An American Philosopher: The Tom Regan Interview

Interviewed by Claudette Vaughan (originally published in Vegan Voice)

Professor Regan has graciously agreed to speak to Vegan Voice for the first time. Almost without exception a common problem of being interviewed is being misrepresented in print and by the media. Unfortunately Tom Regan has this same ground for complaint as well. We asked him to defend his “rights” position and he does so admirably. Here are the results of that interview.

Do philosophers have a grip of what the grassroots issues are? Are they aware of the difficulties involved with “on the ground” work? I was out moving our rescued pigs the other day and the thought did occur to me “I wonder if philosophers ever get their hands dirty?”

Not all philosophers do the same things or live the same way. For example, Susan Finsen, who teaches philosophy in California, oversees a veritable Noah’s Ark of rescued animals on her land. And Bernie Rolland, a philosopher who teaches courses in veterinary ethics at Colorado State University, deals directly with animals everyday. Among philosophers in general, though, Susan and Bernie are the exception, not the rule. Most philosophers involved in the animal rights movement (ARM) are not hands-on activists. That is my experience anyway, and it certainly is true in my case. Like most of my philosophical peers, I try to make a contribution of a different kind.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Thirty years ago there was not a single philosophy department in a single American college or university (some 4,000 altogether) in which animal rights was discussed. Today, judging from my experience, I would say that there is not a single philosophy department in America’s colleges and universities in which animal rights is not discussed. This quiet revolution has occurred because ARM philosophers have done the necessary hard work, work that has made the animal rights debate as respectable and important as the contemporary debates about physician assisted suicide, abortion, and terrorism, for example.

Doing this kind of work is not the same as getting your hands dirty the way hands-on activists do. Still, I don’t think this means that the work done by philosophers is unimportant, any more than I think philosophers think the same of the good efforts of those doing hands-on activism. I have never met a philosopher who did not regard hands-on activists in anything but the highest esteem, and the dedicated work of activists I know personally (for example, those who devote themselves to Trap/Neuter/Release programs involving feral cats) know they have my admiration, because I never tire of expressing it. But this is not the form my activism has taken. ARM moves forward because of the efforts of many hands pulling on many oars. There is strength in our diversity and room enough, I think, for everyone to acknowledge the contributions of others even as they do their best at what they do best.

Are we winning any friends over to our side when you say things like, when asked which you would save, a dog or a baby, if the boat capsized in the ocean: “If it was a retarded baby and a bright dog, I’d save the dog.” What is so wrong with being differently abled in any case?

I have heard the quote attributed to me but it is not something I have ever written so I assume it is something someone says I once said. With what evidence did they say that I said this? Where, when, and in what context? Obviously, I don’t know. But my guess is the context would be something like the following:

Different people make different judgements about what should be done in extreme, tragic cases, cases (philosophers call them “life boat cases”) where we must choose to save one life rather than another, lest both lives should be lost. Discussing such cases can be interesting no doubt, but we should never lose track of their limited importance. For example, your house is on fire and so is your neighbour’s. You can either save your daughter or your neighbour’s daughter. What should you do? I have never met anyone who says, “You should save your neighbour’s daughter” or “You should flip a coin.” However, no one thinks that choosing to save your daughter in this extreme case commits you from doing flame retardant research on the other children in your neighbourhood. In other words, the judgement we make in an extreme case never serves as the basis for what we should do in normal cases — what we should do as a matter of everyday practice.

So we imagine various possible scenarios. You can either save a young child or a comatose human. You can either save a young child or a senile human. You can either save a normal adult human or an old, infirm dog. You can either save a profoundly retarded baby or a bright dog, etc. Throughout this exercise one asks whether some general principle can be applied in all the different cases so that one’s judgement in the different cases is not arbitrary or capricious.

The basis I use views the harm of death as variable. Everyone who dies loses everything in terms of the life they had before them, because everybody loses every way of relating to and being in the world. But some individuals who die lose more than others. For example, the young child loses more than the comatose or senile person. I believe the same would be true if we considered the deaths of a profoundly retarded child and a bright, healthy dog. In death, the latter loses more than the former. Of course some people might offer a different appraisal and use a different general principle. This is to be expected.

