- Professor of bioethics
- Founder of the modern animal rights movement
- Deems it wrong to assign greater inherent value to human beings than to any other form of animal life
- Characterizes the denial of animals’ basic “rights” as a form of discrimination called “speciesism,” comparable to racism and sexism
- Likens the animal rights movement to the abolition movement and the WWII-era fight against Hitler
Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher and a visiting professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He also has worked as a lecturer at Oxford University, New York University, Monash University, the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Irvine), the University of Melbourne, and Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. Singer authored the 1975 book Animal Liberation, a landmark text that effectively launched the modern animal rights movement.
Singer was born in 1946 in Melbourne, Australia, the son of Viennese Jews who had fled Austria during WWII. He attended Scotch College in Victoria and thereafter studied philosophy at the University of Melbourne, where he graduated in 1967. He then continued his education at Oxford, writing his thesis on civil disobedience.
In Animal Liberation, Singer contends that people should respect the moral worth of all animals -- not on the basis of the animals' intelligence, but rather because of their ability to experience pain and suffering. He characterizes the denial of animals’ basic “rights” as a form of discrimination called “speciesism,” comparable to racism and sexism.
Deeming it wrong to assign greater inherent value to human beings than to any other form of animal life, Singer (in Animal Liberation) rejects the Biblical notions that mankind is nature’s steward and master; that humans have souls and animals do not; and that people are made uniquely in the image of God. “All three [of the foregoing axioms] taken together do have a very negative influence on the way in which we think about animals,” Singer says, explaining that his mission is to challenge “this superiority of human beings.”
In the same book, Singer asks, “Should one break in and free the animals” caged in laboratories wherein they otherwise would be the subjects of medical experiments? “That is illegal,” he replies, “but the obligation to obey the law is not absolute. It was justifiably broken by those who helped runaway slaves in the American South.” Throughout Singer’s text, the animal rights crusade is likened to the abolition movement of the 1800s and the fight against Hitler in the 1940s.
In 1979 Singer published Practical Ethics, wherein he continues his argument that animals are entitled to as much respect as people. He contends, moreover, that human parents should be legally permitted to kill a “severely disabled” infant up to 28 days after its birth if they deem the baby’s life unworthy of preservation. “There are some circumstances,” Singer writes, “…where the newborn baby is severely disabled and where the parents think that it’s better that that child should not live, when killing the newborn baby is not at all wrong.”
Singer was once asked, in an interview, whether he would be more inclined to rescue a human being or a mouse from a burning building -- if he could save only one. He replied:
“… [I]n almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human ... Species membership alone isn't morally significant … The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to ... feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That's really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being ... can see that he or she actually has a life ... Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understanding this.... So normally, the death of a human being is a greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse … But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.”
Singer has sparked controversy with his views vis a vis bestiality (humans engaging in sexual intercourse with animals). Suggesting that this practice has remained taboo in most cultures because it is not procreative, Singer observes that humans engage in all manner of sexual activities (with one another) that do not lead to conception; thus sex with animals, he reasons, should not be singled out as a forbidden offense. Singer also argues that since humans themselves are animals, humans engaging in sex with other animals should not be considered especially bizarre:
“…[T]here are many ways in which we cannot help behaving just as animals do — or mammals, anyway — and sex is one of the most obvious ones. We copulate, as they do. They have penises and vaginas, as we do, and the fact that the vagina of a calf can be sexually satisfying to a man shows how similar these organs are.”
Singer’s writings have had a profound impact on the contemporary animal rights movement and its leaders, including Ingrid Newkirk, who, along with fellow activist Alex Pacheco, founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in 1980. (An abridged version of Singer's Animal Liberation is given to all new PETA members.)
In 2000 Singer published A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation, wherein he claims that for too long the theories of social Darwinism have been used by the political “right” to justify capitalism, and even to explain why some societies are prosperous and others are poor. In A Darwinian Left, Singer suggests that the Western culture's emphasis on “competition” should be replaced with an emphasis on “cooperation” as a goal of human evolution.
Singer also has authored or coauthored such books as Marx (1980); The Reproduction Revolution: New Ways of Making Babies (1984); Should the Baby Live? (1988); Rats, Patients and People: Issues in the Ethical Regulation of Research (1989); Democracy and Disobedience (1994); How Are We to Live? (1995); Rethinking Life and Death (1995); The President of Good and Evil (2004); In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave (2005); and The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (2007).
Another notable Singer publication is “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” an essay that originally appeared in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972. In that piece, Singer argues that it is morally indefensible for an affluent society not to earmark a portion of its wealth for the poor.
Singer personally claims to donate 25 percent of his salary each year to Oxfam International, a relief organization that aids populations facing disasters of various sorts (famine, flood, war); one of Oxfam’s chief projects is its boycott of Israeli products -- to protest Israel's alleged abuse of the Palestinian people.
In 2002 Singer joined hundreds of Jewish scholars and professionals in signing a petition calling for Israelis to evacuate virtually all of their settlements in Gaza and the West Bank and to give financial compensation to the Palestinians residing in those areas. Other signers of the petition included Harry Targ, Frances Fox Piven, Stanley Hoffman, Noam Chomsky, Michael Lerner, and Howard Zinn.
In 2006 Singer was a signatory to “An Urgent Call by Scientists to Defend Science,” a document that accused President George W. Bush and the “Religious Right” of blocking scientific progress, “all in the pursuit of implementing their particular political agenda.”
In 2008 Singer contributed $250 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
Singer himself made a brief foray into the political world in 1996, when he ran, unsuccessfully, as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate.
In 2004 the Council of Australian Humanist Societies recognized Singer as the Australian Humanist of the Year. That same year, Singer was named “Humanist Laureate” by the International Academy of Humanism. In 2005 he was named by Time Magazine as one of the world’s most influential people.