The power of the movement for animal rights—a movement that until recently was located for most people on the edge of the ridiculous—can no longer be denied. Abetted by both the “rights revolution” and the increasingly powerful environmental cause, the old collection of vegetarians and anti-vivisectionists has acquired new vigor. With this new vigor has come a sizable jump in the temperature of the debate. Always sharp-tongued, defenders of animals have more and more turned from speech to harassing and punitive actions—picketing and boycotting offending businesses, placing lurid ads, raiding and burning laboratories where animal research is conducted, splashing red paint or blood on the houses and cars of the researchers. Moreover, these actions are justified in the language of civil disobedience, another sign of the marriage of an old movement or movements with the newest means of rebelliousness.
In keeping with the manners of this rebelliousness, public insult has become the order of the day. At best the language of argument is patronizing and contemptuous, at worst downright nasty. Opponents of the movement have been called “vestigial, all who are left over from the cave, who . . . threaten to contaminate the future of mankind . . . with the stink and rot of pain and terror glorified” (Roger Caras). The suggestions that there be reforms to insure animals better treatment rather than foreswearing their use altogether “is rather like arguing that the concentration camp at Belsen was more humane than the one at Dachau” (Richard Ryder). Using animals in research is characterized as “experimental torture,” and the scientists’ satisfaction at discovering knowledge through animal experimentation is “pathological” (Stephen R. L. Clark).
To be sure, invective is not all one way: scorn and ridicule are prominent among the weapons used against the animal rights advocates. Meanness of tone, well beyond the levels of normal academic waspishness, has invaded even scholarly works.
Even the presuppositions of the argument are called into question, for many of those who claim to speak for animals challenge the very primacy of human concerns. To speak of ethics in any proper sense, they claim, we must transcend the interests of our species and try to see the world from some kind of cosmic perspective. This last, of course, is the contribution of the environmental movement to the debate. But it is the kind of nonscientific, mystical “deep ecology” that speaks of the overriding value of “the Cosmic Life, the Ocean to which all streams somehow make their contribution” (Charles Hartshorne). Humanity is finally a dispensable species: ultimate value is assigned to the whole process of nature rather than any special part of it. We have been, it is said, wrongly anthropocentric. At the very least we must see ourselves as a part of the whole no better than the other parts—certainly no better than the animals, who have moral equivalence with us.
Although many advocates of animal rights do argue that this revolution in ethical consciousness is for the benefit of the human race as well as the animals, there is nevertheless a persistent strain of anti-humanism in their movement, particularly, as we have seen, when it is joined to deep ecology. We human beings are not necessary to nature, which would be better off without us, evil creatures that we are. Nor is the defense of civilization an acceptable excuse for placing human concerns ahead of the rest of nature. “What I detest is humanism,” says Clark bluntly. Human personality and civilization “seem frankly psychopathic.”
Thus to argue from a premise of human interest is to risk being accused of arbitrary foreclosure of one of the principal points at issue. Nevertheless, human concerns do seem a sensible starting point. We cannot know the cosmic intent nor whether there is value in a natural world without the human race. But we can begin with something we do know, which is that we are valuing creatures and that we value our own existence. The dread word “anthropocentrism” may be used openly and frankly, not from pride or arrogance, but precisely for the sake of modesty. What does being modest suggest to us about the place of animals?
The answer seems to depend a good deal on the extent to which animals are similar to or different from human beings. This issue has been a subject of speculation from as long ago as Aristotle down to Descartes, then to Darwin, and now our own day. Some thinkers, like Descartes, have found the difference between animals and humans to be great, almost absolute; others, like Montaigne, have found it to be more relative and even slight. Darwin is finely balanced:
There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense . . . . Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the highest animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.
As evidence of the difference he cites tool making, solving mathematical problems, metaphysical reasoning, and “disinterested love for all creatures.” As evidence of similarity he suggests common possession of senses, emotions, and intuitions like love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, and even reason.
The stakes in the argument are evident. If animals are quite like us in important respects, then it is easier to claim that they have moral equivalence with us and thus rights against us. If they are significantly different, then the bar to their being used by humans is lowered. Peter Singer, a leading spokesman for animal rights, bears the dubious honor of having made popular the term “speciesism” as an epithet to describe those—most of us, he says—who believe the differences are in kind, not just degree. The evocation of and comparison to “racism” is explicit. Speciesism is
a bare-faced—and morally indefensible—preference for members of our own species . . . exactly the kind of arbitrary difference that the most crude and overt kind of racist uses in attempting to justify racial discrimination.
