On Cloning, Genetic Selection and Animal Rights
Peter Singer interviewed by Robyn Williams
The Science Show, August 9, 2003
Robyn Williams: Last week at the Byron Bay Writersí Festival the star was Peter Singer, philosopher and author of Animal Liberation on the rights of other creatures. He was once worried about designer babies. Is he still?
Peter Singer: I think that we get a lot of priorities wrong and that this is a larger concern than, for example, cloning because I donít think that human cloning is ever going to become something that a lot of people want. I think itís a relatively minor issue. But if you look at the newspapers, you know, whenever thereís some development about cloning there are headlines and it creates fairly hysterical reactions, whereas thereís much less about genetic selection. So I think we ought to be more aware of it than we are in comparison to some other issues. But youíd say, well, how does this compare with things like Greenhouse problems? Yes, itís less urgent than that cause it still is some time away.
Robyn Williams: What about animals, how much are you involved still, having written the book Animal Liberation way back in 1975. Are you involved in activities around animals?
Peter Singer: Iím still very much involved. In the United States Iím the President of a group called Animal Rights International, which was founded by someone I knew and admired called Henry Spira - who subsequently died - and had indicated heíd like me to take it over. So weíre involved in campaigns particularly campaigns on factory farming. Just in the last month or so weíve run a campaign against the American Veterinary Medical Association because they are so much in the pockets of the agribusiness farmers who pay the vetsí bills that they wonít come out against even the most barbaric practices like forcing chickens to moult by starving them for up to two weeks. And the AVMA will not even take a clear stand against that, so we felt that the public needed to know about their stance so that they feel a bit of heat, so that they can perhaps think about animal welfare, which is what their objectives are supposed to include.
Robyn Williams: What possible arguments could the industry or the vets come out with?
Peter Singer: Well, on that particular one, on moulting by starvation they donít actually come out with an argument, they just wonít come out with a clear stance against it. They say that hens have a natural moult and this is an attempt to initiate something like a natural moult and intermittent feeding is acceptable. But when we say: Well, what by you mean by intermittent, you know, does a two week break, does that count as intermittent? they wonít say yes and they wonít say no. So that allows people to continue to do it more or less with their blessing.
Robyn Williams: And how have you and the organisation taken them on?
Peter Singer: They had a meeting, their annual general meeting in July in Denver and a lot of groups went there. We, together with some other organisations put a full-page ad in The Rocky Mountain News, the major Denver newspaper that was coming out, the day of the conference, basically with a picture of vets saying: ĎThis vet took an oath to consider the interest the animals but his association routinely breaks ití. And then we gave the delegates as they were coming into the meeting, a bottle of water and some candy, like a candy bar or something like that, with a little note saying ĎEnjoy this food and water. If youíre a hen it might be the last you see for two weeks. And that had a lot of effect because a lot of them actually didnít know about their associationís policy on these issues. So weíre hoping that they will start debating it and that sometime over the next year they may actually change it.
Robyn Williams: Presumably you donít eat chicken. I once interviewed you on television with a rather, I suppose unfair question about whether thereís fly spray in the Singer household. I just wonder. in your own domestic routine where do you place the limits yourself?
Peter Singer: Well, what Iím really concerned with is the capacity to suffer and of course itís difficult to say where to draw the line between beings who can suffer and beings who canít. My belief, but I canít say that I know this, is that insects are not conscious beings, not really capable of suffering, but I will still give them the benefit of the doubt when I can. I would rather brush away an insect than kill it and I would rather not use fly spray if there are other ways of keeping flies out of the place and out of our food and so on. So, give them the benefit of the doubt where you can, but in the end Iím not as concerned about insects as I am about vertebrates who Iím sure can suffer.
Robyn Williams: And that brings us to whales. Tim Flannery has famously come out with a recent essay suggesting that in our priorities again that looking after the landscape is far more important than being concerned about whales. Heís not suggesting that they should necessarily be hunted except perhaps by indigenous people. Iíve often felt myself however, that if we have a particular affection culturally for an animal, as clearly Australians do, is there logically a philosophically consistent argument to make that we simply choose certain animals which we would like to start with to protect and if you like, move down as far as we can - not necessarily to house flies, but in a way really to get a set of priorities going so as to make it a more humane society?
Peter Singer: Yes, I would certainly see the positive attitude that people have to whales as something that we can draw on and build on towards spreading those kinds of attitudes. Itís true that people sometimes have quite irrational lines that they draw that, you know, weíre horrified at people who eat dogs but we eat pigs without thinking twice about it. Well, pigs are just as intelligent and aware of their environment and sensitive as dogs are as far as I can see. So sometimes we need I think to criticise the arbitrariness of these lines, but it should always be I think in the direction of leading people on to broadening their compassion and their concern for animals rather than to throwing away what we actually already have.
Robyn Williams: What if people say that whales, as some of them do anyway, are no better than cows?
Peter Singer: Well, I donít eat cows either, so I still think we should be concerned about their interest even if that should turn out to be the case. The other thing that I should mention here of course is that the killing of whales is a slow and painful process - not that the killing of cows is wonderful either I should say, I mean, thereíre many slips that go on in the abattoir process but at least thereís some attempt to kill them quickly and humanely, and with whales that isnít the case at all.