Origin of a new species David Nicholson-Lord on a philosopher who inspired the animal liberation moveme nt

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE being confined in a space the size of a coffin in total darkness. Your head is held in a halter and your hands are pinioned; you are fed a diet that makes you ill and you excrete uncontrollably. After a brief life in which you never know your mother or see the sun, you are executed. Your executioners are careless and cause you panic and great pain.

Acts of imagination such as this gave birth to the animal welfare movement, transformed it into animal liberation in the 1970s and now cause thousands of people to mount blockades at ports and air terminals. The description is of a veal crate, in which is produced the pale meat beloved of continental palates. Or rather, it is a veal crate rendered into human terms: it is what we might feel like if we were inside the crate. Should we make such leaps of imagination?

Anthropomorphism - the attribution to animals of human feelings - has had a bad press and a sad history. Modern science considers it a sentimental fallacy. It also finds it inconvenient. In the UK alone more than 740 million farm animals and 2.9 million experimental animals are killed every year. Do they have feelings?

The thousands protesting at Shoreham and other ports against the export of live animals to the Continent believe they do. So, probably, do many of the estimated 2,000 people who have turned vegetarian each week over the past three years: 4.3 per cent of the population, or about 2.5m people, have given up meat. That such people are both so numerous and so triumphal in their anthropomorphism is due largely to the work of one man.

IN 1968 a lanky Australian arrived at University College Oxford to take a doctorate in philosophy. Peter Singer, then 23, was married, meat-eating, petless and, according to a former tutor "sober, serious, earnest and very capable''.

Singer had been active in anti-Vietnam war protests in Melbourne but had previously thought little of animal welfare and was not even particularly fond of dogs, cats and horses. But in 1970 he met Richard Keshen, a Canadian student, and went to his college, Balliol, for lunch. The sequence of events that followed will be familiar to many who have converted to vegetarianism.

Keshen inquired about the contents of the sauce that went with his Balliol spaghetti and then opted for the salad. When Singer asked him what his objections were, he revealed he was vegetarian. This was unusual even as little as 25 years ago. But Keshen '

s objections were based not so much on opposition to killing as on his concerns about the systematic exploitation involved in raising animals for food. Later Keshen introduced Singer to fellow Canadians, Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch, then producing a book of essays on animals and morality. Within months Singer and his wife, Renata, had turned vegetarian and set up a stall in the Corn Market at Oxford to campaign against factory farming. The stall featured papier-mache hens in a battery cage and a stuf fed felt veal calf in a crate. It was, according to Singer, an "informal'' animal liberation group, probably Oxford's, and possibly the UK's, first - not least because the term "animal liberation'' had yet to achieve any currency.

The transformation from animal "welfare", the concern of long-established bodies such as the RSPCA, to "liberation", came five years later. Singer's conversion in 1970 left him grappling with the philosophical issues involved. Poking about in the literature produced scant evidence of serious interest by professional philosophers and a quirky reference in a pamphlet by Richard Ryder, later to become chairman of the RSPCA, to something called "species-ism''. It was only when the book by the Godlovitches appeared in 1974 that Singer's own literary project began to assume more importance as a means of changing public attitudes.

Animal Liberation, published in 1975 after four years spent by Singer teaching at Oxford and New York universities, is an extraordinary book which has had extraordinary effects. It galvanised a generation to action. Groups sprang up around the world, equipped with a new vocabulary, a new set of ethics and a new sense of mission. The year after it was published, a new era in campaigning also dawned, when a breakaway faction of the Hunt Saboteurs Association relaunched itself as the Animal Liberation Front. Singer's book is widely known as the bible of the animal liberation movement.

What explains its success? Singer says he was not surprised by it, which "is not a boast . . . but rather to insist on the quite extraordinary failure to see our relations with animals as posing serious moral questions''. Mark Gold, director of Animal Aid, one of the organisations founded in its wake, describes it as "the right book at the right time". This was the heyday of activism which, says Singer, meant "standing up and doing something''. Feminism and anti-racism expressed a new revulsion against prejudice. The environmental movement was in full spate, while Christianity, a long-standing enemy of animals (in Genesis, God grants man "dominion ... over every living thing'') was in retreat. Finally, this new sensibility was confronted with the new, horrific reality of factory farming.

Animal Liberation was a highly unusual book - a work of philosophy that included recipes (for vegetarian food), a comprehensive analysis of conditions in factory farms and animal laboratories and a compellingly argued exhortation to give up meat.

What it showed was that animals could suffer, and were suffering: monkeys being raped and terrorised to prove this could produce "psychological death"; ponies and dogs given electric shocks in studies of "learned helplessness"; the notorious Draize test for cosmetics, which involves immobilising rabbits and inserting potentially toxic substances in their eyes; the stress, maddened behaviour and even cannibalism of animals in intensive farms.

Since we agree that it is wrong to cause suffering to humans, Singer argued, it is wrong to cause it to animals, too. There should be "equal consideration of interests", an idea fundamental to much moral philosophy. Killing may sometimes be necessary forsurvival; but, in the main, we do not need to kill animals, (still less to cause them suffering) and to do so is just arbitrary and illogical prejudice: "species-ism", like racism or sexism. But Singer's philosophy is pragmatic, not absolu t ist. It would be worse to kill a human being than a mouse but a chimpanzee or dog deserves a right to life "at least as good as, or better than" retarded or senile humans.

Other philosophers and writers such as Jeremy Bentham in 1780 have arrived at similar conclusions. So why did the age of animal liberation not dawn earlier? The answer, says Singer, is that we enjoy eating them too much. "If there is a clash - even a clash between a lifetime of suffering for a non-human animal and the gastronomic preference of a human being - the interests of the non-human are disregarded". An inexcusable blind spot in the history of human morality has been kept alive by the irresistible aroma of grilled steak.

TWO decades after the publication of Animal Liberation, human relationships with animals have become a booming area of philosophical inquiry. Singer, 48, is back in Melbourne, as professor of philosophy at Monash University and director of its centre foranimal bioethics, a subject that includes animal experimentation alongside human issues such as in vitro fertilisation.

In some respects he is a typical, successful career academic - a suburban life with children (three daughters aged 21, 19 and 16), visiting posts at foreign universities, the authorship or editing of some 20 books. Few professors of philosophy, however,

get arrested while breaking into factory farms and few academics risk themselves on the hustings. Singer stood recently in a federal by-election for the Australian Greens, polling 29 per cent, the highest green vote on record.

He has relented somewhat on pets - the family has a cat called Max, taken in as a stray - and acknowledges that he may have over-emphasised the rational case for animals. "When I wrote the book I felt that the animal movement was far too sentimental. Th e feeling was that if you are not an animal lover, this movement is not for you. I thought it was important to stress that it was a political movement with a rational basis as strong as the movement for racial or gender equality. But I am not against peop le who have an emotional commitment to animals."

How far do rights extend? Not as far as rocks, trees or forests, he argues. There are excellent environmental reasons for protecting eco-systems, but they lie outside the moral community of human and non-human animals. A being must be "sentient" to qual i fy - fish do, and so do lobsters. Oysters, mussels and other molluscs may not - but he refuses to eat them.

Professor Singer believes that animal liberation is part of a much broader campaign for global justice and ethical living. His most recent book, How Are We To Live?, to be published here later this month, has a flavour of Bertrand Russell, of an earlier,populist approach to philosophy. It is a critique of the market-driven selfishness of the Eighties, and a tribute to the altruism of those he has worked alongside in the animal movement, to the "higher ethical consciousness" he believes they represent. Liberating animals, in other words, also liberates humans.