Interview with Regan: animal rights

Interviewer: Professor Regan, you are widely accepted as a founder and prominent leader in the animal rights movement. Could you describe what is meant by animal rights and what do you mean when you speak of the "rights view"?

Professor Regan: There are many people who feel that we have an obligation to be kind to animals, and not to be cruel to them. But this view doesn't make it a matter of justice that we treat animals in a certain way-just that it is nice if we are kind and not very good if we are cruel. Many people think that we should be nice to animals because if we are not nice to animals we will not be nice people, and then we will end up beating up our children and our neighbors and so on. The problem is, these views don't focus on our duty to animals but only on the effects our treatment of animals has on us. The rights view says, "We owe it as a matter of strict justice to treat animals in a certain way." In particular we owe it to these animals not to eat them, for example, or not to put them in cages for our entertainment, or not to use them in education or in surgery, which is so anachronistic and yet characteristic of modern medical education in the United States. The current view is, "These animals are ours, we may do with them as we wish." The rights view says, "No you may not. They cannot claim their rights, they cannot understand their rights, and in this way they are very much like mentally enfeebled human beings. But they have them none the less."

The important thing to see is that the animal rights position, properly understood, is the human rights position. It's not that we are saying that non-human animals have a right to be treated with respect but human animals don't. We're dealing with the rights of all animals, and since we humans are animals, it follows that we have the same basic kinds of rights as they do.

Interviewer: Your fate, you have said, is to help others see animals in a different way-as creatures who do not belong in cages or skillets. How would you have people see animals?

Professor Regan: It's a very difficult thing. It's something we all struggle towards and I'm not sure that I have perfected it myself. To quote from Dustin, "... see them as other nations, see them as sharing the earth with us, co-inhabitants with us," but essentially having the capacity, as in the case of wild animals, of living quite separately from us. In the case of domestic animals the great challenge is to figure out how to live in a mutually respectful symbiotic relationship. It is very difficult to do that.

Interviewer: What were some of your main reasons or motives for writing The Case For Animal Rights? And do you feel these objectives are being accomplished?

Professor Regan: I think the main reason I wrote the book was to finally say in a very disciplined, rigorous, and in some ways an emotionally detached style, that animals in fact do have rights and are entitled to he treated accordingly because of strict justice. Many people talked about animal rights and it had become a slogan-part of the political rhetoric of America and its talk of rights. But no one had set out to make the case for animal rights in a very disciplined, sustained way. So I thought it was important to do that. Certainly it is not a popular book, one that you can race through. It is a book to be studied rather than to be read. But I also think of it as a weapon. Frequently those of us who advocate animal rights are considered uninformed, illogical, sloppy, sentimental and so on. And I take the book to be a philosophical tool for ramming those accusations down the throats of those uninformed, emotional, illogical and sloppy thinkers who make these accusations.

Interviewer: I understand that the Vietnam War, Gandhi and, believe it or not, the death of your own pet dog all became impetuses to your involvement in the animal rights movement. Can you fill in the missing parts?

Professor Regan: Regarding the Vietnam War, it occurred to me that if I was going to be an effective activist in the streets, I'd have to combine my activism with scholarship. So I began to research the fields of nonviolent conflict resolution, pacifism, aggression, war, and so forth, and in the course of doing that it was inevitable that I read Gandhi. Gandhi was obviously very relevant to the question of violence and war and so on. He was the first one who challenged me to think about what I call the invisible violence in our life, in particular the food that we eat. We normally don't think of the violence that goes into the production of animal products-meat and other by-products. Gandhi was the first person who taught me that the fork is a weapon of violence. I was worried about napalm and M-17's and flame throwers, and here I was participating in violence myself and yet blind to it. So intellectually I derived the arguments for vegetarianism from Gandhi's influence. But what opened my heart to the issue was the death of our dog. It was before we had children, and as so often happens the dog was like a surrogate child for us. When we returned home one day the dog had been killed, which caused us tremendous grief. But I realized in the course of that experience that there was in me (although suppressed or repressed by society) a great caring for animals that wasn't considered appropriate for a man. This was part of the aculturization in our macho society in which men are not supposed to care about animals. Nonetheless I felt a deep love for this particular animal, but it was too great a love, too great a sense of compassion, to be reposed in just one creature; it was a more boundless compassion. I was very fortunate that my head and my heart came together at that particular time in my life. And from then on there was no turning back.

