FOR many, the phrase ``animal rights'' brings to mind protests at universities over the use of laboratory animals, the sympathetic chimp in the movie ``Project X'' - or even last fall's raids on California turkey farms by radicals from the Animal Liberation Front. Such events represent one, very public side of the animal-rights movement. But there's a quieter side, too; one that surfaces in philosophical debate, rather than in sidewalk protests. Philosopher Peter Singer is at the heart of it.
Dr. Singer is a dark, curly-haired Australian, and his quiet demeanor barely hints at a bent for the revolutionary. But his thoughts on the rights of animals have stirred thousands and helped bring a measure of intellectual legitimacy to a movement once brushed aside as frivolous. And such legitimacy could help lay the groundwork for future action, both in the legislative realm and in the realm of individual behavior.
Singer's book, ``Animal Liberation'' (Avon Books, 1975), has become scripture, of sorts, for those intent on furthering animal rights. The book grew out of an earlier essay by Singer in The New York Review of Books. That essay transformed the idea of such rights ``from being an emotional thing to a matter of justice,'' according to Henry Spira, a longtime activist who has campaigned against the use of animals in testing cosmetics and other household products.
Australian-born Singer discussed his views and how they evolved when he came through Boston recently.
His interest in animal issues kindled when he was a graduate student in philosophy at Oxford University. Singer met a group of vegetarians who rejected meat-eating on ethical grounds and began weighing their position against some of his own thinking on the meaning of equality - specifically, the idea that equality means, essentially, equal consideration of interests.
``I set out to prove that animals don't count in the same way as humans,'' he says. Instead, he found himself formulating ideas about why they do count in a basic way. He concluded that animals in fact have interests because they, like humans, can suffer, and thus have an interest in avoiding suffering. And if a stand for equality demands consideration of people's interests regardless of race or intellectual ability, he reasoned, why shouldn't the same stand demand consideration for the interest of all living beings, regardless of species?
That philosophical stance led Singer to expound the doctrine of ``speciesism,'' or discrimination on the basis of species. It's a subject now being argued by students of philosophy in schools throughout the United States and elsewhere, he says.
Steven Smith, a professor of philosophy at Claremont-McKenna College in California, confirms this. ``Philosophical and ethical inquiry into animal rights has been receiving increased attention in the last five years,'' he says. Not that the subject has taken the philosophical world by storm, he cautions. Most philosophers probably would not go along with what Dr. Smith calls ``the more extreme point of view,'' which holds that animals and humans should be given equal moral standing.
Max Stackhouse, Hubert Gezork professor of Christian ethics at the Andover-Newton Theological Seminary in Newton, Mass., takes a strong opposing stand. While he sees a ``new awareness, generally'' of the need to protect animals and the rest of the natural environment, his conclusions differ from Singer's when the discussion turns to ``rights.'' As a theologian, Dr. Stackhouse questions whether ``God confers the same kind of dignity on every dog and fish'' that He does on human beings, and, hence, whether the concept of rights applies in one case as readily as in the other.
Even some within the animal-rights fraternity take issue with Singer's underlying propositions. ``Peter and I have fundamentally different views on the basis of the philosophy,'' says Tom Regan, a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University. Dr. Regan has been active for many years writing and making films about animal rights. His book, ``The Case for Animal Rights'' (University of California Press, 1983), is another widely read text on the subject.
Regan describes his philosophical foundation as ``the integrity and worth of the individual, how it is that individuals don't exist for the use of other individuals.'' He extends the concept of individuality to any creature that has a ``biography'' - a conscious, psychological existence - as well as a ``biology'' or physical existence. This would obviously apply to dogs, for instance, and to laboratory rats as well, says Regan.
Such a stance, he says, would never justify a practice like experimentation on animals. Singer's ``more utilitarian'' approach, which zeroes in on outcomes - for example, pain - might allow such experimentation if it had some good purpose, argues Regan.
Philosophical fine points aside, both Singer and Regan see their movement as part of a historical progression that has included such landmarks as the abolition of human slavery. ``I'd regard the slave system as analogous to what we're now doing to animals on factory farms,'' says Singer, plunging into what's likely to be the most difficult battle facing animal-rights crusaders - that involving food production and eating habits.
Doesn't the fact that many animals eat other animals knock some of the pins from under any campaign against meat-eating? ``Simply pointing that out is not a moral argument for human beings,'' Singer retorts. ``Obviously, we have capacities for moral reflection and choice that other animals don't have.''