Peter Singer defends animal experimentation
The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, whose book Animal Liberation is regarded by many people as the "bible" of the modern animal welfare movement, has accepted that animal experimentation is sometimes justified. In a documentary to be screened tomorrow night ("Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing", BBC 2, 9 pm), Singer is seen in conversation with Dr Tipu Aziz, an Oxford neurosurgeon specialising in parkinsonism. Aziz explains to Singer that 40,000 people have, to date, "been made better" through a treatment developed by means of experimentation on monkeys. About 100 monkeys worldwide have had parkinsonism induced in them for research purposes. Singer says:
I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided ... that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see this as justifiable research.
Some will regard this new statement from Singer as an ethical U-turn. And, if Singer has argued in the past that we are never , under any circumstances, justified in causing harm or suffering to an animal, it would indeed be a massive U-turn. But a more careful reading of his books will show that Singer's position is more nuanced than that. His statements in this documentary are consistent with the following ethical stance: One should not cause harm or suffering to any sentient being capable of experiencing harm or suffering except for very good reasons. Enjoying the taste of an animal's flesh would not, for Singer, constitute a "good reason" to cause harm to this or any other sentient being. Similarly, harming an animal in order to commodify its skin or fur would not constitute a "good reason". And destroying the few remaining members of an endangered species would be difficult to justify (even for experimentation purposes). But I think most reasonable people would draw a distinction between causing suffering to an animal for aesthetic pleasure (eating, cooking, clothing) and causing suffering in the furtherance of research designed to reduce the sum total of suffering in the world. And the loss of one hundred monkeys set against the health gains of 40,000 human beings would satisfy the terms of that distinction. Singer is not the first vegetarian to consistently defend animal experimentation under limited and clearly specified circumstances.