Interviewer: Rene Decartes holds a very influential position in the history of Western philosophy. What were his views regarding animals and consciousness, and how has that influenced the modern world view?

Professor Regan: Decartes, a Catholic thinker, argued that animals are nature's machines. He thought of them as unthinking, unfeeling creatures who are not aware of anything, who are essentially like wind-up toys, except that you don't have to wind them up. It was an enormously influential view, because it happened to coincide with the development of experimental physiology. This was during the 17th century in France. The Cartesian scientists were intellectually given a license not to worry about how the animals responded, and of course this was before anesthesia. They literally nailed dogs up by all four paws, then simply opened up their stomaches and studied the circulation of their blood- on live, un-anestheticized animals who were screaming in agony. In many ways, I think that today's fields of research involving non-human animals were birthed by Decartes' ideas. And to this day there are many closet Cartesians out there who are still part of the scientific establishment, who still wonder whether animals feel pain. It was not only historically influential, it continues to be influential.

Interviewer: In the realm of religion, I can see Christendom uniting against cruelty, but they haven't as yet seen the fork as a weapon of violence. What do you, and Judeo-Christian leaders you know, find in that tradition that would support animal rights and vegetarianism?

Professor Regan: It's going to be difficult to persuade the great masses of Christians to give up the meat on their plate. What we can do is to persuade them to give up supporting the factory farm. In effect this would be to give up eating meat, because it's very difficult to get any meat that has not been raised on a factory farm. So we may end up having defacto Christian vegetarians without their being de joure. In other words they will be vegetarians so long as the meat comes from a certain source, but otherwise not.

It is absolutely clear that in Eden our diet was vegetarian. So, Biblically speaking, what we have now is a fallen world; and one step back to Eden would be to stop eating meat. Biblically this is absolutely clear. When I speak to Christians and to Jews in those terms, then they at least begin to think, maybe it is not just factory-farmed veal that I should be saying no to, maybe there is something deeper here. After all, why remain alienated from God over a hamburger?

Interviewer: In your interview in The Animals' Agenda magazine you stated, "There is no way out of our own bondage and current predicaments without helping animals." And you have also said, "There will be no peace in the world until there is peace at home." How would you support these statements?

Professor Regan: They may be more declarations of faith than they are hard core scientific claims. Most people are unaware of the invisible violence in their lives. They go and buy toothpaste and shampoos and deodorants and so on, unthinkingly. These are items that we need, and we bring them home and we use them, and when we are out of them we go and replenish them. People must begin to realize that these products have a history of violence to them in which animals have been used in testing them in excruciatingly painful ways, like eye irritancy tests, skin irritancy tests and other sorts of tests. All the products in our home have been tested in these ways, unless we go to the trouble to find products that have not been tested in those ways and buy them. I have got to believe that supporting that kind of thing in ignorance is a terrible human failing. We are just fooling ourselves if we think we can bring peace to the world, and change the opinions and the visions and the desires and the ideals of people all throughout the world, if we can't even say to ourselves, "By God, I've got to get rid of this stuff in my house." I mean, whom are we fooling?

My view is that those over whom we have control are ourselves. That's where we should start. Peace begins at home. Nonviolence begins at home. Progress begins at home. I'm not saying not to work as a political activist. Of course, I do that myself. But I think we have to work to clean up our own act, to get our own house in order. But then people say, "We will lose so much. You are asking us to give up so much." And my view is, "No, you don't lose, you gain." What you gain is control of your life-through the knowledge of what you are doing with a dollar bill. Take those ideals of harmony and justice and nonviolence and caring and compassion and express them in the marketplace. That's where it begins.

