Emptying the Cages
Hi Tom. Thanks for agreeing to this interview. In opening, could you tell us a little about your personal “Road to Damascus” — your epiphany, if you will?
Thank you for inviting me to be part of the conversation. Much as I regret to say this, I was a slow learner. As a boy I fished for fun and willingly dissected animals as a student. I went to zoos and circuses. Even bought my wife a mink hat. Worse, during my college years I worked as a butcher. Back then I had eyes but did not see, ears but did not hear.
It was not until my late 20s that my life took a different direction. (Let me just add, parenthetically, that my wife Nancy was beside or a step ahead of me during this transition. When I talk about what “I” did, I could as truly write “we” did this or “we” thought that). Anyhow, during the Vietnam War I was active in the antiwar movement. As a philosopher,. I wanted to write a definitive moral critique of the war.
One day I happened upon a book entitled An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth. The author was Mohandas K. Gandhi. The book changed my life, not because I agreed with Gandhi in all respects. He was an absolute pacifist. He thought using violence is always wrong. I’m too much of a blue-collar, working-class kind of guy to think that way.
Gandhi changed my life for a different reason. I was working to end the war in Vietnam because it involved unjustified violence done to human beings. Gandhi asked — I don’t mean he literally asked me this; it was the force of his argument that posed the question — Gandhi asked, “What about violence done to nonhuman beings? What about the dead body parts (aka ‘meat’) in your freezer? Do you think animals have a sweet death? Then go to a slaughterhouse!”
That’s what I did. I went to slaughterhouses and saw how the dismemberment of animals is so gruesomely violent. That experience helped change my life. I simply could not go forward as an anti-war activist and continue to eat the flesh of animals. Mind you, I didn’t change all at once, in a flash. For me it was a gradual process; first eliminating one thing, then another until a day dawned when I looked in the mirror and saw a vegetarian looking back at me.
So, yes, trying to answer Gandhi’s challenge by using my head, my reason, motivated me to change the habits of my life. But I would be less than honest if I gave the impression that my heart played no role. It did. The more I learned about how animals were being treated, whether on the farm or in the lab, the more my heart bled for them.
In your book The Struggle For Animal Rights, you say “creation groans under the weight of the evil humans visit upon (…) mute, powerless creatures. It is our hearts, not just our heads, that call for an end to it all, that demand of us that we overcome, for them, the habits and forces behind their oppression” and further, “that all great movements (…) go through three stages: ridicule, discussion, and adoption.” At what point in this ‘trinity’ of stages do you believe we are now? There are signs that we should be optimistic about certain areas of animal exploitation, but can total abolition ever become a reality when our very make-up predisposes us to be self-serving rather than altruistic in our actions? What is your view on this?
Well, it’s almost a quarter of a century since I wrote those words, and a lot has changed — a lot of good things have come to pass, far too many to enumerate. To cite a few examples: vegetarians were rare back then, while vegans were virtually non-existent, at least in America. Today our numbers are large enough to make an impact on the market. It’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t have something vegetarian or vegan on the menu, or a market that doesn’t cater to our food choices. And think of the successes we’ve seen in closing marine parks that imprisoned dolphins and orcas; the growing number of places that bar circuses with performing animals; and the birth of the sanctuary movement: all over the world. Or (and this is flat-out amazing) how about having Barcelona decree an end to bull fights. An end to bull fights, in a major city in Spain! Twenty-five years ago, no one would have thought this was possible.
So, yes, many good things have happened and are happening. Not enough, of course. Not fast enough, of course. But has there been progress? Without a doubt.
Here’s the way I picture things. Imagine we are facing a large wall. It stretches for miles and towers above us. The wall represents humanity’s oppression of animals. It is so large there is no chance that we can topple it today. Or tomorrow. Or any time soon. What we can do is: take the wall apart, one brick at a time. That’s where we are, as a movement. We are dismantling the wall of oppression, one brick at a time.
