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Human Apes


The Australian philosopher Peter Singer is well known for his utilitarian arguments based on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. He is perhaps “notorious” for his attack on “specieism”, which posits a fundamental difference between humans and animals. His argument was that we cannot draw a moral line between humans and animals. Not surprisingly, he became an icon for animal rights.

The foundation of his argument is not that every living thing is equal and has equal rights. It is rather the principle of avoiding pain. We respect the desire to avoid pain in others, and that means in any living organism that suffers pain. I share a profound, visceral disgust at the way so many humans treat animals (and other humans ). I am not a vegetarian to the degree of strictness that my brother David is, nevertheless I would be delighted if the international community would ever decide to ban all animal slaughter for food. In the meantime, doubtless, they, like Norway, will only focus on specifically banning Jewish slaughter, but not Muslim. And that in itself raises moral issues, but not for now.

Another fundamental idea of Singer’s, and one that I embrace as religious Jew, is what I might call gradualism. He justifies abortion on the ground that you can, indeed, evaluate human life and say that, for example, the mother’s life is more valuable than the fetus’s. In fact, we humans go further; in many ways we evaluate human life and say that one person deserves to die and another does not. He fends off the charge of relativism (as does Stanley Fish in the New York Times) by saying that just because one does not accept absolutes does not mean everything is allowed.

Most absolutes (this is absolutely evil or good) tend to be of a religious nature. That is why I fear them, for their basis is rarely open to intellectual challenge. But this does not mean that some moral and ethical values may not be either superior or preferable to others, and it doesn’t mean that sometimes even the worst of actions, like taking a human life, might not be justified (particularly if he is trying to kill you first).

So how do we justify killing animals? Research has shown that we share over 90% of our genetic makeup with Orangutans (but we also share nearly as much with rats, so the genetic argument is not that compelling). Chimpanzees have been shown to have emotions, learn how to invent tools and, in a very limited way, learn how to pool resources. Does this make them human? Certainly they are more human that cows or lizards.

We like to think that what differentiates us from animals is advanced intellect, capacity to reason, morality. But then what about those humans with defective or less advanced intellects? Shall we treat them the same way we treat monkeys? And if children were to be tested at birth, would they show enough advances on mature chimps to warrant special treatment? Do we decide morality on the basis of potential or achievement? And how would we treat Neanderthals nowadays, if they were still around? Would they come in at the top of the monkey scale or the bottom of the human?

In other words, we do indeed have sliding scales rather than fixed lines in morality. In Judaism, all sentient animals are to be protected from human cruelty. The ghastly undercover revelation by PETA of what went on at Rubashkin’s abattoir in Postville, Iowa showed how we often ignore our own rules. The Biblical laws about sending away the mother bird from her nest, not killing a mother animal and its child on the same day, not muzzling an ox as it threshes, or yoking incompatible animals together all indicate concern. Although I admit that it is all simply a way of getting us to be more merciful to other humans.

We draw a distinction between a fetus and a living human. We also distinguish between those humans who are willing to abide by moral laws and those who are not. I often wondered how the Torah handed down such seemingly cruel treatment to certain Canaanite and pagan tribes. Why could not all humans not be treated equally? Yet if we were to think in terms of graded scales, rather than absolute categories, we would be able to recognize that in the past, and still today, there are humans so devoid of values, so corrupt that we find it offensive (or shall I say challenging) to give then the same rights we would others. Although human rights pretend to do just this, in practice legal systems do indeed treat people differently.

You might argue that law and morality are not necessarily bound to each other, and sadly often they are not. In Judaism they are. Therefore laws of cruelty to animals and humans become part of the same ethical obligation to carry out the Divine will. But then why are we allowed to kill animals, even if as mercifully and painlessly as possible? And I would go further and ask why Chasidim whirl chickens around their heads for kaparot, atonement, before Yom Kipur ? No one I know have has suggested the chickens enjoy it.

Maimonides said in his Guide (others will deny he meant it) that sacrifices were merely a concession to primitive sentiment and custom. I might say that eating meat, too, was a concession to the times (as the Midrash and Rashi say about the time after the Flood). If so, it seems to me we either have to admit we are still primitive or at least that we have not yet progressed as far as we should.

10 thoughts on “Human Apes

  1. Jeremy,

    I can't believe you really support Peter Singer. You're OK with his argument for infanticide? It's a logical extension of his abortion argument, a fetus is not a person and a week old baby isn't either…

    For a sane and readable approach see this exchange between Peter Singer and Richard Posner,–.htm

    I particularly like Posner's remark that, "It is because we are humans that we put humans first. If we were cats we would put cats first, regardless of what philosophers might tell us."

