INTERVIEW: Illustrating speciesism in animal rights calls

Australian philosopher Peter Singer, best known for his contribution to animal rights, sat down with ‘Taipei Times’ staff reporter Chen Wei-han in Hsinchu to illustrate his concept of speciesism and effective altruism and comment on the animal welfare situation in Taiwan and new euthanasia legislation

Sun, Jun 12, 2016 - Page 3

Taipei Times: What is speciesism and effective altruism, and how are the ideas connected to animal welfare?

Peter Singer: Speciesism is like racism and sexism. In both cases, there is one group that overpowers the other group — say, white against black, and men against women — and the dominant group develops an ideology to seek to justify its taking advantage of the other group. This can also be applied to a dominant species against other species. The dominant species on Earth is our own, homo sapiens.

Speciesism is an ideology that justifies using animals for our own purposes, whether it is to experiment on them, make them entertain us, or kill them for their furs and most importantly, to kill them for their meat. It is a prejudice to think that only one species is important and that species is the only one that has moral status and rights.

There is another form of speciesism that we practice: Even when we are done with preferring our own interests, we might prefer the interests of animals which we like. So cruelty to dogs and cats is taken more seriously than cruelty to pigs and chickens for example, whereas factory-farmed animals are equally capable of suffering and they live a much more miserable life than pets.

Effective altruism is about using limited resources in a most effective way to do good, and an important way of doing good is to reduce suffering. Effective altruism dictates that one should reduce suffering as effectively as possible. Effective altruists might have different views on what is the most effective way to reduce suffering — say, helping people out of poverty or saving animals — but effective altruism is a movement that is broad enough to encompass the anti-poverty movement, animal rights movement and other issues.

TT: How do you extend the fight against animal cruelty to cows, pigs and chickens? How do you convince people that commercially farmed animals should be given equal consideration as cats and dogs?

Singer: We have tried to make people understand that farmed animals are also individuals, and that they are complicated beings with emotions and social lives. People think of farmed animals en masse instead of treating them as individuals with personalities, just as dogs and cats have personalities. That kind of thinking leads to the blindness to animal suffering in factory farms. We often use pigs to raise the public’s awareness because pigs are so clearly intelligent, and it is quite easy to see that almost anything a dog can do a pig can do as well, and pigs can behave in ways that people would relate to. It is just illogical to say that a dog needs more protections than a pig.

TT: A movement has been initiated in Taiwan to call for increased penalty’s against animal cruelty, in particular, against cruelty to dogs and cats. Do you think it is an improvement in animal welfare or another form of speciesism?

Singer: I do think it is a form of speciesism.

We give dogs and cats more protection because we like them. However, one can say that it is still better that some animals are protected than no protection at all. If I were Taiwanese, I would be advocating for the extension of the legislation — whatever protection it gives to cats and dogs — to birds and mammals at minimum, because there is no reason to think that cats and dogs suffer more than pigs, cows and chickens. My concern would be that the public might feel animal protection is in place once dogs and cats are under protection, and it would be more difficult for other animals that people do not have sympathy for to be protected. I would use the existing momentum to point out that a pig is just as much capable of suffering as dogs or cats, and there is no reason to have one law for dogs and cats and another law for pigs.

TT: There are religious practices in Taiwan that involve animal abuse and killing, such as “god pigs,” which are fattened to extreme obesity for use in religious ceremonies. Aboriginal hunting practices have also been an issue, particularly when they involve protected species. What is your opinion about the conflict between traditional practices and animal welfare?

Singer: Freedom of religion is normally a good thing, but there should be a boundary of acceptable tolerance when religious practice is extended to harming other sentient beings. I do not think people have a right to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals to practice religion. Likewise, culture alone cannot justify inflicting suffering on animals. However, wild animals have a better life than farmed animals, and if the method of hunting kills them quickly, then the majority of non-Aboriginal Taiwanese are not in any position to criticize Aboriginal people because they buy factory farmed meat all the time. It can be well understood that Aboriginal people feel discriminated against for being prohibited from practicing their culture. If I were part of the Taiwanese animal welfare movement, I would make my main target reducing suffering at factory farms, rather than Aboriginal hunting.

TT: The government still uses rabbits to produce swine flu vaccine. Can we do research on animals for the benefit of humans and other animals? Taiwan’s legislature recently passed a motion to ban animal experiments for cosmetics, what is your opinion?

Singer: I am not an absolutist about animal experimentation. There can be cases where the benefit from animal experimentation is very great and the harm to animals is minimized. I do not understand this particular case of swine flu vaccine, but one should always look for alternatives to the use of animals, such as cell culture vaccine production. On the other hand, it is easily understood that cosmetics animal testing is unjustified. Why do we need to make animals suffer when there already are cosmetics proven not harmful? Animal experimentation is acceptable if it is the only way to cure some major diseases.

TT: What do you think about animal euthanasia? Is the policy a sign of better animal welfare?

Singer: I am not a believer in the absolute sanctity of life. If shelter animals are going to have a miserable life after the no-kill policy is adopted, and there is no way of avoiding that, then euthanasia would be a preferable alternative.

There are places where no-kill policy has worked well, and the policy can provide a ground to improve education. The success of the policy lies in reducing the number of stray animals by educating the public to neuter their pets and not abandon them.

TT: Do we have to become vegans to ultimately defeat speciesism? Is there a midpoint?

Singer: It is probably the most likely route to defeating speciesism. Eating eggs from truly free-ranging chickens might be one of the few ways one can defend eating non-vegan food without inflicting pain on animals, but it is very difficult to have high animal welfare standards on a commercial scale. Hence, it might be simplest to fight against speciesism if one becomes a vegan. However, incremental change is acceptable in a world where most people consume animal products. There is a movement called “reducetarian,” which encourages people to reduce meat consumption. If the population would reduce meat consumption to twice a week, it can make a bigger reduction in animal suffering than if the number of vegetarians is doubled.

TT: What does an ideal world look like in your opinion? Do you have any suggestion for Taiwan in terms of animal welfare?

Singer: An ideal world is where there is no unnecessary suffering for humans and animals. It would certainly not have hundreds of millions of humans live in extreme poverty while billions of humans live in considerable affluence. It would certainly not have animals suffering in commercial agriculture, either. Getting rid of factory farming would be the priority, which can be achieved with gradual improvement.

Taiwan can put animal welfare requirements like those in the EU in place, which would eliminate the worst kind of animal suffering. Taiwan should also urge the population to reduce meat and egg consumption. Developing alternatives to animal products is also very important. In the US, there are companies making plant-based hamburger meat with a texture that people like, which reduces animal suffering and is environmentally beneficial. A recently published dietary guidance by the Chinese government suggests that people do not eat more than 200g of meat and eggs per day, which can contribute to a sizeable reduction in animal suffering. Taiwan can move ahead along with those trends.