My family and other animals

February 25, 2000

Controversial philosopher Peter Singer spoke to Kam Patel about ethics, vegetarians and his mother's Alzheimer's disease.

There can be few more controversial living thinkers than the philosopher appointed last year to a new chair in bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer: a champion of animal rights, an advocate of euthanasia - and a phenomenally successful author. His philosophical books have sold by the hundreds of thousands and are available in 15 languages. Half a million copies of his most successful book, Animal Liberation , published in 1975, have been sold; it led directly to the creation of the animal rights movement. Another book, Practical Ethics , published in 1979, is the biggest-selling philosophy text ever published by Cambridge University Press and a standard on many ethics courses around the world, particularly in the United States, Europe and Australia, where its author was born 53 years ago.

But Singer, who gives away one-fifth of his income to developing-world causes, says he has not made any money from the sales of these, his two most successful books. All income from Practical Ethics goes to Oxfam, while that from Animal Liberation is channelled into the animal rights movement. He keeps only the royalties from some of his other books that sell less, but this income too is subject to his one-fifth principle. Singer remarks: "My major income has always been my academic salary. I have never had a writing income which has constituted more than 25 per cent of my academic salary."

Animal Liberation , in which he argues that many non-human animals have interests that deserve the same consideration as those of humans, was not the product of childhood or teenage concern about animal welfare. It dates from 1970, when Singer was in his early twenties and had lunch with a fellow student at Oxford University. "He was a vegetarian, which was still fairly unusual then," Singer recalls. "Through him I met others who were also vegetarians. I felt challenged to think about how our treatment of animals could be justified within an ethical framework. I thought about it for a while and concluded it could not be." One of his first major public forays on the issue appeared in 1973 as a New York Review of Books piece about a book, Animals, Man and Morals . It attracted many letters, and led to an offer from a publisher.

Singer was not entirely surprised by the extraordinary success of Animal Liberation : "I hoped it would have a big impact. But the book is an example of something that cannot be replicated. I had stumbled upon a huge untouched field. If you looked at what had been written in the field over the previous 50-70 years of the 20th century, it was minimal and fairly sentimental stuff."

He does not demur at being thought of as founder of the animal liberation movement, but points out that animal liberation means different things in different countries. In Australia, there are activist animal-rights groups in every state that strive to end the use of animals for food and experiments by strictly non-violent means. In Britain, however, and to a lesser extent in the United States, "animal rights" are associated with splinter groups like the Animal Liberation Front, whose actions have gone beyond what Singer would consider acceptable tactics. "I have never favoured violence, attacks on experimenters and those sorts of actions." He has met senior ALF activists and told them as much.

Animal Liberation was never intended to be a textbook but Singer is naturally pleased that it has found its way on to many student reading lists around the world. Practical Ethics by contrast was conceived as a text. It lays out in explicit detail how Singer's arguments on issues such as the treatment of animals, abortion and the obligations of the wealthy to the poor can be translated into practical measures for individuals and societies. In his latest published book - perhaps a future textbook? - a slim work entitled A Darwinian Left , Singer is again controversial, arguing that left-wing political thinking, traditionally contemptuous of "determinist" Darwinian thinking, should rather embrace it and in the process renew itself. "I have read widely in the field and I don't think anyone is a determinist in the proper sense of the term. If the point is that the role played by genetic factors in behaviour, for instance, has been neglected, it seems to me you have to note it seriously. There is no use in hurling around labels, you have to look at what the evidence shows." He has just finished writing a biography of his Austrian grandfather who died in a Nazi death camp in 1943. He says he finds it difficult to take on the writing of a major book while teaching. "You just do not get the uninterrupted thought process, it's too hard to do it in an hour here and there."

As a writer, Singer aims above all for simplicity and clarity: "I like to avoid using unnecessarily difficult words and technical jargon. When I am revising a draft, it's always a matter of removing superfluous words, to see if I can say things more clearly, more directly." He admires Bertrand Russell for this: "I read him avidly as a teenager and love his prose." Richard Dawkins and A. S. Byatt are among favourite contemporary authors.

The feedback from students, fellow academics and the general public to his own provocative works has been extensive. Many have approached him to tell of the profound impact of Animal Liberation on their lives: "Quite a number of people have become vegetarian after reading the book, and some of them become involved in the animal liberation movement. These are significant life changes - not just a change of diet. If you become vegetarian for the reasons given in Animal Liberation , you are making a serious ethical commitment; it means your entire life becomes more ethically serious."

Singer's one-fifth donations to good causes from his income suggest that he is doing as much as he can to live his own philosophy. But recently, his critics (there are many) have been falling over themselves to exploit a yawning gap between what Singer practises and what he preaches - as they see it. The issue concerns Singer's mother Cora, who has Alzheimer's disease. His critics charge that, according to his own writings, Cora could very well qualify for "non-voluntary euthanasia". He responds: "There is a question of how long you should support the life of someone with Alzheimer's. From the patient's point of view I think it is reasonable to do so for as long as he or she is not suffering. And my mother is not suffering."

But is the substantial sum of money being spent on his mother's care the best possible use for it within her son's ethical framework? Singer concedes that it is not: the money could be better used to treat people who are dying of starvation or some easily preventable disease in a developing country. "I do not claim to be doing everything I should in my personal life to ensure that every dollar I spend or give away does the maximum to promote happiness or relieve suffering. I am doing something for my mother, and you can question whether it is the best use of resources. But in doing so two key issues become rather confused: the case for euthanasia for patients who are no longer persons in the full sense of the term - which I have never said is obligatory if there is no suffering - and the question of the best possible use of money that you have."

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