Monday, July 10, 2017

Ethics: Our evolving understanding of animal rights

Photo by Rick Eh? — Used under Creative Commons License

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, December 15, 2003 by William A. Selke

In May [2003], a letter appeared in The Berkshire Eagle as part of a continuing debate as to whether the Housatonic should be stocked with trout or with smallmouth bass. While other writers had argued about the sporting merits of the different breeds, and which fish would survive long enough to be caught, this letter spoke of the "standard of ethical treatment of the stocked trout." Then, a few weeks later, a letter appeared decrying the exploitation of animals in circuses, the writer identifying herself as a member of People for the ETHICAL Treatment of Animals. Was the re-appearance of that word, ethical, coincidence, or was it a manifestation of a vast animal rights conspiracy? This is a report of my findings. That key word, ethical, is defined as: "pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality: pertaining to right and wrong in conduct." The writers using it were presumably among a growing number who feel, deeply, what is moral and what is right-and-wrong in our relationships with other creatures. Their position has evolved over a considerable period, not steadily, but, it seems, in fits and starts.

Humane folk have probably always been kind to their own animals, and sometimes encouraged others to do the same. Concern about the mistreatment of livery horses led to the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England in 1824. Right-thinking Americans traveling in England noted the success of that organization, and copied it with the founding of the ASPCA shortly after.

Legal actions in that early period by Henry Berg, a pioneer animal welfare activist, were significant in themselves, but also foreshadowed the philosophical basis of the movement of today. With his urging, the state of New York enacted laws against cruelty to animals. Then in, in 1874, he successfully pressed for the prosecution of an offender. The animal that had been maltreated happened in this case to be a young boy! This incident lead to the formation of the SPCC. But what is significant in the present context is that the law, probably unintentionally, did not distinguish humans from other species as the animals to be protected.

While there was no defense for the starving of horses, some activists moved animal protection in a direction which was not generally acceptable. In Britain in 1975 a militant group founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection_ They immediately pushed through Parliament the Cruelty to Animals Act. Though at the time it looked as though the anti-vivisectionists had won, in retrospect, it was fortunate. It brought peace for a number of years to a troubling issue with an act which acknowledged the vital role animals must play in research and in education and is moderate and reasonable. It imposed strict standards, both for the value of the experiments being performed and for the avoidance of needless suffering by the animal, but laboratory practices adapted to them, and there have never been prosecutions under the act.

And so it was for more than half a century. But as medical research intensified in the mid-20th century, and the need grew to test pharmaceuticals, so did the criticism of the increased use of animals in the laboratories. Again the movement starts in England, but the methods used represented a sharp departure from those of the relatively civilized Victorian anti-vivisectionists. A group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front (ALS) took to raiding laboratories, sabotaging experiments, and, in 1972, settling fire to a Hoecht research facility. The leader — one Ronnie Lee — was sentenced to two years in prison for his part. In 1982, an American offshoot — calling itself the Band of Mercy — won the designation of "terrorist" from the FBI.

I recall visiting a cancer research laboratory near Harrogate, England in November in 1978. There was a strange sense of excitement. Workmen were finishing the installation of bars on the windows. Our host explained that several laboratories, including that one, had received warnings that they were to be attacked by protestors. A sign was prominently displayed at the front door reminiscent of those displayed in cars parked in Manhattan reading—"No radio in this car" This sign announced that there were no dogs or cats in the laboratory. Apparently, in the United Kingdom, the intensity of outrage among protestors would depend on the species of the animals whose wellbeing was threatened, with the strongest feelings being for dogs, followed — somewhat diminished — by children, other primates, cats, horses and, far down he list —rodents, which happened to be what were used in that lab. One would wonder how, if the ALF had attacked, the Syrian Golden Hamsters would have enjoyed being liberated in autumn in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Animal welfare had become a rough game. The goals of these groups were very different from those of the SPCA and Humane Societies. Some of what was appearing was destructive, some seemed silly, and there did not appear to be a clear central principle behind these actions.

In the early seventies, books and papers were published postulating radically new structures of the relationship between humans and animals. In 1975, this lively discussion was crystallized with the publication by Peter Singer, an Australian, now professor of bioethics at Princeton of Animal Liberation, the book which appears to be the bible of the movement. In it, he offers an audacious philosophical basis for the entire field. He wrote that with black liberation, gay liberation and women's liberation, we might have thought we had come to the end of the road. But, "a liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons, so that practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable are now seen as intolerable."