Those who seek to differentiate animals from humans have often focused on language as the distinguishing characteristic. Our use of language gives us an adaptive versatility well above even the smartest animal. Even Charles Hartshorne, whose interests lie largely with the animal advocates, believes that language is the result of our “symbolic capacity” and acknowledges that that capacity “is our human advantage and superiority. It is a difference in degree so vast that for many purposes one can safely forget that it is one of degree.”
Defenders of animals have naturally sought to minimize the impact of this commonsense assertion. Language is not such a crucial differentiator, they say; animals have their own sophisticated ways of communicating. Having language is not as great an accomplishment as we think; and even if it were, that would not be an excuse to treat animals as if they were beneath us.
Along with language, and of course closely associated with it, is the ability to reason, which is also commonly advanced as a uniquely human ability. We have the ability to think out intelligent adaptive responses to unforeseen situations, whereas animals can manage only learned or instinctive responses; surely the dramatically larger size of the neocortex in humans must mark a difference of major significance. Our knowledge of the “mind” or “consciousness” of animals remains scanty, warns Andrew Rowan, and one must not argue too forcefully from ignorance; but the distinctions noted by Darwin evidently belong to a realm of human capability that animals cannot even approach.
Defenders of animals, unable to deny the obvious, fall back, as they do in the case of language, on saying that the animals’ lack of reasoning ability does not really harm their case. It may be true that we cannot show the presence of animal rationality, but such a lack should not deny to animals their rights and our obligation to respect them. After all, many mentally incapacitated human beings cannot reason and are not denied their rights. Reason, therefore, cannot be made the criterion for distinguishing animal rights from human rights.
The argument from marginal humans is an important one. Perhaps we may reply that mentally incapacitated people do in fact lose certain rights, although this loss ought to be strictly limited to the exercise of those faculties that have been destroyed by the disease. But they are protected from further loss, from being turned into mere things, available for such use (e.g., medical experimentation) as we may choose, because they are members of a rational species, even though they themselves have “lost their wits.” They are afforded generalized protection because they possess, however vestigially, those characteristics that make them human. Protecting them is important to protecting all of us from abuse, should we fall into perilous circumstances, medical, political, or even criminal. Quite aside from the religious reasons that some would advance for it, maintaining the human rights even of the insane is a way of defending our species against self-destruction.
In any event it is clear enough that reason and language do make a major difference in distinguishing animals from human beings. The quarrel is over the significance of that distinction.
The most serious and extensive argument for similarity between animals and humans is that concerning sentience, that is, the ability to feel, especially to feel pain. Singer and others often quote Bentham to the effect that the key question is, “Can they suffer?” If this is accounted the common bond among species, then the implication is clear that pain inflicted on animals must be subject to the same ethical constraints as pain inflicted on humans; for, it is generally assumed, pain is intrinsically evil.
Those who consider animal pain the equivalent of human pain tend to define it as largely a neurological event, an aversive response to bodily assault. The higher animals are also capable of remembering and anticipating such pain in certain contexts, so that aversion to it can be used in behavior conditioning. Pain in this sense does seem common to humans and animals”which is of course the reason animals are used in pain research.
Whether, as Tom Regan and others claim, “it must then be true that the painful experience of an animal is, considered intrinsically, just as much of an evil as a comparable experience of a human being,” is not quite so obvious. We have no way of comparing the context of such pain, of knowing whether the human capacity to set pain in the midst of plans and hopes, for example, makes it a qualitatively different experience from that of animals. Nor can we say with assurance that the neurological event called “pain” is equally evil in all beings who experience it. In any case, Regan’s simple assertion begs the question we have to answer, which is whether animals and humans have the same moral worth. Without answering that question, we would have to assume it was as evil to hurt a mosquito as to hurt a man—unless we were to rank creatures by the complexity of their central nervous systems.
