No stranger to criticism from the political right, philosophy professor Peter Singer came under friendly fire recently for comments he made in a documentary about scientific research on animals.
Singer — the author of "Animal Liberation," a work often credited with kick-starting the animal rights movement — touched off the controversy when he said on camera that an Oxford neurosurgeon's Parkinson's research did not appear to be morally objectionable, even though it involved giving the debilitating disease to primates.
In the documentary "Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing," which was screened late last month on BBC2, Tipu Aziz explained to Singer that his Parkinson's research has improved the lives of about 40,000 people and involved only about 100 monkeys, according to a story in The London Times.
"Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment," Singer said in response. "I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided — I take it you are the expert in this, not me — that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge."
"I could see that as justifiable research," Singer added.
The statement prompted a swift retort from Arkangel for Angel Liberation, a British animal rights group, which dismissed the importance of Aziz' work and condemned Singer for tolerating "the use of monkeys in cruel experiments."
"Peter Singer seems to have fallen foul of the lies propagated by the vivisectionists," the group says on its website, "and many in the animal rights movement are now expressing their disgust at the naivety of a philosopher who believes not in animal rights but in 'Utilitarianism' — the belief that anything can be justified as long as it can be shown to be for the greater good."
SPEAK, an animal rights campaign that aims to end animal experimentation, was even more scathing in its condemnation of Singer.
"The man talks rubbish and the sooner the notion that he has any place in the modern animal rights movement is dispelled the better," a spokesman for the group is quoted as saying on Arkangel's website.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian yesterday, Singer stood behind his statements, maintaining that his views on animal experimentation haven't changed since writing "Animal Liberation."
"My position is that the general practice of conducting research on animals does not properly take account of their interests," Singer said. "The practice of just routinely using animals as research tools is not defensible."
This philosophy, though, does not lead Singer to the conclusion that all experiments on animals are unjust.
"I'm not saying you can't do any research, obviously," Singer said. "You should ask yourself: Do I think this experiment is so important that I would be able to perform it on a human being at a similar mental level if that alternative were open to me?"
He also rejected the title of "animal rights activist," explaining that while he is prepared to defend the welfare of animals, he doesn't consider rights to be the foundation of ethics.
Repeating an argument that has brought him considerable renown and criticism, Singer said it is "speciesist" to make a claim that all humans are more entitled to rights in experimentation than are animals. For humans of a similar mental capacity as animals, there is no characteristic that makes the former more deserving of humane treatment.
"If you have a human being that lacks that capacity [of self-awareness] and never will have it, then I don't think that human being is any more special than a nonhuman animal."
Asif Ghazanfar, an assistant professor of psychology who performs studies involving invasive neurophysiology work on monkeys, said that he is far more sympathetic to Singer's concerns than the typical neuroscientist.
"In some ways, I could be defined as an animal activist because I push for better treatment for my monkeys," he said. "I do that by going beyond what's required of me in terms of my monkeys' care."
Ghazanfar's research involves surgically implanting electrodes in the brains of anaesthetized monkeys to learn how the brain mediates natural social behaviors. The procedure, which is also performed on humans during epilepsy surgery, is not painful for the animals, he said.
"I think you should assume that animals feel pain the way we feel pain and then adjust your protocols accordingly," he said.
Psychology department chair Deborah Prentice said that though her research involves humans, not animals, a similar set of ethical issues apply.
"Most animal research and human research is very heavily regulated," she said.
On-campus animal research must be approved through the University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The group sets standards for animal research and experimentation, and conducts biannual inspections of all animal facilities.
Jenny Palmer '09, co-president and co-founder of the Princeton Animal Welfare Society, said her views on animal experimentation largely align with Singer's. While much of the current research is unjustifiable and causes animals to suffer, Palmer said, this does not mean that all experimentation is immoral.
"As long as the experiments are going to produce results that will benefit humanity and adequate animal welfare standards are followed, I'm not going to protest that kind of animal experiment," she said.
Tom Bohnett '07, president of the Princeton Justice Project, agreed with this sentiment, arguing that one must carefully weigh the potential benefits and harms of a given experiment.
"Singer is very brave to not cling to absolutes in this case," Bohnett said. "And I think those who have decried his comments would do well to take a more nuanced view of the issue."
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