In the preface he writes: "This book is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals ... causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which resulted the tyranny of white humans over black humans." He decries the sharp difference in our regard for humans and for non-humans. He argues — or his style suggests that he reveals — that all sentient creatures should be treated equally, and that rights we regard as human rights belong to all animals — human and non-human. To set special standards for humans constitutes "speciesism," another unacceptable –ism. He extends protection to octopuses, for certain, and will include jellyfish if research shows them to be deserving. This principle leads to Singer's opposition to any use of animals as food, for entertainment, or as medical laboratory models.

Singer, who is said to approach any subject with "almost adolescently fierce purity," exhibits a certain consistency in applying the idea that humans should not be favored just for being members of that species. Invitations for him to speak at German universities were withdrawn when it was realized that he openly advocated euthanasia for humans who don't measure up, mentally. They saw this as uncomfortably similar to some of the policies of the Third Reich.

Most of us do make a sharp distinction between the rights we grant to humans and those for other species. Even though, by the latest calculation, 98.5 percent, of the DNA of chimpanzees is identical to ours — up from an earlier calculation of 94 percent — we employ chimps in medical research in ways unthinkable for humans.

Speciesism is, indeed, implicit in our ethical judgments. One of the scientific magazines recently told of an entrepreneurial biologist who thought there would be profit to be made with laboratory technique he was developing. He proposed that by uniting humans and chimpanzees in trans-species hybrids he would have a source of more acceptable replacement body parts than those harvested from pigs. He knows that this would not be countenanced on ethical grounds, but he gives, facetiously, as his reason for not proceeding with the business, that he feared being burdened legally to provide education — K through 12 — for such animals.

Singer clearly has honed his responses to what we might regard as flaws in his thinking. When it is pointed out that predators eat other animals, he excuses them on the basis of the digestive limitations of true carnivores. While nature may seem harsh, the zebra, eaten by the lion, suffers only in its dying moments. It thus has a much better life than the endless boredom and discomfort experienced by a pig in a factory farm.

He defends his not pressing for porcine suffrage. He acknowledges that Congress may direct the Department of Agriculture to take steps which influence the lives of pigs, but pigs have insufficient understanding of the platforms of the political parties for them to be able to vote in their own interest. Displaying that consistency for which he is notorious, he states that humans with limited understanding shouldn't be allowed to vote, either.

Singer's basic principle picks up all the old animal welfare issues, including that perennial — vegetarianism. It has had prominent exponents over the years — George Bernard Shaw, Percy Byshe Shelly, as well as, of course, Mohandas Ghandi. Members of my generation [Selke was born in 1922.] were likely to have known young people — perhaps among their own children — who adhered at least temporarily to the restrictions, usually through the influence of a contemporary. That influence in some cases seemed to reflect a reordering in importance of the two basic biological drives. In the public at large, avoidance of cholesterol may be of greater influence than concern for its source.

But it is not the eating of meat that Singer opposes most strongly, rather it is the practices of factory farms, where animals spend their whole short lives penned up, converting feed into saleable flesh. He is surprisingly tolerant of bull-fighting. Unlike beef steers, the fighting bulls enjoy a relatively free and happy life before they enter the ring, and there is always that chance that they can hook a horn into a deserving tormentor.

A baffling number of organizations were formed to bring the world into compliance with the ideal set forth by Singer, but one dominates all others, People for the Ethical Treatment of animals PETA (knowing no better, I'll pronounce the acronym with a long E, both because of the capitalization and because they are opposed to the keeping of pets.) [In 2003] PETA has a membership of 3/4 of a million and an annual budget of 10 million dollars.

Their prominent stands have polarized the public. During the current war, our Navy has been assisted by dolphins and sea lions in safely moving through the Persian Gulf, delivering humanitarian aid to the port of Umm Qasr. These creatures had been trained to find mines and mark them with buoys without coming in contact with them. Twenty-two mines have been detected and destroyed, sparing our vessels. The dolphins are paid 20 pounds of fish each day for their effort. PETA protested placing them in harm's way: the dolphins knew nothing of Iraq, or of Saddam Hussein, and they had not volunteered for that service. More troubling is PETA's raising of a similar objection to the guiding of blind people by dogs.

