Daniel Rubin: An animal-rights activist stands up for Vick

Peter Singer
Peter Singer
Posted: August 17, 2009

I figured if anyone could throw some light on the ethics of the Eagles' decision to sign a convicted dog murderer, it would be Peter Singer.

He's the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and the author of 1975's Animal Liberation, a book widely considered the bible of the animal-rights movement.

I left a message - Singer has been home in Australia since the winter - and was about to give up on getting his take on the second chance the team has offered to quarterback Michael Vick.

When Singer rang me back, he couldn't have surprised me more.

"I've read about Michael Vick," he said Friday afternoon from New York, having flown in the day before. "I know the Eagles just signed him. What he did was certainly awful. But many people do or participate in things regarding animals that are awful. To some extent, I think people may have rushed to judgment because he did something awful to dogs."

Rushed to judgment? The guy who was sentenced to 23 months in prison for profiting from a dogfighting operation in which the lesser dogs were tortured and killed? Singer is famous for sensitizing people to the feelings of animals.

"For example," he went on, "the kinds of things that are done to pigs to turn them into ham or bacon are awful, but we don't care as much about pigs as we do dogs. And I think there's every reason to believe that pigs are as sensitive and intelligent as dogs."

This was going to be a challenging interview.

"What I'm saying," he went on, "is that the people who are very quick to jump on Michael Vick maybe could spend some time thinking about how they participate in the cruelty to animals just by walking into the supermarket, spend some time thinking about what happened to that animal before it was turned into meat."

I did not tell him that I had just lunched on a BLT.

"There are pigs, probably millions, on factory farms," he said, "who are having a worse time than Michael Vick's dogs. That's what I find a little incongruous about the response to what he did."

Singer is 63, a prolific author in bioethics, philosophy, and world poverty, and a provocative public speaker. He has never seen dogs fight for sport, he says, and has never investigated the culture of the pit. But he is well acquainted, he says, with the ways humans mistreat animals.

"There are undoubtedly people who enjoy abusing and humiliating animals, I guess, because they have power over their animals. In some way it reinforces their sense of self-worth, their sense of power, to be able to have that complete dominance over animals."

With the Vick case, the question turns on whether someone who has done his time should be given a second chance and whether that chance should involve a high-profile, public life.

In the end, Singer says he is moved by Vick's expressions of remorse and his public appearances on behalf of the Humane Society to speak out against dogfighting.

I mention that millions of dollars are riding on his reformed image.

Here Singer shows his own humanity.

"I tend to take people as speaking sincerely until I have good reason to think they are not," he said. "I hope that is the case. I guess I could say, if he continues to show his sincerity and continues to try to make amends, I would give him a second chance."

I told him I was stunned.

Vick at 29 is a "reasonably young man," Singer said, and people should not be condemned for the rest of their lives for the mistakes, though barbarous, of their youth.

"If this is what he does best, play football, I don't think he should be prevented from playing for the rest of his life."

The goal, he said, is to make people behave better. "How do you do that? Do you make an example? Do you lock him in a cell and throw away the key? If we said, 'No football,' we'd be punishing him the rest of his life.

"Or do you accept that he may be sincere and hope he's sincere and give him an opportunity to show he can make a difference?"

I had to tell Singer that I didn't know what to say next. I had spent the day savoring the satisfaction of the moral high road, never thinking that I would run into compassion and a belief in redemption along the way.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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