Interviewer: You have described that animals are used in the field of science nowadays in three subcategories: education, toxicology or poisons testing, and research. What are your views on the age old argument about stopping progress if we don't use animals in these ways?

Professor Regan: Let's go through them: education, toxicology testing and research. In the field of education the United States is an anachronism. We normally require our young people, sometimes from grade school up, to dissect and vivisect animals, and if a young person says, "No, I have an objection to doing this," then they are ridiculed, they are punished, or something happens. In fact there is a recent case in California of a fourteen year old girl standing up and saying, "I'm not going to dissect this frog," and she was hassled. So the school board says, "Okay, you don't have to dissect the frog, but we are going to put a little note on your permanent record that says you didn't do all the work that was required of you." Well, I hope that all the young people and their parents reading this say, "Enough is enough!" We should not brutalize our children in this way by forcing them to do something which, if they did on their own in a public place, they would be arrested for. If you take a frog into a shopping mall and prepare to dissect it, you are going to get arrested. But you take that same situation and put it in a school and require somebody to do that and punish them if they don't. Now that kind of schizophrenia is unfathomable to me!

In medical education in Great Britain, both in human medicine and in veterinary medicine, no student is ever required to dissect or vivisect an animal. In seventeen British universities, including Cambridge and Oxford, it is a written policy that if you have a conscientious objection to doing any dissection or vivisection you need not do it. Now, are we in America seriously going to say that this fourteen year old girl, or all those for whom she speaks, can't get a decent education in the life sciences without dissecting and vivisecting? Heavens no. Gandhi, my hero, says, "You can judge the character and greatness of a society by how it treats its animals." There are always two victims in a laboratory situation. One is the non-human animal and the other is the student. And sometimes I think it's the instructor too who has been victimized.

Now let's consider product testing, toxicity testing. First I would like to mention that there are nonviolent, cruelty-free cosmetics and household items that are available. (If people write to me I will send them a list of cruelty-free products,) Very often people say, "If we don't do these toxicity tests on animals then it is a great risk for public health." That is just propaganda produced by the animal exploiters. In the November 1986 issue of Nature magazine it was shown that if you do a battery of ten non-animal tests (such as cell and tissue culture and mathematical modeling tests), you can get results that are superior to all the animal tests regarding carcinogenic and other effects. Now, there are sixty thousand human-factured chemicals in the marketplace. Sixty thousand. And only two thousand have been tested on animals. If we started right now and tried to test on animals the other fifty-eight thousand that are out there-that we are breathing, eating, inhaling and getting exposed to through our skin and so on-it would take us a hundred years and it would cost between two and four million dollars for each test. We neither have the time, nor the will, nor the financial ability to do this. But if we do the battery of non-animal tests we can do it in two to four days for two hundred dollars per chemical. Now, anyone who says, "You are against progress, you are going to set back science, you are against public health, you really hate human beings, you just love animals," and so on, this is, I think, ridiculous.

The only people who are going to say that with a straight face are the people who are in the business of making money from the sale and use of animals. And my view is, don't believe them, don't trust them. They always say, "We love animals; we wouldn't use them if we didn't have to." Well, that's just rhetoric. I have never known a research scientist who said that who went to the trouble to buy cruelty-free cosmetics. And those alternatives already exist. If they really loved animals they wouldn't buy products of pain. I've never known a research scientist who said, "I wouldn't use animals unless I had to; I love animals," who is a vegetarian. But if they really did love animals the way they say they do, they wouldn't eat them, because there is an alternative there, and a healthier alternative as well. So don't believe these people for a minute. They use animals because they have been trained to use animals, because they have a career tied up in using animals, and because if they didn't use animals they wouldn't have a job any more!

In a very important book called Alternatives to Pain For Experiments on Animals Dallas Pratt reports on a hundred or so cases that he investigated in which scientists used animals in painful experiments when valid nonviolent scientific alternatives already existed. In terms of research, there is every reason to believe that animal experimentation is actually retarding the progress of science rather than helping it go forward. All we have to do is look at cancer research as a case in point. They have put twenty billion dollars into cancer research. And as the recent report from the Office of Technology Assessment states, they have really made no significant progress in twenty years of research. Why? Because they give cancer to mice and rats-that's their methodology. Then they try to extrapolate that to human beings. I think that the future of- all advances in medicine and research is at the cell and tissue level, which doesn't have anything to do with whole animal model testing.

