Can We Talk (about Animal Rights)?

We tend to hold strong, opposing moral intuitions on animal rights issues, but perhaps we can agree on areas to make partial improvements.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Roger S. Gottlieb

Animals suffer for lots of reasons: they freeze to death in bad winters, get torn to shreds by predators, and grow old and starve because they can no longer hunt. If you put enough sad music on the screen as we witness such moments, doubtless many an eye will fill with tears. But such tears are easily remedied by a moment’s reflection on the endless and necessary cycles of life and death.

There are other forms of suffering that do not go down so easily. The sea birds covered in oil, the fox caught in a fur hunter’s trap gnawing off its leg, the long, long lines of cows waiting to be bludgeoned and then to have their throats slit, the millions of mice to be used for God knows what, including the ones who have been scientifically, genetically engineered to get cancer (“onco-mice,” they are called). Not to mention whole species, thousands of them, dying off because humans have taken or contaminated their habitat, or brought in exotic species against which they have not evolved defenses, or just eaten too many.

What happens when we look at their pain? Quite often, not a whole lot, because most of us do not bother to look. Or, if we do, what we see is an abstraction: x million killed in experiments, x thousands of species lost. What if we do look, carefully, slowly, willing to accept whatever feelings arise, at—say—polar bears forced to cannibalize each other because global warming has melted so much ice they can no longer hunt. Look at them—magnificent creatures clad in thick white fur, superbly adapted to the frigid ice and snow, at home even in the sea. They are mothers that protect their young, playful cubs, and powerful hunters of seals. They are dying, not from old age or from a struggle with predators or competition in the herd, but because we are killing them. Through global warming. Reckless sport hunting. Human-made toxins that build up in their flesh.

The point is that it is not just the suffering of the individual polar bears that gets to us, or even the potential loss of this majestic species. It is how hard it is to look at ourselves. To save the polar bear, and the big cats, and the cows on the assembly line, how much would we have to change? How much of our economy, our culture, our family life? How many laws would we have to pass? How many Thanksgiving get-togethers would feel (and taste) different? Would we have to give up our dream of endless economic expansion in order to leave some room for other species? Would we have to convince all those folks who believe that charbroiled steak equals a good time that tofu is just as good? Would we have to say that the whole human enterprise of the last ten thousand years—seeking more and more power, wealth, control, technical expertise, and possessions—should be (deeply, seriously, essentially) restrained?

Between the intensity of the pain we feel, the guilt over our own complicity, and the seeming impossibility of what all of us would have to do to transform, we are left in a difficult and contorted moral position. Guilt for ourselves and rage against “the others” who “just don’t get it.” The need to do something to “make it all stop” and the certain realization that we can’t. A life which seems hard enough already, but to which those “animal rights types” want to add more concerns, problems, things to feel upset about.

There is no way out of this conflict and confusion. That is, no way that will lead to a simple fix of the problems, or a universally accepted way for people on different sides to come together and create a calm, reasoned, agreeable moral conversation. The truth is that we have extraordinarily powerful feelings on this subject, and these gut responses can translate into very strong moral intuitions. These opposing intuitions can be summarized this way:

Animal Rights Activist Intuitions. Animals suffer, just like us. They love their mates and their children, they romp in the grass and tussle with each other. They delight in soaring across a dawn sky, running through the forest, chewing their cud. And despite the occasional time when they hurt people, they are pretty much defenseless against us. And think of how much suffering we cause them: in labs, in farms, at the meatpackers. If you really, really look at them, listen to their screams, take in their wounds, how can you continue to do this to them?

People First Intuitions. People are more important than animals. They just are. And, besides, life is hard enough already—if I want a steak or fried chicken, I’ll just have one. They taste good. And the idea that some rat or pigeon has rights is just, well, ridiculous. People need food. Science needs lab animals. People all over the world are starving and sick, and you want me to worry about a cow or a mouse? Get real. If you want to go gaga over your labradoodle, that’s fine. But leave the rest of us alone. Most people, most of the time, are going to use animals for whatever they want. It’ll never change.

