3/10/10

A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy

The title of this book comes from something Ingrid Newkirk once said.  Longer version:  "When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."  Opponents of animal rights like to quote the short version.

Anyway, I got interested in this book because my new book challenges egalitarianism, and yet advocates for animals.  How, I wondered, would Wesley Smith get from "not equal" to a scathing attack on the animal rights movement? Even if a pig is not a boy, aren't we doing terrible things to pigs, and aren't animal organizations entirely right to work for change?

Let's start with a false dichotomy

In chapter 1, Smith starts by distinguishing between "animal welfare" and "animal rights". The animal welfare approach says pretty much any use of animals is legitimate, and only concerns itself with "how". Want a pair of alligator shoes? Fine, just be nice to the alligator. The animal rights view sees animals as inviolable. No alligator shoes allowed.

I think the welfare/rights dichotomy is simplistic and unfortunate. Suppose you think we should only use animals for our benefit when it is necessary. In essence, you're against gratuitously harming animals. That will mean no alligator shoes. So you'd be more radical than the animal welfarist. But you wouldn't have to go further and believe in animal rights. You might think some animal research is OK, since it's in some robust sense necessary, unlike alligator shoes.

What could justify seeing animals as usable, but only when necessary? After all, that's not how we see human beings. That's what my new book is about. But my book is not the only one that occupies the middle ground between "welfare" and "rights." By my lights, most of the interesting work in animal ethics today occupies that middle ground.

Oh come on, do I have to read Animal Liberation?

But recognizing moderates wouldn’t serve Smith’s purposes. In Chapter 2, he grudgingly admits that Peter Singer actually is a moderate: he's not just a welfare advocate, and not in favor of animal rights. But he’s quick to say that Singer's influence is on the wane.
Despite Singer’s guru-like status among most animal rights afficionados, the movement’s uncompromisingly radical spirit has passed him by, to the point that he is now viewed by some prominent liberationists as something of a conservative and even, of all things, a speciesist. (p. 24)
He gets this view of Singer from "abolitionist" Gary Francione, whom he warmly thanks in the acknowledgments. Not that Smith really respects Francione’s ideas. He thinks he’s a loon. But it serves his purposes to make it seem as if Francione is the brains of the animal movement.

What is Singer's view? Don't read Smith if you want to find out. Here's how Smith explains Singer's utilitarian stance--
That which promotes happiness or reduces suffering the most while serving the preferences or interests of those with the highest "quality of life" be they human or animal, is ethical. (p. 24)
Huh? He goes on to say that Singer is the first utilitarian to have given moral status to animals. How could he say that when Singer discusses his utilitarian forebears on pages 5-9 of Animal Liberation? You know, the famous quote from Jeremy Bentham -- "the question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" Apparently Smith wrote a book excoriating Singer and the animal movement without reading that seminal work. I'm afraid I'm going to have to reiterate that point many times below.

Singer's view, as Smith explains it, is that "human beings should no longer be viewed as having greater value than animals, nor should distinctly human needs receive priority over those of animals..." (p 26) How do you square that with this passage from Animal Liberation (p. 20)?:
I conclude, then, that a rejection of speciesism does not imply that all lives are of equal worth. While self-awareness, the capacity to think ahead and have hopes and aspirations for the future, the capacity for meaningful relations with others and so on are not relevant to the question of inflicting pain--since pain is pain, whatever other capacities, beyond the capacity to feel pain, the being may have--these capacities are relevant to the question of taking life.
Reading the book really would have been a good idea, before charging Singer with "subversion of human exceptionalism." (Smith, p. 33).

What's true is that Singer tells us to give up the pride and prejudice he calls "speciesism." We should not automatically put ourselves first, whenever we want something that violates an animal's interests. He goes further and speaks of equality, in a very simple sense. Equal interests should receive equal consideration. That's it. There's no denial here that humans have special capacities that make a moral difference.

Don't tell me I'm an animal!

Singer doesn't really matter much to Smith. He'd rather think he's a has been, because in fact Singer has a rather nuanced view of what's permissible and what's not. It does not entail that every single use of animals for food, clothing, experimentation, etc., is morally wrong. For that position, Smith turns in chapters 3 and 4 to those who think animals are persons with rights. We meet Francione and then Tom Regan and others who aim for a complete end to the use of animals as resources.

