Monday, February 12, 2007

Not Only Unethical But Impractical, Too!

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On 4/9/02, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Princeton's Peter Singer in Lawrenceville, NJ. I posed a question, citing two quotations from his "Practical Ethics, 2nd ed.":
1.) "That there is a huge gulf between humans and animals was unquestioned for most of the course of Western civilization....The use of language was another boundary line - but now chimpanzees, gorillas, and an orangutan have learnt Ameslan, the sign language of the deaf" (p.72);
2.) "Are animals self-conscious? There is now solid evidence that some are. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence comes from apes who can communicate with us using a human language" (p.111).

I began: "Professor, I read Practical Ethics two years ago, and I have not eaten a Big Mac since. I also think that you make a sympathetic case for the mistreatment of farm animals. However, I remain an unapologetic speceist. I have worked with deaf people for twenty years and have studied American Sign Language for twenty years. Though I do not believe that language is all that sets humans apart from non-humans, you seem to largely hang your hat on this. I know of no one who knows American Sign Language who maintains that non-humans can sign. Are there studies of which I am unaware?"

Singer began his reply: "Obviously, you are more of an expert in sign language than I." He then went on to acknowledge that the famed ape sign language studies had been criticized for "overinterpreting" what constituted sign language. I then asked, "So, you would no longer maintain that non-humans use Ameslan?" Singer did some fumbling around and replied, "Oh, I didn't say that." He then cited monkeys hitting picture buttons on computers as a possible indication that the critiques of the monkey sign language studies were off base. Huh?

I wanted to next reply: "Well Professor, I can see that it's not logic that you are teaching at Princeton." I deferred for fear of alienating the audience. Nevertheless, I was not allowed to ask additional questions. My on-deck question was: "Professor, it's been reported that you believe that human parents should be allowed to kill their newborns - up to several months. Is that true?" Of course, I already knew that to be true.

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