It would seem that the criterion of sentience, the ability to feel pain, had been chosen after the decision to award animals equal moral worth with human beings, in order, that is, to confirm a position already taken. We may infer as much from the way in which Regan and Joel Feinberg qualify their use of the sentience factor. Feinberg believes that the application of this criterion prohibits “behavior that inflicts unnecessary pain or torment on a creature capable of suffering—that is, pain for which there is no good or sufficient reason.” Regan thinks that, in accordance with the sentience criterion, “causing pain is always prima facie wrong,” i.e., wrong unless there is some overriding human good. Thus for both men the sentience principle in the end does not establish full moral equality between humans and animals, for both of them would permit animal pain for clear human benefit. Indeed, precisely because sentience turns out to be so inadequate a safeguard for animal rights, Regan later abandons it for the claim that animals possess an “inherent value” that does not depend solely on the ability to feel pain. Moreover, it is significant that environmentalists who wish to extend the rights community to include plants and even whole ecosystems must oppose the use of sentience as the cut-off point. They would use other criteria—criteria chosen, as sentience was for the animal defenders, to fit a goal already determined on other grounds. (By this reasoning, one would be equally justified in selecting some arbitrary criterion by which to differentiate humans from other creatures, for example, as R. G. Frey suggests, the capacity to experience beauty, or the possession of free will and moral agency.)
The reasoning here relies on linking rights to qualities or properties, thus putting human and animal rights on the same footing. Most animal defenders take this approach. Singer, for example, argues that because many adult mammals “are more aware of what is happening to them, more self-directing, and, so far as we can tell, at least as sensitive to pain as a human infant,” and because in general “there is no characteristic that human infants possess to a higher degree than adult nonhuman animals,” we must therefore accord animals the same rights as newborns or other “defective” humans. As already noted, to distinguish them with respect to rights is for Singer pure “speciesism,” an arbitrary form of discrimination “no more defensible than racism.”
Here is a fine example of that anthropomorphism, sometimes called the “pathetic fallacy,” that marks almost all the literature of animal rights. Animals are simply treated as if they were human. As a bumper sticker of the Humane Society puts it, “Animals are small people in furry coats.”
One of the most obvious commonsense challenges to animal rights advocates is to ask whether they mean seriously to equate the moral standing of humans and, say, insects or plants. And if they do not, where, they might be asked, is their personal cut-off line, and why is it chosen? Perhaps surprisingly in view of their initial claim to be placing animals, or all sentient life, in the same moral community with humanity, many of these advocates themselves retreat to some kind of hierarchical view: distinguishing among different life forms, awarding privileges and protection to some that they would deny to others.
There is in fact no consensus on the matter of which criteria to apply, though a popular choice is the degree of neurological development. Hartshorne would place humans and animals above trees, because the former have a nervous system. Cutting a tree, then, is “not analogous to killing a deer or even a fish.” But he would award stronger rights to horses and apes than to human embryos, precisely because the latter have nervous systems functioning at a much lower level.
Regan accepts a hierarchy that permits him to kill lower forms of life but not mammals, the cut-off point for him obviously having to do with neurological development: “There is no rational basis for believing that anything we do to cancer cells matters to these cells themselves, or that it makes a difference to their quality of life as experienced by them, or, in short, that they can be benefited or harmed by what we do to them.”
These two examples involve comparisons at the extremes, from, as it were, opposite ends of the continuum of life, and may be faulted for avoiding the hard choices in the middle. Singer accepts this challenge and draws a precise line: if a being can’t suffer or enjoy, then “there is nothing to take into account,” and we may, for example, eat it. There is an “evolutionary scale,” and, as we descend it, these capacities diminish. He would include fish and reptiles within the protected sphere, because they can suffer. He would also protect crustaceans, but mollusks seem so primitive that it is “difficult to imagine them feeling pain, or having other mental states.” And that is where he would draw the line: between shrimp and clams.
Even above this line he draws some distinctions, making use of qualities like self-awareness and the capacity to plan for the future to set humans apart from, for example, mice. Even mentally defective humans who may lack these qualities are in Singer’s system more valuable than the higher animals; there seem to be occasions in which his egalitarianism is more intentional than actual.
