A Meaningful Life
Excerpted from Ethics into Action, Oxford, 1998, pp. 192-196

The death of the world's most effective animal rights activist does not rate with that of a drugged-out rock singer. So when Henry Spira died, on September 13, his death passed without notice, apart from a three column obituary in the New York Times. Yet Henry Spira's life tells us something important, not only about the modern animal movement, but about the possibility of an individual making a difference in the modern world. More, it tells us of ways in which, without religion or a belief in a purpose beyond ourselves, we can find meaning in our lives.

I first met Henry in 1973, when he turned up at an adult education class I was giving at New York University. I had offered a course on 'Animal Liberation', in order to get some feedback on the draft of a book I was writing on that topic. The course attracted about twenty students, most of them already involved in working for animals in some way. The format allowed plenty of time for discussion, so we all got to know each other. One man didn't fit the mould of an 'animal person'. His clothes were crumpled, his hair tousled. The way he put things was so blunt and earthy that at times I thought I was listening to a character from a gangster movie, but I couldn't help liking the direct way he had of saying what was on his mind. His accent, I discovered later, had been formed by working as a merchant seaman then, during the McCarthy era, when his leftist politics saw him debarred from the ships as a security risk, on the General Motors assembly line in New Jersey. He had marched in the South during the civil rights protests, and visited Cuba in the heady early days of Castro's revolution. Now forty-five, he was teaching ghetto kids in a New York high school.

So what was Henry doing at the class? He had read an article of mine about animal liberation, and realised that it was the logical extension of what he had been doing all his life: helping the downtrodden, the powerless, and the exploited. No being was more ruthlessly exploited than a laboratory rat, or a battery hen. Henry found the classes interesting enough, but when they were over, he wasn't about to stop there. His view was that knowledge isn't something you acquire for its own sake. If you see something that is wrong, you have to think: 'Can I put it right?' At the end of the last session, he stood up and asked people if they wanted to continue to meet, not in order to discuss more philosophy but to see if there was something they could do about it.

I left New York soon after that, but when I was back in Melbourne and the phone rang late on a Sunday night, it was usually Henry, telling me of the progress of his campaigns and wondering if I had any thoughts on his future plans. The amazing thing was that his campaigns did make progress. For over a century, the anti-vivisection movement had been putting out propaganda telling people about horrific experiments on animals. Meanwhile the number of animals used in experiments had risen from a few hundred to more than thirty million. Never in all that time had the American movement succeeded in stopping a single experiment. Within two years, Henry had changed that. His first campaign -- carefully targeted against a series of bizarre experiments at the American Museum of Natural History that involved mutilating cats in order to study the effect of sensory deprivation on their sex lives -- was a complete success, permanently closing the laboratory where the experiments had been conducted.

From one series of experiments on about sixty rabbits, Henry rapidly moved on to bigger targets. He tackled Revlon over their use of rabbits to test cosmetics for potential eye damage, and exerted enough pressure to persuade them to put $750 000 into the search for alternatives. Having seen the public relations disaster that Revlon had narrowly averted, Avon, Bristol-Myers and other major American cosmetics corporations soon followed suit. Though it took ten years for the research to yield the desired results, it is very largely due to Henry's efforts that so many cosmetics corporations can now truthfully state that their products are not tested on animals.

After a decade in which he achieved more than anyone had ever done to reduce the suffering of laboratory animals, Henry decided that he was neglecting the greatest area of suffering that humans inflict on animals. For if animals used in experiments in the United States are numbered in the tens of millions, animals used for food are numbered in the billions. The negative environmental and public health impacts of the intensive confinement farming methods used today is also enormous. For the decade before his death, therefore, Henry focussed on farm animals. One of his most far-sighted initiatives was to help set up the Center for a Livable Future, at Johns Hopkins University's prestigious School of Public Health. The Center will bring together public health, environmental, and animal welfare concerns arising from intensive confinement farming, and seek to ensure that they are well-known also in the developing world. It is ironic that just as the developed countries are beginning to reconsider the desirability of a diet high in animal products, the developing countries are expanding animal production at a rate that overwhelms any reductions in the developed countries.

We often assume that society has become too big and too complex for individuals to make a difference -- unless, perhaps, they have extraordinary wealth, or the good fortune to rise to the top of a major organisation. Multi-national corporations, with annual profits running into billions of dollars and advertising budgets to match, wield formidable power over public opinion. How can small voluntary organisations (some of them, like Henry's Animal Rights International, with total annual budgets that would not pay the salary of a single middle-ranking corporate executive) hope to match them? How could an individual possibly bring about any significant change?