At the end of each chapter we get glimpses of where the book is heading. It's Smith's view that "the animal rights movement's ultimate goal [is] subverting the unique status of human life" (p. 59). Maybe that's why Smith is in the employ of The Discovery Institute, the Seattle think tank that's worked so feverishly to promote the teaching of intelligent design in American schools. Like his colleagues worry that evolution is eroding human specialness, he worries that human self-esteem is threatened by animal advocacy.

See no evil, hear no evil

One of the really weird things about this book is the way Smith covers theories from animal advocates, but not their data. There's a badly mangled bit of Singer exposition in the book, but not one word from his long, well-researched chapters on animal experimentation and factory farming. There's a bit of rights theory, but none of the atrocities from abolitionist books or websites. Smith tells us Matthew Scully is emotional (I'd call his superb book Dominion "eloquent" and "passionate"), but doesn't tell us what is done to animals to make him so upset.

You might think human rights talk is a bit high flown, and insensitive to cultural differences, and judgmental, and altogether "too much," if you left out the horrors it responds to. And no, it's not enough the way that Smith periodically reminds us that he loves animals, and that some practice might be debatable, etc. You actually need detailed descriptions of the goings on to understand why animal advocates are making such a big fuss and challenging our ordinary, comfortable sense of our place in the world.

No, not Democrats!

In chapter 4, we learn that some animal rights advocates are democrats (see pp. 66 and 67). This disturbed me a lot, but then I got over it. Another distressing thing we learn is that Cass Sunstein thinks animals should have legal standing to sue. Why? What would make a person want to give a dog his day in court?

Well, we're not told, I guess because that might give Sunstein's idea (explained in the article "Can Animals Sue?") too much credibility. Before making the proposal, Sunstein makes an effective case that existing animal law is inadequately enforced, so it doesn't do much good for animals. His proposal is that animals should have standing to sue only under existing law. The idea is: if you see your neighbor violating state animal cruelty laws, and the state is uninterested in investigating or prosecuting, the dog should be able to sue. Not on his own, of course, but with a human as representative. This would merely bring about the protection for the dog that legislators intended when they passed the laws! So this is not at all a wild suggestion. It would by no means give animals standing to sue us for all the cruel things we do to them.

But it would be awful, Smith thinks. "American industries would be throw into crisis." (p. 69) If they followed existing law, why would there be a crisis? Ah, it would be an existential crisis.
On an existential level, the perceived exceptional nature of human life would suffer a significant blow from the blurring of one of the clear definitional lines that distinguish people from animals. (p. 69)
Legal changes have been taking place for decades. State animal cruelty laws have progressively become felony laws. Michael Vick was sent to prison for mistreating dogs. Did anyone, anywhere, suffer a blow to their self esteem as a result? Did anyone break out into a sweat and feel diminished?

There's really nothing to worry about

So, it turns out the Silver Springs monkey case was a big fuss about nothing (so we are told in chapter 6). Are there any other cases of cruel and unnecessary animal research? Is there anything in animal labs we should worry about? I really do wish Smith had read Singer's 50-page chapter on animal research. I don't think he did, because you couldn't read it and have no qualms about medical research.

But no, everything's OK (chapters 13, 14, 15). What about toxicologists dripping nasty substances into the eyes of immobilized rabbits?
Don't believe it. What animal rights/liberationist propaganda doesn't disclose is that the Draize method is no longer used to identify corrosive or irritating materials. Rather, non-animal testing is used first to determine whether the product is corrosive or irritating. (p. 192)
What Smith fails to say is that animal advocates protested the Draize method in the 1970s. Yes, there are now alternatives, but that's a direct result of the protests! (You can read the history here.) In 1981, in response to a campaign led by activist Henry Spira, Johns Hopkins University established the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing and developed in vitro testing methods which have reduced in vivo eye testing by 87%. The Draize story is evidence that we should protest cruel and unnecessary testing, not that there isn't any!

Smith tells the reader that (his italics) "animals actually enjoy greater protection than do human subjects." (p 198)  How so? Because the regulatory structure is different. Only federally funded research on people is subject to regulation, he says. Also, people are protected by institutional review boards, not by a government agency that performs inspections. But wait. Animals are routinely infected with diseases, mutiliated, and killed during experiments. That's all permitted. You mean you can do those things to human subjects too? Of course not. The IRBs won't let you, and where an IRB isn't involved, you'd be charged with assault or murder for doing to people what is routinely done to animals.

Why mislead readers like this? I think the truth is that Smith aims to change minds, "by any means necessary." If what's required is to hide and distort evidence, the results are what matters. Smith is a guy who wants your vote--against the animal rights movement.

What about factory farming?