To influence an impressionable group, PETA has have set up a web-site, PETA Kids. It recently featured items on Tofurky for Thanksgiving, Vegan Candy, and an article on the Young Hero of the Month — a Nevada girl who saw her biology grade fall from A to C when she refused to dissect an earthworm. Her protests to the state legislature led to dissection becoming optional in her school.

The PETA Kids introduction to activism seems more that of a teenage celebrity fan-club than realistic training in influencing a government. They provided to their readers the mail address of the British Prince William — St. James's Palace — so that letters could be sent to him urging the outlawing of fox-hunting. It should be noted that the House of Commons had in June voted overwhelmingly against the sport.

The PETA Kids probably don't share my amusement by one of the listings Google provides when one searches for P-E-T-A. It is "PETA- People who Eat Tasty Animals."

PETA's annual campaign against the use of animals in circuses emphasizes the fact that non-human performers did not choose those jobs. Skeptics might point out that humans — especially young ones — don't have complete choice of their activities, either. In my childhood, piano lessons were imposed on the unwilling by denial of more pleasant activities — playing outside. It seems unlikely that this punitive approach would be effective for training seals. When they are learning to play "America" — or, in the U.K. learning "God Save the Queen" — surely they must be rewarded with fish. Incidentally, I've attended circuses in other lands, but they never featured the virtuoso skills of marine mammals — could it be that other cultures don't have a song which played arythmically would be widely recognized?

Some of PETAs actions seem deliberately confrontational. They petitioned the Florida Department of Education to ban milk drinks from school vending machines, reversing that welcome reform, the elimination of soft drinks. PETA urges die-hard meat-eaters to help save animals by scouring the streets for roadkill. They tout its nutritional benefits — no growth stimulants, no hormones, and none of the antibiotics present in the products of some factory farms.

What more appropriate basis for an ethical principle than the Bible, itself. A group called Fishing Hurts holds that Jesus probably was a vegetarian. They state that he would not fall outside the technical definition of vegetarian by multiplying pieces of fish which were already dead, to feed people who aren't opposed to eating fish. They then state that pre-Gospel account of the miracle mention only bread, as does Jesus himself, as quoted in Mathew, Mark and John. They suggest that fish was added by Greek scribes because, as you recall, the Greek word ixous is the acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God Savior. But was Jesus really a vegetarian? Leonardo didn't show any meat on that long table, and the Gospels make no mention of his eating meat until after the Resurrection, and Fishing Hurts suggests that the accuracy of that observation may not be correct.

PETA didn't reach its position among the many organizations dedicated to animal welfare without some aggressive actions, including a corporate "hostile takeover" which would be admired in a field without the principles we expect in non-profit organizations. The New England Anti-Vivisection Society had an endowment of $8 million dollars. PETA bought 300 voting memberships at $10 each, paid plane fare for members to attend an annual meeting, and ended up the owner. [Editor’s note: If this effort actually took place, it apparently did not succeed. The New England Anti-Vivisection Society is still in business and still has assets worth about $8 million according to their federal Form 990 filed annually.

PETA acknowledges its instigation of some attacks on medical research laboratories. In a New York Times. interview, Alex Pacheo, its cofounder, paraphrased Barry Goldwater, saying, "Arson, property destruction, burglary and theft are acceptable crimes when used for the animal cause."

In the public relations war, they started on some soft targets. Cosmetic companies checked new products for potential irritation with what is called the Draize test in which the products being tested — mascaras, eye shadows — were placed in rabbits’ eyes and the irritation observed for four days. The sympathy that PETA was able to generate with pictures of sweet-looking , unhappy bunnies being used for such frivolous purposes generated anger which was spread against more serious studies.

PETA provides unpublicized support for the ALF, the British group of terrorists, which has announced that its intention is to "economically sabotage the industries of animal exploitaton". Over $45,000 of contributions to PETA by animal lovers was used in the legal defense of one Rodney Coronado, on trial for fire bombing a medical research facility. He was convicted and spent more than four years in prison. ALF burglarized laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania where work was done on head injuries, taking six years of data and vandalizing equipment. When a U of Penn veterinarian not associated with the project spoke in its defense, his office was vandalized. PETA announced that it was "an example to persuade other vivisectionists that it doesn't pay off."

