• Email
  • Print

Ten Years of Animal Liberation

Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones, and the Pharmaceutical Farm

by Orville Schell
Random House, 337 pp., $17.95

Farm Animals: Husbandry, Behavior, and Veterinary Practice

by Michael W. Fox
University Park Press, 285 pp., $25.00

Of Mice, Models, and Men: A Critical Evaluation of Animal Research

by Andrew N. Rowan
State University of New York Press, 323 pp., $39.50

Victims of Science: The Use of Animals in Research

by Richard D. Ryder
National Anti-Vivisection Society (London), revised edition, 190 pp., £3.75 (paper)

Man and Mouse: Animals in Medical Research

by William Paton
Oxford University Press, 174 pp., $6.95 (paper)

All That Dwell Therein: Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics

by Tom Regan
University of California Press, 249 pp., $18.95

The Case for Animal Rights

by Tom Regan
University of California Press, 425 pp., $24.95

Animals and Why They Matter: A Journey Around the Species Barrier

by Mary Midgley
University of Georgia Press, 158 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Rights, Killing, and Suffering: Moral Vegetarianism and Applied Ethics

by R.G. Frey
Basil Blackwell, 256 pp., $29.95

Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals

by R.G. Frey
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 176 pp., $27.95


The rise of the animal liberation movement, in the view of a number of commentators, is to be traced back to the publication of my essay “Animal Liberation” in these pages just over a decade ago. That essay was followed by the book of the same title, which was also published by The New York Review.1 What has happened, in theory and in practice, in the intervening years?

The essential aim of the essay and the books was to show, on a rational and philosophical level, that nonhuman animals are an oppressed group. We treat them as if they were things to be used as we please, rather than as beings with lives of their own to live. In both the essay and the book, I singled out two practices as involving the largest and yet least known forms of animal exploitation: animal experimentation and factory farming. To see whether the animal liberation movement has made any practical difference, then, we must look at what has happened since to both practices.

One change is that animal experimentation is no longer a little-known form of animal exploitation. Ten years ago there were long-established antivivisection organizations which had kept alive a tradition of concern for laboratory animals; but their followers were widely regarded as irrelevant cranks, and their effect on curbing the use of laboratory animals was nil. When some of these organizations were founded, more than a century ago, the number of animals used each year in the United States was in the hundreds; it has since risen to somewhere between 60 and 100 million. Ten years ago, there was not a single recorded instance of an experiment on animals being discontinued because of the activities of those opposed to animal experimentation.

As far as farm animals were concerned, the situation was even more depressing. There simply were no organizations interested in the fact that hundreds of millions of factory farm animals are, every moment of the day, denied such elementary freedoms as the space to walk a few steps, to turn around, and even to stretch their limbs.

The animal liberation movement has yet to have an effect on the conditions of American farm animals. Here the United States lags behind other countries. In Europe and Australia there is now considerable public concern about the confinement of laying hens in small wire cages, and of pigs and veal calves in stalls so small they cannot walk a single step or even turn around. Switzerland has passed legislation to phase out the cage system for hens; the West German state of Hesse recently announced that it would follow suit; in Britain a House of Commons agriculture committee recommended the same step. Throughout Western Europe and Australia, “free range eggs” from unconfined hens are widely available in health food stores, and consumers understand the difference. Yet Americans buying their eggs at the supermarket still seem wholly unaware of the fact that the hens who laid them live crammed five or six into a wire cage measuring eighteen by twenty inches.

The situation is similar with pigs and with veal calves. Britain’s largest veal producer recently bowed to a widespread consumer boycott of veal and moved its calves out of their bare, wooden, five-feet-by-two-feet stalls into group pens with room to move and straw for bedding. In the Australian state of Victoria, confining calves in stalls without bedding, and feeding them on an all-liquid, iron-deficient diet, would be a violation of government codes of animal welfare practice, and thus subject to prosecution. This is the standard method of rearing used in the United States for the production of luxury veal for the restaurant trade.

Two developments are promising for American farm animals: one is the formation of a new organization, the Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM), which plans to fight the veal business head-on,2 the other is the discovery of the long-sought “smoking gun” evidence of the health risks of eating factory-farmed animals, routinely dosed with antibiotics to enable them to survive in a stressful environment. As Orville Schell has noted in Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones, and the Pharmaceutical Farm, the introduction of antibiotics as food additives first made it possible for farmers to confine large numbers of animals indoors and keep them healthy—or at least healthy enough to get them to market. A ban on the routine feeding of antibiotics to farm animals just might reverse the trend to more and more animal confinement. The FDA proposed such a ban in 1977, but the political muscle of the farming industry was too much for it. Now that the long-suspected link between the use of antibiotics in farm animals and human infection by resistant strains of bacteria has been established, the FDA at last has an overwhelming case.3

Right from the start, the animal liberation movement in America has had more success in tacking animal experimentation than in confronting factory farming. The first campaign of the new movement began at the American Museum of Natural History in June 1976. It was led by Henry Spira, a New Yorker who, ironically, first heard of animal liberation when he read an attack on the original New York Review article in the Marxist Guardian. Wondering if there might not be more to it than the writer of the derogatory article was willing to allow, Spira went to the original piece and soon found himself convinced that here was the logical continuation of the work he had done fighting for the exploited as a union reformer and marching for civil rights in the South.

