Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Singer's ambiguity on vivisection is damaging to animals

The BBC programme Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing, shown on 27 November 2006, does not, as one could have easily predicted, fulfill any of the promises declared in its press releases.

It does not “attempt to determine if these experiments are effective”: it actually rather takes their effectiveness for granted, blindly accepting the words of experimenters without any search for independent evidence.

And it, or its presenter, does not “have a ring-side seat at the heart of the conflict”, especially it does not have a balanced, unbiased position giving equal weight to both sides of the “debate”.

Throughout the programme we heard only one voice arguing the case for the animals, that of animal rights activist Mel Broughton.

Other than that, and the occasional shouting of demonstrators, the show consisted in a long succession of pro-vivisection voices.

Among the latter, unfortunately, one has to list that of Peter Singer.

It was not entirely a surprise, knowing Singer’s utilitarian position that, to put it simply, “the end justifies the means”, that is, if an experiment can demonstrably save more lives of higher value by sacrificing fewer lives of lower value (and the calculation of suffering is similarly in favour of the experiment being performed), then it should be carried out.

The rights’ view in ethics is certainly superior to the utilitarian one, in my opinion.

So, Singer has made statements that have resulted in headlines like “Animal guru gives tests his blessing” in The Observer of November 26, 2006, which says:

“Monkey research has benefits, equal rights philosopher admits.

“One of the most important figures in the animal rights movement has publicly backed the use of living creatures in medical experiments. The endorsement - by the philosopher Peter Singer, who coined the phrase Animal Liberation and whose Seventies book on the subject led to the creation of the animal rights movement - has surprised observers.

“Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton, is renowned for insisting animals should have equal rights with humans but is quoted, on camera, backing research in which experiments on monkeys are carried out to develop surgery for Parkinson's and other patients.

“'It is clear at least some animal research does have benefits,' Singer admits on Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing, which will be screened on BBC2 tomorrow. 'I would certainly not say that no animal research could be justified and the case you have given sounds like one that is justified.'

“The admission has delighted scientists, including the Oxford surgeon Tipu Aziz, the doctor involved in this work. 'It is a very encouraging sign,' he said.”

The Tipu Aziz in question, the programme forgets to mention but we’d better remind people, is the same man who, in an interview with The Guardian on March 4, 2006, defended cosmetics tests on animals:

“In an interview with the Guardian, Tipu Aziz said: "People talk about cosmetics being the ultimate evil. But beautifying oneself has been going on since we were cavemen. If it's proven to reduce suffering through animals tests, it's not wrong to use them. To say cosmetics is an absolute evil is absurd."”

Obviously for Aziz, the only ethical question about cosmetics testing on animals seems to be the Islamic problem with women’s wearing make up and similar ways of “beautifying oneself”. The moral issue of the treatment of animals is so far away from his frame of mind as Islamabad is from London. He is so remote from this type of problem that he has totally misunderstood it, and believes that the battle to fight is against people who think that “cosmetics is an absolute evil”.

So, when he started one of his many utterances during yesterday’s programme with “I don’t think there’s an issue”, I knew exactly what he meant. Animal welfare is not an issue for him.

And this is the kind of man whose words Singer took at their face value, without a challenge, when he said something to this effect: “You are the expert, so you will know whether your experiments are useful and justified”.

It took Singer two minutes to make up his mind on the matter. Wow! What a philosopher! What about saying “You are presumably an expert, but you are also the person with powerful vested interests in the continuation of your experiments”?

As for the other two most recurrent pro-vivisection voices in the show, one, Laurie Pycroft, is a school drop-out. The other, Colin Blakemore, is notorious for having carried out “experiments” in which he blinded kittens by sewing their eyes shut from birth: needless to say, those experiments never led to any “medical breakthrough”.

An in-depth study of his vision research on animals concludes:

“we found no evidence that our understanding amblyopia's causes or treatments have improved as a consequence of this research”.

I just hope that Singer’s views were misrepresented by selective quoting, a well-known journalistic and propagandistic tool. He may have added something which in fact he has written many times, ie that Aziz should not perform on non-human primates experiments that he would not be prepared to perform on humans of equal or inferior intellect and/or sentience, perhaps orphaned infants. That at least would avoid the speciesist bias.

Either way, Singer’s opinions are easily misreprented in this way, and he’s giving the media and the vivisection lobby powerful weapons.

Peter Singer’s ambiguity on the issue of vivisection is extremely damaging to the animals’ case.

The fact that Singer was given a voice on this programme, but none of the many people who have strong medical arguments to oppose vivisection were heard, makes one think who is tame and who is a powerful enemy of the vivisection lobby.

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