Princeton professor and noted philosopher Peter Singer visited TCNJ on October 20 to discuss his new book, The Life You Can Save. His 1975 manifesto, Animal Liberation, is widely credited as the touchstone of the modern animal rights movement. Singer sat down with The Perspective to discuss vegetarianism, politics, and the rights of non-human animals.

Peter Singer
Have you made any strides toward veganism, as opposed to your vegetarianism?
I don’t buy dairy products now. But I will eat them if… I don’t know, there’s a reception tonight. If there are things served that are vegetarian but have some dairy, depending on what’s available, I might eat them. I’m not strict about it. I generally try to avoid eggs when I’m out anywhere, because even if the carton says “cage-free,” they’re probably still pretty intensively produced. But if I have access to genuinely free-range eggs, where the hens are outside and I know they have a good life, I’m prepared to eat them.

How does a vegetarian, if he or she is at someone’s house for dinner, avoid coming across as rude in the event that meat is served? Have you ever been in that situation, and how did you handle it?
I think if somebody invites you for dinner, you tell them what you eat and what you don’t eat. You say, “Look, if this is a problem, maybe it’s more convenient for me to come after dinner,” or something like that. In 38 years of being a vegetarian, maybe there’ve been one or two occasions where I’d forgotten to tell someone and it was somewhat embarrassing. But it hasn’t happened for a long time now. So, generally, I think that’s quite manageable; you just explain it to people. And of course, it’s good in a way to explain why you eat what you eat. That’s what led me to start thinking about this issue in the first place. You need people to talk about it.

Do you think government policy should, in some way, promote vegetarianism?
Sure, yeah… I think that would be an excellent thing to do. And not only for the animal-regarding reasons — that’s the stuff that I’ve mostly written about. But it would be good from a health point of view, just in the same way that we try to persuade people not to smoke, or not to be obese. Persuading them not to eat meat would improve peoples’ health, especially given the amounts of meat that most Americans eat. And then there’s the climate change factor, which is huge. I think we’re increasingly realizing just how significant animal products, in particular red meat, are to climate change.

What has been your reaction to the American political scene, as opposed to that of Australia?
I think the American political debate is more hysterical and less well-informed than the political debate in most other countries — regrettably. And that includes Australia. I’m not saying that the debate in Australia or Britain or other countries that I’m familiar with is wonderful — it’s not. But some of the things that people get excited about here – I mean, the idea that the sort of healthcare reform being proposed is in some way socialism, or a step toward totalitarianism — that’s just so crazy. There’s no other industrialized country that doesn’t have universalized health coverage. Nobody in those countries thinks that having universal health coverage is socialism or totalitarianism. Australia had eleven years of a very conservative government, which did not do one thing towards dismantling our universal health care scheme. And they didn’t do it because they know perfectly well that it would have been electoral suicide. So yeah, it’s a strange place in terms of what passes for political opinion.

One of your more controversial positions, and correct me if I’m misrepresenting it, is that the life of a chimpanzee may have more value than the life of a severely retarded human. Can you explain that?
If we’re discussing whether, other things being equal, you ought to preserve a being with normal intelligence over one with profound intellectual disability, I would say yes – but it has nothing particularly to do with the comparison to a chimpanzee. Once you get away from “species-ism” – once you get away from saying, “Just because a being is a member of the species homo sapiens, that being has a special right to life,” then you have to ask: If it’s not because we’re a member of the species homo sapiens, why is it a worse tragedy for somebody like you or me to be killed, than for a chicken to be killed? And I do think it’s a worse tragedy. So it has to be something to do with the fact that we have intellectual capacities that are superior to those of a chicken, and therefore maybe we live our lives in a different way – we think about our future, we do things in order to be able to achieve something in the future, and so on. And a chicken doesn’t do any of that. The chicken doesn’t have those achievements or those future plans. So that’s a reasonable answer to the question, “Why would it be worse to kill you or me than it would be to kill a chicken?” But by consequence of that answer, if you have a being that is a member a species other than homo sapiens, and doesn’t have intellectual capacities any more advanced than those of a chicken – then, other things being equal, you have to say the same about the human as you would about the chicken. Of course, other things may not be equal, because that intellectually disabled human may have parents that love and care for her. But intrinsically, once you reject “species-ism,” there isn’t much of an alternative to saying that intellectual capacities matter for the wrongness of killing. Unless you just want to say whenever a being is conscious at all, it is always wrong to kill it – in which case you have a more radical view about the wrongness of killing animals than I do.

Why can’t people shed their “species-ist” biases?
Some of it comes from religion. One reason I think it’s worth challenging religion is because it has consequences – it has consequences for the way people think about nonhuman animals. Because they think, “Oh, they don’t have immortal souls, so they don’t count.” Well, how does anybody know whether anybody has an immortal soul?

So there is a human-centric solipsism (the view that the self is all that can be known to exist) that springs out of religious belief, and contributes to our inability to place non-human beings on a level comparable to us.
Yes, I think that’s right. And I’m not saying there aren’t elements in religion that count against it. But certainly in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there has been this emphasis on humans being at the center of creation, as being made in the image of God, as having immortal souls, as having dominion over the other organisms. And I think that’s been harmful for the way we treat animals.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Richard Succer,

    I have a problem with animal-rights activists in general. I’m sure Singer has taken antibiotics or been vaccinated multiple times throughout his life, both of which require extensive animal testing before being considered safe for human use. And the president of PETA has actually come out and said he would be opposed to a cure for AIDS if it involved animal testing. I’ve always said you are either a proponent of human rights or animal rights, but you can’t be both.

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