Other writers make similar distinctions with more or less precision, all accepting some hierarchical solution to the moral challenge. John Harris would give fish and insects “the benefit of the doubt”—quit fishing and leave insects alone “wherever possible.” Feinberg’s criterion, making him one of the most moderate of animal defenders, is “level of rational awareness,” which means that “the animal ‘right to life,’ if there is such a thing, is generally held to be a much weaker claim than its human counterpart.”
John Cobb’s hierarchy is based on evolutionary development, with “consciousness” as the highest state, ascribed to all the animal kingdom. There is value, Cobb thinks, in the unconscious experience of simple animals, plants, even electrons (the process philosophers can descend the great chain of being further than anyone else), but he ranks all experience by its quantity and complexity in such a way that human happiness and misery are more important than that of other creatures.
Clark, annoyed at the “hierarchically inclined,” is hardly less so himself: “Is it really supposed that micro-organisms have as developed a point of view as such complex creatures as squids [who incidentally are mollusks] and cows and cats?” Further, “I hold no special brief for cockroaches, and am prepared to believe that their sentience is of another order than mine, or than a monkey’s.” He wants to be anti-hierarchical chiefly because he does not wish to see human reason used to set humanity apart, but in fact the presence of his scale of values is evident.
Although this hierarchical thinking is typical of animal defenders, there are also radicals among them who are quite contemptuous of what they see as a fatal compromise with the anthropocentrists. One of their heroes is Albert Schweitzer, who would protect or at least have “reverence” for all life of any kind, even insects and plants. He would pluck no leaf from a tree, nor allow bugs to fly into his lamp and be killed. He would pick up worms stranded on the pavement and place them on the grass. As a medical doctor he tolerated animal experimentation, but only if absolutely necessary, and even then at the price of guilt that had to be atoned by treating other animals and insects with great reverence.
But giving plants equal rights with animals, because clear moral lines cannot be drawn between categories of living things, might easily reduce the claims for animal rights to absurdity. We would have a “plant liberation movement,” a fit object for disdainful laughter. Even so, some prominent contemporary animal defenders have been driven by their own logic to consider seriously the moral status of plants. Clark, for instance, actually takes the bait and collapses the distinction between plants and animals to protect them all: “Some plants may be individuals, as trees most probably are; some plants may have points of view. Some plants may feel . . . . I would certainly admit that some plants are ethical ‘individuals’ and that their wanton destruction is murder . . . arboricide.” The problem of how, then, to provide animals and humans with food he solves by saying that it is good for the plants to be cropped or to have their fruit picked, as this is their “surplus,” and the plant species is still preserved.
Regan thinks that plants can indeed have rights, even if they aren’t aware of their own interests. Even things that can’t know their own good can have rights, so it isn’t necessary to postulate “contented broccoli” in order to make this claim. Feinberg, on the other hand, will not award rights to plants and “mere things” because, unlike animals, they cannot experience suffering and frustration. Singer, using the sentiency criterion, also draws the moral line between plants and animals, and so has no trouble using plants as he wishes: “There is no reliable evidence that plants are capable of feeling pleasure or pain.” Raising the issue of plants’ rights, he suggests, is merely an obfuscatory device by people whose main purpose is to undermine vegetarianism.
This route through “plant liberation” might seem a foolish detour in the general argument, but it was made necessary by the initial methodological decision of the animal rights defenders to base rights on qualities or properties inherent in living creatures. This in turn necessitated a discussion of all life forms, even plants, in order to avoid the appearance of arbitrariness in awarding rights to some and not others. If all life forms are more or less on the same moral level, it would even be thinkable to sacrifice some humans for the sake of some plants and animals, as indeed the brutal ecologists of the “lifeboat” school are quite prepared to do.
If, on the other hand, we take a more anthropocentric view and limit claims to rights to human beings, we might find the position of a Peter Geach to be preferable:
It is virtuous that a man should in measure sympathize with the sufferings of the lower animals: only in measure, for someone who tried to sympathize with a shark or octopus or herring would be erring by excess . . . ; their life is too alien to ours for sympathy to be anything but folly or affectation.
Here rights are replaced by sympathy. Comparative valuations are made in accordance with the principle of relative similarity to the valuing agent, but the comparison is a matter of personal taste.
