I have a variety of questions. Some philosophical, some practical, some prophetic. Is this all right?
A good place to begin is to ask about speciesism. How would you explain this idea to people who are unfamiliar with it?
I would invite them to reflect on more familiar prejudices, like racism and sexism. The faulty logic of these prejudices is the same. People are discriminated against, they are viewed and treated as counting for less, not because of any personal failing or defect, but merely because they belong to some designated group: women or black people, say. But no individual should be viewed or treated as counting for less just because they are a member of one group or another. Everyone understands this once they take a moment to think about it.
Well, maybe not everyone. Maybe some people think racism and sexism are fine. Human history would seem to say as much. For these people, I doubt there is anything we can say to help them understand speciesism. So, for me, when we talk to people about speciesism, we have to assume that they are against racism and sexism.
So these people would get it? They will understand speciesism?
Absolutely. They would get it very quickly. And once they did, I’d ask them why we should think things work differently for animals. If it’s illogical to think that this aboriginal woman, say, should be viewed and counter for less because she is a woman (a member of one group) and an aboriginal (a member of a second group), it can’t be any less illogical to think that cats and dogs, cows and hogs should be viewed and counted for less because they are members of yet another group: other animals.
So speciesism is?
Speciesism is thinking that other animals should be viewed and counted for less because they are not human.
People might agree that specieism is a prejudice and still reject the idea of animal rights. Why should non-human animals have rights? I mean, where does human obligations stop and animal rights begin?
Let me say something about rights first; then I can answer your question. OK?
Serious advocates of human rights (and I count myself among them) think the following. Suppose many people would benefit if painful, terminal research was done on small children, something that actually happened, as you know, when the Nazi doctors conducted experiments using Jewish children. Human rights advocates with one voice will say this was wrong even if it turned out that many generations of humans benefited from what the doctors learned. Respect for the rights of the few is more important than advancing the good of the many. This is what it means to say that humans — you and I, for example — have a right to life, or liberty, or bodily integrity. Basically, we are saying, “Look, morally, there are some things you can’t do to us just because you or others will gain something. Like, “Don’t take my life. Don’t steal my liberty. Don’t injure my body.’” If you believe in human rights, this is what you believe.
And “animal rights”?
It comes to the same thing. What ARAs are saying is, “Look, morally, there are some things you can’t do to animals just because you or others will gain something. Like, “Don’t take their life. Don’t steal their liberty. Don’t injure their body.’” If you believe in animal rights, this is what you believe. At least this represents what I think. So . . .
. . . to go back to my question about animal rights and human obligations?
We have many obligations that don’t involve rights. For example, if you’ve been especially kind or generous to me, I think I have an obligation to acknowledge your help. But I don’t think you have a right to it. Otherwise people could go around creating rights for themselves just by being especially nice to others. Respect for rights is among our obligations, our most important obligation, in my view. But not all obligations involve respect for rights.
You have been working to advance animal rights for more than thirty years. During this time, have you seen any positive change?
Yes, indeed. Nancy [Tom’s wife] and I have seen many changes. Let me give you a few examples, beginning with one that occurred in the animal rights movement itself. Back in 1978 we attended our first international animal protection conference. It took place at Cambridge University and was hosted by one of England’s venerable animal societies. All the leading thinkers from throughout the world attended. It was an honor just to be in their presence. You can imagine our surprise when Nancy and I went to the first evening’s dinner. Beef Wellington was the main course. Breakfasts included ham, bacon, kippers, and sausage. Lunches featured various sweet meats and slabs of bloody tongue. Venison was served the second evening. Roast leg of lamb the third. And for the gala final evening’s banquet? Veal Cordon Bleu. A handful of vegetarians banded together and asked, in the most polite manner, for some accommodation. If we were going to spend the day talking about our duties to animals, we said, we preferred not to spend our meals eating them.
How did that go down?
