Thursday, March 4, 2010

Peter Singer

The first time I encountered Peter Singer's name was back when I was in college. I took a class in which one of the books we read was The Great Ape Project. Singer is one of the editors of the book.

Then a year or so ago, I brought anger upon myself by comparing factory farms to the Holocaust. Soon after this, I read a book by Peter Singer that I got from the library. It was comforting for me to read it, because a lot of his viewpoints matched well with what I had been thinking, and trying to say.

During that time I wrote several posts about the book. I'm a little worried that I may repeat myself here. But oh well. Don't I repeat myself often anyway? I think I do. How often do I bring up my eating disorder, my preschool teaching days, and my failure to be a published writer? A lot. So see....there you go.

What do I know about Peter Singer already?

He's vegan.

His family is Jewish, and escaped from Europe during World War II. They tried to come to America, but couldn't get a visa or whatever. They wrote to someone they hardly knew in Australia. That nice person helped bring them over.

Singer is Atheist, but I don't think he's as loud and proud with his atheism as Richard Dawkins. It seems to me that Singer has other issues that are more important to him, while for Dawkins atheism IS the important issue.

From what I remember, Singer stands behind animal rights, euthanasia, and charity. I think those are his big things; but I may be forgetting something.

I don't agree with Singer 100% about everything, but I do agree with a lot of what he says. That's not the only reason I like him though. I love how he makes me think about things in a new way. I love how he challenges commonly held viewpoints.

Yes. Let me say it here. I think Peter Singer is awesome. I look forward to spending the day with him.

Let's start with Lord Wiki.

Baby Peter was born in Melbourne on 6 July 1946. His parents were from Austria. They fled their country in 1938. Singer's paternal grandparents went missing during the war, and were never heard from again. The last the family heard, they were taken to a ghetto. Singer's maternal grandfather was killed in a concentration camp.

Daddy Singer worked in the tea and coffee importation business. Mommy Singer worked in the medical field...probably as a doctor. I'm not sure.

For school, Singer attended Preshil The Margaret Lyttle Memorial School. I've never heard of that. I think this is the first time I've encountered it. Singer also went to Scotch College. I'm pretty sure I've heard of that one.

To further his education, Singer went to the University of Melbourne. There he studied law, history, and philosophy. That's a lot of learning. He received his first degree in 1967. Then in 1969, he got a Masters Degree. After that, he studied at Oxford.

Singer did some lecturing at Oxford, then he came to America and played professor at New York University.

He moved back to Melbourne in 1977, and stayed there until 1999. Then he moved to Princeton. I think he might still be there? I forget.

All right. Now Lord Wiki gets into more detail about Singer's various interests.

First, we have animal liberation....

You know, Lord Wiki is pretty much summarizing Singer's views here. I think I'd rather just read from Singer himself. I'm going to skim this quickly and see if there's anything that jumps out at me.

I did see something a second ago. Lord Wiki says that Singer is NOT a vegan. He's a vegetarian, and a "flexible vegan". He tries to not eat many animal products, but he's not incredibly strict about this. I like that.

I'm starting to feel that maybe strict vegans actually hurt the animal rights movement. The thing is this: It's VERY doubtful that the whole world will become vegan. It's just not going to happen....at least not anytime soon. It's a very unrealistic goal to have. It's just like the whole world is not going to become atheist or Christian. Nor will all families become like ours, and decide to unschool their children.

What IS possible is getting people to eat less animal products, and obtain it from less cruel sources. With some vegans, it's an all or nothing issue. And if you give people an all or nothing choice, they'll often choose ALL rather than nothing. If all the vegans stopped trying to convert everyone and put their energy into humane farming, I think there'd be a LOT less suffering out there.

Let's take eggs for example. Tim and I are trying to use eggs produced by humane farmers. They're hard to find! It's not something you can find at your average local grocery store. We found one brand at Whole Foods. That's it. If all the vegans turned into vegetarians and demanded humane eggs, there'd be much more out there. AND more people would be educated about the fact that free-range chickens means absolutely NOTHING.

Anyway, let me do some quick reading of Lord Wiki. Then I'm going to go to another website.

There's some other viewpoints that I forgot. He attracted some controversy by speaking in support of bestiality. He thinks it's wrong to have sex with an animal if the animal experiences harm and distress. But if both parties are having fun, he's okay with it. I totally agree. I'm going to go and have some fun with my cat.....