Spira selected the Museum of Natural History as his target because he had learned that the museum was conducting a particularly pointless series of experiments which involved mutilating cats to investigate the effect this had on their sex lives. In June 1976 Spira and his supporters began picketing the museum, writing letters, advertising, and gathering support. They kept it up until, in December 1977, it was announced that the experiments would no longer be funded.

Spira and his friends had saved about sixty cats from painful experimentation, more importantly, they had shown that a well-planned, well-run campaign can prevent scientists from doing as they please with laboratory animals. Spira used this victory as a base for bigger campaigns. He now runs two coalitions of animal groups, which concentrate on the rabbit-blinding Draize eye test and on the LD50, a toxicity test designed to find the lethal dose for 50 percent of a sample of animals.4 Together these tests account for the deaths of more than five million animals yearly in the United States alone.

Already the coalitions have begun to reduce both the number of animals used and the severity of their suffering. US government agencies have responded to the campaign against the Draize test by moving to curb some of the most blatant cruelties. They declared that substances known to be caustic irritants, such as Iye, ammonia, and oven cleaners, no longer need be retested on the eyes of conscious rabbits. If this seems too obvious to need saying by a government agency, that merely reveals how bad things were until the campaign began. The agencies have also reduced by one-half to one-third the suggested number of rabbits needed per test for other products. Two major companies, Procter & Gamble and Smith, Kline & French, have released programs for improving their toxicology tests which should involve substantially less suffering for animals. Another company, Avon, reported a decline of 33 percent in the number of animals it uses.

In the most recent and potentially most significant breakthrough, the United States Food and Drug Administration has announced that it does not require the LD50 test. At a stroke, corporations developing new products have been deprived of their standard excuse for using the LD50—the claim that the FDA forces them to do the test if the products are to be released onto the American market.

Some four hundred animal rights groups with an estimated two million members are linked in Spira’s coalition. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the animal liberation movement is so large; some of the groups in the coalition are relatively conservative humane organizations. There is, however, an increasingly large number of people who really are committed to ending the exploitation of animals.’ To avoid participating in such exploitation themselves they have become vegetarians, or even “vegans”—avoiding eggs and dairy products as well as meat. Some, loosely allied under the banner of the “Animal Liberation Front,” have lost patience with conventional channels for change. In Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, France, and West Germany, laboratories have been broken into and animals taken away. In a recent break-in at the University of Pennsylvania, videotape records of monkeys undergoing head-injury experiments were removed and copies sent to television stations. They confirmed what animal liberationists have been saying all along: animals do suffer in experiments, and some experimenters are too callous to take steps to avoid inflicting pain.

Within the animal liberation movement, these break-ins are highly controversial. Provided that there is no violence against any animal, human or non-human, many activists believe that they are justified. They compare these actions with the illegal, but surely justified, underground railroad which assisted black slaves to make their way to freedom; or with the smashing of shop windows which did so much to draw attention to the cause of votes for women in Britain. But is direct action effective as a tactic? Does it simply polarize the debate and harden the opposition to reform? So far, one would have to say, the publicity gained—and the evident public sympathy with the animals released—has done the movement more good than harm. This is, in large part, because the targets of these actions have been so well selected that the experimentation revealed is particularly difficult to defend.

In another highly effective intervention, Alex Pacheco, a member of an animal rights group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,5 got a volunteer job at the Institute for Behavioral Research, in Silver Springs, Maryland. There he was able to observe the atrocious condition in which seventeen monkeys were kept. Pacheco found that the monkeys, who had disabled limbs as a result of surgical interference, received no veterinary care. They had numerous self-inflicted wounds. Two had bones protruding through their flesh. Others had bitten off their fingers. These wounds had not even been dressed, and the cages were caked with feces. Periodically the monkeys were tested to see how well they could use their limbs; the punishment for not performing well was electric shock.

Pacheco discussed what he had found with Ingrid Newkirk, an organizer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and widely regarded as one of the sharpest strategists in the movement. They decided that Pacheco should bide his time, taking advantage of opportunities to photograph the laboratories and even to bring in, at night, independent veterinarians and experts on primate behavior. Finally Pacheco went to the Maryland police with his evidence. This resulted in the first police raid on a research facility suspected of violating laws to protect animals. The director of the laboratory, Dr. Edward Taub, was charged with seventeen counts of cruelty to animals. At the first trial Taub was convicted on six counts, but following two appeals, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that animal experimenters who receive federal tax funding do not have to obey the state anticruelty laws. This judgment is widely regarded as having a slender legal basis, but it effectively closed any further avenue of appeal. Perhaps more important than the conviction of any person, however, is the fact that the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s principal source of funding for animal experimentation, cut off the funds for Taub’s research and is now strengthening its guidelines for animal experimentation.

In contrast to such carefully planned and productive strategies, a recent Animal Liberation Front action in Britain risked the movement’s hard-won public support. Mars Bars spiked with rat poison were sent to the press and television stations with a note saying that hundreds of similar bars in retail stores had been poisoned as a protest against the manufacturer’s support for tooth-decay experiments carried out on monkeys. Although this turned out to be a hoax and there were in fact no poisoned candy bars in retail stores, the incident alarmed many parents and children and enabled David Mellor, the government minister responsible for animal experimentation, to portray opponents of animal experiments as fanatics willing to risk the lives of innocent children to further their cause.

