Heartless animal or rational beast?

May 29, 1998

How can an animal rights leader who finds 'pet' a demeaning term argue that severely disabled babies should be killed? Kate Worsley meets Peter Singer, a philosopher who believes that not all lives are equal

Students at King's College London hoping to meet the renowned Australian philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer at a scheduled lecture earlier this month were disappointed. Singer pulled out as soon as he heard that King's Centre for Philosophical Studies had taken a Pounds 20,000 annual donation from the multinational oil company Shell. Singer attacked Shell for its "appalling record of environmental damage" and its involvement with Nigeria's military regime. He went on to castigate British universities for accepting money from outside sources, warning of the dangers of blurring the line between "truly independent academics" and "hired researchers".

Clearly, a man of principles then. Singer has campaigned on environmental issues and stood for election in Australia as a Green candidate. He heads the centre for bioethics at Monash University, and his 20 or so books include Animal Liberation, written when he was 29 and now the bible of the animal rights movement, and Practical Ethics, last year named one of the world's 100 most significant philosophy texts. So how did he come to be vilified by the media as a child-murdering eugenicist who thinks it is OKto kill babies?

Hardly had he stepped off the plane for a fortnight of lectures and seminars than the Daily Express gave him the tabloid once-over in an article by pro-life lawyer Jacqueline Laing. This was followed by an early-morning shindig on Radio Four's Today between Laing and Singer; a late-night grilling on Newsnight; and condemnation by doctors' leaders in The Independent the next day. The right-on liberationist had metamorphosed into a baby killer, more concerned about animal welfare than the rights of the most vulnerable of his own species.

The media clamour was at its height when I met the 52-year-old, impeccably polite Singer, who is the very embodiment of reason - a man who believes that rational argument can change the world. He sighs when he recalls Laing. "It's not the first time she has attacked me in a way that distorts my views. She did not even know what I was lecturing on here, but saw my visit as a hook upon which she could hang an attack. I wish that issue would run out of steam but it doesn't seem to."

It seems a vain hope. Singer's position on handicapped babies has been clear for decades - it flows directly from the principles that underlie his views on animals. Currently, babies born severely disabled are left to die because medical ethics does not allow doctors deliberately to kill them. Their food, drugs and life support are withdrawn, and their lingering deaths can be agonising. Singer thinks a swift, painless death is in the child's best interests. Doctors, with parental consent are, in his view, justified in administering a lethal injection.

Singer argues that we do not have an inviolable right to life just because we are human. All lives are not of equal worth because degrees of self-awareness, intelligence and the capacity for meaningful relationships with others make some lives more valuable than others. The presence or absence of capacities such as self-awareness are relevant to decisions about whether or not to end life. A chimp, a dog, even a pig has more self-awareness and capacity for meaningful relations than do some severely retarded infants or those in advanced senility.

It is our status as sentient beings, able to feel pain, to suffer and to anticipate death, that matters most to Singer. He argues that it is time to abandon the Western, Christian-based ethic of the sanctity of human life. The Commandment "Thou shalt not kill" says nothing about not killing animals. Singer considers this "speciesist" - an example of discrimination against animals based on the belief that humans are more important - and thinks it is as wrong as racism or sexism.

More practically, Singer points out that medical technology has advanced to the point where doctors, lawyers and parents already make life-and-death decisions. This reality conflicts with the traditional Christian ethic to preserve life at all costs: the result is all too often "tragic farce", Singer says. His 1994 book, Rethinking Life and Death, was prompted by the ruling the previous year that Hillsborough victim Anthony Bland could legally be taken off the machine that would have prolonged his life. In the book, Singer also wrote about Rudy Linares, a 23-year-old Chicago house painter who held nurses at bay with a gun while he disconnected the respirator keeping his eight-month-old son alive. Linares held his son until the child died half an hour later. Then, crying, he gave himself up. "He acted against the law and the sanctity-of-life ethic, but his impulse was in accordance with an emerging ethical attitude that is more defensible than the old one and will replace it," Singer wrote.