    Singer's Practical Ethics, (CUP 2008) is the only book I have ever lent and never regretted not getting back.

  2. I did not see that comment about abortion. But first I must say that I am shocked how ignorant you are in scientific facts. I am sorry but we are omnivors not herbevors. I wanted to live kosher and in Germany there was no kosher meat so I lived vegetarian. I became extremely lethargic and when I had blood test my iron was low. I was told my every doctor including my mother who is a GP that I have to eat red meat and liver to keep up my iron level. I was stuffed with any red meat available then. In London I found kosher meat expensive and only ate it when I was invited. I also got anaemic again. I still struggle with my iron level and according to the doctors there is no alternative. The internet says we absorb more than 80% from red meat and liver and only 25% from plant products. I know some people can manage with vegetarian food only but not everybody. Telling me not to eat meat is like sentencing me to death. I can die of anaemia. If we have to kill animals then it should be done in the most painless way. I would also prefer that they also had a good life beforehand. Jewish slaughter is supposed to be like that. It requires a professional and strict suppervision and not a random person.
    I am even more shocked that you order women to have a baby no matter what the situation. It is legal to get rid of an embryo up to 12 weeks not a baby that delevopes. An embryo is actually only fertilised egg cells, nothing more. It is cruel to the mother and the baby if she has to have it when the mother can't deal with it. Please inform yourself first.
    I do understand and agree with you about other critism about cruelty, corrupt athorities and whatever you talked about in other posts as well.


  3. dk:
    No indeed I do not agree with Singer on most issues. I only used him as a peg to hang a thought on, a point of view to contrast. To be fair he did put the issue firmly on the modern philosophical agenda. But I'm on youre side here!

  4. Sabine:
    I do not pretend to be an expert in medicine and I write only from my own personal experience and I ( and indeed my siblings) feel much healthier avoiding meat.
    But perhaps you are unaware that according to Jewish law if you have a serious health problem you can even eat pork if a doctor says it is necessary so obviously I would not expect anyone who is required medically to eat meat , to endanger themselves by giving it up.
    As for abortion, Jewish Law does not approve, unless a woman's life and health are seriously threatened. Please tell me where I said a woman hould have a baby regadless. I think you must have either misread or misunderstood.

  5. You said an embryo is a person. That is not true. I am not an expert either but informed myself several times and even BBC showed what embryos look like. They are egg cells and nothing more. I heard now that the UK unlike Germany allows 24 weeks which is supposed to be changed as baby can potential survive when given birth after 24 weeks.
    OK, I misunderstood then. I thought you meant you disapprove of women having abortion no matter what the circumstances. There a lot of difficult situations today and one has to take that in consideration. You can't compare with the past. We live pretty much all as individuals and less together like a family or supporting community.
    Pork is not red meat. No doctor would ever demand to eat it. But under the circumstances I lived before in I had to get beef or lamb from a non-kosher butcher as there is none in Germany. Duck and venison is also red meat but even from non-kosher butcher it is very expensive. I have never heard or saw that a shochet would catch a deer and shecht it according to the Jewish law. The catching would be already very hard.

  6. I forgot to say. You said you improve if the government does not allow any slaugher of animals. That is why I said it is like sentencing me to death because I need red meat. It depends which part and what kind of meat you eat. Lean meat supposed belong into every diet. Too much of anything is not good. I even heard too much of citrus fruit is not good either. Eat everything in the right propotion.
    I forgot to write my name under the previous comment.


  7. Dear Sabine:
    Why would I ever equate a foetus with a viable living being when Halacha does not? I dont approve of needless abortion but until the foetus exits the womb it is not regarded as the same as a living being. And if a person needs meat medically or otherwise and no effective equivalent is available, that should be his own choice or his doctor's. But I am nevertheless deeply concerned at the cruelty I have witnessed at all different types of slaughterhouses.

  8. just to say: we may share 99% of our dna with chimps and over 90% with rats, but we also share about 66% of it with the humble banana.

    just saying.



  9. I agree with you that their are bad practices and cruelty in slaughter houses. It does not mean it has to be completely abolished and people depending on meat have to die. What should be changed is the actual practice and how animals are also kept and treated beforehand. Jewish law forbids cruelty to animals. I heard it seems to be a big issue even on Jewish farms and slaughter houses in particular in the US where people demand too much meat. Cutting it down would be a good idea. It might be easier to keep the animals at least in good condition if there were not too many. I have not met a Jewish family in the UK that eats every day meat. If at all then on Shabbat.

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