The outlandishness of some of the program of animal liberation is merely entertaining. Citizens were little inconvenienced when the governments of seven states decreed that, henceforth, the purchaser of a dog license is designated the dog's guardian, not its owner. But some see Singer, PETA and their like thinkers as serious threats to our society. One who has sounded the alarm is Kathleen Marquart, founder of PPF, Putting People First, and author of the rather shrill and angry tract, "Animal Scam.” She writes "Though clothed in the moral armor of self-righteousness, animal rights activists show contempt for the lives of people."

She takes no issue with the traditional animal welfare groups, such as the Humane Society and the ASPCA, but warns that unless we resist current trends, medical research will suffer, there will be no guide dogs for the blind, and that untrapped rats will bring back the bubonic plague.

She presents a frightening list of violent acts against medical researchers by a cluster of organizations. In 1981, Fran Trait, of Trans-Species Unlimited (TSU) was convicted of the attempted murder of US Surgical president, Leon Hirsh. ALF took 1000 animals from the University of California-Riverside and damaged computers. They took 264 animals from the University of Oregon. IDA — In Defense of Animals — was linked to threats against 40 university presidents. Northwestern had to provide a bodyguard for a professor of neurobiology. The head of the psychology department at the University of North Carolina received a letter saying "Your brain and your wife's brain will be burned and drilled like you are doing to our lovely animals." All together, over 100 incidents have been reported. These demonstrations and threats have cost medical schools $4.5 million and 33,000 labor hours over five years.

Marquart strongly objects to the Massachusetts law of 1987 which prohibits the release of cats or dogs from pounds except for adoption or return to owner. As an argument for its repeal, she cites the IIFAR — Incurably Ill for Animal Research —  finding that the annual national use of 104,000 dogs and 50,000 cats from pounds saves $80 million over breeding them for the purpose.

She scoffs at any of the betes noirs of the PETA crowd. Rodeos cause an injury rate for calves of only 0.5 percent, less than that of cowboys. She holds that the Eco-dykes are wasting their time protesting against lesbian rodeos. In defense of circuses, she points out that it wouldn't make good sense for owners to endanger animals in which they have much invested. Those animals have a good life, working only 15 to 30 minutes a day, and in the circuses animals live 60 percent longer than the same species does in the wild. Further, she states, circuses help the local economy, advertising in the paper, hiring security personnel and buying from local merchants. These were the reasons not to close down the contaminated spring in Ibsen's Enemy of the People.

Apparently not all Marquart's readers share her views. She stated that the liberationists claim that Adam and Eve wore fig leaves, but, in fact, God clothed them in animal skins. (In the margin of the page in the library copy I consulted, in bold strokes, was written, "Must Check" — now that there isn't a checkout card in the back of a book so without [U.S. Attorney General John] Ashcroft's help, there is no way to guess the identity of the skeptic. Really, the principal reason to miss those cards is that here could be no better recommendation than seeing that [fellow Club member] Jack Spencer had read a book already.) [Editor's Note: The Bible verse in question, Genesis 3:21, reads: “And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife, garments of skins, and clothed them.”]

Is the animal liberation movement, especially Singer's prohibition against favoring our own species, likely to bring about any lasting changes in our world? Moral philosophers hold that the chief test to be applied to any ethical system is to ask if it can be harmonized with what is called common-sense ethics, i.e., with those ethical judgments which, at our best, we feel constrained make, apart from philosophical argument, in our ordinary ethical thinking. In short, are people buying it?

One change we see, even if not wholly in accord with Singer's goals, is the widespread increase of expenditure on pets, lavish even in the new climate of affluence. Two aspects of this trend seem in accord with the blurring — indeed, the elimination — of distinction between people and their pets, or, as we have learned to say, between companions of different species.