I think the thing that people need to realize also is that science is just big business, an enormous business. In fact, I refer to the medical-industrial complex, which is much larger and more sinister than the military-industrial complex because it gets away with more. It's not in the business to keep people well. It's in the business to have people sick, and this is a great failing, a social failing. So, what we need to do is not only change laws and change attitudes and so on, but also to change the whole complexion of science and medicine as practiced in this country.

Interviewer: In the epilogue of your book, The Case For Animal Rights, you stated that the rights view is not anti-business, nor anti-science, nor anti-freedom of the individual, and yet those whose business it is to use animals in research and in trade might disagree. How would you defend your statement?

Professor Regan: To say that a certain business should end is not, in and of itself, anti-business. There was a business in the trade of slaves, and when we said, "Look, you can't do this anymore, you can't buy and sell slaves as pieces of property," that wasn't anti-business. We were just saying that there are some things that are not to be bought or sold. So similarly, if we arrive at the point where animals are not bought and sold for scientific purposes or for gustatory delight, that will not be anti-business. People will still be encouraged to make a living. There is nothing in the animal rights movement or philosophy that follows any particular party line or economic line, It is not conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. It is not against the free market. It just says, if you do have a free market then you are going to have to make a living without exploiting animals. And that's not anti-business. In fact, what it does is create all kinds of new businesses, alternatives like tofu-burgers for example. So, it's not anti-business and it's certainly not anti-freedom of the individual. No one has the freedom to violate the rights of anybody else. That's not one of our freedoms. If we agree that animals have rights, then no one has that freedom. So it's not against human freedom, it's against the excess of human freedom.

Animal rights could hardly be characterized as anti-science. In fact. I think the animal experimentation methodology that characterizes Western science is anti-science-stagecoach methodology, something that fits the 19th century. Here we are almost in the 21st century and people are still dissecting rats and pithing frogs. What does that tell us? It tells us that rather than animal rights being anti-scientific it is very pro-scientific. We want to see science outgrow its past; grown-up science is what we want. I think of Galileo's contemporaries when he said, "I want you to look through this telescope to see what's out there.'' And of course they all said, "No. No. We have no need. We know what's out there. We don't have to look." When contemporary scientists say, "There are no alternatives," that is like Galileo's contemporaries saying, "We already know, we are not going to look." Again, almost to a person, when the scientists that I have dealt with say there are no alternatives, they have never made the slightest conscientious effort to find them.

Interviewer: There is a rise of interest in preventive medicine, and a growing acknowledgement that indeed diet has something to do with health. Gandhi influenced you dietarily. If you will, talk about your dietary convictions and practices.

Professor Regan: When I read Gandhi he challenged me to think about the violence that I was supporting by eating animals. That made a profound impact on me. So when I entered the animal rights movement my first step was at the dinner table, so to speak. Since that time I have learned a great deal about what others have to say about diet, its effect on the environment on the one hand, and its effect on the human body on the other. If we look just at the health aspect of it, the arguments against eating animals are so overwhelming. We are what we eat, and if we eat a lot of fat we are going to be fat-in the wrong ways, in the wrong places, and in the wrong times. It just makes sense not to eat meat.

When people say, I don't eat red meat, just chicken, that really cracks me up, because somehow they think that if they eat white meat they will minimize their health risks. In fact, back East the pork industry has a major campaign to convince people that pork is white meat.

We have recently seen the statistics about the effects of eating chicken. According to a report issued by the National Resource Council, there are millions of cases per year of people becoming sick from the Salmonella bacteria in chicken-millions of cases of Americans having flu-like symptoms: diarrhea, vomiting, fever and so on. And people say, Oh, it's the flu. It's not the flu, it's Salmonella poisoning! There are people dying of this bacteria. So the idea that we can avoid serious health risks by eating white meat is just laughable.

