Animal Protection > AR Interviews

Margaret Setter talks to American philosopher, Tom Regan,
about his latest animal rights book Empty Cages.
by Margaret Setter

Tom, you and I are almost the same age. While our individual backgrounds and life histories could not be more different, we share one thing in common. We both participated in the peace movement that emerged in the late 1960s in opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Thirty years after the end of that disastrous venture, Australia has once more followed America into a bottomless pit Iraq. Even worse, we are fighting a War Against Terror, with all its metaphysical notions of a spiritual crusade against evil.

Margaret Setter: Has this disturbing situation influenced the timing of your new book, perhaps also its form and structure? (Since its publication in 2004 public opinion has increasingly turned against the war as the number of US troops killed has grown in excess of 2,000).

Tom Regan: The war in Iraq is like the many-headed Hydra in Greek mythology. With the Hydra, no sooner had you cut off one of its heads than another grew in its place. With the war, no sooner do you unmask one false reason for having our forces engaged than another false reason takes its place in the queue. In this respect, the war in Iraq and the (undeclared) war being waged against animals are he same.

Here's what I mean (and I'll limit myself to begin with to the United States): the government's machinery—meaning its laws and their enforcement—enable animal abuse. They make it legal for industries to treat animals as if they were sticks or stones, as a matter of routine business.

Both the government and the animal abusing industries speak the same language: animals must be treated "humanely." Well, the word 'humane' is in common usage. It means to act with compassion, consideration, kindness, sympathy, mercy. So the industries must act this way, right? Otherwise the government would make them stop what they're doing, right?

Animal Rights Advocates (ARAs) know this is ludicrous. When paralyzing, drowning, or burning animals to death in the vivisection industry counts as "humane" treatment, we know respect for truth has gone out the window.

The war in Iraq and the war against animals: they are the same. False reasons are given and no sooner is one exposed than another takes its place.

So, yes, you could say that the same distrust of government I feel in my bones when it comes to the Iraqi War is what I felt in my bones as I was writing Empty Cages.

MS: Your book is dedicated "To Muddlers", everywhere". In chapter 1 you give examples of how the world will have to change "once we learn to treat animals with respect’, that is, stop eating their flesh, raising them for fur, training them for entertainment and so on. How optimistic are you about the possibility of opening up dialogue and discussion in the current situation?

TR: You have to remember, I'm Irish, and so I always see my glass of whiskey half full. In the 35 or so years my wife Nancy and I have been involved in the struggle for animal rights, we have seen an incredible number of changes for the good—too many to catalogue, even if I had the time and space. We understand, all too painfully, that day in and day out animals are the victims of violence more than any other group. We recognise, all too painfully, that we are years from achieving their true liberation from the clutches of human tyranny. But—and this is an important but—we are closer to that goal today than we were back in the early 1970s. It's the resolute work of ARAs that has made this happen.

MS: "Being kind to animals is not good enough". "Avoiding cruelty is not enough". No matter how we exploit animals now, "the truth of animal rights requires empty cages, not larger cages; abolition, not reform". How valid is the appellation "New Welfarism" (not your concept) applied to the tactics and strategies employed by groups claiming to be for "animal rights"? Where do you stand in relation to this perceived dichotomy?

TR: I like to think in pictures. So picture this: The oppression of animals is a huge wall, both long and high. There is no way ARAs are going to topple this wall any time soon. What we can do, though, is take the wall apart, one brick at a time. We can put an end to having elephants in circuses and zoos. We can put an end to having dolphins and orcas in marine "parks." We can put and end to greyhound racing, bull fighting, toxicity tests on animals, mulesing, canned hunts. The list can be easily expanded. And what each item on the list represents is what I call incremental abolitionism. We stop specific ways animals are exploited. We don’t work to get them housed in bigger cages. That's what I mean when I say we can end animal exploitation "one brick at a time." And that's where I think ARAs should put our major political efforts: on incremental abolitionism.

MS: The Australian animal rights movement is miniscule by comparison to America. However, Animal Liberation has campaigned ceaselessly for the abolition of factory farming since its foundation in 1976. Speaking as the person responsible for maintaining the membership database since 1990, I know only too well how the majority of people become disillusioned during the long struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds. Are not minor reforms, hard-won, as they may be, essential to maintain the morale of existing members and attract new people?