The request was received as heretical! How dare we ask for special treatment! If the organizers had had a branding iron, they would have burned the letter “V” into our foreheads, the better to shame us for our vegetarian insolence. The veggies were exiled to a table in a far, dark corner of the dining hall, away from the other diners (lest they be contaminated by our presence). But you know what? In 1986, the same venerable English organization hosted another international conference on animal protection, and no meat was served. None. Zero. Of course, today, animal protection conferences throughout the world no longer serve any animal product. So when people ask Nancy and me whether things have changed, we always start with changes like this, changes in the movement itself.
What about outside the movement?
There are too many changes for me to enumerate. Let me give just a few examples. Take the fur industry. In the mid-eighties, 17 million animals were trapped for their fur in the United States; today, fewer than 4 million Internationally, Austria has banned fur ranches; both Denmark and Norway have declared that ranch-raised fur is “ethically unacceptable”; and the British government has declared its intention to pass legislation to prohibit all fur farming.
Next, consider meat consumption. Whereas 10 million veal calves were slaughtered thirty years ago in America, fewer than 800,000 are slaughtered today. Except for poultry, overall per capita meat consumption continues to decline. Granted, far too many animals are being raised in deplorable conditions and killed for no good reason. Nevertheless, the national trend away from an animal-based diet and towards one richer in vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts is unmistakable.
Is reliance on the animal model changing? I think so. A recent poll found that 72% of those responding said that it is sometimes wrong to use animals in research, and fully 29% said it is always wrong.
So, yes, things are changing. Not enough, heaven knows. And not fast enough. But make no mistake about it: ARAs are making a difference.
What are the most important obstacles to animal rights today?
I don’t think I can identify all the major obstacles. I’m not sure anyone can. But some of the major ones are obvious. At the top of the list I place ignorance. Most people don’t know what is being done to animals. Of course, most people don’t want to know. If you confront them with the facts, they turn their head and avert their eyes. How do we find a way around their resistance? Now, that (our challenge to find a way) is one very bog obstacle we have to overcome.
Then there is the false assurances people are given by industry spokespersons and government official. You know, how everything is fine, how all the animals are being treated “humanely.” We know this is false, but most people believe what they are told. This is another big obstacle.
And of course most of the world’s religious traditions say the same thing: other animals are of lesser value than humans. In fact, they (other animals) were created by God for us — to eat, wear and so on. Mind you, this is not the only way the world’s religious teachings can be interpreted. Overwhelmingly, though, this is how they are interpreted. So who are people going to follow: their priest or you and me? You don’t have to be a genius to know the usual answer.
On top of all this there is the weight of habit. People are used to living in certain ways when it comes to the food they eat and the forms of entertainment they enjoy. To ask them to live in ways that respect the rights of animals is like asking a three-pack-a-day smoker to quit smoking. It ain’t easy.
It’s taken two centuries for the acceptance of women rights. How long will it take before animal rights will become a cultural heritage of humanity?
I really don’t know except to say that it is not going to happen anytime soon. Not in my lifetime. But some day, yes, I feel certain: some day.
So you think that there will be a vegetarian world in the future?
Maybe not 100% any more than we live in a 100% meat eating world today. But do I think that the vast majority of people will someday practice a vegetarian or vegan life-style? Absolutely! This is my faith, my conviction, my hope. But not today, or tomorrow, or the next day. The evolution will take time, which is regrettable. But never doubt that the day will come.
Do you think philosophers and philosophical theories are helping move animal rights forward?
Yes, I do. But not just philosophers. Education in general, especially university level education, is undergoing a quiet revolution. In history and anthropology, literature and political science, sociology and law: everywhere you look you find courses sprouting-up that focus on animals. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this development. Animal studies are inside the academy. This has never — I repeat, this has never happened before. What this signals is a growing awareness that, from a variety of scholarly perspectives, animals are worth thinking about!
Today’s students are entering a very different world than the one I found when I went to college. Overtime this will make a profound difference. It’s the “trickle-down” effect. More and more young people will take animals seriously because their teachers take animals seriously. And, when these students become teachers, there will be even more instructors for even more students to emulate. And so on. This change isn’t the whole story but it certainly is an important chapter in the whole story.