So where does this put us in relationship to the trinity of changes you mentioned? We are way past the stage of ridicule. Oh, sure, there are still some people who think Animal Rights Advocates are weird, or nuts, or worse. But most people understand that ARAs are sensible, informed, caring folks. Discussion? There’s a lot of discussion that’s taking place, involving every aspect of animal oppression. Adoption? It’s happening. Slowly, yes, but surely. One person at a time. It happened to me. If I thought I was some truly exceptional person, I wouldn’t have much faith in believing the same thing can happen to other people. But I am not some truly exceptional person. I’m just a very ordinary bloke. All I know is, if Tom Regan can become an Animal Rights Advocate, anyone can become an Animal Rights Advocate. Which is why I have to respectfully disagree when you say that “our very make-up predisposes us to be self-serving rather than altruistic.” I think we are just as capable of acting for-the-other as we are of acting for-ourselves. As ARAs, our most pressing task is to help others discover this latter capacity in themselves.
Your essential standpoint is an ethical one. In your epic The Case For Animal Rights, you succeeded in cementing a persuasive case for animal rights. What was the initial reaction to this work among your contemporaries when it was first published in 1983, and have you since seen a growing acceptance among contemporary academics and philosophers that these moral arguments hold an unassailable truth? If so, do you feel that the transfer of these belief systems from the dusty tome and lecture hall is a long way off from entering the mainstream in a filtered form into the school curriculum?
Philosophers never agree with one another without qualification. We are very picky when it comes to what words mean, whether a premise in an argument is true, or whether the argument itself is valid. So, no, I wouldn’t say all my philosophical colleagues think my views encapsulate “unassailable truth.” They don’t think this about anyone’s views.
What I think they would say (maybe not everyone of them but almost everyone of them) is that my work satisfies the highest standards of the discipline, which is all a philosopher can really hope for. And that’s why The Case has played some role in transforming higher education in America. Here’s what I mean.
Back when I first started to write about ethics and animals (this would be in the early 1970s) there was not a single course in the more than 3600 American colleges or universities that included a discussion of animal rights. Not a single one. Today we would be hard pressed to find a college or university that does not have such a course. The change in America really has been this dramatic: from nowhere, to everywhere.
How did this happen? First, philosophers got things moving. Books and articles were written in which our obligations to animals figured prominently. Once a body of competent literature was available, philosophers began to introduce animal rights into their courses.
Theologians were also working in the same area, with the same result. Then legal scholars began to add their voice along with historians, sociologists, psychologists, and ethologists, The list of disciplines that have brought about this revolutionary change is virtually as long as the list of disciplines taught.
I am not saying that all these teachers are advocating animal rights. What I am saying is that animal rights is being read about and discussed in their classrooms. This is a profound change, nothing short of a revolutionary change, without historical precedent.
All this said, not all nations of the world are at the same stage of development. What is true in America is not true in Saudi Arabia, for example. It’s not even true of universities throughout the European Union. But, again, everything is a process. Things are beginning to move. My most recent book, Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights, has been translated into Chinese. Chinese! Once a body of competent philosophical materials is available to Chinese teachers, the same kind of revolutionary change we’ve seen occur in America will take place in China. And in other nations, too.
As a supporter of strategic non-violence (a view expounded by Gandhi), you have frequently expressed your opposition to liberations and the destruction of property. You consider them counterproductive (a) because the media focus on the ‘atrocities’ committed by ALFers, rather than the issues in question, and (b) because they contradict the animal rights activist’s, essential precept of non-violence. Many would argue that such methods are, in fact, non-violent in their essential nature and that their use is justified if it prevents the death of non-human animals. You have stated, I believe, that such methods could only be acceptable if all other avenues had first been exhausted. Do you not feel that we have already arrived at that point and that words are cheap to the irradiated monkey dying on the floor of her laboratory cage, or the raccoon skinned alive for her fur, and thrown still living onto a pile of corpses in a Chinese market? Could you explain your position on this controversial issue, and tell us whether there are any situations in which you would consider such actions acceptable?
As I said earlier, I am not opposed to using violence in all circumstances. If children are endangered, and if the only way they can be saved requires the use of violent means, who amongst us will object?
So (to my way of thinking) the real questions are (1) “What is violence?” and (2) “Under what circumstances can it be justified?”
Concerning (1), I side with what Aristotle refers to as “the many and the wise.” By “the many” he means ordinary people. If we ask these people whether setting fire to a synagogue and blowing up an abortion clinic are acts of violence, they will say, “Of course!” And if we add, “But suppose no one is hurt. Would that make these acts nonviolent?,” ordinary people will say, “Of course not.” In other words, ordinary people, who use ordinary English, believe you don’t have to hurt someone in order to use violence against something.
By “the wise,” Aristotle means “the people who have thought a lot about a particular topic.” In the present case, the wise would include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nelson Mendela. So suppose we ask them the same questions we asked the many. Their answer is the same: you don’t have to hurt someone in order to do violence against something. In the particular case of property destruction, as a form of economic sabotage, Gandhi and King explicitly disavow its use, whereas Mandela explicitly supports it. In other words, when it comes to the moral propriety or strategic advantage of using violence, the “wise” disagree.. But (importantly) they do not disagree when it comes to the status of property destruction as a form of violence.
Now, I know some ARAs think differently. For example, spokespersons for ALF say ALF’s acts of property destruction (acts of arson, for example) are nonviolent because no sentient being is hurt. These folks certainly are entitled to say anything they wish. My point is, what they say runs directly counter to what both the many and the wise think.
Which is why the ordinary person on the street and the likes of Gandhi, King and Mendela are not going to seriously consider the moral propriety of ALF arsons unless or until ALF acknowledges the nature of these acts for what they are: acts of violence. In other words, ALF spokespersons are not helping, they are hurting the chance that the justification of ALF actions will get a fair hearing.
As for the question of justification: I address this at length in Empty Cages (pp. 188-192) and (because of the limits of space) can’t repeat my ideas fully here. Let me just say that the heart of the matter concerns the diligence and thoroughness with which nonviolent alternatives have been explored. To my way of thinking, ARAs — all of us — have done far too little in this regard. We need to remember that we are trying to change patterns of thinking that have dominated our culture for thousands of years. It is only natural that it will take time (no one knows how long, of course) before we have exhausted the nonviolent alternatives open to us.
However, when it comes to animal rescues, I am solidly on the side of those who own up publicly to their actions. Exhaust legal remedies first; then get the animals out, after which you stand before the world and say (in effect), “I have just broken the law. Arrest me if you will.” This is the sort of nonviolent law-breaking that Gandhi and King would have supported. Mendela too. Count me in their number.
On balance, then, I am not against breaking the law (in the spirit of open rescue, for example). Nor am I against using violence, in all circumstances (though I oppose the sort of large scale property destruction favored by some ARAs). These matters are not all white or all black; they are varying shades of grey.
You refer to yourself as an abolitionist who wants to see a world full of ‘Empty Cages’ (the symbolic title of your most recent work) — that is to say, a world in which no non-human exists as a commodity for our use, whether for fur, flesh, entertainment, research, war, etc. In Empty Cages, you draw on examples in your own life to demonstrate that your journey towards abolitionism started from a similar vantage point to that of the average person. In occupying that position, you accepted without question that this is how things are: animals are here for our use. Do you believe that — as with you — the spark of compassion has to be lit (in your case largely by Gandhi’s writings) and that it exists within us all? If so, can it touch those who at this very moment are defending the right to glorify animal abuse and its continuance?
I’ve answered part of this question before but let me add a few further thoughts. In Empty Cages, I use a famous illustration of an optical illusion. If you look at it one way, you see the figure as a vase; looked at another way, you see it as two faces, each facing the other. It’s the same figure, just seen differently.
Well, before I read Gandhi, I saw animals one way: they are here for us: to eat, to wear, and so on. After Gandhi began to raise my consciousness, I started to see animals differently. It’s the same cow, the same chimp, the same dolphin, the same mouse. But once we have a change in perception, we see these animals differently: as kin, or friends, not as food, or clothes, for example.
The daunting challenge all ARAs face is to help other people — and I don’t mean a few; I mean millions upon millions — have a change of perception. This is what has motivated me over the past thirty years: to help create the opportunity for people to see animals differently. I know this happened in my life. I’ve seen the same thing happen over and over again in the lives of others. So, yes, I am an optimist. I’m Irish, after all!
Are there some people so far back in the darkness that they will never have a change of perception? Even a friend of humanity like I am has to acknowledge that, yes, some people are hopeless, are unreachable. In fact, I have met a few myself. How do I handle this situation when it occurs? I move along as quickly as I can, in search of someone else who is alive to the possibility of personal transformation. I don’t waste time with people who are lost causes.
Ultimately, any advances we make towards an expanded consciousness that embraces other life forms must successfully challenge the utilitarian perspective from which they are perceived. You say that “we never resolve moral conflicts by pretending they don’t exist.” Yet “change, especially when it means altering the habits of a lifetime, is never a welcome prospect.” Animal abuse is built into the very infrastructure of every society and religion around the world, and guarantees economic wealth to those who depend on its continuance. For them, non-humans are merely disposable commodities. The skinning and boiling alive of a cat in China, the shocking account of which we read on the opening page of Empty Cages, is executed in precisely the same cavalier manner as the slaughter of a cow in the United States. To the prevailing majority, there is no moral conflict in what they do to non-humans. How, then, can they possibly be persuaded to sacrifice their comforts?
There is no one way to reach everybody. While it probably is an exaggeration to say that there are as many ways as there are different people, we should be open to exploring the various options and critically evaluating their effectiveness.
Myself, I am a goal-oriented person. If I was involved in running an activist group, I would sit down with everybody and say, “Look, this is where we are today in terms of active membership. Six months from now here is where we want to be. A year from now here is where we want to be. Let’s concentrate on doing a, b, c between now and then and see if we have met our objectives. If we have, good! What we are doing is working. If not, what else can we try?”
I would want to go through the process of critical planning and review at least every six months instead of just letting things run their usual course. What works best when it comes to opening people to the possibility of change is something we can learn by testing the methods employed. You can quantify this. Either we are growing or we are not.
This doesn’t mean that people will knock one another over in their rush to change their habits of a lifetime. Resistance should be expected. Beneath it all, though, our abiding faith has to be: there is a better way of life, both for the animals and for ourselves. Animal liberation truly is human liberation. Our true freedom really does consist in ceasing to be their jailers.
The advance of Homo sapiens has been remorseless; the adaptability of the species has rendered it able to colonise almost the entire globe. But that adaptability is tied hand in glove with a ruthlessness that has plundered the environment, and destroyed the lives of countless human and non-human peoples, an attitude that is driving us to the brink of destruction. A century can be judged in terms of its achievements and of the crimes that have been committed, and there has been an abundance of both in the last 100 years. The conflicts of the 20th century seem no nearer to being resolved in the new millennium, and the debates continue to rage about what is permissible in a moral, dignified society. In many ways, the struggle for animal rights may very well represent our only chance to salvage what is left after we have destroyed so much. How hopeful are you that we will see a change in the way non-humans are viewed in our lifetimes?
I figure I have at most another twenty years of good health ahead of me. Will the wall oppression be toppled before I pass on? I don’t think so. Will we make serious progress? Will many bricks be removed? Absolutely! And will our ranks continue to grow, so that animal rights becomes a force at the very center of progressive political and social change? Again, absolutely! I do not have the slightest doubt. As for myself, I am reminded of a Rabbinic couplet that describes my fate, if you will. It reads:
Not thine, the labor to complete,
And yet thou art not free to cease!
“Not free to cease.” That pretty much sums up what the rest of my life as an ARA is all about. You just have to keep on truckin’!