Yet Henry's victory over Revlon -- to mention only his most spectacular David and Goliath example -- did not require wealth or the leadership of a large organisation. It came from applying insights gained over four decades spent working on the side of the weak and oppressed, learning from others what strategies are likely to succeed and trying them out. Knowledge of that kind is empowering. It can be passed on to others who will use it in the same way, adding to it and adapting it to the circumstances they face.

So Henry's life was effective in reducing the amount of suffering in the world. That was his way of making it meaningful. At the end of his life, he could -- and did -- look back on it with satisfaction and fulfilment because he had spent his life doing something that was both worthwhile and interesting to do.

The best way in which I can describe how Henry found his life meaningful is to tell how I came to write a book about his life and work. Around 1990 I told Henry that one day I would sit down with him and go over all his campaigns, so that others could see what had worked and what had not. But for the next five years I was too busy with other work to do anything about it. In April 1996, with my unsuccessful Senate candidature for the Greens behind me, I could think about it again. I sketched out an itinerary for an overseas trip, built around invitations to speak in Europe in May, and at a March for the Animals in Washington at the end of June. On April 21 I sent Henry a fax telling him that since I had not got elected, 'I'm starting to think about what else to do with the rest of my life. The book about you is one possibility, some time in the next two or three years.' Could I stay with him for a few days in June, before my Washington commitment, so that we could talk about it?

The phone rang that evening:


'Henry, how are you?' I asked.

'Lousy, actually.'

'Why, what's the matter?'

'I've got an adeno-carcinoma of the oesophagus, Grade III.'

'What does that mean, in layman's terms?'

'Let me put it this way: if you could choose the kind of cancer you were going to have, you wouldn't choose this one.'

I made some inadequate kind of response. Henry then said that while he'd really like me to do the book, he wasn't sure that he was still going to be around in late June. He had been offered chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but the doctor hadn't been able to produce any statistics that suggested it was going to do much good, so Henry had said no. And if things got bad, he was looking for a doctor who would help him to die sooner rather than later. So could I come earlier? As soon as possible, in fact?

I was in New York six days later. Henry had lost a lot of weight, and lacked the energy I was used to seeing in him. Seven weeks earlier he had had a large part of the oesophagus and adjoining areas of his stomach removed, and was still weak, and had trouble keeping any food down. The outlook was even worse: the cancer was invasive, and the pathology report showed that it had spread into some of his lymph nodes. His life expectancy was a matter of months. Nevertheless he told me everything he could about the way he had worked, and showed me through the amazing collection of files that were arranged on shelves covering almost every wall of his apartment. We even shot some video footage, which afterwards became a documentary, 'Henry: One Man's Way', that has been shown on SBS-TV and at American film and video festivals.

The most remarkable thing about Henry during this period was the total absence of any sign of depression. Life had been good, he said, he had done what he wanted to do and enjoyed it a lot. Why should he be depressed? The thing that really worried him about the cancer was that he would die a slow, lingering death. While I was staying with him, he went to a doctor and came back to the apartment with a bottle of pills that the doctor had given him -- officially for pain relief. Together we looked up the drug in a pharmacopeia that Henry had. The bottle contained about four times the lethal dose. Henry's relief was palpable. With that worry taken care of, he seemed remarkably untroubled by the fact that he was expecting to die soon.

Henry did not die in the time his doctors predicted. When I returned to New York in June 1996, on my way back from Europe for the March for the Animals, he was markedly stronger than he had been at the end of April. He set up interviews for me with many people who had known him and worked with him at various stages of his life. For the next two years he kept on working for farm animals, while supplying me with material for the book, answering questions, and checking what I had written. When I began writing, I never thought that he would see even a complete draft of the book, but he lived to see Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement on sale in a New York bookstore. Then, within a week, he was dead.

One mark of living well is to live so that you can accept death and feel satisfied with what you have done with your life. Henry's life has lacked many of the things that most of us take for granted as essential to a good life. He never married, or had a long-term, live-in relationship. He had no children. His father and one of his sisters committed suicide, and his mother was mentally ill for much of her life. His relationship with Rene, the sole surviving member of his immediate family, was not close. His rent-controlled apartment, while spacious and well-situated, was spartan. He never went to concerts, to the theatre, or to fine restaurants. He hadn't taken a holiday for twenty years. Yet he was able to contemplate his own imminent death with no major regrets about the way he had lived. What made up for the absence of so much that, for most people, are the essentials of a good life?

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'A Meaningful Life'