Peter Singer on animal ethics, cannibalism and other tasty morsels

There is a great interview on YouTube in which Richard Dawkins interviews Peter Singer on the ethics of how humans perceive and act toward other species.

An excellent way to spend 45 minutes if you have time, the interview is part of a Channel 4 (UK) TV program The Genius of Darwin, which won Best Documentary Series in the 2008 British Broadcasting Awards.

Many of the issues discussed will be familiar to anyone who has read Singer. But it’s always good to hear him talk, as he has a talent for explaining highly abstract ideas in clear and simple language.

The interview covers a lot of ground and requires the brain to do a bit of exercise. But it’s worth it. A brief description of the things they talk about is below.

Dawkins and Singer start out discussing Darwin’s revolutionary view that human beings are animals and not as ‘special’ as pre-Darwinian thinking held. Interestingly, as Dawkins explains, Darwin consciously tried to break the received idea that humans are special, arguing that animals displayed emotions and even spirituality.

The two go on to range across all sorts of issues. They have an interesting discussion about animals suffering for human benefit – where should we draw the line and how should we decide when animal suffering is justifiable? Singer wheels out some frightening statistics: in the USA alone, over 10 billion animals are raised and killed for food each year, while 40 million animals are used for research.

The discussion dwells for a time on Dawkins’ carnivorism, and his self-confessed lack of awareness about the treatment of the animals he eats. Singer argues that meat eaters have a responsibility to know about how animals are reared and slaughtered, because their consumption is likely to be supporting a system that causes pain and suffering. He draws a parallel between meat eaters who turn a blind eye to the suffering of the animals they eat and those who turn a blind eye to human suffering.

Singer’s case is built on two main pillars. First, that animals feel pain. Second, that we should care for others, what he calls his ‘golden rule’ of moral and ethical action: put yourself in the position of others and consider what it is like for them. To not care about how others feel, he says, is ‘cutting yourself off from a part of reality’.

Dawkins considers his continued meat eating to be the result of conformity and lack of social stigma. He draws interesting parallels between animal welfare and slavery.

Singer expresses optimism that the animal movement is making a difference. He suggests we are moving toward a ‘tipping point’ that will see the pressure to eat meat diminish and meat alternatives become more socially acceptable.

They have some pretty way-out discussions about cannibalism, and about whether or not they would eat steak grown in a laboratory. This moral dilemma may be closer than many think, with reports that scientists are trying to develop edible laboratory-grown tissue (see some news items on this rather bizarre development).

Singer and Dawkins also toss around an interesting hypothetical about creating an animal that is a hybrid of human and other species – an animal that would make people think about where and how they draw the line between humans and other animals. It’s good to see these two great minds playing, and even struggling, with the implications of such a concept, rather than going over familiar ground.

Animal Rights Hub Australasia, 12 December 2009

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