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Peter Singer

Peter Singer is a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton. Notorious for his views on issues such as euthanasia, he is also revered as a founding father by the animal rights movement. Jeremy Iggers asked him about the treatment of farm animals and about his own strict vegetarianism.

The controversial ethicist Peter Singer recently moved from Monash University in his native Australia to the United States, to become the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. Last August Richard Taylor, writing in Philosophy Now, called Singer “the most important and influential philosopher of this generation.”

In his many writings on ethics he takes a utilitarian approach, with an emphasis on the need to reduce suffering. Always willing to apply his theories in his own life, his concern to reduce the suffering of animals led him to give up eating meat and to write the classic Animal Liberation.

Professor Singer, it has been 25 years since you wrote Animal Liberation, which is widely credited with launching the animal rights movement. Have your ideas about animal rights changed or evolved since then?

Though it is true that the book is credited with launching the animal rights movement, in fact I don’t really argue that animals have rights. Rather, I argue that they have interests, and that we should give their interests the same consideration as we would give to similar interests of humans. I call it the principle of equal consideration of interests. Traditionally, that principle stopped at the boundary of our own species. I argue that there can be no ethical justification for taking the fact that a being is not a member of our species as a reason for giving the interests of that being less consideration than we give to the interests of beings who are members of our own species. That is the foundation of my views about animals, and on that, I have not changed my mind at all since 1975.

What are your thoughts on the progress of the animal liberation movement movement in the past quarter-century? Are you optimistic or discouraged about its future?

I was greatly cheered by the decision of the European Union, a year or two ago, to phase out the standard battery cage for laying hens. When animal liberationists said, 25 years ago, that the cage was a diabolical way of keeping hens, people laughed and said that we would never get it changed, because people didn’t care about hens, and too much money was at stake. Now all the animal welfare scientists and even the ministers of agriculture agree with us. That’s a big gain, for hundreds of millions of hens. And it makes me think that attitudes to animals are moving in the right direction. But there is a long, long way to go.

What countries currently have the most exemplary system – legal, political, ethical – of animal welfare and reform? Are there specific measures in place elsewhere that you would urge the US and UK (where our readership is concentrated) to adopt?

On farm animals, there is really nowhere better than the UK, which has banned individual veal and sow stalls. Sweden certainly has some enlightened people working in the area of animal husbandry, and there are things to be learned from Switzerland, as well – since they did ban the battery cage more than a decade ago.

As far as the use of animals in research is concerned, perhaps Sweden is the place to look, since their animal experimentation ethics committees do their deliberations in public – a significant improvement on the secrecy in the UK.

There is no point looking to the US, I’m sorry to say – animal welfare in the US lags far behind that in Britain, and in the EU generally. And the issues regarding farm animals in Australia aren’t much different from those in the US, except that veal crates are not used. But battery cages and sow stalls are, and there are no plans to get rid of them.

You make a distinction between the ethical issues involved in causing animals to suffer and the morality of killing them. If such a thing were possible in practice, could you countenance a ‘cruelty-free’ system of animal farming, in which animals were raised with a minimum of cruelty and killed as painlessly as possible? Could animal farming ever be a ‘fair bargain’ – food, shelter, and protection from other predators in exchange for eggs, milk, and finally meat?

I can conceive of circumstances in which animals led good lives, in natural circumstances, with others of their species, and then were painlessly killed. I would still prefer not to do that, nor would I want to eat the products of such farms, but I wouldn’t campaign against them – such a life would seem to be a reasonable deal from the animal’s point of view. But it would be very hard to do at a reasonable price, and I think it could only be done on a small scale.

But why wouldn’t you eat meat that came from farms like that, if they existed?

Now that I am not in the habit of eating animals, I have no desire to do so – I enjoy the food I am eating very much. And I’d now find it repugnant to eat them, even if I were convinced that they had lived good lives and died without suffering. So in that sense, it is a little like eating the body of a stranger you had come across, who had just been struck by lightning. I’d do it, if I were starving and there was nothing else to eat, but not if I had plenty of food with me.

Realizing that people are rarely all or nothing creatures, what would you propose as a minimal todo list for those who refuse to change their lives entirely but who wish to do something at the very least? What is the least amount of effort someone can put forth that will have the greatest impact possible?

Becoming a vegetarian doesn’t take that much of an effort, especially in countries like the UK and the USA where there are plenty of vegetarian foods available. But if for some reason that is too much for you to do, then I would say: avoid all factory farmed products. Buy only free-range eggs, and if you are going to eat meat, make sure that it is organically produced, from suppliers who allow their animals to roam freely.

[Jeremy Iggers would like to thank Karen Carlson for suggesting some of the questions in this interview.]

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