You have said that it is wrong to spend money on luxuries for ourselves when we could give the money to organizations working to help the world’s poorest people in developing countries. But shouldn’t we think of the poor in our own country first?
We should give where it will do the most good. There is no sound moral reason for favoring those who happen to live within the borders of our own country. Sometimes, just because they are closer to us and living within the same political system, they may be the people we can most effectively help. More often they will not be. If we live in a rich nation like the U.S.A., our money will go much further, and help more people, if we send it to an organization working in developing nations. Worldwide, one person in every ten survives on the purchasing power equivalent of less than $US2 per day. For a more detailed statement of my views on this topic, see Chapter 5 of my book One World Now.
Are you living a simple life and giving most of your income to the poor?
I’m not living as luxurious a life as I could afford to, but I admit that I indulge my own desires more than I should. My wife and I give about a third of what we earn, both to organizations helping the poor to live a better life, and to reducing animal suffering. I don’t claim that this is as much as I should give. Since we started giving, about forty years ago, we’ve gradually increased the amount we give and are continuing to do so. Giving half is the next target. At the nonprofit I founded, The Life You Can Save, we call this strategy of improving one’s giving behavior, "Personal Best."
To what organizations do you give?
You can see an indication of the organizations I support from the website of The Life You Can Save and its list of recommended charities. An example there is Oxfam, because I like the advocacy work they do. Another influence on my giving is research of the charity evaluator GiveWell. When I give to organizations reducing animal suffering, I focus on factory farming, both because of the vast amount of suffering inflicted on animals in this system, and because it benefits humans as well. Meat and other animal products are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector, and contribute to cancer and heart disease.
How is keeping these people alive going to help, in the long run, when the basic problem is that the world has too many people?
I agree that continued global population growth will eventually bring disaster. One proven way of reducing fertility is enabling poor people, especially women, to get some education. Women with even just a year or two of primary school education have fewer children than women with no education. So development aid does slow fertility. But if you want to do something more directly related to population issues, you could give to organizations like Population Services International, the International Planned Parenthood Federation or DKT International.
I’ve read that you think humans and animals are equal. Do you really believe that a human being is no more valuable than an animal?
I argued in the opening chapter of Animal Liberation that humans and animals are equal in the sense that the fact that a being is human does not mean that we should give the interests of that being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong. Pain is equally bad, if it is felt by a human being or a mouse. We should treat beings as individuals, rather than as members of a species. But that doesn’t mean that all individuals are equally valuable – see my answer to the next question for more details.
If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?
Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human (that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens). Species membership alone isn't morally significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different interests. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something -- that is, 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, other factors come into account, including how good the life would have been, if the being had not been killed, and whether the death will cause fear and insecurity to others who get to know about it, and distress to those who are close to the being who is killed. These factors often mean that the death of a human being is a greater tragedy than the death of a nonhuman animals (although we should not forget that animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates). That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both. 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.
Is it true that you have said that an experiment on 100 monkeys could be justified if it helped thousands of people recover from Parkinson's disease?
I was asked about such an experiment in a discussion with Professor Tipu Aziz, of Oxford University, as part of a BBC documentary called “Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing" that was screened in November 2006. I replied that I was not sufficiently expert in the area to judge if the facts were as Professor Aziz claimed, but assuming they were, this experiment could be justified.
This response caused surprise among some people in the animal movement, but that must be because they had not read what I have written earlier. Since I judge actions by their consequences, I have never said that no experiment on an animal can ever be justified. I do insist, however, that the interests of animals count among those consequences, and that we cannot justify giving less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than we give to the similar interests of human beings.
In Animal Liberation I propose asking experimenters who use animals if they would be prepared to carry out their experiments on human beings at a similar mental level — say, those born with irreversible brain damage. Experimenters who consider their work justified because of the benefits it brings should declare whether they consider such experiments justifiable. If they do not, they should be asked to explain why they think that benefits to a large number of human beings can outweigh harming animals, but cannot outweigh inflicting similar harm on humans. In my view, this belief is evidence of speciesism.