The rise of the animal liberation movement may be unique in the extent to which the practical activities just described have been linked with the development of the issue as a topic of discussion in academic journals and a subject of debate in university philosophy courses. Before the publication of the New York Review essay in 1973, the question of the ethical status of animals was scarcely mentioned by academic philosophers. Only Roslind Godlovitch’s pioneering article “Animals and Morals,” published in Philosophy in 1971, broke the silence. But over the next few years everything changed. Journals like Philosophy, Ethics, Inquiry, and even the Polish journal Etyka published special issues on the ethical status of animals.6 Readings on animal liberation and animal rights became standard in anthologies widely used in college ethics courses. Major conferences, involving both academic philosophers and activists, were held in Cambridge, England, and Blacksburg, Virginia; both resulted in published proceedings, and the Blacksburg conference gave birth to a new journal specifically for those interested in the ethical questions of our treatment of animals.7 Since then the attention given to the issue by academics has continued to mount, with a steady flow of books, published mostly by university presses, but aiming with variable success at capturing some of that larger readership concerned about our ethical relationship with nonhuman animals.

These books differ widely in their opinions about animals, and are also diverse in their approaches. Some are factual rather than philosophical. Farm Animals: Husbandry, Behavior, and Veterinary Practice by Michael Fox, director of the Institute for the Study of Animal Problems, Washington, DC, is a comprehensive summary of our knowledge about the welfare needs of farm animals. Fox, who is both an ethologist and a veterinarian, is highly qualified to review the scientific literature. His conclusions are unequivocal: modern factory farm systems do not come anywhere near to meeting the basic welfare needs of farm animals. Most readers who pause to reflect on the life of a pig or a veal calf confined so closely as to be unable to turn around will not be surprised by this conclusion. But those whose financial interests are threatened by it, however, deride such “subjective” and “anthropomorphic” approaches to animal welfare. So it is valuable to have the conclusion so firmly based on the work of agricultural scientists, veterinarians, and ethologists who can scarcely be accused of bias toward the cause of animal liberation.

Fox is especially telling when he points to inconsistencies in our laws and attitudes to animals: we allow people to tether sows for months at a time, and to brand cattle with burning irons, but we would prosecute anyone who does such a thing to a dog. Why? There are no relevant differences between the species which justify such discrimination. (This absurd discrimination in favor of dogs has just been extended by the United States Army and the United States Air Force, which have announced that they will discontinue experimenting on dogs. Experiments on goats, monkeys, pigs, and other animals will continue.)


Andrew Rowan’s measured study, Of Mice, Models, and Men: A Critical Evaluation of Animal Research, is in a similar vein to Fox’s assessment of the situation of farm animals. Rowan, an assistant dean at the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, is clearly trying to take a “balanced” view of the animal experimentation controversy. He takes care to note the medical advances that, he believes, can be attributed to research on animals: the development of antibiotics, the use of insulin for diabetics, the polio vaccine, and many developments in surgery. But he also gives many instances of research that is painful for the animals and unproductive in its approach. His conclusion is:

Unfortunately, a careful and detailed reading of the research literature (and remember, many results never find their way into print) reveals far too many cases where a little more thought would have resulted in a lot less animal suffering.

Rowan is a reformer, not a revolutionary. He wants more funds for the development of alternatives to the use of animals for research, better ethics education for animal researchers, and provision for ethics review committees on animal experimentation at scientific institutions along the same lines as existing institutional review boards for the review of human experimentation. Such committees already exist in Sweden, Australia, and Canada, with greatly varying degrees of effectiveness. It is obviously crucial that they not consist merely of experimenters allowing one another to get on with the proposed research. Rowan suggests that these committees should have “at least one member who is specifically charged with looking after the interests of the animals,” but this is not enough. Why should the animal advocates be outnumbered? It would be more appropriate to have a balance between those representing the interests of the animals, and those representing the researchers, with some tie-breaking neutral members. Even then, much would depend on the guidelines under which such a system was working.

Perhaps in order to improve his credentials with the experimenters whose minds he is hoping to change, Rowan goes out of his way to criticize those more forceful opponents of animal research who wish to go further and faster than he does. Among these is Richard Ryder, author of Victims of Science, first published in 1975 but still, in the revised edition of 1983, the most effective statement of the case against animal experimentation. Rowan attacks Ryder’s suggestion that the thalidomide tragedy reveals the unreliability of animal testing. Ryder’s point was that thalidomide had been tested on animals without the danger to the developing fetus being discovered. Rowan replies that if only thalidomide had been tested on the right species—rabbits or monkeys—the dangers probably would have been revealed. But in the revised edition of his book, which Rowan has apparently not consulted, Ryder is able to quote from a 1980 report from the Office of Health Economics, a research organization set up by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, and so presumably not biased against animal experimentation. The report states:

With thalidomide…it is only possible to produce the specific deformities in a very small number of species of animal. In this particular case, therefore, it is unlikely that specific tests in pregnant animals would have given the necessary warning: the right species would probably never have been used.

On this new basis, the use Ryder made of thalidomide as an example of the uncertain results of animal testing seems entirely appropriate.

While Rowan may be criticized for such points of detail, and for his failure to come up with solutions far-reaching enough to deal with the problem he has documented, his book is on the whole valuable and constructive. The same cannot be said for Man and Mouse by William Paton, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University. Paton writes with undisguised fury about the “animal hooligans” who harass experimenters, animal breeders, and industries using animals; and he is scarcely less critical of those who, while not condoning violence, regard it as an understandable reaction to the failure to achieve change by less drastic means. Paton is convinced that the benefits of animal experimentation are so great that it would be wrong to impose upon it restrictions any greater than those that govern it in Britain today. (These restrictions are significantly tighter than any existing in the United States, but Richard Ryder has little difficulty in showing that they still allow the infliction of much unjustifiable pain and suffering.)

