It is not every day that a moral philosopher declares war on the work of his academic colleagues. It happened 25 years ago, on the steps of the Federal Building in Los Angeles, just a couple of blocks from UCLA.
He went on to explain the his movement’s goal:
“Our shared goal is not to reform this great evil but to abolish it completely! It is not bigger cages that we want, but empty cages! Anything less than total victory will not satisfy us!”
He was not asking to restrict the type and number of species used in scientific studies. He was not asking to discuss the welfare of animals in laboratories or how to improve it. He was asking for the complete and total abolition of the use of animals in medical research.
The position that we hold — the abolitionists position — is often said to be “extreme,” and those of us who hold it are said to be “extremists.” The unspoken suggestions are that extreme positions cannot be right, and that extremists must be wrong.
But I am an extremist when it comes to rape — I am against it all the time. I am an extremist when it comes to child abuse — I am against it all the time. I am an extremist when it comes to sexual discrimination, racial discrimination — I am against it all the time. I am an extremist when it comes to abuse of the elderly — I am against it all the time.
The plain fact is, moral truth is often extreme, and must be, for when the injustice is absolute, then one must oppose it — absolutely. And the injustice of vivisection is absolute.
What is wrong with this argument?
Indeed, one must acknowledged that there are situations where rendering moral judgement is rather straightforward. Any reasonable person would be against rape and child abuse all the time. However, the existence of such situations does not imply that making moral judgements will be straightforward in all other cases. It is the implicit denial that moral dilemmas can arise that defines the extremist. The extremist lives in a black and white moral universe where every single act is either absolutely good or absolutely bad.
Animal rights theory offers a moral universe where our moral consideration for a mouse ought to be the exactly the same as that we hold for a human being under all circumstances. Such theory sees no moral difference whatsoever between the work of Michael Vick (using dogs in dogfighting) and that of Jonas Salk (using animals to wipe polio from the face of the planet).
Thus, Regan is only partly right when he says animal rights theory is extreme. A more accurate and complete statement that reflects our opposition to such ideas is that animal rights theory is extremely wrong.
In his speech Regan also complained that animal rights activists are often portrayed as being “emotional.”
Another thing we are said to be — those of us who are abolitionists — is… emotional.
I mean, shame, shame, shame! We actually have feelings. Like, don’t dare love someone, don’t dare sympathized with somebody, don’t dare care about another’s hurt or loss, don’t dare feel anger or rage because others are the victims of injustice. I mean, grow up! Move over, Mr. Spock.”
It is difficult to reconcile this self-portrait with animal rights activists lack of concern for the plight of cancer patients, those suffering form AIDS, those whose memories disintegrate under Alzheimer’s, those who cannot stop shaking from Parkinson’s. The charge is not that animal rights activists are “emotional,” but that they fail to empathize with human suffering — or at least that they fail to empathize with humans to the same degree they do with animals. The charge is that they refuse to accept scientific consensus that stopping such work would limit our ability to develop new therapies and cures, shielding their senses with conspiracy theories that involve the FDA, the CDC, the pharmaceutical companies and academia. They decline to accept the existence of a moral dilemma.
Regan objected to animal activists being called “ignorant.”
Yet another thing we’re said to be — those of us who are abolitionists — is… ignorant.
I mean, we don’t known nuthin’. Ask us about DNA, and we think you’re referring to some national rifle lobby group. B12? That’s a number that gets called in Bingo, ain’t it? In-vivo research? That’s something funny those Eye-talians are doing to get their wine to taste as good as Made-in-America ripple. I mean, what we’re talking about is your basic Stone Age ignorance here.
Despite his sarcasm, the fact is that the group as a whole, remains largely and willingly ignorant of the science. Here is how he defends himself:
Don’t they know about the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine? Don’t these people know about the Medical Research Modernization Committee?
Yes, unfortunately we know about them — and he made our point. Did Tom Regan not know that the year preceding his speech the American Medical Association formally admonished PCRM for “misrepresenting the role of animals in medical research”?
In some ways scientists are partly to blame for not spending sufficient time explaining the public at large how their work is conducted and how is it important in medical research. But it also apparent that animal rights activists have an inherent rejection to be educated about the science and the limitations of the its current methods, preferring instead the word of fringe groups. Accepting the scientific consensus would mean facing a moral dilemma they prefer to reject.
And, finally, Prof. Regan was dissatisfied that animal activists were labeled terrorists:
Terrorists… terrorists… terrorists …
That’s the new buzz word the medical complex uses to describe animal rights advocates. We’re no longer little old ladies in tennis shoes. Today we’re young thugs in face masks, armed with torches and cans of spray paint, out for a Clockwork Orange evening of fun and games.
You’ve got to hand it to the vivisection industry’s PR people; they certainly know how to work an image to their advantage. The problem is, the image doesn’t correspond to reality. The basic philosophy of the animal rights movement is Learn Baby, Learn! not Burn, Baby, Burn!
When a colleague and I organized a panel discussion at UCLA for the public to learn about these issues, animal rights activists threatened to target my children and increased their campaigns of intimidation and threats at our homes.
Yes, these animal extremists are terrorists in every sense of the word. These are people who listened to Regan’s vociferous war declaration 25 years ago and were inspired to reach out for the Molotov cocktail instead of the books and the debate podium.
So what did Dr. Reagan have to say back then?
“Thank God for the Animal Liberation Front!”
Really?! Well… we can now see that violence against scientists is the main legacy of this moral philosopher war declaration, despite his best intentions and his talk about non-violent activism.
And where is the work 25 years after his war declaration?
The medical research he intended to stop has produced huge benefits for both animals and humans alike. The scientific consensus remains very high that such research is necessary. The responsible use of animals in medical research will continue for the foreseeable future, until the moral dilemmas are resolved by the development of new tools and technologies that will render the need for animals in scientific research unnecessary. That day is far away, but it will come. And when it does, it will be thanks to the work of scientists, not moral philosophers espousing extreme and incorrect views who have done little more than inspire and applaud those that prefer fanaticism and firebombs over words and civil debate.