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Peter Singer: ‘Pain is pain: Whether you’re a human, or any other animal’

The Animal Liberation viewpoint simply says that it is wrong to give greater weight to interests, on the basis that those interests belong to members of the species Home Sapiens, as compared with similar interests among non-humans.

RAPHAEL VASSALLO: Philosopher, ethicist and Animal Liberation exponent Peter Singer talks about the need to ‘expand the circle of moral concern’: to include humans, animals, and ‘all sentient beings, everywhere’…

RV: In your 1975 book ‘Animal Liberation’, you argued that human beings are guilty of ‘speciesism’: a tendency to attach undue importance to their own species, when compared to other animals. Separately, however, you use the philanthropic argument, that the wealthy should have an obligation to assist the poor. Do you not see a small contradiction, there? On one level, you seem to be minimising the importance of the human species, as a whole; but on another, you argue that there is a lot of importance to be attached to the individual human being…

PS: I would say there’s a lot of importance to be attached to EVERY sentient being… not just the individual human. So I don’t really see any contradiction, no. I see it more as a matter of finding opportunities to improve the lives of all sentient beings, everywhere. I’m still very concerned with doing that for animals; and I still think there are enormous problems… with factory farming, for instance; and the way we kill animals…

But the fact that we ignore the situation of so many people in extreme poverty – who could easily be helped – is something that I think we should be doing more about, too. The common thread, however, is that I’m pointing out two ways in which we can relieve suffering, at low cost; but – because ‘those who are suffering’, are in some ways ‘not us’ – we tend to neglect their suffering.

And there are different ways, obviously, in which other beings can be defined as ‘not us’. They could be people who live far away, in other countries; or who are ethnically, or racially, distinct from ourselves… or in other cases, the difference could be that they belong to another species.

It’s an idea I’ve explored in one of my less-known books, ‘the Expanding Circle’… about ‘expanding the circle of moral concern’. I think these are two different ways in which that could be done. We could ‘expand the circle of moral concern’ to other humans in extreme poverty; and to other species, as well. And as far as Climate Change is concerned, it could be expanded to future generations, too…

RV: On the original notion of ‘speciesism’. You’ve just made a comparison between the Nazis’ dehumanisation of their victims; and the way in which ‘other animals are often perceived to be different’. Am I right in understanding, then, that – in terms of our ethical approach to such matters – animals should ideally be treated as entirely equal to humans… at all levels, everywhere?

PS: No entirely, no. First of all, the Animal Liberation viewpoint is not one that says: ‘there are no differences at all, between humans and other animals’. It simply says that it is wrong to give greater weight to interests, on the basis that those interests belong to members of the species ‘Home sapiens’… as compared with similar interests among non-humans, in cases where such comparisons can be made.

A simpler way of putting it would be: “Pain is pain; and pain is equally bad, whether it’s the pain of a human, or a dog, or a pig, or a chicken, or anything, that has the capacity to feel pain”…

RV: At the same time, though – and this is a Devil’s Advocate question, by the way – you have also been criticised, in the past (and even ‘boycotted’, in certain US states) for arguing in favour of the right to abortion, in some cases. How do you respond to the view that you seem more concerned with non-human animals, than with the human foetus?

PS: Well, once the foetus is capable of feeling pain… I AM concerned about it. In fact, if you asked the question: at what point is the foetus entitled to some kind of moral significance, or moral status… I would say it is the point at which it begins to be capable of feeling pain.

But the vast majorities of abortions are performed before that, where possible. Even where it isn’t possible, however: I don’t argue – and this is true about animals, as well – that the ‘capacity to feel pain’ means that it is just as bad to take the life of that being, than anybody else’s.

I think that, when it comes to ending the life of a being, there are other factors: such as, for instance, to what extent is that being self-aware? Or capable of seeing itself as ‘living, over time’? Or ‘having a future’, and so on? All that may make a difference, to the seriousness of killing a being.

But it doesn’t make a difference to the seriousness of inflicting pain on that being. So even at the point when the foetus is capable of feeling pain… there might still be reasons that would justify ending the life of that foetus: especially, if it could be done in a way that does not cause any serious pain.

So, while the capacity for pain is morally significant; it doesn’t conclusively determine the right to life, of any particular being. What it does do, however, is create obligations for us, regarding what ‘should’ or ‘should not’ be done to those beings: and obviously, one of those obligations is to ‘not inflict pain on them’… unless there is an overriding reason to do so. SOURCE…


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