Besides basing animal rights in properties or qualities shared with humans, another common attempt is to ground rights for both in interests: animals have wants and aims as we do. Some animal defenders apply the hierarchical principle and say that lower forms of life—insects, plants—don’t have interests and so don’t have rights. Others define interests not by a conscious awareness of need but simply as having a good of one’s own. This would seem to include all organic life, with its striving, growing, developing. Even further, some argue that certain inanimate objects, e.g., works of art, have interests, too, because they certainly have a good of their own that can be taken away or harmed; and they therefore also have a right to be protected.
Here is a prime example of a confusion between legal and moral rights. Moral rights are claims even against the law, claims that the law must honor. We may award animals legal rights for our own human purposes without conceding to them moral rights against our laws. Moreover, having an interest does not produce a moral right. We have an interest in not having our feelings hurt, but no consequent right to be spared criticism. And merely having a good can hardly produce a right to it in the lowest forms of life or in inanimate objects, as most of us recognize intuitively. Would a tractor have a right not to be exposed to rain? asks Frey. A tractor’s interest in remaining intact, like that of a work of art, is for the benefit of the humans who value it. They are the valuing agents, and the rights in question, if any, belong to them.
Among human beings, rights imply reciprocal obligations or responsibilities. This is not true for animals, who can’t make promises or contracts and don’t show any inter-species obligations. If they did, there would be no predatory relations. Animals aren’t able to be “guilty” in any sense. Dogs can only be called “bad” (with the appropriate tone of voice) because they are trained to expect reproach for behaving in certain ways. Their training is based on conditioning. Animals are not moral agents and cannot, for example, be held criminally responsible for their acts, which is why we laugh at those occasional medieval attempts to try animals in court. Some animal advocates counter that this lack of responsibility doesn’t disqualify animals as holders of rights, even if they can’t return the favor. Human babies, for example, have rights but no responsibilities. To which, as we have seen, it can be answered that babies have rights because they have human potential, that they are only “defective” (or incomplete) members of the species to which rights belong.
Sometimes animal rights advocates, dissatisfied with their own arguments, retreat to the simple assertion that animals possess “inherent” rights simply because they exist, because they are living creatures and all living creatures have rights. Occasionally this point is tossed off without explanation, but at other times, as in the case with Regan, it is carefully argued that inherent value means that animals or trees or people are subjects of a life that is of value to them whether or not it is good or useful to anyone else. But this is scarcely different from the interests argument, which becomes all the more apparent when Regan argues that a “good car” can be good whether or not we value it. Most of us would argue the contrary, that what makes a car good is precisely those properties that appeal to its human driver. Regan argues similarly that plants have value in themselves, because they can die—hardly a condition that would seriously qualify as conferring rights.
If there were such things as animal rights, what might they be? The most common claims are that animals have the right to be spared unnecessary suffering and that they have a right to freedom. But qualifiers to these claims abound, even among those who advocate them. Cobb, for example, argues that although animals have the right to have the value of their existence and happiness weighed seriously, they still may be eaten or used in experiments as long as their pain is minimized. Different animal defenders suggest different degrees of stringency, and few agree exactly on what they would permit or disallow. And this collective inability to reach some kind of consensus on what animal rights might be by itself suggests the weakness of the basic claim.
The point remains that it is an improper use of terms to speak of rights outside of human relations. We do not know anything about animal rights; the term is meaningless to us. Value terms like rights cannot be weighed between species that cannot communicate. That is why we are left scratching our heads at comments like that of James Rachels, that when a big bird drives a small one out of the nest, or when a cat eats a mouse, we recognize that as injustice, even though the animals in question couldn’t possibly understand what justice was.
Why does this statement puzzle us so? Because it is anthropomorphizing, applying to animals a human concept, justice, that is entirely inappropriate and meaningless in the animal world. It belongs to intra-human speech only.
Are we, then, permitted to do as we please to animals? Are there no limits, if they do not have rights as rights are, and must be, humanly understood? There no doubt are limits, but they derive only from a realistic anthropocentrism, and inhere in decisions about what is useful and valuable to humanity. One such limit arises from human mercy, charity, sympathy. We treat animals kindly as a reflection of our own natures, as a result of our not giving in to cruel or angry impulses. Our treatment of animals reflects the kind of people we are, and, if we think about it, the kind of people we would like to be. There may well be, as various people (including Kant) have argued, a link between the way we treat animals and the way we treat human beings; and kind treatment of animals thus has an indirect “spillover” effect in promoting a kinder, gentler society.
