Animal Rights: The Right to Protest
The Independent, January 21, 2001

How far does the democratic right to protest go? This issue is squarely raised by the announcement that the Government will introduce new measures to curb protests by animal advocates opposed to experiments conducted at Huntingdon Life Sciences, a major animal testing company.

First, what is the underlying moral ground for the protests? Since the 1970s, there has been a widespread shift in thinking about how we ought to treat animals. Britain has played an important role in this area of renewed moral concern and has led the world in prohibiting the keeping of veal calves and sows in individual stalls. These moves have broad public support, not only in Britain but across the European Union, where moves are afoot to ensure that the British standards become European law, and to deal with the situation of battery hens as well. Similarly, there is a general consensus on the view that cosmetics should not be tested on animals - although such tests were entirely routine until the 1980s.

Opponents of these changes seek to portray animal advocates as people whose emotions have got the better of their reason. In fact the movement is one in which professors of philosophy, working in Britain, Australia and the United States, have played an unusually prominent role. They have argued that traditional ways of treating animals are based on "speciesism", a form of prejudice that is in some ways akin to racism.

Though there are undeniable differences between racism and speciesism, both define a group of insiders who are accorded privileged moral status over outsiders. Both racists and speciesists separate the insiders and outsiders, not by asking whether a being possesses some clearly relevant moral feature, like the capacity to feel pain, or self-awareness, or rationality, but rather by identifying the being as a member of "one's own kind", whether that is defined as one's own race, or one's own species. Thus, defenders of animal experimentation are willing to countenance experiments on baboons that they would never accept if carried out on human beings less aware of themselves, and less capable of exhibiting rational behaviour.

Clearly, then, there is a serious moral question about the current uses of animals, on farms, in laboratories, and elsewhere. People can, of course, have different views about the legitimacy of particular aspects of our use of animals. One example, of relevance to the current controversy, is whether we should carry out experiments that cause distress to animals but have the potential of saving human lives. No matter what view we take on this issue, we should recognise that this whole area is a frontier of moral change, and there is still a long way to go before we reach consensus on the most difficult questions.

In the case of Huntingdon Life Sciences, however, the issue is not whether to experiment on animals at all, but whether the dubious record of this particular laboratory ought to disqualify it from continuing to carry out such experiments. Documentation of cruelty to animals at Huntingdon goes back to the 1980s, but the laboratory's current troubles date from 1997, when Channel Four screened It's a Dog's Life, a programme based on an undercover investigation by Zoe Broughton.

Broughton, who obtained a position as an employee and used a hidden camera, filmed technicians punching and shaking a beagle. Other incidents in the film suggested a lack of proper control over what staff were doing to animals at the laboratory. The Home Office subsequently confirmed that the laboratory had violated several conditions of good laboratory practice, and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, acknowledged that the laboratory's licence to conduct experiments on animals was under threat. That caused shares in the company to be suspended. Although the licence was subsequently renewed and the shares are again listed, they have never approached their former price.

Around the same time as Broughton was filming in England, another undercover investigation at a laboratory owned by Huntingdon Life Sciences in the United States revealed further animal abuse, and the company was fined $50,000 for breaches of the Animal Welfare Act.

It is not only a tiny minority of vegans opposed to all animal experiments, but a very large number of ordinary people concerned for the welfare of animals, who would like to see Huntingdon Life Sciences closed.

That still leaves open the question of how far such protests may legitimately go. One thing that should be absolutely clear is that the democratic right of protest does not extend to the infliction of violence, or to making threats of violence, against any individual. The overwhelming majority of the animal movement is opposed to violence, and has dissociated itself from such tactics on innumerable occasions, from the time when violence first appeared in the movement, nearly 20 years ago. The use of violence discredits the animal movement, and it has no place in a society that has other channels for bringing about change.

If, on the other hand, opponents of Huntingdon Life Sciences wish to dissuade its backers from investing in the company, they surely have that right. Likewise, in a free society, they had the right to inform shareholders or depositors of the Royal Bank of Scotland about the nature of the work supported by the bank, and to suggest to them that they may wish to sell their shares or shift their deposits to another bank.

There is, after all, nothing unusual about such tactics. Those members of the Blair government who think that boycotts against banks are out of place in the case of Huntingdon Life Sciences should ask themselves whether they would also think that they are out of place in a campaign with which they are personally more in sympathy.

Would Mr Straw have thought it was wrong to use consumer pressure to dissuade a British bank from providing funds to Augusto Pinochet so that he could buy arms to suppress dissent to his repressive regime? Would Robin Cook have thought it wrong to contact shareholders of the manufacturers of nuclear weapons and suggest that they sell their shares? (Of course, jobs could have been lost if the contract to make the weapons then went abroad. Does that make such tactics wrong?)

What are Peter Hain's views now on the way in which the anti- apartheid campaign put pressure on Barclays Bank and other companies with links with the old regime in South Africa?

Voltaire famously said: "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Similarly, if we believe in the right to protest when we support a cause, we ought to defend the rights of others to protest in similar ways even if we disagree with their cause. Only in that way can a democratic right of protest be secure.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Animal Rights: The Right to Protest'