The important thing to keep in mind, though, is what I mentioned earlier: the judgement we make in an extreme case never serves as the basis for what we should do in normal cases — what we should do as a matter of everyday practice. And as for whether what I may have said on some occasion is “winning any friends over to our side”: I would rather reformulate the question to ask whether I think that the books I have written, the papers I have published, and the talks I have given have done this. I think this would be a fairer way to judge my own or anyone else’s work over a lifetime, rather than to make such a judgement on the basis of what someone says that that person said, somewhere, some time, in some unspecified context.

Would you agree or disagree with the statement that part of the problem of the ARM lies in the overwhelming negative way both the movement and nonhuman animals continue to be defined?

Like most things, the public’s perception of ARM is a product of the media. And the media is no friend of ARM. With rare exceptions, the media is not interested in truth, not interested in justice, not interested in compassion, not interested in educating the public. It is interested in selling it’s wares to a public with a thirst for plane crashes and violence. Which is why the media loves to cover disasters and confrontations, especially if they include good photo-ops. As the saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

To get the media’s attention, therefore, ARM (with few exceptions) needs to do something that is either outrageous or unlawful. An activist throws a tofu pie in someone’s face. That might get covered. Other activists torch a lab. That might get covered too. So, with a steady diet of such media coverage, what’s the public to think? It thinks, naturally enough, “These ARM folks: what they do is always outrageous or unlawful.” In either case, it’s understandable why most people have a “overwhelmingly negative” view of who we are and what we believe. A negative view is what the movement feeds the media and what the media in turn feeds the public. Nothing will change in this regard until we create opportunities for media coverage that do not perpetuate this negative pattern. Unless we do this, our public image will continue to turn more people off than it turns people on.

You have said that what is fundamentally wrong with the way animals are treated isn’t the details of the abuse — it’s the whole system. I wonder why then you don’t appear to support the actions of the ALF because they work outside of that morally bankrupted system that you are also against?

I have never questioned the depth of commitment ALF activists bring to their work. If someone were to say that these activists display more courage than I ever have, I could not disagree. Obviously, they run risks in their activism that I do not run in mine. No less obviously, some of them have spent, and others are now spending, years in prison. I don’t think any of us should ever underestimate the price these activists have paid and are paying in pursuit of animal liberation.

Why, then do I not support their form of activism? Not because I think that it is always wrong to break the law. I don’t think it is, and I don’t think I have done any wrong when, using classic forms of civil disobedience, I have broken the law in the name of animal rights. So my differences with the ALF go deeper than whether it is always wrong to break the law. They concern the role of violence in a movement that purports to have ARM’s values.

Now, I know there are people who will say that ALF actions are always non-violent because they never hurt anyone, they only destroy or damage property. But I think this reflects a serious misunderstanding of what violence is. When, a few years ago, African American churches in the South were being torched by arsonists, no one was hurt but serious violence was done. People who would deny this, people who would say no violence was done because no one was hurt, simply would not be taken seriously in any open discussion of minority rights. Similarly, I think that people who insist that ALF sponsored arsons and other destructive acts are “non-violent” would not be taken seriously in any open discussion of animal rights. So the question is not, “Does the ALF engage in violence?” to which I think the answer is, “yes.” The real question is, “Are their violent actions justified?” to which I think the answer is, “no.”

Why? Fundamentally, because I believe that the ideals informing ARM concern the means used to achieve our ends, not merely the ends themselves. I believe these ideals appeal to what is best in humanity, our ability to be moved by non-violent, informed appeals to our shared moral sensibility, in particular. The ALF’s violent acts makes no such appeal. Just the opposite. And calling them “non-violent” does not change the fact that they are. Still, at the end of the day, the question remains: “Are ALF actions more useful than any moral arguments (including any moral philosopher) can give?” Here, obviously, different people not only can, they will give different answers.

Are any more students in the States saying “No” to dissection in the classroom nowadays, Tom?