Don't worry. I'm joking. My cats and I don't have that kind of relationship. But I do agree with Singer. If someone likes having sex with their sheep, and the sheep seems happy....blessings to the happy couple.

One of Singer's other VERY controversial opinions is his somewhat support of infanticide. It sounds shocking and horrific on the surface, but I do think he has some interesting points. I'll try look at that more in depth later.

Here's Singer's Princeton website. So, I guess he is still there.

Here's a FAQ page.

Singer says he gives most of his charity money to Oxfam. I give money to them too...because of Singer. He's why I first heard of the organization in the first place.

There's a question about human and animal equality. Should humans and animals be treated exactly alike? Singer says that we shouldn't give the interests of that being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong.

What kind of similar interests? How about freedom from pain? We feel pain. Animals feel pain. And no matter what, we're all going to feel SOME pain in life. You can't have a pain free existence. But we (humans AND nonhumans) shouldn't have to experience unnecessary pain and discomfort....just because it cuts down a corporation's production costs.

On the other hand, animals probably don't have much interest in attending universities or going to the theater. They probably also don't need a salary. They'd probably be fine working as slaves....as long as they're treated well. There's probably no need to make things absolutely equal.

Singer is asked whether he'd save a mouse or human from a fire. He says he'd save a human because most humans over infancy age would more likely have an understanding of their past, present, and future. Death would be more frightening to them, and also they're more likely to be mourned.

There's question about animal experimentation. He attracted some anger from the animal rights movement by saying that he'd support experimentation on a hundred monkeys if it would help thousands of people with Parkinson's disease. Singer then explains that he doesn't support animal experimentation because Given the suffering that this routinely inflicts on millions of animals, and that probably very few of the experiments will be of significant benefit to humans or to other animals, it is better to put our resources into other methods of doing research that do not involve harming animals. I think I remember reading that in his book....or another book. He (or someone else) said that there really hasn't been a high enough proportion of people helped/saved to justify the torture of so many animals. I don't know how true this is or not. I'm sure people in medical and science fields would strongly disagree, and point to examples of medical breakthroughs that have come about with animal research. I guess my question would be how many animals were hurt and killed in these experiments, and were all those deaths necessary? Could the breakthroughs have been discovered without the use of animals? And why not use humans in the experiments? Some would argue that animals are less intelligent than humans. If you don't know enough, there's less discomfort. Right? So why not use humans who are severely brain-damaged...the ones who have been in comas for years. They'll have no idea what's going on. Or at least they'll know less than a chimpanzee or rat.

Singer says, Experimenters who consider their work justified because of the benefits it brings should declare whether they consider such experiments justifiable. If they do not, they should be asked to explain why they think that benefits to a large number of human beings can outweigh harming animals, but cannot outweigh inflicting similar harm on humans. In my view, this belief is evidence of speciesism.

Speciesism is so ingrained in us, that we get incredibly uncomfortable when people challenge it.

Oh! The idea of growing meat in labs is mentioned here. I talked about that in a recent post. Maybe this is where I got the idea. Anyway, Singer says this would be acceptable because no animal would suffer or be killed.

The infanticide issue is discussed here. What Singer says is that there's a moral difference between killing an infant and an older person who is aware of their existence and WANTS to continue existing. HOWEVER, Singer says that in most cases killing an infant is a horrible thing to do. It's not because the infant will care or know any better. It's terrible because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.

In terms of infanticide, what Singer is really talking about here is euthanasia. If parents give birth to a severely disabled child, and they think the child would suffer too much, he thinks medical steps should be taken to end the baby's life. Singer says many medical professionals support that idea of withholding medical treatment. Singer takes it a step further, and believes that proactive steps can be taken.

I agree. Why do we put cats and dogs to sleep when they're suffering; but we won't do the same for humans? If our cats had a horrible disease, I can't imagine the vet saying Well, we won't give him any treatment. There's not much we can do for him. So just take him home and wait for him to die. He'll be in a lot of pain, but....oh, well. Sorry.

Of course, there IS a slippery slope here.....a VERY slippery slope. Where do you draw the line? Let's say there's an infant born without much of a brain. It's blind, deaf, and will intellectually never go beyond infancy. On top of that, he has other physical defects that will cause him great pain. This human will know nothing except pain and discomfort. His parents and siblings will suffer emotionally and financially. I think it would probably be best to end that baby's life....if the parents feel it's for the best.