Of course, the advocates of animal rights will have none of this. For them the issue is justice, not mercy. Animals have a claim against us that we are obliged to respect whether we want to or not. If we relied on sympathy to govern our treatment of human beings whom we dislike, their situation would be parlous. Similarly, sympathy won’t protect animals; only rights will.
Besides sympathy, there is also a widely shared religious restraint: in the Western religious tradition, the human race is given charge over the rest of creation to manage it responsibly for its maker and true owner. This is the principle of stewardship, and it clearly implies limits to what we may do with the rest of the world. We are taught, for example, not to engage in wanton destruction, or consumption for our own use without regard to future generations.
Now it may be that any idea of limits in our treatment of animals, however these limits are grounded, implies that animals do have a kind of “right,” in a soft sense of the term. If we owe them something as God’s creatures, then perhaps they have “rights” against us and do not have to exercise obligations or duties toward us in return. Even human laws passed for the benefit of animals, or money left for their care, confer a sort of right upon them, the legal right to receive these benefits.
But contracts and laws benefiting animals are just as easily understood not to be conferring rights on them as legal or moral persons but to be expressing the will of humans, enforceable as rights belonging to those humans to make such bequests or to pass such laws. Also, a legal right so conferred on animals, even if it is called a “right,” is not the same as a natural or moral right to which the animal is entitled by its very nature. As for the divinely imposed obligation, it is precisely (no more and no less) the duty of stewardship.
The foregoing is not intended merely as a theoretical argument, but rather as something that has application to certain very concrete problems.
First of all, animal advocates are currently campaigning hard for closing zoos, mainly on the grounds that animals are by right entitled to be free, not caged. Reasoning anthropocentrically, however, we would keep the zoos open. They contribute to human welfare, for both education and enjoyment, and do no frivolous harm to animals. Indeed zoos serve a kind of conservationist purpose, embodying the principle of stewardship in protecting animals from harm, even from extinction. Wildlife management is good for the same reason: it is good stewardship, a fit expression of our human responsibility for the rest of creation.
It is also legitimate to accept without moralizing inter-species predatory relationships. There is no need either to agonize over the question of animals’ violating each other’s rights or excuse predation on grounds of necessity, with the plea that animals kill only for food. (Our dog chases squirrels because they excite her, not because she is hungry.) In the same way, moral wrestling over whether the natural is the moral—e.g., whether the “state of nature” is the model of goodness—ought to be dispensed with. Morality is a human enterprise, irrelevant to the interactions of non-human nature.
It is also legitimate to kill animals that disserve our interests, e.g., insect pests, or that endanger us in some way, particularly our young.
Second, if animals did have rights, then both work animals and pets would simply be slaves. But since they don’t have such rights, a permissible anthropocentrism allows us to breed and keep animals for work or pleasure, as long as they are kindly treated. In other words, the controlling limit is sympathy.
Third, there is the vegetarian argument against eating animal flesh. The human species is equipped by nature to be a meat eater, runs this argument, but that is no longer necessary. We don’t have to eat meat, and may even be healthier if we don’t. Giving up meat is also ecologically useful, say the vegetarians, because if the goal is to produce the maximum amount of food, meat raising is wasteful because animals themselves consume so much feed. Furthermore, and obviously, if animals have rights like people, they can’t be eaten by people; that would be the moral equivalent of cannibalism. Even using animal products, like milk or eggs, is done not for the benefit of the animals, and is thus an infringement of their rights. In addition, the sentience principle must lead us to oppose the suffering inflicted as part of factory farming. Even painless killing is wrong, because the real crime is the killing, no matter how it is done.
But, we may reply, if animals are not the moral equivalent of humans, then breeding them for food is acceptable. The principle of kind treatment should, however, impel us to make certain regulations governing the conditions of animals raised for slaughter. As for the ecological and nutritional arguments against meat eating, these are of a different order and have, or fail to have, standing independent of whether animals are ethically available for our use.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, there is the issue of using animals for scientific, particularly medical, research. A mix of motives drives the opposition here: identification with the helplessness of victims (which is why animal defenders choose furry animals to dramatize their campaigns); suspicion of modern medicine and high technology generally, and a link to alternative therapies like homeopathic medicine; even the acceptance of illness and early death and refusal to combat it. Many activists thus oppose absolutely the use of animals for research. Faced with the obvious challenge that humanity is harmed thereby, they search for alternatives—like the use of tissue cultures, or computer models—and ultimately proclaim that it is better we should do without knowledge gained so wrongfully, even better that we should die than fall into such sin. In using laboratory animals, we are no better than Nazis experimenting on people.