Don't worry about it, says Smith, because we have to raise animals that way to keep food costs down. But here's the thing. 65% of Americans are either fat or obese, which has serious health consequences. Many of the most fat and calorie dense foods are animal products. If they were more expensive, we might consume less, and eat more plant foods. That would be better for our health.  The weight problem is in fact worse at lower income levels. It might even be doing a special favor to the poorest citizens to price them away from eating so many milkshakes and hamburgers.

Anyway, it turns out there isn't much of a problem with the treatment of farm animals to begin with. Smith quotes an industry lobbying organization, the Animal Agriculture Alliance. Industrial farms are "scientifically desiged to meet an animal's specific needs, including temperature, light, water and food." (p. 206) Now I get it!

Couldn't we just make the cages a bit bigger--let the animals have a chance to move around, if not actually get outside under the wide blue sky for some fraction of their lives? No! The only initiative Smith mentions is the Florida amendment that abolished gestational crates. The fact that the measure changed the Florida consitution was cause for concern.
The contents of constitutions is crucial to our own self-perception. Constitutions are about maintaining and protecting human liberty and dignity ... Granting constitutional rights to animals cheapens these charters. Worse, making humans and animals common beneficiaries of constitutional liberties undermines the principle that humans enjoy a unique status, elevated above the natural world of flora and fauna. (p. 89)
There's that existential crisis again! In fact, Smith doesn't think animal advocates were really just trying to help pigs. He suspects an insidious motive: "Their purpose was not so much to protect pigs as to blur the moral distinctions between animals and humans." (p. 89) I think he's got that completely backwards, and he'd know it if he took the time to read what animal advocates write.  Believe it or not, animal advocates actually do want to help pigs.

We don't need animal rights advocates because we have Temple Grandin

Worried about what goes on in slaughterhouses? Don't be, says Smith (chapter 16). The animal rights people are painting a misleading picture. The truth, he says, is that Temple Grandin is making things much better.

Here again, we have praise for a change that was brought about by animal advocates, without credit being given where credit is due. (Remember the Draize story, above.) It was PETA protests against McDonalds that led McDonalds to ask suppliers to slaughter animals in a better way. Temple Grandin was brought in and created an auditing system that has quantifiably reduced animal suffering. Smith misleadingly claims that she created the auditing system "for the USDA," as if it were now mandatory, but it's not. It will take more protests from animal advocates to get every meatpacking plant to voluntarily implement her system.

As to the option of just not eating meat, Smith thinks it's a wasted effort. If everybody switched to a vegan diet, even more animals would be killed, because of combines running over field mice and rabbits. Oddly, Smith quotes a perfectly good rebuttal to this argument from Gary Francione, and then proceeds to ignore it. Francione says the acreage used to feed an omnivore is much greater than the acreage needed to feed a vegan. That undercuts the "mice and rabbits" argument. You'll find me tiresome when I say this, but Smith really should have read Animal Liberation. The very important subject of land use is covered in chapter 4!

It can't be all bad!

I believe Smith is right that PETA reporting on animal abuse has to be approached with caution. I see their assertions as "theories" that need further testing rather than as the final word. I think they should be more scrupulous. For that reason, I rely much more on the Humane Society website for information. I have found them to be reliable. Smith's chapter on PETA proselytizing of kids is disturbing. The chapter on the fur industry was interesting (17) but no, I'm not going to trust a fur farmer's word that all is well at a mink farm. More evidence necessary.

The chapters on violence and tertiary targeting are persuasive, though I think Smith makes a mistake when he doesn't distinguish between different varieties of law-breaking. I'm sure factory farms and animal labs would like nothing better than a law prohibiting undercover investigations. For all I know, laws like that already exist. Breaking a law of that sort bears no resemblance to blowing up buildings. Is it beyond the pale to release animals who are being abused, after all other avenues have been exhausted? I think it's too simplistic to immediately write this off as impermissible. I bet even Mr. Smith might do such a thing under the some imaginable set of circumstances.

Yes, there are nuts and fanatics in the animal rights movement. He makes that clear. Is that news to anyone?

Human Exceptionalism

The final chapter of the book tries to make the case for human exceptionalism. This is a view a lot like American exceptionalism. We are better, we have a mission, we are a beacon to the world.  Whatever. Human specialness, says Smith, is due to our capacity for morality. That capacity is a requirement before anyone can have rights. So animals have no rights.