All the available evidence supports the view that more and more students in America are just saying “No” to dissection. Several states, including Florida, California, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, and Maine have laws that provide students with a non-invasive alternative. And more states are passing similar laws. Short of that, it is possible to work at the local level. We have a policy at my university (we instituted this at least 15 years ago) that provides students with an alterative to dissection. We were able to institute this policy through the Faculty Senate on the basis of student rights, not animal rights. I think this kind of institutional policy is a realistic goal throughout the world of education, whatever the level. Of course, we all look to Italy for true leadership in this regard. The Italians have a national law that exempts any student, in any lab, in any course, at any level, from compulsory dissection. I don’t think we’ll have anything comparable to this legislation in America for a long time; but perhaps in other, more progressive countries, countries such as your own, this sort of legislation is achievable. The possibilities of forming alliances here, between animal rights, children’s rights, anti-violence, and religious progressives, for example, really are very strong. Incidentally, the best work on the subject, in my opinion, is Jonathan Balcombe‘s The Use of Animals in Higher Education: Problems, Alternatives, and Recommendations.

I hear on the grapevine that a formidable vegan challenge to yourself was Blue Vein and Stilton cheese. Give us the inside information here, Tom.

Everyone has a different story about how they made their journey to where they find themselves today. Mine includes working as a butcher during my college years, only to turn to vegetarianism in the early ’70s. I was influenced in my thinking by Gandhi, who was not a practicing vegan. I think I must have assumed that if vegetarianism was good enough for the Mahatma, it was good enough for me. I always had a fierce liking for cheese, the stronger, the better. My picture of the absolutely perfect meal was, oh, about half a pound of the ripest cheese available, a loaf of fresh crusty bread, and a bottle of really good red wine, shared with friends. To my mind back then, in my early years as a vegetarian, this was as good as eating could be. If the ethics of diet rested on taste alone, I would think the same today.

How did your latest book Defending Animal Rights come into being? Please sketch for us some of the main features and themes of the book.

Like any other writer, I have always been concerned about not repeating myself, about saying something new, or at least saying something old in a new way. During my lifetime, I have been fortunate because I have been invited to meet this challenge by speaking on a variety of animal rights topics, sometimes to ARM activists, sometimes to an academic audience, sometimes to the general public. I don’t know what the total is but I guess I have given several thousand animal rights talks by now.

Defending Animal Rights is a collection of some of my more recent presentations, a work that draws a map, so to speak, of where my thinking has lead me during the last decade. Of particular interest to ARM activists, I think, is a chapter entitled “understanding Animal Rights Violence” and a second, entitled “Patterns of Resistance”. In both I spend a good deal of time developing the parallels between the struggle for animal rights, on one hand, and other struggles for social justice, including the anti-slavery movement in America in particular. The parallels are amazing, something every ARM activist should know, I think, and something from which we can learn and take encouragement. I hope the same is true of an even more recent book, The Animal Rights Debate, co-written with the philosopher Carl Cohen. I think my contributions to this book represent my best animal rights position in the debate triumphs in every possible respect, and this against Cohen, the vivisection industry’s favourite philosopher. Which is why I hope the book will enjoy the widest possible readership. Folks who are interested in this book, as well as Defending Animal Rights, might check-out the reviews at Amazon.com

Could you explain how your position differs from Peter Singer’s?

Singer has two main ideas. First, we should count everyone’s interests, and count equal interests equally. Second, after having done this, we should do what brings about the best overall balance of the interests of those affected. The first idea concerns procedure: what we have to do before we decide what the right thing to do is? The second idea concerns moral judgement: what is the right thing to do? I believe both his ideas are not only mistaken; they are fundamentally mistaken, in ways that are harmful to animals.

With respect to procedure: It is profoundly mistaken, I believe, to say that we should count the interests of rapists, or slave owners, or child abusers before we can judge that these people are doing something terribly wrong. Similarly, I believe it is profoundly mistaken to say that we should count the interests of people in the fur industry, or the vivisection industry, or the animal agriculture industry before we can judge that these people are doing something terribly wrong. My position could not be more opposed to this idea. You should never count the interests of those who violate the rights of animals (or humans) before you judge that they are doing something wrong because they are violating someone’s rights. Of course, many people will say, “Doesn’t Singer say the same thing? Doesn’t Singer believe in animal rights?” To which the honest answers are, “No, he does not say the same thing. No, he does not believe in animal rights.” And if someone asks, “What does he believe in, then?” the answer is, ” He believes in the two ideas I have just described.”