First are the new standards of medical and surgical care. In earlier times, when pets became ill, the vet either cured the beloved swiftly and inexpensively, or told the "custodian" that Waggles had to be put down. A recent article in The New Yorker told of a kidney transplant operation performed on a formerly stray cat at the Animal Medical Center in the upper east side in New York . Noteworthy is the fact that the owners (there goes that improper word) of the cat were not wealthy, but they were paying over $5,000 out of their annual family income of less than $50,000 And this for a cat. On my aunt's farm, where I spent many months of my pre-teen summers, a dozen or so nameless barn dwellers earned an occasional dish of milk to supplement their diet of rodents. None of these was ever attended by a vet. For that matter, I'm not sure that any of the three house cats — Whitey, Speed, or Rico — who loitered all day, nibbling at their canned salmon, would ever receive professional attention. I should note that in later years I wondered how and why those three enjoyed the privilege denied the barn cats — surely they weren't the offspring of a feline Sally Hemmings.

Newsweek reported that the average household spent $257 for veterinary care of its dogs in 2001, a 95 percent increase from 1991. This reflects big spending at the likes of the Center for Specialized Veterinary Care in Westbury, L.I., where brain tumor surgery costs $1,650 and corneal transplants $812.

The second innovation is the emphasis on the psychological needs of pets — fulfillment. People see their pets as family members, complete with psychological lives and complexities. America has enriched its children generously with soccer and ballet and computer camp. It follows that dogs, too, should have every chance at fulfillment. In his book, Twelve Months, Four Dogs and Me, Jon Katz tells how each week he drives a couple hundred miles so that his border collies can embrace their destiny, herding sheep at a farm. He states that when he is there, scores of people show up with all sorts of dogs, from avid herding breeds to bewildered mutts. Their owners are all eager to permit them to exercise their atavism. Many owners feel guilty about not doing enough. One woman e-mailed the author: "Is it OK to have a dog and still go to work?” Dog day-care centers have sprung up so that owners can go to work feeling that Max or Maggie enjoy sufficient exercise, stimulation and companionship.

Another area of change is factory farming, and it is inconceivable that these changes will ever be reversed. Surprisingly, Europe has had standards more strict than American practice, and they seem likely to stay ahead of us in this regard. In the European Union, the sizes of cages for laying hens will be increased to 120 square inches, with a perch and a box to lay their eggs, by 2012. In the US, there are no regulations, yet, and the average space is 48 square inches — half the area of an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper. In a voluntary move, McDonald's has increased the standard for its suppliers 50 percent to 72 square inches. Burger King and Wendy's followed. Under pressure from PeTA, KFC has pledged to increase by 30 percent the space for each of the 350 million chickens they use each year. Penning of calves and an iron-free diet, already illegal in the UK, will be illegal in all of Europe by 2007, so veal will be less tender and less white. The flap about serving fois gras at Tanglewood was repeated across the country, so what is the future for an expensive delicacy if it is not politically correct? Those California farmhands who twice each day hold the open the beaks of each goose while dispensing a pint of gruel from a power hose should begin looking for new employment. This despite the appearance in California of tee-shirts saying "fight tofu abuse, eat fois gras."

It is likely that those using animals in research and in medical testing will continue to do so because there are not satisfactory alternatives. The importance of animals in research was underlined when Cambridge University announced that, despite protests by animal rights groups, a $50 million laboratory will be built on University land. There, primates will be used in studies of neuroscience, seeking understanding of the role of the brain's frontal lobes, leading, it is hoped, to new treatments for Alzheimers and Parkinson's diseases. Primates, unlike other laboratory animals, have frontal lobes similar to ours, and a highly developed cerebral cortex, and are essential for success of this research It had been proposed that the laboratory be located at the military facility, Porton Down, for protection against protestors. But the University finally decided that the planned research program is so important that it should not be hidden away.

Even though Mr. Blair upset party members by removing reference to fox hunting from the Queen's annual speech, Commons will probably override the current resistance in Lords and that sport — witheringly described by Oscar Wilde as the unmentionable in full pursuit of the inedible" — will be seen only on Masterpiece Theatre.

And so, although few may accept Singer's basic proposal — that humans shouldn't favor themselves at all— some of the ramifications of that principle seem to be part of out new ethos.

In recent years, aspirants to elected office have first had to avoid being charged with racism. Then, as half our population has been granted fuller rights, there was the additional requirement of abjuring sexism. If the animal liberation movement is successful, a third practice will have to be avoided: speciesism. It will be entertaining to see how candidates pander on that issue.

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