Much of Paton’s book is concerned to show that animal experimentation has important practical benefits, and that these benefits cannot be obtained through human experimentation or by cell tests and similar alternatives to the use of living animals. He Paton restricted himself to this subject, his book might have been more impressive, but it would have been seriously incomplete: the justifiability of animal experimentation is obviously an ethical issue, and a mere documentation of the benefits of animal experimentation, without an assessment of the costs to the animals, and of the proper moral weight to be given to these costs, would prove nothing. So Paton duly tackles the ethical issue, and thus adds his name to the long list of those who have demonstrated that distinction in science is no indication of competence in ethical argument.

Paton’s aim in his chapter “The Ethical Questions” is to argue that there is “a qualitative distinction in nature and value between the human and animal worlds.” In attempting to show this he first finds the key to human superiority to be our capacity to accumulate experience by language, whether spoken or written; but then, in facing the objection that some human beings with severe mental disabilities may lack this capacity, he switches to an entirely different criterion: the capacity for “personal human interaction.” Paton appears not to notice that if this is to be the test of a superior being, even the laboratory mouse of his title would easily qualify. He has thus done nothing to justify the use of nonhuman animals in circumstances that would not justify the use of some disabled members of our own species.

Paton goes on to make the novice’s characteristic mistake of arguing that because we expect evolution to produce beings who favor other members of their species, therefore it must be right to favor our own species. (If you find the argument at all plausible, substitute “race” for “species” and see if you still think so.) Next he claims that my own rejection of “speciesism,” as stated in Animal Liberation, “rests on the likeness between man and animals.” Since Paton’s footnote gives no page reference I am at a loss to know where I am supposed to have made this claim; in fact, in my book I go out of my way to deny that I am basing my argument on any such claim, which would obviously be false.8 My point is that the differences between humans and other animals are not such as to justify the way we treat animals; but this point Paton does not address, except in the inept manner I have already described.

Paton’s disastrous foray into ethics ends with a denial of the claim that animals have rights. This denial is grounded on a quotation from D.G. Ritchie’s Natural Rights, a book first published in 1894 and by no means universally accepted even then. Paton does not consider the possibility that more recent discussions of animal rights may have contributed something to our understanding of the topic.


That such contributions have in fact occurred is well demonstrated by the work of Tom Regan, a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University and the author of many books and articles on animal rights. His essays on these subjects go back to 1975, making him one of the first philosophers to be involved in the animal liberation movement. The best of these essays have recently been collected and published in All That Dwell Therein. They deal with vegetarianism, animal experimentation, whaling, the need for reform in the law relating to animals, the possibility of an environmental ethic, and some aspects of the Native American relationship with nature. They make good reading, although like most collections of essays written over several years, the book lacks systematic development of its theme.

This defect is not evident in Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, the most impressive attempt yet to develop an ethical theory that would be distinctively based on rights and would include non-human animals among the holders of rights. Although Regan and I agree that a complete transformation of our society’s attitudes and practices toward animals is needed, Regan’s attempt to reach this conclusion by way of a theory based on rights takes the philosophical debate in a new direction.

Both Regan and I argue for a new ethical status of animals by considering the basis of the principle of equality—a principle widely held to apply across the human species, but not beyond it. I argue that the fundamental principle of equality is the equal consideration of interests: similar interests must count equally, regardless of the species of the being involved. Thus if some experimental procedure would hurt a human being and a pig to the same extent, and there are no other relevant consequences of the use of the human being or the pig, it would be wrong to say that we should use the pig because the suffering of a pig counts less than the suffering of a human being. The difference of species is not a morally relevant distinction; the only relevant boundary to the equal consideration of interests is the limit of sentience, beyond which one cannot meaningfully speak of interests at all.

Regan’s view of what is basic to the principle of equality is a different one. For him it is a certain inherent value that individuals possess equally, regardless of the value of the pleasures or satisfactions they may experience in their lives. As a view of human equality, this is a widely held alternative to the more utilitarian approach based on the principle of equal consideration of interests. But parallel to the way in which I would extend this latter principle beyond the boundary of our own species, so Regan argues that it is arbitrary to hold that only members of our own species can have inherent value.

Which beings, then, do have inherent value? Regan considers, but rejects, the view that all living things have equal value. He argues instead that equal inherent value is possessed by all “subjects-of-a-life.” This term stands, in Regan’s usage, for beings with beliefs, desires, perception, memory, a sense of the future, an emotional life, preferences, the ability to initiate action in pursuit of goals, psychophysical identity over time, and an individual welfare in the sense that things can go well or badly for them.

All mammals beyond the stage of infancy, Regan believes, are subjects-of-a-life in this sense—and he argues at length against those philosophers and scientists who would deny these mental capacities to nonhuman animals. Perhaps some nonmammalian species may also be subjects-of-a-life, but Regan is understandably less confident about this, and does not want to claim that amoebas have equal inherent value with human beings or dogs. He leaves himself further room to maneuver by adding that his criterion is a sufficient condition for the possession of equal inherent value, but perhaps not a necessary one.

Regan’s moral conclusion is that justice requires us to treat those with inherent value in ways that respect that value. This leads to a Kantian-style principle of respect for individuals as ends in themselves rather than merely as means to the best consequences, and from this Regan derives the conclusion that an equal right to respectful treatment is possessed by all beings with inherent value. (Kant himself would no doubt have been horrified at the extension of his principle to non-human animals, but Regan could well reply that this merely shows that Kant, like most human beings, was indefensibly biased toward his own species.)