As for Singer’s second main idea (and here I will limit my comments to the issue of vivisection): Singer does not believe that vivisection is always wrong. On the contrary, he believes that it is sometimes right. If the consequences are on balance better than otherwise could be obtained, then his view is that there is nothing wrong with using animals in research. Let me repeat this: his view is there is nothing wrong with using animals in research. This is one way in which I think Singer’s ideas are harmful to animals. My position could not be more opposed to the idea.

Of course, I know that many people will find it incredible that Singer is not opposed to vivisection, not just some of the time but all of the time. But, in all honestly, I can only say: this is his view (see his by now infamous piece in Nerve.com) that having sex with animals is not always morally wrong. Provided the sex takes place in private, and assuming that the participants enjoy themselves, no wrong is done. This is perfectly consistent with Singer’s two main ideas: Indeed, this is required by his two main ideas. Again, my position could not be more opposed. In my view, bestiality is always morally wrong for the same reasons that nonconsensual sex with children is always morally wrong: the rights of those that cannot give consent are violated.

Our philosophical differences to one side, let me just say one thing about Singer’s position. The last thing animals need is for the exploiters of animals to insinuate that ARM activists are claiming rights for animals so that we can have mutually satisfying sex with them. I mean, my God! If that happened, ARM activists would be seen as dishonest at best, depraved at worst. In either case, what ARM activists say of behalf of animals would be totally disregarded. And if that happened, it would be very difficult even to begin to calculate the massive harm that would be done to animals. So while I acknowledge the important role Singer played in the early stages of the modern Movement, and much as I like Peter personally, I do not believe his ideas represent what ARM activists believe. I hope this becomes clearer as we move forward. It needs to be.

Your moral position in A Case for Animal Rights rejects utilitarianism because it is committed to maximising the good with no prior commitment to how the good is to be distributed. So therefore Utilitarianism fails to respect the moral importance of individuals as individuals — but then you limit your individuals — “subjects-of-a-life” — to mammals. Why did you do that?

In one sense it is true that, in A Case for Animal Rights, I limit “my individuals” to mammals; in another sense, this is false. The sense in which it is true is rhetorical. What I do in The Case… is say (roughly), “Look, everyone knows there are all these line-drawing questions when we talk about what rights matter morally. I propose to set these questions to one side and say, “Wherever you draw the line, assuming you draw it rationally, mammals are above it. So let’s limit our discussion of animal rights to this classification of animals.” This is the (rhetorical) sense in which it is true that I limit “my individuals” to mammals. Why? In order to keep rhetorical control of how the argument develops, in order to insure that it does not get bogged down in divisive debates about whether mollusks or insects matter morally, and so on. I want to make it as clear as possible that we can make some morally informed judgements about some animals without having to know everything about all animals.

The sense in which it is false to say that I limit “my individuals” to mammals is logical. As should be clear from what I have just said, and what I try to explain in The Case…, I in no way say or imply that only mammals have rights. In The Case…, I leave this question open. More recently, in contexts where I have not felt the same need for rhetorical control, I have explained why in my view birds also are subjects-of-a-life.

There are two problems here as I see it. First. It is humanocentric in that we decide/decree just who gets the right to be a “subject-of-a-life” therefore we have failed to respect the moral importance of individuals as individuals right across the board…

We must understand ‘humanocentric” differently. A view is “humanocentric”, as I understand this idea, if all and only human beings enjoy a particular moral standing — if all and only human beings have basic human rights and possess equal moral worth, for example. That certainly is not my view. Not at all. At the same time, I certainly believe that the people reading these words, for example, have basic rights and possess equal moral worth. But this is not because they are human beings. Again, such a humanocentric view is not my view at all. What makes the people reading these words different from a protozoa, for example, is that they (but not the protozoa) are what I call subjects-of-a-life, meaning (roughly) that they are alive, in the world, aware of the world, aware of what happens to them, and aware of what happens to them matters to them — aware that it makes a difference to the quality of life they are living. Moreover, I believe that nonhuman animals who are subjects-of-a-life have basic rights and possess equal moral worth. If someone wants to say more than this; in particular, if someone wants to say (what your words suggest) that the same is true of every individual living being — they all have the same basic rights; that they all are equal morally — that certainly is their prerogative. All I can say is I have never seen such a view defended adequately by anyone, even including what I consider its definitive statement by Paul Taylor, in his book Respect for Nature, which is why I do not accept it.

