Stanford Review - Archive - Volume XXIV - Issue #5 - Ethics and the Academy
Ethics and the Academy
Peter Singer: Taxation Without Representation For The Orangutang
by Henry Towsner
Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer's recent lecture at Stanford on the rights of non-humans certainly raises some interesting questions. Although he fails to prove his main point, that non-human great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) deserve the same rights as those accorded every human, he does point out legitimate issues with the accepted definition of a person.
Singer argues that any being which is self-aware and has a continuous sense of self is a person and is entitled to certain basic rights. He is careful to state the he is only dealing with the minimal rights generally accepted for humans, such as protection from murder or abuse, as opposed to those granted to a subset of people, particularly voting rights. While this statement alone is not necessarily controversial, Singer goes on to assert that this statement implies that all great apes should receive those rights.
The most controversial portion of his lecture is his attempt to prove that great apes possess enough of a sense of self to qualify as people. Singer gives language use as his evidence, citing studies which involve teaching chimpanzees or gorillas a sign language of some sort. Unfortunately, the results of these studies are largely open to interpretation; Singer's analysis is no exception. His "proof" that chimpanzees are self-aware depends on projecting his own thoughts onto the ape and assuming that the ape is thinking the same thing.
Singer gives the example of an ape lying, arguing that in order for an animal to lie, it must be able to imagine how another being would react to its actions. Singer argues that, if a being can put itself in another's shoes, it must be self-aware. However, his examples prove quite lacking: he offers the instance of one chimpanzee taught to use a sign when it needs to use the bathroom. The chimpanzee would then be let in to use the toilet. The chimpanzee also, however, would use the sign when it wanted to get in to the bathroom for other reasons, for instance, to play with the soap.
Singer asserts that the chimpanzee must have thought to itself something along the lines of "This symbol means I need to use the toilet, and when the people think I need to use the toilet, they let me into the bathroom. I want to get into the bathroom, so I'll pretend I need to use the toilet so I can get into the bathroom." Of course, the chimpanzee could also have thought, "I use this sign to get into the bathroom, so I'll use this sign to get into the bathroom." Singer has no way to know what the chimpanzee thought the sign meant. Plenty of other interpretations are available, but Singer's interpretation seems generous to the point of absurdity. His other examples suffer the same flaw; he assumes that he and the animals are thinking the same thoughts, and, lo and behold, he proves that they are thinking the sort of thoughts he thinks.
If Singer could justify his claim that great apes are truly self-conscious, thinking beings, he might be correct in claiming that certain basic rights should be extended to them. Given his failure to provide any evidence, he has shown very little. The example he uses to begin his lecture, contrasting a baby born with only limited brain stem activity and no conscious thought and a live, healthy baboon raises questions worth considering. The baby, which dies in a few days, cannot have its organs transported to a live baby, though the healthy baboon, which is killed to take its organs, can. His argument that personhood is not a dichotomy, but a continuum, with adult humans on one end sliding into apes and so on, is provocative, but, at least for the moment, he has not provided any evidence to demonstrate it.
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