Since the publication of his book "The Case for Animal Rights" in 1983 the American moral philosopher Tom Regan counts as THE intellectual foreman of the international animal rights movement. At the invitation of the Dutch Pigs in Need Foundation and the John Adams Institute, he visited Amsterdam some time ago to talk about his newest book, "Empty Cages, facing the challenge of Animal Rights". Dirk-Jan Verdonk published this interview in the Dutch magazine "Leven", 2005 nr 4.
You have written various books on animal rights. What did you want to add in "Empty Cages"?
In "The Case for Animal Rights", I laid the philosophical foundation for moral animal rights such as the right to life and the right not to be subjected to suffering. I also outlined the consequences of this: stopping "production" of animals for food and clothing; stopping animal experiments; closing zoos, dolphinaria and other entertainment at the cost of animals. In "Empty Cages", I tried to describe what defenders of animal rights have to deal with in practice. Contrary to "Rattling the Cage", which forms an element of an academic discussion, "Empty Cages" is geared towards a general public. In a way it is a recruitment handbook. Every supporter of animal rights has family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues who wonder why one is a vegetarian or a vegan, why one is concerned about animals, what animal rights are about. If they still do not understand after reading this book, I have failed. In other words, many people have an inaccurate view of the animal rights movement. And I try to rectify this in "Empty Cages".
Animal rights are difficult to sell. I see three large problems with which defenders of animal rights are confronted. In the first place, the large animal industries do not tell the truth. Their constant message is that they treat animals "humanely", but here, they change the meaning of this word. "Humane" means with care, with compassion, tenderness and respect. But this is not the manner in which animals are treated in the industry, not by a long shot. Exposing the industry is therefore an important task.
In the second place the Authorities uphold this practice, support the industry. Just as in the US, Dutch law demands that animals are treated humanely - but this doesn't happen in practice, Authorities comply by interpreting the concept "humane" to be the opposite to its actual meaning. Finally, the media generally play along with this, certainly in the United States. This is not surprising, because the industry invests a lot of money in it, employs people whose daily business it is to influence the media. Many media also cannot financially afford to be too critical, because the animal industry is one of the biggest advertisers. Not only do the media follow the industry in an incorrect projection of "humane treatment", but they portray animal rights supporters as sentimental, unscientific and antisocial zealots, as misanthropic fanatics, or, even worse, as terrorists.
Some extreme animal rights activists do, however, answer this description.
Yes, but that is just a small minority which is exaggerated in the media. The media is only interested in that which deviates from the norm. A safe landing is not interesting, but an airplane accident is.
Furthermore, considering the astronomical numbers of animals which are mistreated and killed, I can completely understand why some people go too far. In my opinion, however, this is unjustifiable. It also damages the image of the animal rights movement as a whole. The industry takes advantage of this by infiltrating animal rights activism and urges activists to conduct criminal actions. A number of years ago that went so far that an assassination attempt was planned on a representative from the animal experiment industry by so-called animal rights activists. In reality, the representative had himself set up the attack in order to blacken the animal rights movement. Thankfully, this was discovered just in time, but it demonstrates to which lengths the industry is prepared to go. In a way that is of course a compliment. It shows that the concept of animal rights is a real threat to the industry, that it is a moral, political and economic power.
The fact that that I have always clearly expressed my rejection of illegal actions such as destruction, does not mean that I am always against breaking the law. Not at all. But, I am against use of violence and I think that if you do break the law, you may not avoid the consequences. The law should be challenged in all openness. If your case is strong enough, you will be neither arrested nor punished, for the simple reason that they do not need bad publicity. In short, civil disobedience just as Gandhi used it.
In your work, you operate on the assumption of universal rights. But there is much criticism of that concept. Some people regard it a neo-imperial project to impose western norms on non-western societies. What is your reaction to this?
Let me say in the first place, that it is logical that there is criticism of the concept of rights. Moral philosophy deals with the most crucial questions in life. It would be very strange if everyone agreed on that point. What it is all about is the question: who has the best arguments? Who has the strongest case? The concept of universal rights may meet the necessary criticism, but I think that, in the long run they would win from any other moral theories. In utilitarianism, for example, pleasure and suffering are weighed against each other in order to determine what is morally right. This means that, before it can be established that rape is morally rejectable, the suffering of the victim and her environment should be weighed against the pleasure of the perpetrator. I find it morally obscene that this pleasure is considered here. Comparable: there is a danger of moral relativism towards post modern criticism of universal values. What should you chose? Everyone should decide this for himself, but, once again, in the assessment of various moral perspectives, I think that those of moral rights obviously have the best papers.
This doesn't mean, however, that the concept of rights can offer a readymade solution for everything. You may form certain principals and try to apply them, but there will always be individual cases where it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to determine what is good and what is bad. We often just do not know what to do. It is important to realize that. Never trust people who think they know it all.
At the same time, do not let yourself be paralyzed by these difficult cases. It is important for the animal rights movement that she operates on principles which have been generally agreed. For example, we agree that veganism is the end to which we want to lead people. Let us work on that.
You have been campaigning for animal rights since the Seventies. Consumption of meat in the world has only risen during all this time. Are you not becoming desperate?
No, certainly not. But it is true that it is a difficult process. The animal rights movement will get nowhere if we do not grow. A thousand or ten thousand people is not enough. We need millions and millions of people to form the critical mass we need in order to cause a turnaround.
Many people leave the movement after a time, however. Partly because things happen in their lives which make it difficult to continue their activism - through work commitments, partners, children, health. But also partly because they do not feel important, they feel they are not achieving anything. This is the most important challenge for animal rights organisations: to ensure that their members have the feeling that they are needed, to ensure that results are achieved. If you have the feeling that you are not getting anywhere, you will leave. If you have the idea that you are not winning, only losing, it would be masochistic to continue petitioning, sending letters, demonstrating. This is why we must ensure that victories are booked. So that you can celebrate and say, look, this is what we have achieved.
And we have achieved a lot. In my own profession, philosophy, much has changed compared to thirty years ago. At that time in America there was not one university to be found that paid serious attention to animal rights. Now, in fact, there is not one university which does not give animal rights serious attention. This progress makes it impossible for men to ignore animals in other areas. That can motivate us in other aspects of cultural change - in economical, political, social areas. The importance of technology should also not be underestimated. I am convinced that in the future, meat will be produced without needing animals. In this way not only the endless violation of animal rights will be called to a halt, but it will be much easier for many people to accept animal rights.
Yes, but how realistic is it that enough people will join?
To me, some people are lost in the sense that I could spend my entire life trying to convince them without success. But those are few. Consider a person who does not belong to the animal rights movement as yourself, as you used to be. I, for example, used to be a butcher a long time ago. And look at me now. It would be arrogant to assume that this could not happen to someone else.
Communication is not only about the message, nor about the receiver, nor even the sender of that message. By being arrogant or hateful, the message will not come across. People do not hear you if you shout at them. They crawl back into their shells. People react only negatively to arrogance and hate. I am convinced that by far the majority of people have compassion for animals deep in their hearts. The trick is to have that feeling come to fruition.