Things might ease off a bit if we could all just “agree to disagree.” Why can’t each of us get along with people who have different opinions about eating meat, using animals in experiments, or the amount of space a veal calf should have in his cage before he’s slaughtered? Yet, this will not work, because whether or not a particular “difference” is allowable is part of the problem itself. As individuals, as a society, we have to draw lines: between differences that are a matter of taste (like a really bad wardrobe) and differences that will put you in jail (like abusing your kids). Although the option of tolerance for differences is surely a possible option, animal rights and animal care just might not be a toleration kind of issue.

At the same time, even if we think our views are so morally right that people on the other side are not just different, but wrong—and so wrong that what they do should be illegal and considered an ethical outrage—whichever side we are on, there still are an awful lot of people on the other side.1 If we are going to get along with each other morally—thinking of those on the other side as moral agents who deserve respect for their choices just as we do—at the very least we had better try to understand each other. What’s more, such understanding might lead us to a bit of common ground.

When views have a long-standing, broad acceptance—as human superiority, eating meat, and the scientific exploitation of animals do—we have to take them seriously on their own terms. Similarly, when so many people are moral vegetarians, or oppose using animals in science, it will not work to write them off as overly sentimental hippies. If either side is dismissed at the beginning, attempts to communicate with—or even to comprehend—these different people will be doomed from the outset. And where would that leave us? A truly moral conversation—in which we open ourselves to what the other person is saying and find as much truth in it as possible—seems to be called for.

Let’s first acknowledge that we relate to animals in so many different ways. Consider: we use animals for food, for work, for scientific experiments. There are pets and wild animals and zoo animals. Animals are prey for hunters, sacrifices for some religions, and companions to the blind. How are we to make sense of all these different contexts? I will not offer a simple, universal rule.2 However, we can compare two very different contexts and see how the differences affect our responses.

Here is the first scenario: When you order a delicious veal parmesan at a fancy Italian restaurant, you are consuming the flesh of a living being who was confined in a cage so small that it could barely move, always in the dark so that its flesh would be pale, without any company (which it needs, being a social animal), and, to preserve the delicacy of its taste, was never fed the solid food it requires.

Clearly, there are all sorts of cultural reasons to keep eating that veal parmesan. It has been a delicacy for a very long time. It tastes great. People earn a living raising, cooking, and serving it. Yet, if you lean in the animal rights direction, as I do, it might seem pretty easy to dismiss all such defenses of veal by pointing out that slavery was culturally supported and that people made money off of the Holocaust. But the vast majority of people simply do not equate cages for veal calves with concentration camps, so while comparing the treatment of animals to the horrors humans have inflicted on each other might be morally valid, it may not seem so to many of the people you need to convince.

But, it is very hard to defend the way veal calves are raised without saying flat out that the pain of animals is morally meaningless. This position is a kind of orthodox anthropocentrism: people are the center of all things and the beings on the periphery do not count for very much. Interestingly, though, even people who believe this sort of thing typically do not believe it completely; and it is that lack of completeness which leaves an opening for the other side. For example: a good number of the veal parmesan eaters (or servers) doubtless have their own special, favorite pets that they would not dream of treating the way veal calves are treated: animals whose welfare, happiness, and pleasure count for something. The fundamental inconsistency here creates a deep logical hole that is very hard to climb out of.

So when we look at veal—and, indeed, at meat eating generally—what we have is a deeply entrenched social practice that is, when examined, pretty much without any moral justification. What can the veal eater say in response? Not much, which is why his or her response is generally laughter, contempt, ignoring the truth, not looking at films of factory farms and slaughterhouses, saying “that’s just the way we do things around here,” and repeating “it tastes good,” as if that were sufficient reason to keep eating it. One usually gets a lot of attitude, but very little argument. If the cheerful meat eater does not want to engage seriously with an animal rights advocate’s claims, what are we to do?