But then you have millions of people out there happily living with minor and moderate disabilities. There's even people with severe disabilities who are very happy, and some of them contribute greatly to our society. Most of these people probably have parents who absolutely adore them, and couldn't imagine life without them. So they would have said no to infanticide. There is that worry though that if you legalize infanticide, there'd be killings of babies with Cystic Fibrosis, blindness, Neurofibromatosis, deafness, Down Syndrome, dwarfism, etc.

Sometimes people ABORT these babies though, and this seems to be fairly accepted by society. I'm now remembering seeing Singer discuss this at some point. What really is the big difference between a fetus and infant? I forgot his argument. Maybe I'll find it later.

Singer's website links to this other Singer website. I think it's not made by him, but supported by him. He says unfortunately though, the website isn't being updated. The last link is from 2008. Oh well, I like this site. It has good stuff. I'll follow some of the links. If I'm not exhausted afterwards, I'll try to find some more recent stuff.

Here's an editorial Singer wrote for a Secular Humanism website. He talks about a so-called miracle baby that was born at twenty-three weeks. She survived, and was able to go home at four months old. Singer says, We can, of course, be delighted for Amillia’s parents that their much-wanted daughter has done so remarkably well. But the use of all the resources of modern medicine to save smaller and smaller babies raises an issue that needs to be discussed.

All right. Let's hear the discussion.

Singer talks about how these children have been tested a few years down the line. What has been found is that babies born at twenty-three weeks are much more likely to be severely disabled than babies born at twenty-five weeks.

Oh, I love what Singer says here. It seems very balanced to me. He's harsh in some ways, but also very compassionate. He talks about how it might make sense to impose some kind of limit, such as no babies saved who are born before twenty-four weeks. However, he adds that this would be hard on parents who really wanted this baby. He asks, If the parents understand the situation, and are ready to welcome a severely disabled child into their family and give that child all the love and care they can, should a comparatively wealthy, industrialized country simply say, “No, your child was born too early”?

Okay. I was sitting here trying to understand what Singer's main idea was. I mean not in the paragraph above, but in the whole editorial.

He talks about how the decisions are left up to the doctors and other medical professionals. Sometimes people have strict cut-off dates. If your baby is born this early, tough luck. Other doctors believe that you preserve a human life no matter what. I think what Singer is trying to say is that the parents should play a bigger part in the decision. They should decide whether or not they're able and willing to raise a potentially severely disabled child.

That makes sense to me.

Here's an editorial about abortion, and it brings animals into the issue.

Singer talks about how we argue about when a human life begins. He says this is the wrong question because...when a woman has an abortion, the fetus is alive, and it is undoubtedly human – in the sense that it is a member of the species homo sapiens. It isn't a dog or a chimpanzee. True.
If it's wrong to kill a human, than abortion at any stage is wrong. But as I said before, Singer sees a difference between killing an aware human, and one who is not yet aware.

Singer says a fetus under the age of twenty weeks is less developed, and less aware of its circumstances, than the animals that we routinely kill and eat for dinner.

Singer than responds to the various arguments and defenses. The first is the religious one. Killing a human infant is different because humans are made in the image of God....blah, blah, blah. Singer says, But there is no evidence for these religious claims, and in a society in which we keep the state and religion separate, we should not use them as a basis for the criminal law, which applies to people with different religious beliefs, or to those with none at all.

Amen to that!

The other argument is that the fetus has POTENTIAL. It has the ability to grow into one of us thinking rational human beings. A dog and chimpanzee is really not going to go that far in life....at least not intellectually speaking. A chimpanzee is probably about as smart as a preschooler. But he's going to stay that smart. The preschooler is going to likely grow up, and become much smarter.

Singer says we have enough people on this planet, and more and more keep coming. Do we really need to have every single one of these potential humans? Aren't we overflowing a bit already? Some would argue that we may be aborting the guy who cures cancer, or the woman who writes the most beautiful symphony. Well, if that happens....I'm sure another cancer-curing person will be born down the line. And if we never hear the symphony, we won't know what we're missing. So what's the big loss? Plus, what about all the future rapists, child molesters, and serial killers that get aborted?

I personally believe in reincarnation. So I feel if a baby is meant to be born, and it's parents abort it, it will just pop up later somewhere else in the world.

One thing that does concern Singer however is late-term abortions. He says, We should be concerned about the capacity of fetuses to suffer pain in late-term abortions. On the rare occasions when such abortions are necessary, they should be performed in a way that minimises the possibility of suffering. 

Yeah. Definitely.

My eyes are already starting to hurt. There's so many articles here. I'm overwhelmed.

