Brief commentary on the Peter Singer Interview


I’m not exactly a big fan of Peter Singer, and this interview with him solidifies that feeling. I didn’t realize (probably because I wasn’t paying attention) that he gives 1/3rd of his income to charity, mostly to Oxfam…

… as in the Oxfam that provides animal donations (sorry for the PETA link)? The one that allows people to give sheep, baby chicks, goats, and more as if they were just things via their online store?

I don’t like picking apart the ways a person lives to find inconsistencies with their stated philosophies (I’m sure I’ve got plenty of my own), but things like this just baffle me. If you believe in animal sentience and rights, then you don’t donate money to a group that treats animals as commodities, clear even in the wording on their own web site.

Then, of course, there’s this gem:

I remember one of my high school teachers saying I would make a good lawyer because I kept arguing with whatever he said. I’ve never had great respect for conventions, and maybe that’s something to do with my upbringing or the period in which I came of age, the ’60s.

Well, it’s a way of answering the question of what makes it so seriously wrong to kill a being. Once you get rid of the idea that it’s just being a member of a particular species, namely homo sapiens, I argue that can’t be the answer and you need to find something else. You could say it’s wrong to kill a being whenever a being is sentient or conscious. Then you would have to say it’s just as wrong to kill a chicken or mouse as it is to kill you or me. I can’t accept that idea. It may be just as wrong, but millions of chickens are killed every day. I can’t think of that as a tragedy on the same scale as millions of humans being killed.

What is different about humans? Humans are forward-looking beings, and they have hopes and desires for the future. That seems a plausible answer to the question of why it’s so tragic when humans die.

Karen Davis replies in the comments:

Peter Singer needs to retire. Whatever fire burned in him for animals in the 1970s has burned out. He repeatedly cites chickens as exemplars of animal inferiority, not based on logic or evidence, which he has constantly repudiated, but because he personally doesn’t like chickens. He has even argued that removing the wings and brains of hens is good “welfare” if by doing so they will “suffer” less in industrial conditions. This is not animal rights or even welfare. It’s the shallowest level of ethics.

And if numbers are what partly determine the “tragedy” of innocent suffering, then the millions of people in African nations and elsewhere being tortured and murdered suffer less because there are so many of them.

(… and later…)

I’d like to add to my previous comment the concern that arises over the idea that the scale and routineness of innocent suffering somehow diminishes the significance and importance of that suffering. Just think how such logic can be used to numb ourselves to victims of war and other mass killings. Like deciding that human infants matter less than human adults because the infants aren’t “persons,” in Singer’s philosophy, this line of thought is destructive and pitiless.

5 Responses to “Brief commentary on the Peter Singer Interview”

  1. Stephanie E.

    Thanks so much for writing about this, Ryan. I had decided not to to remark on it (except via Twitter) for some complicated, frustrating reasons, but I was so glad to see Karen’s comments–and to now see this post. Maddening.

  2. » Blog Archive » easyVegan Link Sanctuary, 2009-03-12

    […] The Veg Blog: Brief commentary on the IndyStar .com Peter Singer Interview […]

  3. Ed Coffin

    Go Karen! I love her!

  4. Robert

    I was long ago influenced by Singer’s articles on poverty and also donated much money to Oxfam. A few years later when the penny dropped about their treatment of animals I called up and told them it was off. That certainly grabbed their attention.

  5. Steve Leckie

    Peter Singer spoke in Toronto March 19th 2009. Afterward I asked him why he donated so much to Oxfam, when donating to vegetarian causes might do more to alleviate suffering (both animal and human). He told me that he makes sure the money goes to relief that doesn’t involve animals used for food, and that he also donates some money to veg orgs like Vegan Outreach, and he told me he donated to Proposition 2 in California.

    Personally I donate mostly to vegetarian or animal causes but I guess given the focus of his new book he needs to prioritize solving children dying and needs to be an example to his current readers.

Leave a Reply