“[After creating man] He immediately created other animals besides. God’s first blunder: Man didn’t find the animals amusing – he dominated them and didn’t even want to be an ‘animal.'”

-Friedrich Nietzsche


Bernard E. Rollin: Animal Rights and Human Morality; Prometheus Books; Buffalo, NY.


Mary Midgley: Animals and Why They Matter; University ofGeorgia Press; Athens, GA.


Wednesday, the 24th of April,1985, was one of those days when the “mental vertigo” (as Mary Midgley calls it) of our modem ethical thinking fell full force upon the citizens of my home campus, the University of California at Davis. What had begun slowly as a movement among students and faculty to protest the university’s investments in companies doing business with South Africa had culminated in the declaration of April 24 as a “strike” day on which a good many students boycotted classes and rallied peacefully on the plaza in front of the administration building, renaming it “Bishop Tutu Hall.” Speakers denounced the racist system of apartheid and called upon the Board of Regents to divest the university’s holdings (and the regents’ own personal investments, as well) as a way of bringing pressure upon the South African government to end brutal racism and extend basic rights to Black South Africans.

By coincidence, April 24 was also planned by coalitions of animal rights organizations to be the international ‘World Day for Laboratory Animals.” A few dozen protestors organized by the local chapter of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) held a mock funeral procession ending with a protest at the university’s Primate Research Center, civil disobedience (trespass), and peaceful arrests.

That same week the media were covering in detail the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Newsreel footage replayed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and of Buchenwald, and critics from across the political spectrum protested President Reagan’s plan to lay a wreath at the graves of German soldiers (including 47 mem­ bers of Hitler’s SS) at Bitberg.

The images all collide: racism, re­ search on animals, genocide. Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation (1975) set the rhetorical ground for the collision, introducing in that book a notion of “speciesism” analogous to “racism” and “sexism.” Cannily, the animal rights protestors draw upon the power of the Holocaust in their rhetoric of protest and in their visual images of “innocent” animal victims staring at us from behind bars or strapped into devices of scientific torture. Mengele was a scientist, too.

Away from the rhetorical heat of the front-line protests, there is a growing body of literature, pro and con, on the moral status and the rights of animals. Much of the debate is between philosophers, occasionally joined by a scientist or two; but, clearly, it is the philosophers who are defining the issues and limits of the conversation. Moreover, there seem to be more distinctions and differences between people who agree on the matter of the moral status of animals than on any other disputed issue in American public discourse.

The books by Bernard Rollin and Mary Midgley nicely illustrate this last point. Rollin, the American professor of philosophy and of veterinary medical ethics at Colorado State University, and Midgley, the British Senior Lecturer in philosophy at Newcastle University, both stand on the side of widening the scope of our moral community to include animals. Both share a commitment to the gradualism of Darwin’s evolutionary thinking, both see in the modern science of ethology a new scientific basis for including animals in our ethical systems, and both address tl1e general, intelligent reader. Beyond this, however, Rollin and Midgley construct such different arguments that by juxta­ posing the two we come to realize how many political and social issues this topic touches. It may well be, in fact, that it is these other issues that these books are “about.”

Rollin’s goal is first to establish in nontechnical terms the philosophical basis for the moral status of animals and then to apply that moral ideal to the “problems” of research with animals and pet animals. (Rollin purpose­ fully omits food animals, deferring to Mason and Singer’s Animal Factories and to Michael Fox’s Fann Animal Husbandry and Ethology: Ethics, Productivity, and Welfare as admirable treatments.) Rollin does not deny that there are differences between humans and animals, only that there are “morally relevant” differences. The rationalist tradition from the Enlightenment established the foundation for our present treatment of animals. Animals cannot be moral agents, argued Kant, because they lack language and, therefore, reason: but they can be the objects of our moral concern. Descartes denied animals even this much.

Rollins draws upon our everyday, commonsense experiences and upon the empiricist tradition of Hume to argue that animals do behave “rationally,” at least by the measures we have that human beings are rational. That is, some animals seem to follow con­ tracts with other animals and with human owners, will tend to injure members of the species, will show altruism, will “act guilty” when caught stealing, will solve problems, will use tools, will anticipate or remember pain, and so on. But even Bentham’s Utilitarian focus upon pleasure and pain does not provide a sufficient account for taking animals as objects of moral concern. Rollin takes on the burden of proving animals have “interests.”