I think I'm going to try to find some more recent stuff, and then quit.

Here's a New York Times editorial about health care. It's from July 2009.

Singer supports rationed health care, something that terrifies most people. He gives a hypothetical example. What if there's a drug that costs fifty-four thousand to keep you alive for six months? Is a few more months of life worth all that money? What if the drug costs a million or ten million? Would you be willing to pay? Do you feel that taxpayers should front the money?

I think those are interesting questions. I'd probably be willing to pay millions of dollars to increase the life of someone I love for just one little week. But what if it's someone I don't love? What if it's someone I don't even know? What if supporting this treatment drives up our insurance costs. What if our country falls deeper into debt because of taxes going to these treatments?

Singer points out that with America's current health system, there still is rationing. But this rationing is based on how much money an individual has. Is it really worse for the government to make the decision?

Should a wealthy old man be saved because he can afford an expensive drug, while a seven-year-old child is left to die because her family can't afford the medical treatment?

Singer points out that in America, hospital emergency rooms are required to treat everybody who comes in...insured or not. I was always confused about that point. But he says a professor at MIT looked at hospital medical records. What he found indicated that those without insurance had less care and were more likely to die.

Singer says that another study concluded that a lack of insurance may contribute to 13,000 deaths a year....and that's just in the ages 55-64 bracket.

Singer is honest though, and points out that the study may not be completely valid because there might be correlation without causation. People with no insurance are also the ones less likely to make healthy lifestyle choices. For example, they're more likely to smoke.

So really. Who knows......

This is getting very long and complicated.

Singer talks about quadriplegics. Should their life be equal to those without such a severe disability? Would it be okay to give preference to an able-bodied person over the quadriplegic, or is that pure discrimination? Isn't that a bit offensive to say you're life is half as valued as his life because he can move his arms and legs, and he can breath without assistance from a machine?

Singer says, If life with quadriplegia is as good as life without it, there is no health benefit to be gained by curing it.

I think that's an interesting argument.

Singer says, Disability advocates, it seems, are forced to choose between insisting that extending their lives is just as important as extending the lives of people without disabilities, and seeking public support for research into a cure for their condition.

So I guess then we'd talking about treatments that do NOT go towards helping a disabled person be less disabled. It would be more about keeping someone alive, rather than giving them a better quality of life.

On a much lighter note, this Forbes article has Singer choosing his favorite animals.

He likes rats, dolphins, pigs, chimpanzees, and humans. I love that he includes humans. Humans are one of my favorites too.

There's that stereotype of animal-rights people....that we care more about animals than humans. Unfortunately, there are some people like that. But I think many of us understand that humans ARE animals. And we care about the welfare of the hairless ape just as much as we care about puppies, dogs, whales, and dolphins.

I've heard some sentimental folks say things like I'm totally okay with seeing people killed or abused in a movie. But oh my goodness. When I see a dog being hurt, I can't stand it. It's just too sad.
Why is it more sad to see a dog killed in a fire than a human? I don't get it.

And then also....the people who say this aren't always vegetarian. Some of them eat factory farm meat without thinking twice. Well, it might be because they don't KNOW about factory farms. They may buy into the myth that farm animals live a life of peaceful luxury...safe and stress free. I guess I shouldn't fault them. I once believed all this too.

I just found this interview with Singer regarding vegetarianism. It's old....2006. But I'd like to read more about his viewpoints regarding this.

His entrance into the world of vegetarianism began when he was a university student. Singer ate meat. A friend did not. Singer asked him why he didn't eat meat, and I guess his answers made Singer do some serious thinking.

In 1975, Singer published the famous animal rights book Animal Liberation. Them more recently, he wrote another book called The Ethics of Eating: Why Our Food Choices Matter. The interview actually gives a different title for the book, but from what I can see...they're both one and the same.

Singer is asked what he wants the general public to get from the book. Singer answers that he wants people to put more ethical thought into what they eat, and he also wants us to back away from eating products that come from factory farms.

He's also asked though what he hopes animal rights people will get from the book. I like Singer's answer. He says, I would like them to think about what’s the most appropriate way to really reduce the suffering of animals. The book is suggesting that we might be more effective by being somewhat more tolerant of people who consume animal products, if they’re thoughtful about where they came from and try to ensure that the animals have had a decent life. And that we not be too fanatical about insisting on a purely vegan life.

I agree with that.