As a utilitarian philosophy Singer's argument may be unassailable, yet many are unable to accept the logic of his conclusions, including the doctors and nurses who deal daily with such issues. Dr John Wyatt, professor of neonatal paediatrics at University College London, says that there is all the difference in the world between letting people die and killing them. Singer replies: "To me 'letting nature take its course' does not make a lot of sense in a neonatal intensive care unit where one is making deliberate decisions to allow a child to go. If you are in that high-tech medicine area, you have to take responsibility for making life-and-death decisions. Dr Wyatt is not finding a way to prolong life every second, he's making a decision at some point to pull back (from treatment). The crucial question is when that decision is justified rather than how exactly death comes about."

Emotion may be a powerful impulse, but it is no basis for ethical decisions, Singer says, especially as Darwinian thought gives us grounds to doubt our intuition on such issues. Instinct may have guided our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but it may not be as reliable a tool for us today. If instinctive reactions are merely a legacy of evolutionary history, Singer suggests, we should not behave as though they were a true guide to objective knowledge.

It is part of his downplaying of emotion to deny that he is an "animal lover", although animals are undeniably a subject close to his heart: the only time he came close to a joke was when conceding that, although he found the term "pet" demeaning, replacing it with "companion animals" might be going too far. Animal Liberation, which made his name in 1975, is a closely reasoned justification of the rights of animals. "Nowhere in this book," he emphasises, "do I appeal to readers' emotions where they cannot be supported by reason."

He prides himself on the rigour of his thinking: "I like to think that I have put pressure on people in bioethics to make their arguments more rigorous, not just to mouth platitudes about 'the intrinsic dignity of human beings' or 'the inherent worth of human life' but to actually show what they mean, why they think that humans inherently have dignity and animals do not".

In Rethinking Life and Death, Singer offers an ethic that "looks at the quality of life and does not draw sharp lines between humans and animals as such". He suggests that if we are to find fulfilment in life, developing a coherent ethical framework for the modern world is imperative. Is there anything still to live for apart from self, money, love and family, he asks in 1993's How Are We To Live? "The possibility of living an ethical life provides us with a way out of this impasse. To live ethically is to reflect in a particular way on how you live and to try to act in accordance with the conclusions of that reflection."

This pragmatism has been a hallmark of Singer's career. When he decided to abandon the law part of his law and philosophy degree at Melbourne University, he knew he would never be happy in an ivory tower. "I have always felt that philosophy would not be worth doing if it did not have some impact on the rest of the world, In philosophy classes when people talked about how we know there's a desk here, I thought 'that's a really interesting intellectual puzzle, but I'm not going to spend the rest of my life doing that!'"

Recently, he has worked to gain rights for great apes. In The Great Ape Project, written with Paola Cavalieri, he proposes that great apes, as intelligent beings with rich and varied social and emotional lives, should have the same rights and protection as people. Already in the United States, the National Research Council has issued a paper stating that scientists should not kill great apes that are surplus to requirements - a move that runs contrary to general practice with experimental animals. In Britain, a bill prohibiting experimentation on great apes was introduced last year but has yet to become law.

Singer is optimistic that, in the long run, reason will prevail over emotion and instinct in ethical decision-making. He has seen his approach bear fruit in animal liberation: "People still come to me and say 'your book changed how I live'. That's great because it shows the power of rational argument." In 100 years, he thinks, we will have resolved the issue of voluntary euthanasia, will have given great apes a new moral standing and will be using genetic advances in many beneficial ways.

"What is needed now is for people to set up situations in which it is beneficial for people to be trustworthy and cooperative and that may be what happens." He starts to speculate on where globalisation may lead - less narrow political control over areas such as genetic engineering, more economic equality - but stops himself. "I'm talking off the top of my head." He has to think his position through. If the rest of us did the same - would we agree with him about killing babies?

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