Just a step away from animal rights

Peter Singer, inspiration of the animal liberation movement, talks about a humane, non-religious ethic to Andrew Marr
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Born: 1946 in Melbourne, Australia.

Career: He is professor of philosophy and deputy director of the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University, Melbourne. He was founding president of the International Association of Bioethics. He is president of the Australia and New Zealand Federation of Animal Societies. He will stand for election for the Australian Greens in Victoria in the next federal elections.

Selected books: Animal Liberation; The Expanding Circle; Practical Ethics; How Are We to Live?

Singer has been popularly known as the father of the "animal liberation" movement since his book of the same name appeared 20 years ago. His works have inspired thousands to vegetarianism. Protesters say his beliefs about infanticide and euthanasia are similar to those of the Nazis. He has been banned in Austria and Germany. Academic critics say his thinking is unoriginal, a resurrection of a discredited philosophy.

He regards 4 February 1993 as representing the end of millennia of religious domination of morality: it was the day British law lords ruled that Anthony Bland, in a coma since the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, could be killed by his doctors.

He hopes to found a state for great apes called Gorillastan, to come under the auspices of the United Nations.

Professor Singer, in your new book you talk about an ethical revolution and the collapse of our traditional ethical order. What do you mean by that?

The traditional ethic has seen human beings as the centre of the moral universe and, indeed, the only thing that really matters. We are now at the stage of a kind of Copernican revolution in ethics; we are dethroning human beings from the centre of the moral sphere, and we are including the other sentient beings with whom we share this planet for the first time as morally significant beings.

Why is this happening? Is it because of the death of religion, which traditionally put man somewhere between the angels and the animals, or is it because we understand more about the need to get on with other creatures in the biosphere?

I think it is both. The fact that we are able to think ethically, independently of religion, is a tremendously important thing that has come into its own only in this century. Environmental issues have certainly given us more awareness of the way we are interlinked with other beings. And, on top of that, I would say that the full implications of the Darwinian revolution in thought are coming home to us: the great gulf, that for so many centuries has separated humans from other animals, we can now see not as a gulf but a continuum, a matter of small steps between us and other species.

Well, it is small steps, but common sense suggests that there is also a very large gap between our ability to make ethical choices, our impact on the world, and theirs. There is still a sharp dividing line, Darwin notwithstanding, between us and even the great apes.

There are significant differences. But the most important principles of ethics apply to all human beings, and when you look at human infants, or humans with severe intellectual disabilities, then there is not that gap any more between humans and non-human animals - in fact, there is quite an overlap between some of them.

Isn't that because in the case of the human infant we are respecting their potential to become a fully sentient being, and in the case of humans with extreme disabilities we are, as it were, honouring their past and their possibility of being human?

As far as infants are concerned, yes, it is reasonable to talk about their potential. But when we look at those with permanent severe disabilities and those who have never had the capacities for the sort of consciousness we are talking about, I think what we really respect and acknowledge in them is their sentience, their capacity still to feel something, for their lives to go well or badly in some meaningful sense. And we should be aware that the same is true of many non-human animals. They are sentient, they can suffer, their lives can go well or badly from their own internal point of view. There is a subjective awareness.

Are you saying, in a sense, that we have to extend our concept of pity to other species? And, if so, how far down the species chain do you go? I can understand it very well with a dog or a chimpanzee; I cannot understand it so clearly with a snail or a haddock.

I would look at it slightly differently. I would say we look at the idea of human equality, which has been a very important idea in the 20th century, and we ask what that is based on. It is not based on having a certain level of intelligence or self-awareness, but on a principle of equal consideration of people's interests. We ought to extend that principle of equal consideration of interests to non-human beings.

But if I extend the idea of equality to a member of another race, I am extending it to somebody who can think, reason, talk, exactly like I can, or in a very similar way. Once I try to jump the species barrier, surely it is an entirely different thing?

Well, I don't think that all animals are equal to humans in every respect. But where they can suffer, I think their suffering ought to have equal weight with similar sufferings of human beings.

So if a deer suffers in a trap, it matters as much as if a human was suffering in that trap?

It matters as much if it is a similar sort of suffering.

The human may have all sorts of anxieties and fears that the deer does not. The human may be able to say, "I am going to be stuck in this trap, my family are going to wonder where I am, they will be beside themselves with worry", and so on. But the deer may also have a kind of blind panic that causes it to suffer in different ways.

