You are here

Signal for Animal Rights and an Enlightened Culture of Debate

gbs defends the award to Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer

Markus Kurth, spokesman for disability policy at Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, criticized the award of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung's ethics prize to the initiators of the Great Ape Project, Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, as a "false signal". The gbs directors object: The awarding of the ethics prize is "exactly the right signal at the right time" - not only to raise awareness about the concerns of the animal rights movement, but also to defend the "principles of an enlightened culture of debate".

In a statement published on the platform of "Kooperation Behinderter im Internet e.V." (kobinet - Cooperation of Disabled People on the Internet) on Monday evening, member of the parliament Markus Kurth explained that the award was "a slap in the face for all people with disabilities". He rejected the view held by the Giordano Bruno Stiftung and Peter Singer that "sick and disabled people should be supported by all means, but illness and disability should not". The Green politician described it as a "delusion" to distinguish one from the other. According to Kurth, disabilities are an expression of human diversity and it is necessary "to view this diversity positively, to promote it and to support it".

"As I read this sentence I was holding my breath, and I can only hope that Kurth did not mean it as it is written in this press release," explained Michael Schmidt-Salomon, spokesman of the gbs directorate, on Tuesday morning. "If we take this statement literally, it means that we should have praised Grünenthal GmbH for 'promoting and supporting' human 'diversity' in the wake of the thalidomide scandal. In fact, however, the company was rightly condemned to pay hundreds of millions in compensations. Justified demands of people with disabilities for adequate help are at the expense of statements that trivialise severe disabilities as a mere expression of 'diversity'."

Warning of logical errors in the argumentation

The philosopher explained the foundation's fundamental position that "the sick and disabled must be supported - but disease and disability should not": "We must provide all means so that people who suffer from cancer or spina bifida, for example, receive the best possible care so that they can lead a life worth living. At the same time, we must work to reduce the incidences of cancer or severe disabilities such as spina bifida." Early intake of folic acid, for instance, helps against spina bifida, though not in all cases. If mothers decide not to carry out foetuses with spina bifida, this is by no means ethically illegitimate, since foetuses do not yet have "any personal self-awareness": "I can understand that adult spina bifida patients feel uncomfortable with this idea," Schmidt-Salomon said, "but it is a logical mistake to transfer the adult perspective to foetuses or even embryos. As a matter of fact, if my mother had once interrupted her pregnancy with me, 'I' wouldn't have any problems with it, because the 'I' that I am today wouldn't have existed at all."

Peter Singer's bioethical publications were intended to draw attention to such logical facts, said the foundation's spokesman. However, neither Singer nor the Giordano Bruno Stiftung had ever - as Markus Kurth insinuated - claimed that illness and disability "automatically" meant that those affected would not lead a life worth living: "Such a statement would be completely absurd! Each of us knows people who, despite severe disabilities or illnesses, not only enjoy their lives, but also deal with them in an admirable way. Many 'healthy people' can learn from what they achieve. But in this context we should not ignore the fact that there are sometimes serious disabilities or diseases that cause such terrible suffering that it may seem reasonable to prefer death to life. I am thinking, for example, of end-stage pancreatic cancer or particularly severe cases of spina bifida. Of course, if humane euthanasia is to be allowed in such cases, it is necessary to set out a very precise framework so that it does not have catastrophic consequences. For example, it must be absolutely clear that the right to die a self-determined death must never give rise to a duty to die a heteronomous death!"

The "euthanasia" issue is particularly sensitive for infants who, unlike adults, cannot express their own will. Here one must rely on the parents, in consultation with experienced doctors, to make the decision which is presumably the best for their child. This is undoubtedly problematic, Schmidt-Salomon said, but the practice of subjecting hopelessly damaged newborns to pointless operations and pain for months against the will of their parents until they die in the end exhausted and tortured is no less problematic.

"The right signal at the right time"

All these important issues should have been seriously discussed as early as the 1980s, when Peter Singer's "Practical Ethics" was first published in German, said Schmidt-Salomon, who in his recently published introduction to philosophy "Leibniz war kein Butterkeks" also made a clear statement on the "Singer controversy". But a fruitful social debate, in which the weaknesses of Singer's original conception could have been revised did not even occur at that time. Instead of arguing rationally and fairly about the contents, individual passages from Singer's writings have been picked out without considering the context: "This is how the distorted image of 'Killer Philosopher Singer' arose, with whom one supposedly should not discuss, but whom one should silence. In 1994, Peter Singer described the shameful consequences of this avalanche-like smear campaign in the epilogue to the revised new edition of his book 'Practical Ethics'".

In this respect, the upcoming award ceremony in Frankfurt is exactly "the right signal at the right time," stressed the foundation's spokesman. "I consider this a signal for the principles of an enlightened culture of debate in which people listen to each other instead of defaming each other, a signal for the principles of tolerance and freedom of expression that are indispensable for peaceful coexistence in a modern, plural society. I hope that we are now able to discuss such important issues in a more sensible and civilized way than we did 20 years ago."

"The objectives of the animal rights movement are at the heart of the award ceremony"

In his statement Schmidt-Salomon also recalled the actual purpose of the award ceremony, which should not be lost in the current debate: "This coming Friday we are not concerned with questions of euthanasia or with questions of the self-determination rights of disabled people, which we as a humanistic foundation naturally support. At the heart of our ceremony are the concerns of the animal rights movement, in particular the demands of the 'Great Ape Project', initiated by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer in 1993 and joined by many prominent researchers. We believe that we must not remain passive as our closest biological relatives are systematically abused, tortured and killed. We believe that the historic moment has come to overcome nationalism, racism, sexism, and finally the barrier of 'speciesism', which justifies the discrimination of living beings solely on the basis of their species. I am therefore very pleased that numerous animal rights organisations are present with information booths at our award ceremony in Frankfurt".

Since the ceremony for the award of the ethics prize 2011 is dedicated exclusively to animal ethical questions, the evening does not provide an opportunity for serious discussion of disability policy issues, Schmidt-Salomon said. However, he explained that he had already contacted representatives of organizations for the disabled in order to organise a joint event as soon as possible: "In this context, I would like to explain why, in my opinion, there is no contradiction between honouring Peter Singer as an animal rights activist and at the same time resolutely advocating the self-determination rights of disabled people. If I am wrong on this point, I will, of course, allow anyone to change my mind in a fair and open discussion. So far I have not encountered any serious evidence that would point in this direction, despite my intensive preoccupation with the subject."

Further articles on this topic can be found on our website: