Daily Archives: October 27, 2013

What is your moral baseline?

I was recently invited  to offer a moral justification for the scientific use of animals in medical research at the University of Wisconsin.  After the talk we had over an hour of discussion where we saw everything from some thoughtful questions to nonsensical ramble.

I presented an argument and I expected direct attacks on those arguments. Unfortunately, when some activists find it difficult to attack an argument they quickly change the topic at hand.  In this case, for example, one member of the audience decided to challenge me with the following:

“Are you vegan?  Yes or no!”

I looked back at my slides.  The title of my talk was: “The moral dilemma of animal research.”   It was not “The moral dilemma of the cheeseburger.”   Apparently, even though I was invited to defend the work of medical scientists, I was now being asked to defend the work of fast food companies too. So, I first asked for the reason behind the question.

Because “Veganism must be the moral baseline!,”  he asserted.

I did not see how me being vegan or not was going to prove any of my arguments as being true or false. In any case, I offered what I think was an honest response (Briefly: No, I am not vegan, but I do have serious ethical concerns about how we raise food in this country that have prompted me to modify my behavior.)

What seems curious in retrospect is that if animal rights activists truly hold veganism as a moral baseline so close to their heart, why is that it is not exactly the topic at the very top of their agenda?

Why did animal rights activists demand the creation of a UW forum on the ethics of animal research instead of one the ethics of the cheeseburger?  Doesn’t their moral baseline dictate that one should first ensure everyone switches to a vegan diet above everything else?

And why was the individual that asked the question passing flyers before my talk objecting to the use of animals in medical research at the university, instead of, or in addition to, passing flyers objecting to the use of animals in food?

And why is PeTA devoting huge resources on a campaign against the use of animals in research at the UW, instead of mounting a campaign against serving cheeseburgers in Wisconsin’s taverns?

And why does this individual regularly demonstrate at the farmer’s market against research that has the potential to alleviate human suffering, instead of confronting those that sit right across from him selling bison, fish, beef and chicken, and their customers?

It just does not make much sense.

In contrast, my presentation hinged on a different moral baseline, one that defends the idea that it is ethically permissible  to save the life of a human over that of a mouse in a burning house.  I went on to explain how a very similar dilemma arises in various medical scenarios, including in animal research.

What would animal right activists do when confronted with the burning house scenario?

“Flip a coin!” was the response of the animal rights activist that inquired about my veganism earlier.

And yes, he was serious.

He is not alone. This is the same awful choice that Professor Gary Francione made when challenged to behave in a way consistent with animal rights theory.

This choice is hardly the result of having a moral baseline.  It is the outcome of stepping on a moral abyss.  Animal rights theory has no moral platform to stand on.

Discrimination can arise in two settings.  It can happen if we treat differently living beings who are equal in all morally relevant ways. But it can also occur if we insist on the equal treatment of living beings who differ in  morally relevant ways.

To insist in equal moral consideration of a mouse and a normal human being in a burning house is a form of reverse discrimination. It appears to be more an expression of human hatred than animal love.  A colleague of mine suggested the term “animal supremacism” to refer to this form of discrimination.  I have to say that it sounds not too far away from the truth.