Regan’s rights-based position has some advantages. Because it does not allow the inherent value of one being to be traded off against another, or even several others, Regan does not have to get involved in the awkward predictions and calculations that so bedevil utilitarians and others who judge actions by their consequences. This gives Regan a quick reply to arguments like Paton’s about the benefits of animal experimentation:

We are…never to harm the individual merely on the grounds that this will or just might produce “the best” aggregate consequences. To do so is to violate the rights of the individual. That is why the harm done to animals in pursuit of scientific purposes is wrong. The benefits derived are real enough; but some gains are ill-gotten, and all gains are ill-gotten when secured unjustly.

On this basis, Regan advocates the complete abolition of the harmful use of animals in science.

But such blithe disregard of consequences also has its disadvantages. Can it never be justified to carry out an experiment that will harm an animal? What if there were an experiment that would cause the painless death of just one animal, but would enable us to find a cure for all forms of cancer? Of course, this question is wholly hypothetical—there never will be such an experiment—but even so, can we honestly say that such an experiment would be wrong? I, at least, cannot—and for those who will now rush to say that I too must be a speciesist, I shall add that I would say the same if the experiment could only be done on a human being at the same mental level as the animal. Regan, apparently, would come to the opposite conclusion in both cases.

But Regan is, I think, a little uneasy about this answer. Although he never wavers on the issue of the use of animals in science, he does take a different view in a hypothetical case that has some important similarities: a case in which four ordinary human beings and a dog find themselves in an overcrowded lifeboat. Here Regan is anxious to show that his theory agrees with our intuitive judgment that if one of the five has to be thrown overboard to prevent the lifeboat sinking, it should be the dog. Indeed, since Regan’s general method of argument, including both the way in which he argues for his own position and his objections to utilitarianism, are based on intuitive moral judgments, his theory would be in danger of undermining itself if it could not be reconciled with so firm an intuitive judgment as this one. But can a theory that tells us that all subjects-of-a-life (including dogs) have equal inherent value be reconciled with the intuition that it is the dog that must be sacrificed?

Regan says it can. Although all on board the boat have equal inherent value and hence an equal prima facie right not to be harmed, the magnitude of the harm of death, Regan tells us, “is a function of the number and variety of opportunities for satisfaction it forecloses for a given individual” (p. 351; cf. pp. 324–325). Now Regan thinks it obvious that the death of any of the four people would be a greater harm than death for the dog would be. Thus we can recognize the equal inherent value of the dog and yet still throw him overboard in preference to jettisoning one of the human beings because that is to do the lesser harm.

Regan insists that in saying this he is not justifying the harm done to the dog on the grounds that the aggregate of the harm spared the four people, as a group, outweighs the loss to the individual animal. To show how far his position is from such consequentialist reasoning, he adds that the situation would not be morally any different if we supposed that it was the life of a single dog that was at stake, but the lives of any number of dogs. Suppose, he says, that it is a choice between one human life and the lives of a million dogs: we must still sacrifice the million dogs, because to take the opposite view would involve one in “aggregative considerations” which “cannot be sanctioned by those who accept the respect principle.”

I confess to some difficulty in understanding the reasoning here. If Regan’s position were based on the principle of equal consideration of interests, he would be able to argue that the people have a greater interest in living than the dog, either because of the greater benefit that continued life will be to them, or because they, but not the dog, have plans, hopes, and desires for the future which will be thwarted if they do not continue to live. But Regan seeks to base his position on a principle of equal inherent value. How can he do this while still allowing us to add up the opportunities for satisfaction a life contains, and on the basis of this addition, judge a normal human life to be more valuable than a normal canine life? How can this be reconciled with the notion of equal inherent value as something distinct from the value of the experiences or satisfactions a being may have?

Certainly, what Regan says about the case in which a million dogs are thrown overboard shows that he is not prepared to allow a large number of lives with relatively few opportunities for satisfaction to take precedence over one life with relatively more opportunities for satisfaction to take precedence over one life with relatively more opportunities for satisfaction. But this shows only that he is not prepared to aggregate across individual lives. It does not show that there is any meaningful sense in which he holds that the lives of dogs and of human beings possess equal inherent value, regardless of the experiences and satisfactions they may have.

Nor is it clear why, if we are allowed to rate the value of one life against another by reckoning the opportunities for satisfaction each life contains, we should not be allowed to aggregate across several lives. Suppose that we had to choose between sacrificing a chimpanzee and a dog. Presumably Regan would allow us to argue, in the same manner that he has argued in the case of the human beings and the dog, that the life of the chimpanzee has greater opportunities for satisfaction, and hence it is the dog that should be sacrificed. Does it still follow that we should sacrifice a million dogs rather than one chimpanzee? Would the same point hold if it were a rhesus monkey rather than a chimpanzee? If so, is this not merely a stubborn refusal to allow numbers to count? If not, if numbers are allowed to count when we compare different nonhuman animals, why shouldn’t they count in cases involving human ones as well? Was Regan’s example perhaps trading on our (speciesist) intuition that no amount of canine satisfaction can add up to any amount of human satisfaction?