The second problem I see in your theory is that we in the movement seem fixated on the “Rights” position and yet it is a foregone conclusion (almost) in that granting “Rights” for the higher intelligent mammals will not automatically trickle down to encompass the so-called “lower” intelligent animals in a court of law. I don’t know about you, Tom, but I am not working to “bring them back home,” to then turn and leave without the chickens.

Again, you seem to have a different understanding of “intelligence” than I do. It is not as if I am saying that, before someone can have rights, they have to pass some sort of IQ test. In fact I cannot remember ever using that idea of “intelligence” anywhere in anything I have ever written anywhere. So I would want to scrap the idea of intelligence in the case of nonhuman animals, just as if I have scrapped it in the case of humans with profound cognitive disabilities who nevertheless are subjects-of-a-life.

Are chooks subjects-of-a-life? This would be the crucial question for me, a question that different people answer differently. People who really know chickens (and I’m thinking of Karen Davis, of United Poultry Concerns) — these people will insist that they are, a position I have no difficulty whatsoever in accepting. As I explained earlier, I have never maintained that only mammals are subjects-of-a-life.

As for your separate idea, the one concerning what will or what will not “trickle down” in a court of law — in my cynical moments I believe we have the laws we do because of who has the power to dominate. Socrates discusses this idea in Plato’s Republic when he considers the view that justice is what is in the interests of the stronger. I hope justice is more than this, both in theory and in fact. I really do. Nevertheless, it would be naïve to think that justice for other animals will come about just because we have the best arguments. No, justice for other animals will come to pass, if it does, because the ranks of ARM swell and because we (those of us who speak for the animals) become “the stronger” in numbers and influence. If we do — but only if we do — I have no doubt that the rights of chooks will be recognised.

Is equal consideration for all animals a possibility in your view?

If by “all animals” you mean “everything we classify as an animal” (as distinct from what we classify as vegetable and mineral), I am not certain that I understand the idea. What is it that we are being asked to consider equally? If you take a view like Singer’s, the answer is reasonably clear. For example, we need to consider the suffering of all those animals who suffer and, having done this, we need to count equal suffering equally, no matter whose suffering it is. But Singer does not believe that this extends to all animals; and he does not believe this because he does not think that all animals can suffer. As you may know, I disagree with Singer about much, but on this matter I could not agree with him more.

However, perhaps what is meant is that we need to consider the life of every animal and, having done this, we need to count every life equally. But (as I said earlier) I have never seen this position adequately defended, which is why I do not accept it myself. I do not believe that the life of microorganisms, for example, deserve the same (equal) moral consideration as the life of anyone reading these words. So concerning the question, “Is equal consideration for all animals a possibility in my view?”, I would have to say, “Yes, I suppose it is a possibility; but no, I do not believe it myself.”

Many people assume that the Animal Rights Movement has made extraordinary progress. It’s an awful thing to say considering the amount of blood, sweat and tears that activists have gone through but would the results have been any different from old welfarism, if we had chosen to stay at home instead, these past 25 years?

Any answer would have to be speculative since (obviously) we don’t know what would have happened if ARM activists had stayed at home and let the “old welfarists” carry on with their work. Personally, I am not very much interested in what we have accomplished (though this is of some importance certainly). My eyes, my concerns always look to the future, to the work that remains to be done.

ARM waxes and wanes; this we know. There are times when we are clearly moving forward, times when we are standing still, and times when we are losing gains we thought we had. I don’t know what it’s like for you folks, but here, in the States, I’d say we definitely are not in one of the “moving forward” periods. There is a lot of disenchantment and dissent in the ranks, a lot of attrition. Even as we attract new people, we are losing seasoned activists every day. Everyday. Keeping these activists and adding to the base of ARM: this is the greatest challenge we face, I think, one for which we will only have ourselves to blame if we fail.

Simply put, we are not going anywhere if too few of us want to get there. Whatever the size of your organisation today, your goal should be to double it by the end of next year; then double that the next year; and so on. The same for other activist groups. What we have and what we have not accomplished in the past 25 years, and whether traditional welfarists could have done as much, ARM activists will not accomplish anything of lasting importance in the next 25, if we fail to add significantly, dramatically, in historically unprecedented numbers, to the critical mass of committed activists. If I have learned anything in my more than 25 years in ARM, this is it.

