GOOD Q&A: Peter Singer GOOD Q&A: Peter Singer
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GOOD Q&A: Peter Singer

by Andrew Price

February 20, 2009

On PETA and the ethics of dog shows.The philosopher Peter Singer is considered by many to be the intellectual father of the "animal rights movement." His 1975 book Animal Liberation-which argued against "speciesism," the privileging of humans' interests over those of other animals-became a touchstone for groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. With the world still recovering from the finish of the Westminster Dog Show-as well as PETA's KKK-inspired protests outside the event-we asked Singer about the ethics of breeding and Best in Show.GOOD: In Animal Liberation, you argue that we should consider the interests of all species, not just those of humans. Do you think dogs' interests are served by the Westminster Dog Show?Peter Singer: I'm not really sufficiently knowledgeable about the Westminster Dog Show to answer that question. What I can say is that any standards for breeds that require mutilations contrary to the dogs' welfare, or breeding for features that similarly are not in the best interests of the dogs, are unethical.G: I don't have any particular expertise in animal psychology, but it seems that the dogs in the competition might really enjoy themselves. Do you think the winning and losing dogs have any sense of how they've performed?PS: I'm sure they have a sense of whether or not their human companions are pleased with them.G: The British Kennel Club has changed the breeding standards for bulldogs, who have a hard time breathing and getting around because of the way humans have bred them to look. What are your thoughts on the ethics of purebreds?PS: It is unethical to have breeding standards that are not in the best interests of the animals. I'd also add, that as long as we have dogs being killed in pounds because no one wants to adopt them, it is unethical to encourage people to breed dogs when they could be adopting them. For that reason, putting special weight on purebred dogs is not a good thing.G: If we have an obligation not to breed animals to be uncomfortable, do we also have an obligation to actively breed them to be as comfortable as possible?PS: Yes, we do, if we are going to breed them at all.G: PETA pressured advertisers to pull out from sponsoring the Westminster Dog Show. In some of your recent work, you seem to judge whether an action is ethical based on its "opportunity cost," to borrow a term from economics. Would the world be better served if PETA instead spent their time and energy raising funds for Oxfam, for example?PS: No, not at all. PETA does immensely valuable work for animals, just as Oxfam does immensely valuable work for the world's poor. I'm not going to say that one is more important than the other.G: Have you seen the movie Best in Show?PS: Yes, it was hilarious.G: I thought so, too. What are you working on currently?PS: I'm currently promoting my new book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. And no, I'm not going to say that it is a more important book than Animal Liberation-they are both part of the same overall aim, to reduce unnecessary suffering and misery, whether it happens to animals or to humans. But I hope your readers will take a look at the book, and at its associated website, thelifeyoucansave.com.(Photo by by Denise Applewhite)
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GOOD Q&A: Peter Singer