Even if Regan can show that his views about the lifeboat case are consistent with his principle of equal inherent value, he must still face an even more difficult task: to explain the apparent discrepancy between his readiness to throw a million dogs out of a lifeboat in order to save one human being, and his refusal to allow even one dog to be used in a lethal—but painless—experiment to save one or more human beings. Regan is aware of the apparent inconsistency, and quite explicitly states that his rights-based theory does not allow the experiment. His explanation of the difference between killing the dog in an experiment and killing it by throwing it out of the lifeboat, is that when we perform such experiments we treat animals “as if their value were reducible merely to their possible utility relative to human interests…” (p. 385; Regan’s emphasis). But why should this be so? Why should we not say, as Regan said in the lifeboat case, that we must choose between the deaths of the people or of the dog, and although we recognize that death is harmful to the dog, it is a lesser harm for the dog than it would be for the people?

Regan does make one additional point which is relevant to the comparison between the lifeboat case and animal experimentation. He says that even if one were to come to the conclusion that in some exceptional circumstances an experiment was justifiable, it would not follow that the general policy or practice of animal experimentation was justified. This is of course true; but it is a point that is better suited to a utilitarian theory, in which the different consequences of exceptional circumstances require a different moral conclusion, than to a rights-based theory which is so often prepared to ignore consequences. If Regan’s distinction between the exceptional case and the general practice is intended to indicate that his theory allows rights to be overridden by consequences in special cases, he owes us an account of just when rights are morally dominant and when they are not. This he does not provide.

So despite the many merits and considerable length of The Case for Animal Rights, it has not solved all the problems of a rights-based ethical theory applicable to animals and human beings. That does not, I think, reflect any special problem about the application of a rights-based view to animals. It is rather that there are certain problems inherent in any rights-based moral theory that inflexibly prohibit all aggregations or trade-offs of rights, no matter what the circumstances. These problems may seem tolerable when we concentrate only on the application of the theory to human beings, because for most practical purposes we can accept the idea that all human beings have equal inherent value.9 But Regan is right to argue that it is arbitrary to hold that all human beings, but no nonhuman animals, possess equal inherent value. So those who hold rights-based views that apply to all human beings must extend the class of rights-holders to nonhuman animals. This, however, throws the peculiarities of the underlying ethical position into sharp relief. Regan’s case for animal rights would be more convincing if it were freed from the burdens of so inflexible a moral theory. His treatment of the lifeboat case and his remarks about the difference between exceptional cases and general practices suggest a readiness to move in that direction, but at present they remain unresolved in his ethical position.

Animals and Why They Matter, by the English philosopher Mary Midgley, is a very different type of reassessment of the ethics of our relations with animals. Its subtitle, “A Journey Around the Species Barrier,” nicely conveys both the style and the substance of the book. Midgley’s aim is to explore the way we think about the differences between ourselves and other animals, and she does this in a wonderfully readable and entertaining way. She is also a very effective critic, demolishing some of the most frequently heard arguments against the protection of animals: that it is wrong to be “emotional” when we consider what we may justifiably do to animals; that evolution teaches that we are locked in competition with other species and cannot allow their interests any weight when they clash with our own; that creatures without language cannot be capable of desires or thoughts; and that attempts to understand the moods of animals and what they are thinking are always vitiated by “anthropomorphism.”

As this list reveals, Midgley thinks that we tend to overemphasize the significance of the species barrier, and that we readily accept many myths in order to separate ourselves from the other animals. Midgley believes that animals do matter, and that many of the things we now do to animals are unjustifiable. She has reservations, however, about claims that animals have rights, or that speciesism and racism are truly analogous. The very word “rights” is, she says, “really desperate,” a word that “was in deep trouble long before animals were added to its worries.” This statement cuts both ways: she actually says it while refuting those who say that because animals do not have rights, it does not matter how we treat them; but it would also undercut Regan’s arguments against treating animals in certain ways because this violates their rights. The difference between Midgley and Regan here no doubt reflects differences between British and American ways of thinking about rights.

Midgley’s hesitations about the concept of speciesism are of another kind. She accepts that, like the term “sexism,” it has a perfectly legitimate point to make when it is used ad hominem:

Self-righteous revolutionaries who expected their women to type the manifestoes and bring the coffee, but remain otherwise dutifully silent, could scarcely complain if their theory was publicly contrasted with their practice. Their position was not improved if they cheerfully consumed battery pork and chicken.

Once we get beyond pointing up inconsistencies, however, Midgley suggests that the analogy with racism breaks down. To know how we ought to treat a human being, she writes, we never need to know what race he belongs to—apparent counterexamples turn on cultural rather than racial factors. But if we are asking what an animal needs and how it should be treated, its species is crucial.

Midgley is plainly right about this. But what follows from it? As she herself points out, in this respect sexism is also different from racism—knowledge of a person’s sex can obviously be important for many reasons. Yet it is still legitimate to use the concept of sexism as a way of objecting to attitudes or practices based on the view that those of a different sex are, for that very reason, to be treated with less consideration than those of one’s own sex. Precisely the same can be said about speciesism. The difference of species in itself is not a morally relevant ground for less than equal consideration of interests, even if (as in Regan’s lifeboat case) it may sometimes be an indication that there are lesser interests at stake.

Midgley is (unlike Paton) careful to note that since I acknowledge differences between species, my use of the concept of speciesism does not imply that all animals should be treated alike; but she presents a different objection to the use I have made of the concept. We all have a natural preference for our own children: if they were trapped with others in a burning building, we would try to save our own children first. Similarly we may have a natural preference for our own species, and always put the interests of human beings first when it comes to a test. If the preference for our own is natural in both cases, does it even need to be justified?