TR: I wrote Empty Cages in the hope that it would be used as a recruitment tool for the animal rights movement. It's a book I hope ARAs will give to their family and friends who "just don’t get it" when it comes to animal rights. But I also wrote it for seasoned ARAs in the hope that they will find in its pages the motivation to continue in the struggle. A central theme concerns numbers. If we are halfway realistic, we know that our movement is not going anywhere, except backwards, if too few people want to make animal rights a reality. So, yes, by all means, let us attract new advocates to our cause. But while we're doing this, let us make sure we don't lose the advocates we already have!

I offer specific ways to do this in my book. Let me just add something new here. The best way to keep current advocates motivated is to choose realistic goals and achieve them. To win, rather than to lose. So if you tell me you have not been able to abolish factory farming, my response is (and I mean this in a friendly way): choose something more attainable, something that abolishes some practices indigenous to factory farming, rather than all of factory farming. For example, end debeaking, or end tail docking. Take the system apart, one brick at a time. Nothing succeeds like success. If we choose unrealistic goals, we'll lose. If we lose, activists will leave the movement. It happens all the time. So . . . what? Choose realistic, incremental abolitionist goals. When we win (and we will), activists will stay, not leave.

MS. Another long running Animal Liberation campaign aims at the abolition of animal-based circuses. Legislative change won by continuous struggle ensures, among other things, that since 1996 lions and primates have enjoyed the relative spaciousness of outdoor enclosures. Elephants must not be chained in daylight hours. Would the animal cause have been better served by allocating scarce resources of time and effort making veganism the centrepiece of a campaign? (We advocate veganism in leaflets and other print material).

TR. Our movement goes forward because of the efforts of many hands, on many oars, all pulling in the same direction. Diversity among our campaigns is a good thing, if your organisation takes a general approach. Of course, if you’re limited to one cause (say, performing animals or vivisection or the fur industry) then the scope of your campaigns will be proportionately smaller.

That said, a central concern should be to grow the movement by growing our groups. What I advocate is having the officers of Animal Liberation sit down and do an honest count of how many active members there are. Then set a realistic goal for adding new members in the next four months, say. Then sit down four months out, see what progress has been made, and analyze what has worked and what hasn’t. Then set a new goal another four months out. And another for the next four months. And so on. We have to grow our base before we can throw our weight around.

MS: You take great care to present animal rights advocates as "Norman Rockwell Americans", taking your stand on the Founding Fathers. This approach seems very different to that taken by the various liberation movements of the 70s. How do you relate your approach to the various militant forms of piety that have sprung up in many parts of the world since the 1970s? Is there a link?

TR: I take my inspiration from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In other words, I am an advocate of nonviolent campaigning, including nonviolent direct action. This does not include physical attacks upon people with whom we disagree, nor the threat of such attacks. And it doesn’t include large-scale acts of property destruction, arsons most notably.

I’m aware that some ARAs say that arson is not a violent act because no sentient being is hurt. But setting aside how this can be prevented (often there are sentient beings who live in or near the buildings that sometimes have been burned to the ground)—setting this matter aside, large-scale property destruction is an act of violence.

In saying this I am only repeating what Gandhi said, what King said, what Nelson Mandela said. Other ARAs are of course free to say anything that choose to say. I would only note that they should not expect to be listened to or believed if they continue to refer to their acts of large-scale property destruction as forms of "nonviolent direct action."

So, yes, I think the kind of animal rights activism I advocate has its roots in the past—in Gandhi, King, and some aspects of the anti-war movement of the 70s. Of course, there were also more militant activists surrounding those efforts, too. The Black Panthers in King’s time, for example.

MS: Your articulation of what is meant and implied in the term ‘animal rights’ has made you justly famous. Jeffrey Masson cites Empty Cages as "the single best introduction to the topic of animal rights ever written. Does the case for animal rights based on their moral status as "subjects of a life" hold true for all times and places?

Or will it inevitably go the way of former indubitable truths now seen to have been historically determined?

TR: I am an "old school" kind of guy. I actually believe some truth hold for all times and places. Truths in mathematics and physics, for example. But I also believe that some moral truths have this same character: they hold for all times and places. For example, that it is wrong to injure another’s body for the pleasure felt in doing so, wrong to rape someone, wrong to kill the innocent. I think there is a very long list of such moral truths. I know that in these "post-modern" times someone like me must appear to be a quaint afterglow from the period of the Enlightenment. But this is who I am, warts and all.