The way to prevent illness most effectively is through our life style. If we stop smoking, stop drinking heavily, stop eating meat, and get enough exercise, we will become healthy- either to sustain our health or to recapture it if we have lost it. People say, "If you don't eat meat, look at what you are giving up." My message is always the same: Look at what you are gaining. Not only are you getting your health again, you are gaining your life again!

Interviewer: I'm sure the animal rights movement has something to do with the fact that now as many as a hundred thousand philosophy students a year are discussing such issues as the moral basis of vegetarianism.

Professor Regan: That's true, there has been more written by philosophers in the past decade on animal rights than has been written in the previous two thousand years. What we have is an enormous outpouring of interest in this particular issue, and it has found its way into the classroom, into the textbooks. Typically, where students are taking courses about contemporary issues like abortion, euthanasia, nuclear war, famine and pollution, now animal rights is also on the agenda of moral concern. It is in these sorts of courses where animal rights is making its presence felt. It's not a fad. This is not going away. On the contrary, intellectual activity in this area is increasing all the time. People are writing their dissertations on animal rights. Now animal rights is part of mainstream academic intellectual life in the United States, in England, in Australia and in Europe. Throughout the ages we have had wonderful, important, articulate, influential people speaking for animal rights, but until now it never made it into the classroom.

Interviewer: To quote directly from your writings, you said, "There is another revolution coming and it is going to be a big one." At the same time, you see animal rights issues as a cause celebre on America's college campuses. Will this issue of animal rights supply the same intense motivation that, say, free speech, minority rights and other issues did to recent past generations?

Professor Regan: My hope is that the rising generation of students will see animal rights as their issue, and not just in terms of the laboratory animal issue, but a larger issue of the integrity of creation and respect for nature. It's going to be bigger and broader, but it's still going lo be their issue. It'll be for them to say, "Enough is enough. We are not going to continue to do what our parents did, what our grandparents did, and so on. We are going to take charge of something here." I am very hopeful that the revolution is coming, and the philosophy of youth-which is question authority, question authority-will find its focus in the animal rights movement. In particular I encourage young people to see the connection between the animal rights movement and students' rights. I am a quaint person, I .suppose. I still think that students have rights. In the Sixties we thought we did and we certainly let the world know that. My guess is that in the Seventies and the Eighties the students forgot about that. They were like intoxicated yuppies thinking about BMWs and their latest Sony stereo. My hope is that they will he yuppied out. that we will see the pendulum swing the other way now and they will say. Wait a minute. Things...things are not the source of human fulfillment. Things are not what satisfy a human's longing to make something good and creative and positive out of this mortal flesh. It's really what we do that matters, it's the testament of our life not the car in our garage that counts. I think that philosophy is going to be reborn and that is certainly what I am committed to. I am going to work very diligently to raise the consciousness of students to say, "I will not dissect this animal, I will not vivisect this animal, and you will not punish me. I have a right here." And even the students who don't want to say that, I want those students to say that that student has that right and they will back that student's right. And I want to challenge the .system, every chance I get, in the public schools, in universities and so on, on the basis of the students' rights.

Interviewer: How do people interested in the animal rights movement get more information and participate?

Professor Regan: I always tell people to investigate the organizations. There are a lot of good organizations out there. I never say join this one rather than that one, although of course 1 would hope that people would be interested enough to support mine. The way to study it on one's own is to subscribe to a magazine called The Animals' Agenda, the magazine of the animal rights movement. It doesn't favor any one organization over any other. It just tries to report on what's going on in the movement. Write to: The Animals'Agenda, P. O. Box 5234, Westport, Connecticut 06881. As I said before, if people are interested in a list of cruelty-free cosmetics and also in finding out more about what our foundation is doing, they can write to me at Eden Croft, Raleigh. North Carolina 27612.

Interviewer: Thank you very much. Professor Regan.

Professor Regan: My pleasure, thank you.

(Taken from Clarion Call Magazine.)

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