worms were rendered extinct, and virtually every other pest has been beaten back by hygeine, antibiotics, and civilization, people begin to think that they can commune with nature and that it’s their friend. I’ll tell you something. Nature is not your friend, that bitch will kill you if you let her, and it’s ok to fight back, even if it means making pesky animals extinct for our comfort (screw worm, mosquitos etc).

    So, maybe you’ll understand why I’m a little sarcastic when it comes to dealing with ARAs – their ideas are impracticle, unreasonable, harmful to humans, and reflect a fundamental misunderstanding about how nature works, how we got here, and our very real need to kill to survive, for comfort, and for knowledge.

  15. #15 John Wilkins
    November 30, 2006

    Rumour has it that Singer’s own mother suffers from some disease that is best addressed by animal research. It may be that principle is being sacrificed to personal interest here.

  16. #16 ivan
    December 1, 2006

    I think that Mr. Singer should try to focus how to persuade the snakes to abandon the unhealthy diet (e.g. small rodents). It would probably help both the predator and the prey in this case.

  17. #17 Lucy
    February 8, 2009

    It seems quitter’s arguments are correct. So, I think he should open a public debate and challenge prof. Singer to a duel. And tell all that stuff in front of TV cameras.

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