His argument is that every living thing has – as Aristotle said – a telos, “a nature, a function, a set of activities intrinsic to it, evolutionarily determined and genetically imprinted.” For a living thing to have “interests” is for it to have needs that matter to it, and it is “our ability to nurture or impede fulfillment of these interests, not the pleasure and pain, that make it enter the moral arena.” The modern science of ethology provides us with a startling array of evidence of interests, extending down to insects, worms, and planaria, thereby including these creatures in our scope of moral concern. Rollin concludes, therefore, that animals have a basic right to be dealt with as moral objects, regardless of the specific moral principles one might hold. And if “being alive is the basis for being a moral object, and if all other needs and interests are predicated upon life, then the most basic, morally relevant aspect of a creature is its life.”

Rollin does not hold that the “right to life” is absolute; weighing moral trade-offs is a part of everyday life, and respecting an animal’s rights does not mean subordinating or sacrificing one’s own interests. But Rollin does want us to understand that any violation of the right to life must be defended with strong moral reasons. In addition to the right to life is a living being’s right to its telos, to “the kind of life that its nature dictates.” Like the right to life, this right is not absolute, but violations must be justified. Ethology again serves us, for an animal’s telos is for Rollin a scientific, testable matter.

Rollin sees in the arguments of legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin (in Taking Rights Seriously) the basis for es­ tablishing the legal rights of animals. Dworkin’s attack on legal positivism accomplishes two things for Rollin’s case. First, Dworkin reasserts the necessary connection between law and morality; and, second, Dworkin holds rights as-the safeguards “of the moral status of the individual and his human nature or telos against the pressures of social convenience or general welfare that might otherwise tend to submerge his individuality and crucial interests.”

For Rollin, then, the moral status of animals implies their entitlement to legal rights. Present law, represented by the Animal Welfare Acts of 1966 and 1970, is totally inadequate in Rollin’s view. What we must do is work toward case law and legislative action extending animals’ legal rights.  Having established the theoretical foundation for animal rights, Rollin turns his notions upon the twin practical “problems” of research with animals and of the status of pet animals. Throughout the last half of his book, the author invokes two principles to aid in deciding how we are to act toward animals. The    utilitarian principle demands “that the benefit to humans (or to humans and animals) clearly outweighs the pain and suffering experienced by experimental animals,” and the rights principle requires that, in cases where research is justified by the utilitarian principle, “it should be con­ ducted in such a way as to maximize the animal’s potential for living its life according to its nature or telos, and certain fundamental rights should be preserved as far as possible, given the logic of the research, regardless of considerations of cost.”

No abolitionist, Rollin counsels his readers to work realistically for reform and urge scientists to work on the three alternatives (the “three R’s) to present practice in animal experimentation: reduction of number of animals used, refinement of procedure to reduce pain, and replacement of laboratory animals wherever possible. Rollin targets the education of scientists and of veterinarians as an area where reform makes a difference, and he testifies convincingly from his own consider­ able successes, including the creation of the first course anywhere in veterinary medical ethics. Rollin is incisive in explaining how the sociology and rhetoric of science sustain a particular cultural ideology of health and illness and how our culture needs a substantial “gestalt switch” in perceiving the moral relevance of animals. The empathy we have for our own pet animals is, for Rollin, the most promising source of that shift, and he calls for nonrevolutionary legislation that will demand fitness and responsibility from the human owners of pets.

Midgley takes a very different tack, though her case overlaps Rollin’s at several crucial points. She joins the assault on the rationalist foundations for our present view of the moral status of animals, looking to ethology (as does Rollin) to establish that we really have no better evidence for inferring the subjectivity and consciousness of animals than we do of Humans. Midgley departs from Rollin on the crucial matter of rights, which she calls “a truly desperate word.” Seeing not much chance of salvaging the word “for any clear, unambiguous use in this discussion,” Midgley chooses instead equality as the pivotal concept for bringing animals into the sphere of human morality.

Using the notion of “equality” as the lever on the issue of animal rights permits Midgley to explore issues ignored by most other writers on animal rights. She unveils persuasively, for example, the symbolic meanings of women and animals in human cultures, noting the mystery and danger we find in that symbolism and concluding that these deep meanings are significant barriers to the equality of these creatures. She sharply criticizes social contract thinking, both because its model of reciprocity limits its ability to deal with animals, “women, slaves, aliens and other beings suspected of not being proper contractors” and because it privileges speech as the way contracts are made. Ethology and anthropology have taught us, says Midgley, how much more important is nonverbal communication for creating order among living beings. And she finds fault with Singer’s creating “speciesism” as a parallel for racism and sexism. Her view is that species loyalty can be a natural bond rather than a hierarchical evaluation. What we should do is learn to appreciate the “mixed community” of beings and their subjective states. If we take animals to have subjective consciousness deserving equal treatment, then we are likely to appreciate and befriend them.