Well, we can start by recognizing that the moral failure of modern meat eating is not the end of the story. There are many things we do that do not add up morally. I certainly have my own ethical weaknesses. Indeed, every animal rights activist lives in a way that harms animals. Such activists drive their cars and plug into the power grid, thus contributing to the global warming that is eradicating countless species. Even their fully vegan diet involves large-scale agriculture that displaces animals. And when their children are sick, they do not reject “out of principle” medicines that have been developed through testing on animals.

One of the things that distinguishes ethics in an age of global warming is that, short of dropping out completely, we cannot help but be part of the problem. Certainly we will be less of a part if we stop eating animal products and refuse to buy consumer products tested on animals. But so long as we are functioning members of this society, we will be in this bind.

And the sad truth is that a lot of people who cherish animals deeply can at the same time be pretty uncaring about other people and other important, moral concerns. They might think of and speak to animal-eating humans with hatred and verbal violence. They might take refuge in a comforting sense of superiority, endlessly taking the moral inventory of everyone else’s failings while never seriously examining their own.

This line of thought does not eradicate the tensions between the “two sides.” It does, however, enable the morally critical animal rights activist to approach his or her adversary with a less arrogant and more modest posture.3 We might also be able to see that a partial improvement is better than no improvement at all. In some countries, there has been agreement on legal restrictions on how you can raise veal, and in other matters relating to animals as well. If these new laws are not enough for the moral vegetarian, I completely understand. But moral life is often, perhaps typically, not a case of “enough.” It usually is, at best, a case of getting a “little bit better.”

Now let’s consider a second scenario: Your child has been born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a generally fatal genetic condition in which a missing enzyme leads to lung and digestive problems. While CF used to spell a quite early death for everyone afflicted, recent research has now enabled many to live into their thirties and forties.

If it is your child, doomed to a life of frequent lung infections, rounds of seemingly endless coughing, near constant chest physical therapy to clear the distinctly thick and immovable CF mucous, do you care how many lab animals have to die to find a cure, or even just a treatment that will enable your child to have a somewhat longer, somewhat more tolerable life? In forty years, the median survival age for CF has gone from ten to thirty-seven. That’s what you’re counting, not the number of mice that were used to develop treatments, and potentially a cure, for your child.

If meat eating, in particular veal, is an immoral self-indulgence, the use of animals for research to cure deadly diseases is something else. Here we have what at least looks like a clear choice: allow a child to suffer and die young, or do what needs to be done for the human at the expense of animals. If you are that parent—or the child himself—do you think you will put much stock in accounts of animal suffering?

Of course, the animal rights defender can simply say that there is no reason to prefer the human to the animal, or raise questions of degree and scope.4 Further, and more powerfully, it can be argued that using animals for research costs money, that money for health care is limited, and that there are a lot of other things that we can do with that money that are good for people’s health and do not involve animal cruelty. We can clean up the environment so fewer people get cancer from pollution; we can teach people to have better health habits so lifestyle diseases diminish; we can encourage people not to eat animal foods, since they are a big contributor to ill health. These measures will not hurt animals at all; in fact, they will help both animals and people, a win-win solution.

Yet even the best environmental regimes and an entire population doing yoga, meditating, and eating nothing but salads, brown rice, and lentil stew will not end genetic health problems like CF. We will still have the desperate parent and the sick child, the people with a terrible illness and the animals whose lives we will want to sacrifice to find better treatments.

Perhaps, once again, the only approach with a reasonable chance of success is to try to make things a little better. First, stop all the stupid, wasteful, even insane animal experiments: the ones that drip cosmetics into rabbits’ eyes until they go blind; or that smash monkey’s heads into walls to see if having heads smashed into a wall will injure the brain; or that test how long it takes to make animals crazy by randomly subjecting them to electrical shocks.

As for the cystic fibrosis experiments? Well, perhaps we could agree to talk about them later. There is a lot that can be done to limit or eliminate animal experiments before we get around to stopping the research aimed at curing lethal illnesses.

