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Tom Regan Replies to Peter Singer


by Tom Regan

In "Father of animal activism backs monkey testing" (The Sunday Times, Times Online, November 26, 2006,
), philosopher Peter Singer is quoted as saying that research that involved giving Parkinson's disease to monkeys was "justifiable."

Singer expresses his opinion as part of an exchange between him and one of the researchers, Tipu Aziz, an Oxford neurosurgeon who tells Singer that "[t]o date 40,000 people have been made better" because of the research done on "only 100 monkeys." The exchange is part of a BBC2 program, "Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing," that aired on 27 November.

What  makes Singer's opinion noteworthy is not what he thinks but who he is said to be. He is (we are told) "[t]he father of the modern animal rights movement," and his book, Animal Liberation, "is now considered the bible of the [animal rights] movement." Taken together, these two statements would naturally lead people to infer that Singer believes in animal rights, and that the judgment he makes (that the research is "justifiable") is one that animal rights advocates would accept.

Neither inference is true. The Peter Singer interviewed on the BBC2 program does not believe that nonhuman animals have basic moral rights. As early as 1978, three years after the publication of Animal Liberation, he explicitly disavowed this belief.

No, Singer's moral convictions are those of a utilitarian. He believes that consequences determine moral right and wrong. Right actions bring about the best consequences. Wrong actions fail to do so. It is open to Singer, therefore, to judge the research "justifiable," which he does, based on the consequences Dr. Aziz describes

People who believe in animal rights could not disagree more. The role basic moral rights play, whomsoever's rights they are, is to protect individuals against the very type of abuse so painfully illustrated by the monkey research under review. The basic moral rights of the individual (the rights to life and bodily integrity, for example) should never be violated in the name of reaping benefits for others.

Obviously, nothing I have said here proves that monkeys or other nonhuman animals have basic moral rights, or that utilitarianism is a flawed moral outlook. These are matters I have explored in other places. My far more modest objectives have been to correct some misunderstandings: first, that Peter Singer is an advocate of animal rights (he is not) and, second, that his judgment (that the research is "justifiable") would be endorsed by animal rights advocates (it would not).

There remains a final misunderstanding that needs to be set right. In the Sunday Times story, Gareth Walsh writes that "[Singer] said last week that he stood by his comments to Aziz, provided the monkeys had been treated as well as possible," to which Aziz is quoted as saying, “It just shows (SPEAK) haven’t a case, to be honest.”

Precisely what is it that shows that SPEAK has no case against vivisection in general, the construction of the new research laboratory at Oxford in particular? It can only be that Peter Singer stands by his judgment that the research in which Aziz participated was "justifiable." It is the fact that Peter Singer said this that is supposed to expose SPEAK's opposition as groundless.

One must hope that Dr. Aziz is a better researcher than he is a thinker. It is an elementary principle of logic that no statement is true because of the identity of the person who makes it. Granted, Peter Singer is an influential philosopher. But not even Peter Singer can make statements true merely by making them. The truth of the matter is, Dr. Aziz and his colleagues will need to address SPEAK's opposition on its merits, not pretend that they have done so by enlisting Peter Singer on their side.

Tom Regan is emeritus professor of philosophy, North Carolina State University (USA). His books include The Case for Animal Rights and Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights.

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