But what about babies and the mentally disabled? Well, you could try to convince yourself that it's the potential for morality that gives them rights. You'd then have to face the question why the potential for being 18 doesn't give a 5 year old the right to vote. But never mind that. What about people so impaired that they don't have the potential for morality? Surely Smith wants to say they have rights. So the capacity for morality can't be a requirement for rights.

No, no, Smith says. Morality is part of the "intrinsic nature" of any human being. So we don't have to consider whether an individual meets the requirement, or even has the potential to meet the requirement. It's just part of being human to be moral, and so have rights. Anybody who's read philosopher Carl Cohen will know Smith is relying on him here--as he admits. These are precisely Cohen's views.

The problem is that they are not very plausible views. Having morality and therefore rights gets to be a very spooky property on this view. The property has no connection to the real functioning of an organism. Take a baby born with anencephaly. The baby has no chance whatever of having a life with any satisfaction or value. But this is a human baby, and so I guess it must have the essence that confers both morality and rights. Does this baby really have the inviolability of a normal newborn? Must we keep it alive come what may, whatever the parents' wishes?

I don't think the notion of rights being rooted in some non-natural "essence" can possibly have any workaday use for us. It's just empty talk.

Suppose we're exceptional

But OK, let's not get hung up on the issue of "marginal cases". Perhaps somehow we can give them a waiver and we should think of them like ourselves. Suppose human beings really are special. As I've pointed out, Peter Singer thinks so. I think so too, as I argue in my book. But what follows from that? Cohen (and Smith) admit that our moral capacity gives us obligations to other humans but also to animals. There are limits on what we can do to them. What are those limits?

I'm afraid neither Smith nor Cohen has an answer. They are so obsessed with saying "no rights" that they haven't taken another step. If we do have obligations to animals, how could our obligations be as weak as the "welfare" outlook says? How could we be entitled to do everything we've always done to animals, just so long as we do it nicely? Grandfathering in all our habits and customs is just letting them be exempt from ethical examination.

We should examine what we do to animals, however rooted in tradition. If we do, I think we will inevitably have to make basic changes. We will have to stop inflicting suffering and death on animals gratuitously--just to secure silly luxuries for ourselves. To have obligations toward animals at all has got to mean you can't club a baby seal over the head to get yourself a pretty, fluffy hat. You can't put an elephant or an orca into captivity just to give yourself something fun to do on the weekends. You can't skin cows just to have have ostentatious upholstery for your sofa. And sadly enough--because it tastes so good--it's very hard to believe that, for us today, given all our alternatives, it's necessary to use animals for food.

That leaves a lot that's still OK. In the developing world, there are people who don't have any better protein sources, and have to use animals for food. There are people who need to use animals for labor. I also thing there are medical experiments that should be done.

I'm afraid Smith (and all of us) need to confront a disturbing truth. The idea that we must make great changes to the way we treat animals does not rest on (take your pick) extremism or fanaticism or emotionalism or a denial of human specialness or erasing the line between humans and animals or comparing animal advocacy to abolitionism. It just takes an unbelievably simple premise. We shouldn't cause unnecessary harm. That's not wild-eyed and deranged. It's common sense!

To buy or not to buy

Skip it. There's better stuff from that side of the aisle--Cohen, Carruthers, Budiansky. Also the newish book The Animal Research War, by Conn and Parker. It's shorter and more responsible, even if ultimately unconvincing.

4 comments:

amos said...

That was a long post. I will not buy the book. Roger Scruton wrote a book against animal rights, didn't he? Scruton at least is witty and genuinely learned. If I read one book against animal rights (I've never read one), I'll read Scruton. I believe that Scruton does find factory farming to be horrible, although, typically, he defends fox hunting. P.S. I don't find Singer to be outdated either, but then again that might be a sign of how old I am. I'm one of those people who still read Sartre, who must be really really outdated for anyone born after 1970

Wayne said...

Tibor Machan also gives a similar argument to why humans are on top (because of this moral heirarchy).

He tries to argue against the marginal cases argument, by pointing out that broken chairs are not monkeys.... heh. Its a pretty bad argument, but it gets quoted a lot.

Jean Kazez said...

I know--horribly long. I was going to just make it a separate document, but figured it was more accessible as a post.

amos said...

Jean: No, it wasn't horribly long. It was the length of any normal article that I or any other literate person would have read 30 years ago. It was well written, without any excess verbiage. We've lost the ability to concentrate on anything longer than a TV commercial. However, being out-dated, I'm rereading sections of Sartre's Being and Nothingness, and yes, Sartre can be longwinded. Sartre would not have flourished in a world of Tweater.