Midgley herself gives part of the answer to this objection. The natural preference for one’s own species is not an irresistible urge. Even in nonhuman animals, friendship can cross the species barrier—Midgley cites from Jane Good-all an example of a young wild chimpanzee finding a playmate in a young baboon. Obviously many humans feel closer to some nonhuman animals than they do to most members of their own species. Moreover treating a preference for “our own” as not needing further justification could have awkward consequences, depending on how “our own” is defined. Midgley suggests that a preference for one’s own species is different from a preference for one’s own race, because the latter preference is a product of culture, and the former, presumably, of evolution. But even if this is true—and its truth can be questioned—would it make any difference? If we can resist the preference, then, regardless of its origin, we can ask if we ought to resist it.

Midgley apparently thinks that we ought to resist the preference for our own species, but we ought not to carry such resistance to extremes. So the interests of animals must be given much more consideration than we give them now, but we need not give them equal consideration with the similar interests of humans. But at this point, just when the argument is reaching its climax and we anticipate some argument on what the proper degree of consideration might be, and why, Midgley has nothing more to say. She switches to other topics, such as the attitudes of children to animals, and the nature of anthropomorphism. Though what she says on these topics continues to be enlightening, I closed this otherwise excellent book with a sense that the central ethical issue had been left dangling.


So we come, finally, to a full-length criticism of the animal liberation position: R.G. Frey’s Rights, Killing, and Suffering. Frey, an American philosopher living in England and teaching at the University of Liverpool, is also the author of Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals. In his earlier book, Frey argued that without language one cannot have beliefs, without beliefs one cannot have interests, and without interests one cannot have rights. Regan’s position, as published in his earlier journal articles, was one of Frey’s targets. In The Case for Animal Rights, Regan is able to cast serious doubts both on Frey’s requirements for belief and on his account of what it takes to have interests.

Frey’s latest book contains some further discussion of rights, but only in order to show that appeals to moral rights, in this and other moral issues, are diversions that sidetrack us from the real sources of disagreement. Here I am in agreement. Most of the remainder of the book, however, is directed against the position I hold. As Frey explains in his preface, at one stage he and I tentatively planned a joint work to be called something like “Vegetarianism, For and Against.” When it became clear that the project would take up more time than I could then spare, I dropped it. Rights, Killing, and Suffering is Frey’s expanded version of what would have been his half of that book. It can, he says, “be regarded as a response to Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, and other of [Singer’s] writings on animals and vegetarianism.”

Perhaps because the book was conceived as the “against” side of a debate on vegetarianism, it is entirely negative. Frey does not see fit to find room in his 250-odd pages for a positive statement of the moral status of animals, and why we are entitled to use them for food. Perhaps he feels that if he has refuted the moral arguments against doing so, that is enough. Perhaps most readers will be sufficiently keen on their steak to agree with him about this, but if his refutations were successful, it would be an unsatisfactory state in which to leave the issue.

Frey’s book is not just negative, but negative in a nit-picking way. Frey correctly describes the argument for vegetarianism I have presented as based on the belief that because animals can suffer they have interests, and because the moral principle of equal consideration of interests applies to both human and nonhuman animals, we are not justified in disregarding or devaluing their interests; hence, I claim, we should abandon practices that do this, including that of meat eating. Frey does not contest the moral core of this argument, the claim that the principle of equal consideration of interests applies to animals. Nor does he deny that we often violate this principle, for instance in our confinement of veal calves and laying hens in factory farms. Instead he confines himself to objecting that it does not follow from any of this that we ought to abandon meat eating.

The nub of Frey’s objections is that for a utilitarian like myself, whether one ought to become a vegetarian must depend on the consequences of the choice, and it is by no means clear that the consequences that will flow from becoming a vegetarian are going to be best on the whole. This, incidentally, is one of the few points on which Regan and Frey are in agreement, for Regan too thinks utilitarianism is an inadequate basis on which to argue for vegetarianism.

In one sense, Frey and Regan are right about this. Utilitarianism cannot provide a basis for any absolute obligation to become a vegetarian, independently of the consequences of so doing. But this is merely because utilitarians cannot believe in absolute moral prohibitions of any sort. I can imagine bizarre circumstances in which it would be right to kill and eat not only nonhuman animals but also human ones—for instance, if we were starving on a desert island and it was the only means of saving any of us. But Frey and Regan also believe that it is not clear that utilitarianism leads to vegetarianism in the actual world in which we live. Here I think they are wrong. But because this is the issue of disagreement between Frey and myself, the argument comes down to a question of what benefits will flow from our becoming vegetarians.

Here Frey shows an irritating tendency to pick up any handy objection and hurl it at me, no matter how remote it may be from the treatment of animals. Have I thought about what the loss of exports of Polish sausage will do to the troubled Polish economy? What will the future hold for pharmaceutical companies, who will lose almost half of their antibiotic sales? How will the displaced slaughterers and veterinarians find employment? Might not banks with outstanding loans to meat-related businesses be in danger of crashing? Aren’t publishers going to be hard-hit by the loss of journals like Poultry World? What will teen-agers do when they can no longer carouse at the local hamburger establishment? Without meat, what will become of the wonderful red wines of France and Italy? And finally Frey points to the grave risk that without the sale of sausages and smoked meats, the New York delicatessen trade will virtually disappear.