So where we can say the suffering is similar - yes, it does matter just as much.

If there were two traps, one with the human, one with the deer, there would be no question in your mind that it was more morally correct to go first to rescue the human than to rescue the deer?

If it is merely a matter of going first, I think there would be a question. I would say to the human, "Don't worry, I'll be back for you in five minutes," which you cannot say to the deer, and I would get the deer out of there straight away.

If you could choose only one?

If this was going to be fatal or to cause permanent injury, or something of that sort, I would go to the human, because I think the suffering would probably be greater.

Given the predatory nature of carnivorous life in the raw, and the fact that all biological life involves suffering and pain, why is it that the human has a particular responsibility to alleviate and reduce suffering on the planet?

Human beings have that responsibility because we are self-aware, capable of moral choice. We do not regard toddlers as morally responsible because they cannot reflect and make that choice. Non-human animals generally also cannot reflect and make that choice, although perhaps dogs or chimpanzees can have some sort of moral responsibility, and we may be able to hold them morally responsible to a degree. But they are more like toddlers. So the real burden of responsibility can only lie where we have the capacity to reflect and choose.

I am interested in where you come from philosophically here, because it does seem to me that a benign squeamishness affects us as we become more civilised. In this country we are no longer enthusiastic about bear- baiting or cock fights; there is growing worry about the suffering caused to dolphins ... isn't your position merely the progression of civilised squeamishness, rather than an ethically new viewpoint?

I would see it as the application of our capacity to reason and our greater historical self-awareness. If you look at the progress of ethics in a whole range of different societies, you see a movement towards greater universality, a greater awareness of the idea that I ought to act by putting myself in the position of others and asking, what would it be like if I were those others? And what expands here, as civilisation advances, is the circle of others. It starts off as being my tribe or my clan, and expands to being my nation or my race. I think it is now ready to take that further leap beyond the species barrier, so that the circle of others includes all sentient beings.

Isn't that an enormous leap?

In the 18th or 19th century, Europeans viewed other races as almost like another species.

You can find examples of writers who listed the Hottentots, for example, South Africans, as being of another species, and you can find others who wanted to include the chimpanzee or the orang-utan within our species.

One of the notorious ways of expressing that late 19th-century racist view of other groups was "the white man's burden", that other races were able to suffer but did not have the same moral and political responsibility to act as the white race. Are you, in a sense, saying that this is Homo sapiens's burden in the same way?

I think we do have a burden, yes, because we are the species that dominates the planet, in the simple sense of having the power to affect all other beings much more than they have the power to affect us.

Are there circumstances in which you would sacrifice a human life for non-human animal lives?

You have to look at the levels and capacities of that life. Take, for example, a human being with no capacity for consciousness - a baby born with severe brain damage or something of that sort - and a chimpanzee with a high capacity for consciousness and self-awareness.

If in some way you could save the life of the chimpanzee by taking the life of the baby, perhaps by doing an organ transplant or something, I would think that was justifiable, because I think the chimpanzee is a more aware being, a more sensitive being, and therefore a more morally significant being.

What would you say to the animal liberationists of an extreme kind who, from time to time, appear to regard human life as less than the lives of animals suffering in laboratories and so on? Because once you remove the specialness of human life, you can open the door to all sorts of extremism ...

Well, there are extremists and fundamentalists in Christianity, in Islam, and in other religions, and sadly there are one or two in the animal movement as well. I think they have been extremely few in number, given the millions of supporters the animal liberation movement has had. Those whom you could describe as putting animal life ahead of human life - I have to say I have never met one. I have nothing in common with that kind of fundamentalist approach.

And do you think in the end it is going to be possible to construct a humane, viable ethic, without any religion at all, without any kind of traditionalist, generationally learnt underpinning? Can we break our way through to this new Copernican revolution without pain and bloodshed?

I certainly believe we can. There is already a substantial movement towards that ethic in many developed societies - the religious veneer, if you like, is starting to disappear, and we have already taken major steps towards that non-religious, humane, compassionate ethic. All that is necessary now is for us to stand up and see that we have taken those steps, and put the finishing touches to the details of what that ethic is going to be like.

Peter Singer is Andrew Marr's guest on 'The Big Idea' at 11.15pm on BBC 2 on Wednesday.