In a moral life we are often faced with difficult choices. Sometimes these are really false choices, and we should make sure we know who or what has said, “Choose between A and B.” Maybe there is an option C that would work out for us all—like the holistic and preventative health measures described above. Still, at times, and sadly, there are instances when there is no way out of painful alternatives. We will have pain in this life, and so will everyone else, and no amount of moral goodness will ever take that away. Just as the “I can do anything to animals I want” types might have pets they cherish, animal rights supporters still privilege their own children, or other people, over animals. That is one reason this issue of animal experiments is both very difficult and a place where agreement across real differences might be reached.

The practical truth of any moral claim—animal rights, women’s rights, gay marriage, what we owe to people starving far away—is only as powerful as the level of moral development of the people we are talking to. No matter how right a moral claim is, if humanity is not ready to take in its truth, it will have no social consequence. It may be that according full respect for animals is just something that is not psychologically, and hence morally, possible now.5 Every minute of every day our civilization may indeed be committing monstrous crimes, and perhaps the anguished, “extremist” cries of animal rights activists are just what we need to wake us up. However, I suspect that in this case, whatever changes we make will necessarily be gradual, based more on quiet understanding and slow, moderate improvements than on wholesale moral condemnations.

Probably some animal rights activists, and perhaps even the animals themselves, would think this is a cowardly cop-out in the face of mass slaughter. But we should remember that the long struggle for women’s social and legal equality is far from over; and that while the slaves were freed in 1865, more than a century later African Americans were still fighting for even basic civil rights. With all important change that has taken place, it is hard to know how much was accomplished through anger, verbal violence, and coercive laws, and how much by the slow, patient work of moral conversation—by doing our best to understand “the other” despite bitter disagreement. Perhaps reflecting on this history will help us to be a little satisfied with limited gains that make life a little better, rather than clinging with rage and bitterness to an impossible ideal. Like it or not, big changes are slow.

In the meantime, those of us who pay attention can at least acknowledge how upset this makes us. We can commiserate with other people’s moral limits, knowing we have plenty ourselves. We can ask ourselves what the difference is between the golden retriever who sleeps on our bed at night and the bacon we eat for breakfast. And if we are really willing to feel the full range and intensity of our emotions about our animal cousins, to take in their pain and our responsibility for it, and to have compassion for them and for our fellow humans at the same time, who knows what might result? Not enough, to be sure. But surely enough to make a difference.


  1. Though the animal rights position might still represent a small minority, vast majorities have been wrong about issues in the past that were at first opposed by only tiny minorities. Moreover, the animal rights position is making something of an inroad in social life. Vegetarians are a steadily growing number, there are more limits on animal labs than there used to be, and we have—however inconsistently applied—an Endangered Species Act, which says that normal property rights can be suspended if activity on privately owned land threatens to erase a species. And there are more examples.
  2. Any such rule would be so abstract that we would not really know what it meant until I described how it operated in each context.
  3. Comfort for both sides can be found in an unexpected source: the vegetarian perspective of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (d. 1935), the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel. Though Kook functioned in a community in which meat eating was the accepted rule, he argued for future vegetarianism from the perspective of biblical history. He never issued an absolute rule, but he pointed out that there are many biblical rules restricting what and how we eat; thus, the way we eat is a matter in which God’s commands operate. Thus, humans are in a very long process of moral development, which starts with some restrictions on what we can do to animals, but will end up in an ideal of respect and care, including a refusal to use animals for food.
  4. Questions such as: How many animals would you sacrifice for a cure? A million? A hundred million? A hundred billion? And for what disease? For one, like CF, which afflicts some 300,000 in the United States? For one that afflicts 300? Or 3? Is there no limit at all?
  5. I liken it to calling for women’s equality in the seventeenth century (as a very few did) or to demanding the end of slavery in 1820.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the author or editor of eighteen books on political philosophy, religion, contemporary spirituality, and the environmental crisis. His most recent books are Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters (Oxford), and the philosophical short stories Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming (Baylor).

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