Siding with McDonalds and Burger King. Are you for or against it?

ARM activists can be both radical and realistic. On the radical side, we work for empty, not merely larger, cages. On the realistic side, we know that the cages will not be empty tomorrow. The wall of oppression has to be taken apart one brick at a time. We are not going to have every right of every animal respected in one fell swoop; but we can have some rights of some animals respected in an incremental basis. For example, we can pass legislation that prohibits debeaking or face branding of cattle, legislation designed to respect an animal’s right to bodily integrity within a system of exploitation even while we cannot thereby end that system of exploitation. Changes like these (incremental rights respecting changes) are the kind of change I support, the kind I think anyone committed to animal rights should support. I don’t see McDonalds and Burger King making changes of this kind, which is why I do not support them.

What is so wrong with holding our own species into account as the cause of the problems we inflict upon nonhuman animals (the weak and the vulnerable). Why not look at root causes instead of the logic that dictates who has rights? Who is entitled to these rights? Why you may ask? Because it’s hierarchical and territorial to do so. As an inference, becomes an issue about power and dominance. Why not start the way we intend to finish and that is abolitionist in essence?

“Animal Rights” is not an issue about power and dominance in my view. Just the opposite. “Animal Rights” places limits on power and dominance. In other words, because animals have various fundamental moral rights, humans must (morally) limit what we do with them. So when you ask “What is so wrong with holding ourselves into account because of what we do to animals?” I would say. “Nothing is wrong with doing this! Of course we are to be judged responsible for the evil we visit upon other animals!” We are one mind on these matters.

The difference that separates us, perhaps, is how best to explain this evil, how best to make coherent sense of the moral limits of our “power and dominance.” The position I favour assigns a central role in these matters is a better way. I can only say that I have not seen it.

Finally, Tom, one of the chief criticisms of the animal rights movement is that it is “anti-intellectual.” Do you buy that? Is it even an issue in your opinion?

Usually, the claim that ARM activists are “anti-intellectual” goes hand in hand with the charge that we are “emotional” and “irrational.” And (of course) almost always the people talking this way just happen to be making their living off the backs of the animals they exploit, whether in the fur, agricultural, entertainment, or biomedical research industries, for example. Such a coincidence! The accusers are the beneficiaries! If ever there was a case where people should “consider the source,” this is one of them.

There are two ways to respond to these anti-intellectual/emotional/irrational accusations, I think. First, we can point out that animal exploiters have no philosophical defence for all that they are doing. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Given all that I know and have experienced, I can tell you, without the slightest reservation: there is not a single philosopher, in any department, at any university, in any country that today defends all that is being done to animals. Even when a philosopher like Carl Cohen offers a dense of vivisection, the philosopher will, as Cohen does, register misgivings about the fur trade and factory farming, for example.

This is not good news for the exploiters. So (naturally enough) they take the only route available to them: they attempt to silence the animal rights message by attacking the animal rights messengers. Maybe this works as a matter of public posturing. I don’t know. But it certainly does not work as a matter of respectable philosophy. I hope all your members and readers will find some encouragement, as they should, in the knowledge that no philosopher anywhere in the world defends everything that is being done to other animals. In the court of informed, rational argument, in the “intellectual universe,” so to speak, the pro-animal thinkers win the philosophical argument hands-down.

Second, we can point out that feeling strongly, being emotional is not anything for which those who are one our side of the right and the just need to apologise. I am against rape, and I feel very strongly about it. I am against child abuse, and feel very strongly about it. I am against racial discrimination, and feel very strongly about it. If someone said to me, “You are being very emotional about these matters,” I would say, ” You’re damned right I am! Anyone who doesn’t feel ‘very emotional’ about rape, child abuse and racism is the one who has some explaining to do, not those of us who do feel very emotional.” Once the appropriateness of have strong feelings about some matters are acknowledged, it should be clear why saying that we are “very emotional” about animal abuse settles no moral issues. If animal rights are being violated, in the ways ARM activists believe, then everyone should be just as “emotional” as the ARM activists are. As for the fact that some (even most) people are just not “just as emotional” as ARM activists are: this is a symptom of their failure (so far) to see the many faces of evil when it comes to animal abuse. Our enduring challenge is to make this (for them) invisible evil, visible.

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