He also talks about how animal rights people might expand their ethical eating beyond the nonhumans. Does it make sense to be a pure vegan, and then buy chocolate that's not fair trade? This vegan shopping website sells chocolate that is not fair trade. Were the humans who helped make the chocolate treated okay? Do all of the vegans who shop on that website care?

I'm not saying we all need to eat 100% ethically. But it doesn't make sense to me to obsessively read ingredients to make sure an animal hasn't been used, but then not worry about other ethical factors.

Singer is asked what the response has been over the book. He says for the most part it's been positive. He says he's gotten emails from people saying they're going to become vegetarian because of the book. That's awesome. And some say they're going to at least give up chicken. Most activists are happy with the book as well. Singer says a few complained that he didn't push a 100% vegan diet.

Singer says, In my view I guess the line that says just tell people to go vegan and that’s it, really hasn’t faced up to reality. I’ve been in the movement for more than 30 years and the number of vegans is still a tiny minority, we haven’t got into the mainstream. Today, factory farming is the mainstream. So if we could change the mainstream from eating factory farmed products to eating only free-range, pasture raised animal products, that would be a huge and positive change. People would end up eating a lot less meat and fewer animal products anyway, and the animals they do eat would have had better lives.

Thank you, Peter Singer for being so damn brilliant. As for his own eating style, he says when he shops for himself, he buys vegan food. But if he's out and about, and there is no vegan choices, he'll go vegetarian. He also says he won't order a dish full of cheese, but he's not going to worry if a dish has a hidden milk product in it. That seems very flexible and realistic to me.

I also love what he says here. He talks about a vegan at a restaurant. They get a dish they think is supposed to be vegan, and it has a tiny bit of cheese on it. They make a fuss, and send it back. Singer points out that this is a waste of food, and it also gives vegans a bad reputation. It becomes less about ethics, and more about purity.

Although I can sympathize if the person is grossed out about the whole thing. I have certain food aversions, and it has nothing to do with ethics. I have sent food back because it had a surprise ingredient I didn't like.

Singer also talks about people who do violent and bad things to push their cause. Does that really help anyone? He says, People ought to be asking themselves, if the CBS evening news cameras were on me now, would this be something I could expect people to support? Is your average evening news viewer going to see this as a good thing to do?

Here's one of the vegans who is unhappy with Singer's flexible vegan approach. Gary Francoine compares the use of animals to rape, pedophilia, and slavery. Would a flexible approach to those issues be acceptable?

I have to admit he has a good point. Natalie Portman said the same thing somewhere. Let me see if I can find it. Here it is. She says, He posits that consideration, as promoted by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma, which has more to do with being polite to your tablemates than sticking to your own ideals, would be absurd if applied to any other belief (e.g., I don't believe in rape, but if it's what it takes to please my dinner hosts, then so be it).

Is it more important to be polite to our hosts, or stand by our ethics? The silly thing is I've considered using that guideline for myself. Well, I'm not going to eat dairy at home, but if it's served at someone's house, I don't want to be rude so.....

The truth is I just want an excuse to eat dairy. I'm perfectly fine telling my host, Sorry, I don't eat meat.

I guess my response to Francoine and Portman would be that we've already crossed a certain bridge when it comes to rape, pedophilia, and slavery. In our culture, they're not acceptable practices anymore. They're illegal. But what about when they were legal and acceptable? Would an all or nothing attitude be the best way to fight against them?

Maybe in two hundred years, we'll all be vegan. Perhaps it will be illegal to eat or use any animal products. Our grandchildren might look back at us and think we were cruel unethical creatures. It's hard to imagine, but it could happen. Right now though....we're very far away from that point. And I think what would help the animals most at this stage is to have a flexible attitude. I think it will work better if we all take baby steps, rather than insisting we all take one giant leap.

Ah. I guess I'm not the first awful Jew to compare the treatment of animals to the Holocaust. I was looking for something about Singer's atheism, and I came to this blog which led me to this editorial by Singer. He says PETA had a campaign making the comparison, and that their campaign was based on a quote by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

The other Singer said:

In his thoughts, Herman spoke a eulogy for the mouse who had shared a portion of her life with him and who, because of him, had left this earth. "What do they know--all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world--about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.

Lord Wiki says that this other Singer was also a vegetarian. And his conviction was so strong that he said if God was against vegetarianism, Singer would still choose to be vegetarian.

Cool. So now I have another Singer vegetarian to love.

Well, I'm going to stop here, but for anyone who might be interested....here's the editorial that Singer (the Peter one) wrote about cross-species sexual encounters. It's pretty interesting!