The Independent, December 3, 2006
For three decades, Peter Singer's views on such issues as animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, infanticide and how to tackle world poverty, have led him to be lauded and condemned to an extent that sets him apart from most academic thinkers. Today, the somewhat other-worldly philosopher is returning to the fray.
Newspapers last week pounced on a BBC television documentary which they said suggested that Singer, seen by many as the intellectual father figure of the animal rights movement since the publication of his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, had softened his opposition to vivisection.
Last Friday, however, from his desk at Princeton University, Professor Singer denied the charge. In the film Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing, Singer is seen in discussion with the Oxford academic Professor Tipu Aziz, who has been conducting experiments on macaque monkeys as part of his work to find a treatment for Parkinson's disease and other illnesses. Told by Aziz that tests on some 100 monkeys has led to positive treatment for 40,000 patients, Singer responds that he "would certainly not say that no animal research could be justified".
The Daily Mail described Singer's words as an apparent U-turn, reporting that pro-vivisection campaigners greeted them as an "intellectual hammer-blow to Britain's animal liberation movement".
Singer denies any change in his position. "Since I judge actions by their consequences, I have never said that no experiment on an animal can ever be justified," Singer said. "I do insist, however, that the interests of animals count among those consequences, and that we cannot justify giving less weight to the interests of non-human animals than we give to the similar interests of human beings.
"If an experiment on a small number of animals can cure disease that affects tens of thousands, it could be justifiable. Whether this is really the case in Professor Aziz's experiments, about which I was asked in the BBC documentary, is a question I have not studied sufficiently to offer an opinion about. Certainly it has been disputed. In Animal Liberation I propose asking experimenters who use animals if they would be prepared to carry out their experiments on human beings at a similar mental level - say, those born with irreversible brain damage. A prejudice against taking the interests of beings seriously, merely because they are not members of our species, is no more defensible than similar prejudices based on race or sex."
As the breadth of Singer's analogies implies, this is no quarrel confined to the quadrangles, though it is engaging British academics in a debate that is generating more than usual emotion.
Oxford University is building a new laboratory to house animal experiments amid strident protests by anti-vivisectionists. The issue has seen protest and counter-protest, and is the latest manifestation of the arguments over animal rights in recent years, arguments that have moved well beyond the academic.
Singer has repeatedly stressed his opposition to acts of extreme violence by some militant groups. The passions aroused by those issues on which he has written do, however, illustrate that questions of ethics and philosophy can reverberate well beyond the lecture hall or learned journal. It has been a recurrent motif in an eventful career.
Peter Albert David Singer was born in Melbourne on 6 July 1946, a birth date he shares with President Bush, whose pronouncements Singer has excoriated in his 2004 book The President of Good and Evil, which sets out to examine the ethical standards and consistency of the man in the White House.
The book marked a further stage in Singer's career. By examining Bush's policies and statements through the eye of an ethical philosopher, Singer's political profile was heightened still further. "Peter Singer may be the most controversial philosopher alive; he is certainly the most influential," the New Yorker opined.
Singer's personal biography reflects a similar turbulence. His mother and father were Jews who fled Nazi-occupied Austria before the Second World War. Some of his other relatives perished in the Holocaust.
He began his academic career in Melbourne before winning a scholarship to Oxford in the early 1970s, where he wrote a thesis on civil disobedience. At an Oxford college meal, a vegetarian fellow diner declined meat sauce with the spaghetti. The incident set Singer to think about the moral implications of meat-eating and, beyond it, the wider questions about relations between humans and other creatures. He subsequently became a vegan.
Animal Liberation established Singer as a thinker capable of drawing on the spirit of his time while discussing ideas that would reverberate over the coming decade. The title caught the revolutionary flavour of the period, and undoubtedly inspired many who read the book, as well as many more who probably didn't.
Singer, whose philosophy owes much to the utilitarian school, argued against what he saw as the "speciesism" - a term coined by a colleague - that holds animals as of lesser worth than humans. He argued that since Darwin, it was impossible to see humans other than as animals themselves. His assaults on the use of animals for food, the practices of factory farming and on vivisection chimed with other environmental issues beginning to be discussed at the time.
When critics later sought to link Singer with the actions of violent environmental or animal rights groups, he moved to refute them, invoking the spirit of non-violent protest associated with Gandhi and Martin Luther King. While he applauded laboratory raiders who exposed cruel conditions, he condemned the use of violence or the threat of it. "The strength of the case for animal liberation is its ethical commitment," he wrote. "We occupy the high moral ground and to abandon it is to play into the hands of those who oppose us."
Singer's careercontinued to embrace the controversial. Practical Ethics, published in 1979, is now a standard text. But his views on abortion and euthanasia have prompted picketing outside his lectures by pro-life and disability rights groups alike.
An Australian organisation voted him the humanist of the year, but when he left Melbourne for the US in 1999, a fellow academic wrote a newspaper article headlined "Good riddance to the warped philosopher", a Princeton donor threatened to withhold his cash, and Singer was warned of death threats.
Singer's work continues to provoke and engage. His efforts to establish a UN declaration recognising the proximity of the great apes to humans has provoked discussion in several parliaments. His calls for greater economic equality between nations - he donates a fifth of his salary to charities - divided economists.
Politically inclined to the left on most issues, he can still agree with George Bush on the importance of morality while sharply parting company with him over its interpretations. He is proof that philosophical debate is more, much more, than simply academic.