It is commonplace for anthropologists to think of Nature as presenting itself to us pretty much as an undiffe­ rentiated continuum of experience, a “stream of consciousness” William James said. One function of culture, in this view, is to order that stream, to name the distinct parts, and to treat the ambiguous in-between zones as mysterious, as dangerous, as taboo. The advocates of a moral status for animals tend to emphasize the continuum, insisting that evolutionary theory posits both continuity between life forms and very small steps along the 20th-century Great Chain of Being. Rollin and Midgley push even further in this direction, relying fearlessly for their test cases upon the taboo zones where being human and being animal overlap, as in Rollin’s example of the ape with a tested IQ of 85, higher than many “retarded” humans, or in Singer’s claim that many apes surpass human infants and brain-damaged adults on several measures of what we take to define humanity. Why draw attention to these tabooed zones at this time, 1975-85?  What does the exploration of these zones have to teach us about our human telos?

I think these intellectual currents have much to do with the women’s movement, with feminist theory, and with the effects of the movement upon the status of children in American culture over the past two decades. From this perspective, the talk about animals is also talk about the moral and legal status of women and children. Sometimes the talk is coded, but at other times it is quite direct. Rollin’s examples often point to “how the study of the moral status of animals can illuminate dark areas of human ethics,” such as euthanasia. Rollin makes his case for granting legal rights to animals by pointing to the relevant analogy: the legal rights of children, who are not the property of their parents and whose rights can be pressed in. courts by social welfare agencies, guardians, and the like. The current public concerns about child abuse and about the abuse of animals may be reflections of the same basic breach in our moral theory.

If animals stand for children in Rollin’s argument, then his argument for animals’ fundamental rights to life leads inexorably to the issue of abortion. Rollin must realize the addition­ al controversy inherent in pursuing his point, for he mentions this connection only once, early in the book, and offers it only as a personal example of the way the dialectic between moral intuitions and moral theories is making him rethink his previous pro-choice position.

Whereas animals might stand for children in Rollin’s discussion, in Midgley’s they stand for the whole class of “different” creatures who lie outside the mainstream of white male power and morals. Midgley’s recurring theme of the crisis of liberal political theory, for instance, reminds me at times of a more recent book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985), in which sociologist-of-religion Robert N. Bellah and four colleagues examine the moral vocabularies of American individualism. Discovering the limits of “utilitarian” and “expressive” sorts of individualism, Bellah and his coauthors conclude that “perhaps only the civic and biblical forms of individualism-forms that see the individual in relation to a larger whole 1 a community and a tradition- are capable of sustaining genuine individu­ ality and nurturing both public and private life.”


Midgley’s chapter on “Women, Animals, and Other Awkward Cases” makes the same case, noting that the rationalist tradition has treated similarly the rights and moral status of women, slaves, nonwhite races, and nonhuman animals. Her later chapters on “the Significance of Species” and “the Mixed Community” argue for the alternative model of bonding and kinship within diversity and flexibility, a model that begins in evolutionary biology but extends easily enough to legitimate plural human societies. Midgley’s argument – harmonizing with recent feminist theory, stressing kinship and moral com­ munity, substituting “equality” for “rights,” dissenting from liberal contract theory, insisting upon evolutionary cooperation over competition, and seeking to balance reason and emotion – contrasts sharply with Rollin’s. But the two philosophers would land on the same side of most practical questions regarding the treatment of animals.

As one who has read the scholarly literature of the debate over animal rights and has  talked  with  animal rights activists who march the long marches, stand vigil outside primate research centers 1 and engage in civil disobedience in order  to  be  arrested and make their case in public court, I must say that Midgley’s book seems more relevant than Rollin’s to the American moral intuition that – is sustaining the movement. Rollin’s arguments and reform strategies serve well enough the veterinarians and other insiders who are likely to be able to write the legislation and legal briefs extending legal rights to animals, but it is Midgley’s intuitions that capture the style and most radical content of the protest. For as gentle as Midgley’s book is, hers is a critical vision that sees clearly the spider’s web of assumptions connecting disparate phenomena in Western culture and that is capable of unmasking the ideology of even some other advocates for the moral status of animals.cc