Even if some individual experiments may be justified, this does not mean that the institutional practice of experimenting on animals is justified. Given the suffering that this routinely inflicts on millions of animals, and that probably very few of the experiments will be of significant benefit to humans or to other animals, it is better to put our resources into other methods of doing research that do not involve harming animals.
Incidentally, it is important that there be room in the animal movement for a variety of views about ethics, including views that are rights-based and views that are consequentialist. Debate over such issues is a sign of an open and sound movement. On the other hand, it is also important to focus our energies on attacking speciesism, and not those who, although opposed to speciesism, do not share the particular set of moral views we may hold.
There is a lot of talk now about “cultured meat” or as it is sometimes called, “clean meat,” produced from cells reproducing. Should cultured meat prove ecologically safe, cost and energy efficient and safe for human consumption, is this an ethically acceptable way in which animal meat can be developed and consumed? To avoid discrimination on speciesist grounds, providing the meat can be sufficiently engineered for safe human consumption taking into account the accusations aimed at cannibalism, would it be required that laboratories should also grow human meat for consumption?
Yes, this would be ethically acceptable, because no animals would suffer or die to produce it. There's nothing wrong with meat in itself.
If people prefer the taste of meat grown from the cell of a cow to meat grown from the cell of a human, that's fine too. So there's no ethical requirement to grow human meat for consumption, just because we're growing meat from other animals.
But if you want the taste and texture of meat, you don’t have to wait for cultured meat to come onto the market. You can already find in supermarkets meat-like burgers and chicken pieces made directly from plants. They are economically competitive with meat, and better for the environment.
You have been quoted as saying: "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all." Is that quote accurate?
It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person” (which is discussed in Practical Ethics, from which that quotation is taken). I use the term "person" to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future. As I have already said when comparing the death of a normal human to that of a mouse, there are reasons why it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. Bentham pointed out that infanticide does not make anyone fearful that they will be killed, because by the time one learns of it, one is no longer an infant. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person. That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies. My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection - but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.
What about a normal baby? Doesn’t your theory of personhood imply that parents can kill a healthy, normal baby that they do not want, because it has no sense of the future?
Most parents, fortunately, love their children and would be horrified by the idea of killing it. And that’s a good thing, of course. We want to encourage parents to care for their children, and help them to do so. Moreover, in our society there are many couples who would be very happy to love and care for that child. Hence even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.
Elderly people with dementia, or people who have been injured in accidents, may also have no sense of the future. Can they also be killed?
When a human being once had a sense of the future, but has now lost it, we should consider what he or she would have wanted to happen in these circumstances. So if someone would not have wanted to be kept alive after losing their awareness of their future, we may be justified in ending their life; but if they would not have wanted to be killed under these circumstances, that is an important reason why we should not do so.
What about voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide?
I support law reform to allow people to decide to end their lives, if they are terminally or incurably ill. This is now legal in many countries and jurisdictions: The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada, Switzerland, Colombia, and in the United States, in Oregon, Washington, California, Montana and Vermont. In Australia, it will soon be legal in Victoria, too. Why should we not be able to decide for ourselves, in consultation with doctors, when our quality of life has fallen to the point where we would prefer not to go on living?
What should I read to learn more?
Your choice should depend on what particular issues most interest you. For my views about animals, see Animal Liberation, or specifically about food, see The Ethics of What We Eat (co-authored with Jim Mason). On global poverty, read The Life You Can Save, and on the Effective Altruism movement, The Most Good You Can Do. The fullest statement of my critique of the traditional doctrine of the sanctity of human life is in Rethinking Life and Death, and the most elaborated philosophical elaboration of my views is Practical Ethics. For a brief account of utilitarianism, see Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction (co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek).
These books are in many libraries. They can also be ordered from bookstores, or from online retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.