“It’s not species that makes a difference,” bioethics professor Peter Singer said in a three-person panel on animal rights on Tuesday afternoon. Singer compared what he called “speciesism” to racism and sexism, describing it as prejudice against a biological fact that makes humans feel superior to animals “irrespective of what, in fact, they are like.”
Singer spoke alongside Rutgers University professor Jeff McMahan and New York University professor Dale Jamieson in a panel held at Robertson Hall. The event accompanied “Nonhuman Animals: Eat, Test, Love”, an exhibit of paintings by Hetty Baiz, a local artist inspired to explore animal cruelty after reading Peter Singer’s book “Animal Liberation”. Baiz’s work will be on display at the Bernstein Gallery at the Wilson School until Thursday.
Singer opened the event with an introduction to traditional modes of thinking about animals. He quoted the Bible to characterize the Western attitude toward non-humans.
“We find this idea that God created us and the earth and created the animals but then told us to ‘replenish the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the earth, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,’ ” Singer said.
But Western religious doctrine, he explained, did not necessarily cause human subjugation of animals throughout history. Singer noted that, as followers of Eastern religions, which present a more egalitarian view of animals, often treat animals similarly, the verse provides “the justification for what we would do anyway.”
Referring to philosophers such as Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, Singer explained that few people considered animal rights until 1780, when Jeremy Bentham drew parallels between human slavery and the exploitation of non-humans.
Singer later classified the various responses of modern artists to the issue of animal cruelty. English illustrator Sue Coe creates a “sort-of graphic, really horrifying image to try to get us to see how horrifying the way that we’re treating animals is,” according to Singer. He contrasted this approach to that of Barbara Dover, whose symbolic paintings emphasize animals’ individuality and self-consciousness.
Singer said he found a portrait of a rat particularly powerful because of the rat’s abused status in laboratory research. “[In that painting, you can see that] a rat is an individual that has a sense of its own being in some way, that is both inquisitive about its surroundings and has introspect we ought to be respecting.”
McMahan argued that the killing of animals is immoral even if the process is painless. “We ourselves are willing to undergo quite a bit of suffering to enjoy the pure benefits of an extended life,” he said, citing chemotherapy as an example. “So why should we think it’s any different with animals? Why should we think their lives, or future lives, I should say, are not important to them in the way that our future lives are important to us?”
Jamieson noted that the visual artwork discussed by Singer is emerging against a “whole background of cultural change regarding our expression of animals.” He pointed to literature and performance as other areas that increasingly criticize animal cruelty.
Jamieson concluded the lecture by dismissing supposedly humane methods of slaughtering animals.
“The animals that you get in Whole Foods that are supposed to have had happy lives probably did not have happy lives and were almost certainly not painlessly killed,” he said. Both he and McMahan suggested veganism or vegetarianism as the solution, to laughter from the audience.
The lecture and panel discussion were moderated by professor of public policy Stanley Katz.