The animal liberation movement is a "far-reaching revolution," philosopher and animal rights advocate Peter Singer told a packed MacMillan 117 Tuesday night. In his lecture, titled "Ethics and Animals: Where we've come from, and where we need to go," the world-renowned ethicist shared his controversial views about the ethical basis for giving animals the same moral considerations as humans and the justification for treating all beings as a "community of equals."
"We should give interests equal consideration, whatever those interests might be," Singer said. "It's hard to say that species membership should mark a morally crucial divide."
Because animals suffer like human beings and can feel pain, Singer said, humans cannot justify exploiting other species for food production and research. "This equal consideration of interests is one that we routinely violate," he said.
Singer, a professor at Princeton, came to Brown with support from the Brown Animal Rights Club and the Kaleidoscope Lecture Fund, a group promoting the expression of diversity of ideas and opinions at the University. Though his appearances have spurred protests in the past, Tuesday's talk occurred without incident, save a quiet protest and pamphleting from members of the Lyndon LaRouche movement before the event.
Singer began cultivating his provocative stance while studying at Oxford University as a graduate student. He said he began exploring bioethics after a lunch companion piqued his interest in the treatment of animals. When his colleague chose a salad over a meat-sauced pasta, Singer said he wondered why people avoided eating animal products. Unsatisfied with traditional justifications for animal exploitation — Singer cited arguments of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as examples of flawed rationalization — he said he began examining the fundamental principles that ostensibly divide animals from humans.
"I decided species is not going to be the criterion that is going to separate us from non-human animals," he said. "Clearly, we are violating the most basic interest of animals in order to produce their flesh."
Factory farming, the widespread industrial practice of raising livestock in high-density confinement, should be abolished, Singer said, adding that society has developed an ideological "blind spot" to defend the practice.
Despite the continued mistreatment of animals, Singer said, the animal liberation movement has made "encouraging progress." Some states have passed legislation barring certain methods of confinement, such as tight chains that can cause lacerations, he said.
But Singer said there would always be a "significant amount of suffering inflicted on animals" unless there is more widespread consumer resistance.
"We don't have any big stake in continuing to eat animal products — that was a terrible pun, sorry," he said, eliciting laughter from the audience. "We are going to have to abandon animal products as part of our diet." But Singer was quick to stress that some circumstances make a meat-free diet impractical, adding he would not demand similar reforms in impoverished areas that depend on meat consumption for survival.
In order to transition to more ethical animal treatment, Singer said people should eat meat substitutes and develop non-animal or computer models for research. "I don't think there's anything inherently unethical about eating an animal," he said. "It's more a matter of weighing up interests."
During a question-and-answer session following the lecture, Singer discussed rationed health-care reform, the justifications for owning companion animals and the ethics of watching a cat play with a mouse.
After again encouraging a reduction in worldwide meat consumption, Singer acknowledged the inherent difficulty in his ideological revolution. "This is no doubt going to take a lot of time," he said. "Some people find it hard to give up the taste of bacon."