Now whether the case for animal rights, based on their moral status as "subjects of a life"—whether this proposition holds true for all times and places—that’s very hard for me to say. I mean, I stand so close to the idea that I might not be able to make an objective judgment. So let me just say that I hope what I have found after many years of looking turns out to be true for all times and in all places. Even more, of course, I hope that vast numbers of people will one day accept it as true and live their life accordingly. For the animals’ sake, and for ours as well.

MS: You employ the analogy of the game of bridge to argue that rights are always trumps. Given the disparities of power evidenced in the infamous Tuskegee study, how could those poor black folk have invoked their rights as subjects-of-a-life? Is it possible you are too charitable with respect to the doctors you accept "pursued the good of the many against respect for the rights of the few"? Did not Jeremy Bentham himself argue against what he termed, "The principle of lesser eligibility"?

TR: What I am at pains to show is why the poor blacks abused by the researchers had the rights they did and why the researchers violated them. The fact that they lacked the power to claim their rights, or (perhaps) that they did not understand that they had them: these considerations add to the tragedy of their infamous treatment. Without a doubt, members of disenfranchised groups lack the social standing to make their rights heard, should they voice them. This is why others of us are called upon to represent them, as is glaringly true in the case of abandoned or unwanted children, for example. As for the doctors: it’s possible I am "too charitable" toward them. Maybe they were evil, wretched human beings who did what they did only because they hoped to reap some personal gain, whether financial or professional. I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either. My point goes in a different direction. I am saying even if it was true that they acted from a noble motive, hoping to secure "the good of the many," what they did was wrong.

MS: Would you agree with the statement of an American human rights activist that (Americans) are fighting slavery all over again, except that in this case it is a slavery of the mind, between powerful authoritarian institutions seeking to divide us, and those "ordinary folks" whose best interests are expressed in ideas of equality?

TR: Sounds like something I might have said myself—and wished I had. Yes, if there is one word that describes my thinking it is "anti-authoritarian." Not because I think everyone in authority is evil or that practices that have the authority that custom gives to them must all be unjust. Rather, it’s the hold authority has on people, the way it limits thought and change. One of my favorite sayings is "Animal liberation is human liberation." ARAs are transformed people. Our commitment to animal rights changes us, makes us a different person than we were before. I remember once writing, "Our true freedom lies in ceasing to be their (animals’) jailers." Human life is richer; it is better when we live it in ways that acknowledge our equality with our animal kin. As a group, I don’t think ARAs, myself included, do a very good job of telling this story.

MS: In reference to the Garden of Eden you state that humans have an ‘awesome responsibility of being God’s agent in creation to be as loving and caring for what God has created as he was in creating it". Ever the muddler, I was at first rather dismissive about this approach. Compared to the prophecies of Isaiah, I thought it backward looking and conservative. Now I think you may be right. The world surely has had its fill of Utopian visions. What part does the "Final War Between God and Satan" believed in by some Americans in high places, play in your choice of Eden Before The Fall as the metaphor for the peaceable kingdom?

TR: I’m afraid my thinking doesn’t reach that far—to the "Final War." The only thing I can say is I could never believe in a god who parceled out a life after death to humans but denied it to animals. And a pleasant, fulfilling life for them, of the sort Isaiah prophesized.

MS: On a more prosaic level, but one that is hotly debated, how to you think your claim that an animal has the right to life relates to women’s demands for reproductive rights? What is your opinion as to the proper role of the state in such matters?

TR: During the first, and probably through the second trimester of pregnancy I think women have an absolute right to determine whether to continue or abort. In the final trimester, matters are less clear to me. All the best evidence we have supports the view that the fetus emerges as a conscious being during this time, quite possibly a subject-of-a-life, using my terminology. If this is true, and assuming that the woman’s life is not threatened, then I think the subject’s right to life should be protected, by the government if necessary, just as I think that the rights of animals exploited by the major animal abusing industries should be protected, by the government if necessary. In other words, I am trying to adopt a consistent position when it comes to rights and their protection. But I know many ARAs who hold different views, which I respect. The last thing ARAs need, I think, is to have our respective positions on abortion serve as a basis for dividing us. If there is one thing we need more than any other, it is to stick together, keeping our eyes on the prize: true liberation for our brothers and sisters in fur, and feather, and fin.