Rights and Wrongs
Erika Check
Nature, September 1, 2005

We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.” So reads the Declaration on Great Apes, a statement issued by the Great Ape Project.

Co-founded in 1993 by the Australian-born ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer, the project’s ultimate goal is for chimps and other great apes to be granted three ‘human’ rights: the right to life, to liberty and to protection from torture. “The fact that they clearly have some self-awareness shows that we should treat them differently,” says Singer. “The case for granting them some basic rights is a stronger one than might be made for mice and other animals.”

Singer believes the Seattle-based project has influenced reforms enacted over the past decade. Chimpanzees are used far less often in invasive biomedical research than they used to be, and when they are too old or sick to be used in research, scientists now retire them to sanctuaries, instead of killing them. “I think we’ve had some impact in spreading this consensus,” he says.

Singer is a controversial figure, whose views on animal rights, abortion and euthanasia have won both plaudits and violent criticism. An advocate of veganism and opponent of most vivisection, his 1975 book Animal Liberation is widely credited with launching the animalrights movement. Now based at Princeton University in New Jersey, he has outraged some religious groups with his support for abortion, and his justification of euthanasia in cases where a patient, such as someone overtaken by Alzheimer’s disease, has become a “nonperson”.

At the heart of Singer’s ideas lies a utilitarian approach to ethics, and a rejection of ‘speciesism’. The striking genetic similarity between people and chimps is not a crucial factor in shaping this outlook, he says: “I don’t think that knowing which genes chimps share with us actually determines anything about their moral status in any meaningful way.”

Singer believes that apes’ rights come from their moral and cognitive capacities. But he hopes that the publicity surrounding the publication of the chimp genome will advance the Great Ape Project’s cause, and drive a greater respect for all animals — not just chimps.

“It will help bridge the gulf that we mentally place between ourselves and animals,” he says. “We will see chimpanzees as kin, and the differences between us and other animals as graduated, rather than a sharp discontinuity.”

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Rights and Wrongs', by Erika Check