Peter Singer: Consciousness is not exclusive to humans, or even primates | Culture
Peter Singer is the man who convinced half the planet that animals feel pain, the philosopher who pushed parliaments to legislate on animal welfare, the bioethicist who became a referent for moral questions throughout the world . He advocated euthanasia for cases of children born with malformations and unbearable pain, despite the unpopularity of his views to the casual observer or defiant expert.
Singer, born in Melbourne, Australia, 75 years ago, is an ethical and political philosopher whose work spans a wide range of topics. He is best known as one of the founders of the animal rights movement. But he is far from being a mean-spirited activist more concerned with the welfare of animals than his fellow human beings. His broad intelligence and personal history do not allow for such narrowness.
The son of Viennese Jews who fled to Australia in 1938, Singer grew up in a family living under the shadow of the Holocaust. Three of her four grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps shortly after her parents left Europe. His animality is a real intellectual posture, not a whim of a citizen bored by others. His book Animal liberation: a new ethic for our treatment of animals, published in English in 1975, propelled him to philosophical stardom. He taught bioethics at Princeton University for 23 years, and he has just published a Spanish adaptation of Thgolden donkey, a book by 2nd-century Roman philosopher Apuleius, who shared Singer’s deep empathy for animals. Soon to be released in Spanish is also Singer’s ThThe Great Apes Project.
I spoke with Singer on a video call about the latest advances in the neuroscience of consciousness. Recent discoveries demonstrate that the quality we thought was unique to humans is not located in the front of the brain, the part that has developed the most during human evolution, but in the areas that we share with the animals. On whether he sees the discovery as confirmation of his theories, he says, “Yes, I think consciousness goes way back in the history of Earth’s evolution. Its presence has been confirmed in other mammals, and I think in all vertebrates, including fish, and even in some invertebrates. We’ve all seen the famous octopus documentary, My octopus teacher, who demonstrated to people that octopuses are also sentient beings, even when their consciousness evolved independently of ours. The evidence we are accumulating in neuroscience demonstrates that consciousness is not a phenomenon unique to humans, or even primates, but goes back much further in evolution.
Philosophy admits that the idea of our close affinity with the animal kingdom has permeated scientific thought since at least the 19th century. “Darwin recognized that we are not a separate creation, a very important point, because in religious texts, like for example the literal reading of Genesis, humans are a direct creation of God, the only ones made in his image and likeness, the only ones who possess an immortal soul that survives the body. Many people, including Thomas Aquinas, interpreted this as a denial that we have obligations to animals. We would only have them at d other beings who have immortal souls, and that leaves only us humans. But Darwin showed that this is wrong, because we are not made in the image of God, but rather we are products of the evolution of other animals. This is Darwin’s fundamental perception. We are not the masters of animals. We simply live on the same planet as them, and we have no right to assume that our pleasures and pains are unique or different from theirs. In fact, Hinduism and Buddhism do not see as clear a division between humans and other animals as Christianity does.
Some thinkers – perhaps the vast majority – do not accept that animals are capable of suffering. Singer is impatient with them. “From a philosophical point of view, we cannot be certain that animals suffer and feel pain. Solipsism is a difficult position to refute. Because I am in pain, I can be sure of my pain, but not of yours. Although this idea is difficult to refute, it does not seem convincing to me. The same reactions to pain are observed in animals as in humans, based on the same nervous phenomena. Aspirin or paracetamol relieves pain in both humans and animals. The proposition that they are unaware of their suffering seems unlikely.
Since Singer is vegetarian, I ask him my favorite question for vegetarians: would you eat a hamburger made from stem cells? “I would eat a stem cell burger if no animal had suffered in the process. I am not a vegetarian because I reject a type of cell, but because of the pain obtaining them causes.
One of the concerns of scientists is that the movement of animals can pose obstacles to experiments with laboratory animals, which are essential for human health research today. Singer has a nuanced stance: “I don’t share any animal group that believes animal testing is always unjustified. I am a consequentialist. I judge what is good or bad by its consequences. But when I look at animal experiments, I find a lot of them that aren’t necessary for human health or survival, for cosmetics, for example, or for testing food coloring. Singer is referring to animal testing that examines whether post-traumatic stress can be linked to childhood suffering, inflicting pain on animals to see if it increases their likelihood of PTSD. “I think there are better ways to help people with post-traumatic stress.”
Singer is clear about his stance against bullfighting. “Bullfights can be seen as heirs to the games of classical Rome, where beasts ate gladiators and Christians. It is incredible to me that bullfights have survived to this day, despite the general rejection of public entertainment based on the suffering inflicted on animals. It’s a special tradition, and there are so many other ways to celebrate, with all those wonderful football teams you have in Spain and so many people who like to watch them, that I would recommend football before bullfights .
I first interviewed Singer over 20 years ago. I remember arriving at our date ready for the fight, with provocative questions such as “humans invented human rights, shouldn’t apes invent theirs?” Not a minute of the interview passed before I realized how wrong I was. It was clear that Singer was a deep, thoughtful thinker, not the plant-eating loudmouth I had imagined. However, I dare to repeat one of the questions I asked him then: should computers have human rights? “One day they should have them,” he replies, “but we are no closer to that day than we were 20 years ago. Despite all the advances in artificial intelligence and computing over these 20 years, we still haven’t seen the prospects of a conscious machine, capable of suffering and enjoying life. Granted, 25 years ago we didn’t have a computer that beat the human chess champion, and now we do. They can even beat us in more complicated games like Go. There have been great advances, albeit in very limited contexts. But if we are looking for a general artificial intelligence, which allows us to perceive a mind as flexible as ours, and capable of responding to the world as ours, it does not yet exist. Ask me in 20 years. We both laugh at the possibility of this interview taking place: old man jokes.
I ask him to pivot towards Ukraine: is there an ethic of war? “There are ethical rules of war, and if they were respected by all parties to a conflict, wars would probably be less atrocious than they are. There’s an ethic of when to go to war and another of what to do once you’re gone. But if the question refers to the current context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is no justification for Russia to go to war, and it has not respected ethical conduct on how to fight in a war.
I ask him to compare this conflict with the war in Iraq, which began with an Allied invasion of the Middle Eastern country. “I was against the war in Iraq at the time. I didn’t think it was justified, or that George Bush or Tony Blair had let international inspectors, who should have confirmed the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, finish their job. (The third member of the Azores trio, José María Aznar, has not remained in the memory of even the most informed people in the world.) “These observers had established that there was no evidence of weapons of destruction massive. Bush and Blair were eager to defeat Saddam, who was certainly a ruthless dictator, but that fact alone did not justify war. The degree of death and destruction caused by the war was far beyond what Saddam could have inflicted on his people at that time.
Finally, I ask him his position on the polemical debate on the advisability of sending arms to the Ukrainians. “Ukraine has been unjustly attacked by a brutal dictator who does not allow his own people to know the truth. Anyone who calls what is officially a “special military operation” a war can face up to 15 years in prison. Ukraine is a democracy that respects the rights of its citizens, and I believe that all countries that support democratic values and international law should support Ukraine, and that includes sending arms to Ukrainians. The most difficult question, as the Russian military bombs Ukrainian cities, is whether to respond to President Zelensky’s petition to impose a no-fly zone, as this would implicate NATO countries in conflict, and that carries a high risk.
Obviously, there’s more to this spirit than cartoon monkeys and cheeky reporters.