Humans Are Sentient Too
The Guardian, July 30, 2004
The debate over animal experimentation appears to be moving rapidly towards a state of mutual incomprehension and deadlock.
The home secretary is debating whether to allow the American animal rights activist Dr Jerry Vlasak into Britain after it was reported that he had said that killing five to 15 vivisectors could save millions of non-human lives. (He has subsequently denied that he was encouraging anyone to act in this way.)
Animal activists have damaged trucks and other equipment used by construction companies working on Oxford University's new animal laboratory. Even this paper, in an editorial, likened British animal activists to al-Qaida terrorists.
The outcome of this process is unlikely to be positive for either side. For those who favour experiments on animals, it will mean keeping a low profile and meeting increased security costs.
For the overwhelmingly non-violent animal movement, consisting of many millions of people around the world, there is a risk of serious damage from being identified with the handful of activists who are prepared to go beyond peaceful protest.
This situation has arisen, in part, because the animal research community holds an ethical view that the animal movement rejects. That view is, in essence, that animals are things for us to use, as long as we spare them unnecessary pain.
The animal activists, on the other hand, reject the assumption that animals are inferior beings, and that their interests should always be subordinate to our own.
They see this as "speciesism" - a prejudice against beings that are not members of our own species, and similar in many respects to racist or sexist prejudices against beings who are not members of a dominant race or sex.
Ironically, in this situation, it is the defenders of scientific research who are most likely to cling to an ethic that clearly has an unscientific basis.
If we believe the account of creation given in Genesis, including its divine grant of dominion over all animals, then it makes sense to think that we are justified in using animals for our own purposes, as scientists wish to do.
But if, on the other hand, we think Darwin was right, and we are all here because of an unplanned process of evolution, there is no reason to assume that human interests should always take precedence over the interests of non-human animals.
As Jeremy Bentham wrote almost 200 years ago: "The question is not 'Can they reason?', nor, 'Can they talk?', but 'Can they suffer?'"
It may be possible to carry out some experiments on animals that do not cause them to suffer. And it may even be that, consistently with Bentham's principles, one can imagine situations in which, without treating the interests of animals as less weighty than those of humans, the benefits of an experiment on an animal would outweigh the costs to the animal.
But the entire institution of animal research, as it exists in Britain today, is based on a different foundation: that animals count for less, and those that we are not especially fond of count for less still.
Otherwise, why would Oxford University have said, in defending its proposed laboratory, that "98% of the animals involved would be rodents". Does the university believe that the interests of rats do not count?
Those who oppose treating animals as if they were mere tools for research therefore have a strong ethical argument.
But when a few people use violence and intimidation to achieve the desired goal, they undermine the animal movement's ethical basis. In a democratic society, change should come about through education and persuasion, not intimidation.
Those who advocate violence may claim, with some justice, that the democratic process has been tried, and has failed.
Despite decades of widespread popular support for reform, little has changed. Even the recent Guardian leader that began with the incendiary comparison between al-Qaida and animal rights extremists observed that more should be invested in finding alternatives - and it pointed out that a House of Lords committee stacked with scientists made the same recommendation two years ago.
Yet in comparison to the funds that go into research using animals, the amount spent on developing alternatives is still very small.
The extremist tactics we are now seeing may well be the result of the frustration caused by the failure of the democratic process to lead even to measures on which virtually everyone agrees.
Nevertheless, I cannot support the use of violence in the cause of animal liberation. It sets a dangerous precedent - or, one might say, it follows dangerous precedents.
In the United States, "pro-life" extremists have fire-bombed abortion clinics and murdered doctors who terminate pregnancies. I consider these defenders of the sanctity of human life from conception to be misguided; but no doubt they are just as sincere in their convictions as defenders of animals.
It is difficult to find democratic principles that would allow one group to use intimidation and violence, and deny the same methods to the other.
Non-violent responses to the frustrations of the democratic process do less damage to the fabric of civil society. Gandhi and Martin Luther King have shown that civil disobedience can be an effective means of demonstrating one's sincerity and commitment to a just cause, while at the same time eschewing violence.
Those who break the law openly, and are prepared to pay the price for doing so, are more likely to gain the respect and support of the public than those who strike secretly in the dark, and use fear, rather than persuasion, to change behaviour.
Is there a way out of the present deadlock? Some opponents of experiments on animals will be satisfied with nothing less than the immediate and total abolition of all animal research.
In a society that continues to eat meat, however, that is an unrealistic goal. If people think that their enjoyment of the taste of animal flesh is sufficient reason to confine millions of animals in horrific factory farms, transport them to slaughterhouses and then kill them, why would they reject the use of relatively smaller numbers of animals in experiments designed to find cures for major diseases?
The mainstream animal movement has repeatedly condemned the use of violence against sentient beings, human or non-human. My own statements against it now stretch back nearly 20 years. But every large movement attracts extremists who are impatient at the slow pace of change.
There is little more that the non-violent majority of the animal movement can do. The next step is really up to the government and the research community.
If animal activists could see that serious efforts were being made to find new ways of doing research without animals, the violent fringe of the movement would become even more isolated than it now is.