Peter Singer Supports Vivisection: Why Are You Surprised?

The Sunday Times (UK), November 26, 2006, reports that in a BBC documentary, Peter Singer, described by The Times as “father of the modern animal rights movement” meets with Tipu Aziz, an Oxford vivisector who uses primates in his research on Parkinson’s disease. Aziz informs Singer that he induces parkinsonism in primates and claims that his use of 100 monkeys has helped 40,000 humans. Singer replies:

Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment. I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided—I take it you are the expert in this, not me—that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see that as justifiable research.

So far, I have received 64 emails from animal advocates in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere expressing astonishment and disbelief over Singer’s position. Almost everyone starts her message with some expression of astonishment, such as “Can you believe what Singer has said?”

My answer is simple: Why are you surprised?

If you read what Peter Singer has been writing for 30 years now, it is absolutely clear that he regards the use of nonhumans—and humans—in vivisection as morally permissible. Indeed, Singer explicitly rejects animal rights and the abolition of animal exploitation; he does not regard eating animals or animal products as per se morally wrong; he maintains we can be “conscientious omnivores;” he claims that we can have “mutually satisfying” sexual relationships with animals, and he claims that it is morally permissible to kill disabled infants.

In short, rather than asking “can you believe what Singer has said?,” it is more appropriate to ask: Can someone please explain how Singer got to be the “father of the modern animal rights movement”?

Singer is a utilitarian. He maintains that what is right or wrong in any situation depends only on the consequences. If killing 100 monkeys will save 40,000 humans, then the action is morally justifiable. Singer explicitly rejects the notion of animal rights, which would prohibit our treating those 100 monkeys exclusively as means to our ends. But Singer also thinks that it would be appropriate to use severely mentally disabled humans in this situation because it would be speciesist to prefer nonhumans over what he views as similarly situated humans. So, right from the outset, Singer promotes a view that is completely at odds not only with the animal rights position but with commonly held principles of human rights and, indeed, is consistent with the views of the Nazi doctors who used “defective” humans in experiments.

Singer maintains that, for the most part, animals do not have an interest in their continued existence. Therefore, our use per se of animals does not raise a moral question; it is our treatment of animals that matters. Singer says this explicitly in a number of places, including Animal Liberation. Singer maintains that most animals are not self-aware and have neither a “continuous mental existence” nor desires for the future. (p. 228) An animal can have an interest in not suffering, but because “it cannot grasp that it has ‘a life’ in the sense that requires an understanding of what it is to exist over a period of time,” the animal has no interest in continuing to live or in not being used as the resource or property of humans. (228-29) Animals do not care whether we raise and slaughter them for food, use them for experiments, or exploit them as our resources in any other way, as long as they have a reasonably pleasant life. According to Singer, because animals do not possess any interest in their lives per se, “it is not easy to explain why the loss to the animal killed is not, from an impartial point of view, made good by the creation of a new animal who will lead an equally pleasant life.” (229) Although Singer is critical of factory-farming, he maintains that it may be morally justifiable to eat animals “who have a pleasant existence in a social group suited to their behavioral needs, and are then killed quickly and without pain.” (229-30) He states that he “can respect conscientious people who take care to eat only meat that comes from such animals.” (230)

In Singer’s most recent book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (co-authored with Jim Mason), Singer argues that we can be “conscientious omnivores” and exploit animals ethically if, for example, we choose to eat only animals who have been “humanely” raised and killed.

Singer’s message is clear: it may be preferable to be a vegan or vegetarian because of the abuses of factory farming. But he has no objection to killing and eating animals for food and he never has.

If you have any doubt about this, read Singer’s interview in the October issue of the new-welfarist magazine Satya. In Singer’s own words:

I think people are mistaken if they think I’ve watered down that underlying ethical argument. Now, other people assume, incidentally, that in Animal Liberation I said that killing animals is always wrong, and that was somehow the argument for being vegetarian or vegan. But if they go back and look at Animal Liberation, they won’t find that argument.

Singer makes clear that he regards the problem as the abuses of factory farming. Once we make the process more “humane,” and address the issues of suffering to Singer’s utilitarian satisfaction, then we can all go back to eating animals. Singer thinks that it’s a mistake to be “too fanatical about insisting on a purely vegan life.” Asked about his own veganism, he responds: ”Oh, there’s no question about that, I’m impure.”

Singer not only finds no inherent problem with eating animals and animal products, but he also sees no problem with having sexual contact with nonhumans—again, as long as we act “humanely.” In a soft-core porn site,, Our Father tells us:

But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty. Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the legs of a visitor and vigorously rubbing its penis against them? The host usually discourages such activities, but in private not everyone objects to being used by her or his dog in this way, and occasionally mutually satisfying activities may develop. (see review)

In The Way We Eat, Singer and Mason recount spending a day working on a turkey farm “collecting the semen and getting it into the hen” They caught and restrained the male turkeys while another worker “squeezed the tom’s vent until it opened up and the white semen oozed forth. Using a vacuum pump, he sucked it into a syringe.” Singer and Mason then had to “‘break’” the hens, which involved restraining the hen “so that her rear is straight up and her vent open.” (28) The inseminator then inserted a tube into the hen and used a blast of compressed air to insert the semen into the hen’s oviduct. So apparently, Singer’s version of “animal liberation” means that we can inflict harm on animals in order to satisfy our curiosity about the mechanics of animal exploitation.

Finally, Singer maintains positions that most of us find unacceptable as a matter of basic human rights. For example (one of many), in Practical Ethics, Singer discusses whether it is morally acceptable to kill an infant who is born with hemophilia. He maintains that although the issue is complicated, we can defend killing the infant if that is the only way that the parents will have another “normal” child because “[w]hen the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.” (186) Although this treats human infants as “replaceable,” Singer maintains that infants arguably are similar to non-self-conscious nonhumans, and it is acceptable to kill them. He claims that “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.” (191)

I could go on and on with examples that demonstrate that Singer’s views have nothing to do with animal rights or with what most of us regard as an acceptable view of human rights. But the one positive thing you can say about Singer is that he has never tried to hide these views. Therefore, I am puzzled as to why anyone was surprised about his remarks about Aziz’s use of monkeys at Oxford.

In the Satya interview, Singer says in response to a question about the response to The Way We Eat:

I’ve been pleased that people who are vegan themselves, and are involved in some of the major animal rights organizations, have been strongly in support of it. I’ve had a few gripes from the kind of people I would expect to have gripes from. I mean, there are people who I think are a little too ready to criticize others who are basically on the same side of the fence, but are not as pure as they are, and they’ve fixed on the fact that this book doesn’t simply say you ought to go vegan and nothing else.

Singer misses the point. Those who believe that it is morally wrong to consume animal products are not on the “same side of the fence” as Singer. Singer’s position is no different from that of institutionalized animal exploiters, who, like Singer, maintain that we can use animals as long as we take care to make sure that they do not suffer “too much.” Singer’s view reduces the issue of animal rights to a debate about what constitutes “too much” suffering, which misses the point that we cannot justify the use—however “humane”—of nonhumans. There is nothing wrong with being a “purist” about matters of fundamental rights. Would anyone maintain that it is “purist” to reject “humane” rape or “humane” child abuse? Of course not.

As long as the so-called “father of the modern animal rights movement” regards as “fanatical” the promotion of veganism as a moral baseline, the movement will continue to do exactly what it has been doing for the past decade—go backward. It is well past time that those who seek to abolish animal exploitation and not merely to regulate it disown Our Father and get on with the business of creating a nonviolent social and political movement that will challenge the exploitation of animals in a meaningful way.

Gary L. Francione
© 2006 Gary L. Francione