Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Animal Rights Argument Was Lost When it Should Have Been Won

The last few months have seen a major backlash against the animal rights movement. It's not the first backlash, but it's the most damaging and the movement has brought it on itself.

The interests of animals ought to weigh in our thoughts about how we should act. That’s not to say that I regard animals as having rights – inalienable interests that cannot be trumped by the interests of others. Nevertheless, I believe that some animals, great apes for instance, have interests that are so morally weighty – given evidence we have about their self-awareness and about their capacity for suffering – that it’s hard to conceive of anything that can override them. Other animals, say rats, may have less weighty interests, in line with their capacities.

Given this, animal testing is, on the face of it, an incredibly dubious practice. It is difficult to imagine justifying actively causing the suffering of one being as an object for the benefit of the other. Everything from simple exposure to the 50% test – increasing dosages of chemicals until half the animals have died – cannot be reconciled with any obligations we have towards animals.

Of course, things rarely exist in a state of moral simplicity. As I said, first, it doesn’t seem logical to treat all animals alike. To put it crudely, harming a spider seems different to harming a cat which itself seems different to harming a chimpanzee. Second, the manner in which animals are cared for seems important. Captivity has different forms. Third, and this is most important because it has totally been lost in the recent debates about animal testing, testing is done for different reasons. The differences between those reasons matter.

I can think of three motives for animal testing: scientific research, cosmetics testing and medical research.

Scientific research seems too case specific for a discussion of general principles. Electrocuting dogs for the benefit of psychology undergraduates can hardly be justified. Groundbreaking research involving animal testing – say something that has no direct imaginable benefit but adds to a somehow important body of knowledge – might in certain circumstances be justifiable.

I can’t think of any circumstance that merits cosmetics testing. I think the law has changed on this in the UK, but it’s worth saying. Performing the 50% test on 1000 dogs in order to develop a new lipstick seems pretty repugnant.

Medical research is a strange one. I think that genuine medical research – where new drugs are developed – seems in any circumstance I can imagine to be justifiable, although the comfort of animals ought to be accounted for and their interests in not suffering ought to be kept in mind, at least in concentrating minds on not crossing the line to gratuitous suffering.

Much medical research, however, does not involve attempts at the development of new drugs. Rather, it’s focused on creating value-added products through which one set of pharmaceutical companies compete with others. If, say, I add a lemon flavour to a headache pill (when generic paracetamol works better anyway) and, in doing that, I have to perform the 50% test on animals, I just can’t be regarded as doing something defensible. Or if I am developing drugs that might intervene in, say, the heart disease market, when my drug won’t actually improve anybody’s life prospects, again, it’s hard to see how I can justify animal testing.

In other words, animal testing for human well-being might be justifiable, though to a varying extent for different animals. It is not justifiable when it is rooted in simple profits.

Saying this, of course, means that I don’t have much time for political and scientific opinion on the matter. The elision of these various categories and practices on the part of Britain’s scientific, political and testing business communities suggests a certain degree of moral laziness, at least on the part of those people who are genuinely interested in moral argument. I've gone totally (perhaps unfairly) cynical, but I can't help but think that Blair’sargument’ that Britain’s place in the scientific world is a reason for animal testing is more rooted in his wanting to construct a moral panic that doesn’t involve him than in a moral attachment to the virtues (in terms of human knowledge) of testing.

Not drawing the distinction between various sorts of animals and sorts of tests allows plainly immoral testing to continue. It allows the profit motive for some tests to remain hidden in the background, parasitic on the good arguments for other tests. Lumping the whole industry together to defend it may be easier, but it also taints those who argue in favour of testing with its seamier side.

I also set myself apart from many people who have interests in animal rights, however. Human interests, for them, do not justify animal suffering. I simply don’t agree with them. Testing can be justified, but it has to be explicitly justified. Human interests can trump animal interests, in very specific circumstances where genuine and serious interests are at stake.

The animal rights movement has three primary problems. One is its political naivety. The other is the friends it keeps.

Most of the animal rights people I’ve met are profoundly pacifistic and moderate. They really wouldn’t hurt a fly. At their worst moments they can be a bit like the eponymous (and on this issue, self-aware) hero of Coetzee’s fascinating Elizabeth Costello: fervent, alienating and intense, and upset, frustrated at how they can't change the world. They are certainly neither violent or threatening.

Perhaps because of this, in my experience, the loudest voices in the movement have tended to be those of people who are most sympathetic to justifying whatever means are necessary to – they imagine – achieve their ends. Apart from the obvious immorality, these people are profoundly, childishly stupid. They simply serve to provide their enemies with the means to deny the movement the voice it ought to have.

Combined with this is total political naivety. The animal rights movement (I’m thinking specifically of SHAC and other groups) has never really adopted a tone that would have brought action. They tend to prefer the rhetoric of Greenham Common or Twyford Down when sticking a suit on and getting a haircut would, in this case, be more likely to work. In other words, they’ve never really taken the steps to put themselves in a position where they could persuade.

Combined with this has been the lack of any tactical attempt to decide on what the movement can actually achieve.

All-or-nothing campaigns often end up with, well, nothing.

The movement ought to have attacked the far more invidious testing-for-profit, which is the spectacularly unspoken Achilles' heel of the testing industry. They ought to have specifically said that, while all animal testing is regretful, some might be necessary (perhaps, though I’m personally sceptical of this line of argument, until computer modelling is up and running). That way, they might have kept the public onside, presented the pro-testing lobby with a difficult position to defend and got some of what they want.

Anyway, as I’ve set it out, I think that that line is not only politically sensible, but (even if it wasn’t) is the most morally defensible. Animals may not have inalienable rights, but they do have interests. The pro-testing lobby is so simplistic that it implicitly – and unintentionally I’m certain – denies that there are any circumstances in which those interests can trump human wishes. But those circumstances do exist.

The animal rights movement’s morally dubious higher bar for the status of animals has lost it the argument. It has alienated the movement from the society it must persuade. It has undeservedly gifted the moral high ground to pro-testers by allowing them to – as the antis do – treat all testing as being on a moral par. And it has allowed silly extremists to destroy any chance that the movement has for the foreseeable future.

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