Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dr. Peter Singer on what sets humans apart from other animals

Gary Francione referenced (and then demolished) a passage by Peter Singer, Princeton bio-ethicist and author of Animal Liberation.
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 ... 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.
So humans are forward-looking beings and animals are not.  Forward-looking humans have hopes and desires for the future.  Okay but ... a murderer has hopes and desires for the future.  He hopes to kill his victim and desires not to get caught.  Point being, don't we have to assess the content of those hopes and desires before we cite the capacity to have them as proof of our existential worthiness?

But put aside whether Singer's distinction between humans and non-human animals is accurate and, even if it is, whether that provides sufficient justification for our wanton killing of millions of animals every year.  Take a closer look at the thinker doing his thinking, in his study, maybe munching on a left-over drumstick, trying to come up with a characteristic that separates humans from other animals.  Surprise!  This reasoning human comes up with a characteristic that confers greater value on the lives of ... humans.  Humans are forward-thinking.  Animals are not.  The slaughter is justified.  Pass me another one of those drumsticks. 

You know, I bet an AIG executive could come up with a characteristic of AIG executives that demonstrates that AIG executives deserve to keep every dime of their bonuses.

Suppose other animals took their turn after Dr. Singer.  Suppose they were able to list things that separate human animals from non-human animals.  What might they come up with?

-- Kills not merely out of necessity but for pleasure
-- Tortures and slaughters millions of farm animals each year because he craves the taste of their flesh
-- Tortures and slaughters animals because their fur gives an added oomph to all the latest fashions
-- Pursues animals in their natural habitats and kills them for the sheer joy of it
-- Pours toxins into the eyes of rabbits to make sure the lipstick goes on without irritation
-- Beats elephants with meat hooks so the festive circus goers can enjoy the spectacle of the elephant running around the ring and stepping onto the colorful stool

Maybe it's better for Dr. Singer's argument if he sticks with forward-thinkng as the defining human characteristic.