The result of pressure from animal rights groups is that we have laws regulating the treatment of laboratory animals, and have laws mandating committees to oversee their use, with nonscientists on them. But these are only half-measures from the critics’ point of view. Their goal is to stop all experimental use of animals. The dilemma here is that it is precisely the degree of similarity of animals to humans that makes them good research subjects for human scientific purposes. Hence the researcher’s paradox: the more animals are like us, the more they are useful in research, and the less available they are ethically for that research.
A practical, sober anthropocentrism, of course, not only permits but requires our use of laboratory animals. The benefits to humanity are enormous: most vaccines and antibiotics, our understanding of drug addiction, Alzheimer’s research, cancer research, surgical techniques, anesthesia techniques, insulin for diabetics, open-heart surgery, pacemakers, all neurological research, behavior therapy for mental patients and alcoholics and other drug abusers, the discovery of the split hemispheres of the brain and its implications for treating epilepsy, stroke, language disorders, and brain damage. All this was furthered by research with animals that would have been inappropriate if done on human subjects. The substitution of cell cultures or computers would be of very limited utility, not a true alternative. Research with animals has gone a long way toward saving humanity from illness and misery. Anti-science romanticism is a luxury of the comfortable—and the healthy.
Permissible restraint, based on the avoidance of unnecessary suffering, is particularly hard to apply here. The use of laboratory animals in teaching is a case in point. The work is not research and the results are already known. Still, where there is no other way to train the personnel on whom future human life and health will depend, teaching with animals is necessary.
What about using animals in product testing where the product is simply cosmetics? Here we might note that since much such testing is driven by fear of lawsuits, we might seek to minimize it by legal reform rather than prohibition at the laboratory level. We might also question the necessity of the product in the first place, though if cosmetics are to be marketed at all, surely there must be adequate testing to ensure that there is no danger to human health.
There is also the “problem” of researchers doing things that hurt animals just to get publishing credit, experiments deemed by their critics to be frivolous and entirely self-serving. True as this may occasionally be, it would be extremely difficult to limit research based on a guess about what abstract scientific knowledge will ultimately be useful to humanity.
Drawing the ethical line firmly between humans and non-human animals saves the research enterprise, negates the Nazi analogy, and protects human rights. The use of human subjects in research is properly restrained by an elaborate code in which valid or “informed” consent is the primary factor. Such consent is not only obviously impossible with animal subjects; but, because animal rights are not involved, it is also unnecessary.
Finally, there is the question of hunting and fishing. Animal rights advocates seem to be unimpressed by the fact that natural death in the wild is often far more cruel than that inflicted by gunshot or fisherman’s knife, as they are by the argument that the population of wild creatures has to be “harvested” by sportsmen or be left to the cruelties of starvation. Some of the literature against hunting is also thinly disguised class contempt, or hatred of males. The same may be said of the use of animals for clothing that involves the trade in furs, feathers, ivory, and, though this is less often mentioned, leather. Substitutes may be found for all these animal products, it is said; so we do not have to violate animal rights—the final recourse in all argument—to clothe ourselves.
It is not much easier, however, to object to the use of animals for clothing than it is for food. The kindness limit might in fact impose some restraint on hunting and fishing, but there is no reason to suppose that sportsmen are insincere in thinking they do more good than harm to wild populations as a whole.
These examples are meant to suggest how reasonable might be the resolution of current issues in animal welfare if we take stewardship and kindness, or sympathy, as our guides and reject the crippling, anti-human tangles of the animal rights movement. Or, to be as modest as a forthright anthropocentrism dictates, let us simply say that the movement has not made a compelling case for animal rights and, on present course, is unlikely to do so.
Thomas S. Derr, a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things, is a Professor in the Department of Religion and Biblical Literature at Smith College.