This is an amusing game, which two can play. Has Frey thought about how our health will improve from a low-fat, high-fiber vegetarian diet? About the reduced incidence of cancer and heart disease, not to mention constipation? Has he allowed for the benefits that will flow from the sharp drop in the number of viruses which develop resistance to antibiotics? Better prospects of solving the world food problem should also compensate a little for the danger to the financial health of pharmaceutical companies: since so much of our meat is grain fed, and this is a notoriously wasteful process, there will be much more grain available for those who need it most (though we will still need to be prepared to share more of our resources). Consider, too, the increased availability of land for recreation and wildlife. Have we not already outweighed almost all the possible losses Frey mentions? And we haven’t even begun to talk about the aesthetic value of the new cuisines that would spring up, the boost to publishers from sales of vegetarian cookbooks, the economic benefits of rising trends in food-processor sales, and the increased employment opportunities in the tofu-manufacturing industry.

None of this refers to the benefits to animals that would accrue from widespread vegetarianism. Frey is skeptical about this too, but again he is unconvincing. One example from the barrage of objections will have to suffice. In Animal Liberation, one reason I gave for the importance of vegetarianism is that the enormous political power of the meat industry is likely to block more conventional channels for seeking reform. So perhaps a widespread consumer boycott of meat offers the best chance of changing the way farm animals are treated.

Frey is scornful of this suggestion. We are, he tells us, just as likely to succeed in eliminating the mistreatment of animals if, while continuing to eat meat, we speak out publicly to expose the cruelty on factory farms, gather petitions and educate voters to take an interest in animal welfare, and write letters to the newspapers and to our political representatives. To show what he means, he twice refers to the report of a British government House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture,10 which called for sweeping reforms in factory farming, including the abolition of battery cages for hens, of individual stalls for sows, and of the white veal trade. Of this report Frey says:

The House of Commons as a whole has yet to decide on this report, and it may well be in the end that it is diluted; but even so, there is no doubt that it represents a significant advance in combating the abuses of factory farming. It owes nothing, however, to some tidal wave of vegetarianism sweeping Britain, to some nearly universal refusal to eat meat; there has been no such phenomenon.

Unfortunately for the case Frey is seeking to make—and even more regrettably for the hens, pigs, and veal calves in British factory farms—the House of Commons has not merely “diluted” the recommendations of this report, it has ignored them entirely. Since the report was handed down in July 1981 nothing has been done to implement its recommendations, and it now seems that it will result in no advance whatever for farm animals. On the other hand, the only significant improvement in the welfare of factory farm animals to have taken place recently—the introduction of group pens with straw bedding by Britain’s largest veal producer—did occur precisely because publicity about the shocking conditions of veal calves had led to a sharp drop in public consumption of this form of veal. All of which suggests that hitting the meat industry where it hurts—in its profits—is the method most likely to have a practical effect.

In any case, boycotting meat and agitating for change are not alternatives; we should do both. They reinforce each other. When I take part in conventional political campaigning for animals I am invariably asked: “But don’t you eat them?” The impact of my reply has made me even more firmly convinced than I was when I wrote Animal Liberation that vegetarianism underpins effective political action for animals. It does more than anything else to bring about a radical change in people’s attitudes. It is not coincidental that even on issues not directly connected with food animals, the really effective campaigners—including all of those mentioned earlier in this article—are vegetarians.

Neither Frey nor other critics in both academic and popular journals have succeeded in refuting the ethical reasoning underlying the animal liberation movement. The movement is still a long way from achieving its goals, but it has come through its first decade with its foundations intact, with significant gains for animals used in research, and with growing strength as an international moral and political force. That is not a bad beginning.


The Dog in the Lifeboat: An Exchange April 25, 1985

Animal Interests March 28, 1985

  1. 1

    Animal Liberation” appeared in The New York Review on April 5, 1973; the essay was a review of Animals, Men and Morals, edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris (Taplinger, 1972). Animal Liberation (A New York Review Book, 1975) is now available as an Avon paperback.

  2. 2

    Box 70123, Washington, DC 20088.

  3. 3

    For a summary of the situation concerning antibiotics in animal feeds, see two articles by Marjorie Sun: “In Search of Salmonella’s Smoking Gun,” Science, vol. 226 (October 5, 1984), pp. 30–32; and “Use of Antibiotics in Animal Feed Challenged,” Science, vol. 226 (October 12, 1984), pp. 144–146.

  4. 4

    The Coalition to Abolish the Draize Test and the Coalition to Abolish the LD50 are at 234 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10001.

  5. 5

    Box 56272, Washington, DC 20011.

  6. 6

    See Ethics, January 1978; Philosophy, October 1978; Inquiry, Summer 1979; Etyka, 1980.

  7. 7

    The Cambridge conference proceedings appeared as Animal Rights—A Symposium, edited by David Paterson and Richard Ryder (Fontwell, Sussex: Centaur Press, 1979). Papers from the Blacksburg conference were published in Ethics and Animals, edited by Harlan B. Miller and William H. Williams (Humana Press, 1983). The journal is also entitled Ethics and Animals, and is available from the Department of Philosophy and Religion, VPI & SU, Blacksburg, Va.

  8. 8

    See p. 16 of the Avon edition.

  9. 9

    Though this idea is stretched to breaking point when we consider special cases like the treatment of severely handicapped infants. See Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, “The Future of Baby Doe,” The New York Review (March 1, 1984), pp. 17–22.

  10. 10

    House of Commons, First Report from the Agriculture Committee, vol. 1 (July 2, 1981, HMSO, London).

  • Email
  • Print