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Intelligence2 debate 3 May 2016 (Australia) – a review

Do Animal Rights Trump Human Interests?

A Review By Alex Byers


Full video of the debate is available at the end of this article. 

Affirmative:  Paul de Gelder, Ruth Hatten and Philip Wollen

Negative: James Bourne, Catherine Marriott and Leslie Cannold.

Mr de Gelder and Mr Wollen maintained in essence that non-human animals need rights both to protect them from humans and to protect humans from themselves.  The idea that animal rights are necessary for our own protection stems from observations regarding the undeniable devastation wreaked on the planet by the global animal industry. 

Those for the Negative were keen to assert upfront how much they cared about non-human animals.  However, because they want the non-human animals they say they care about exploited and killed for human purposes, including eating pleasure, clothing and experimentation, caring about them predictably reduced to platitudes about welfare.  Thus, the question of how non-human animals are treated aside, it seemed beyond contemplation for those on the Negative that they might also value their lives and want to live.

Dr Bourne, a medical researcher experimenting on primates (marmoset monkeys in particular), is “appalled about factory farming [and] wilful blindness to exploitation”.  Dr Bourne’s case was essentially that non-human animals cannot have rights because experimenting on them is “necessary in many areas of medical research in order to improve the lives of humans and animals”.  

As examples of the importance of experimentation on monkeys, Dr Bourne cited the infection of monkeys with the Zika and Ebola viruses.  During the 2015 Ebola outbreak Canadian researchers “treated” monkeys with an antibody from a human sufferer.  The monkeys then “went on to have complete protection against a lethal dose of the virus”.  What Dr Bourne didn’t say is that three monkeys were infected and died horrible deaths because they weren’t given the antibody (ZMapp), or that those who were infected and eventually survived nevertheless suffered severe symptoms, including severe bleeding, rashes and signs of liver failure.  

In the Zika virus case, researchers at Wisconsin University have injected the virus into a pregnant rhesus macaque monkey to start exploring in real time the effect on the brain of her developing child.  It is anticipated that the child will suffer one or more crippling birth defects.   

Thus, exploiting and inflicting abhorrent cruelty on monkeys (and other non-humans) is acceptable to Dr Bourne and his colleagues as long they consider it serves (or may serve) the interests of humans.  He asserted that Australia’s regulatory mechanism delivers “the highest possible duty of care to animals”.  Unfortunately, this rings hollow if extreme cruelty of the type inflicted on the ‘Ebola and Zika monkeys’ is an example of what Dr Bourne considers is exercising a duty of care to them.  As Ms Hatten pointed out, Australian law legalises non-human animal suffering, it does not protect non-human animals from humans.

Of course, Dr Bourne is wrong to assert that experimenting on non-human animals is necessary to improve the lives of humans generally for at least the reason that we could experiment on unwilling humans (and doubtless obtain more accurate data).  Despite holding that “in the utilitarian sense ... in suffering all animals are equal” he simply assumes, without argument, that experimentation is morally untenable in the case of humans but not non-humans.  Thus, in making a case against non-human animal rights, he does nothing more than appeal to human self-interest and to the speciesist assumption that non-human animals have no moral or inherent value (but humans do).

As the CEO of the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Assoc., Ms Marriott makes a living from the killing industry.  Nevertheless, she is “passionate about” animal welfare and “does not condone animal cruelty of any kind”.  She dismissed the mountain of footage illustrating routine cruelty in the industry as a small minority “not doing the right thing”.  As Ms Hatten noted, apart from killing animals, “doing the right thing” includes “cutting off the beaks, teeth, tails and genitalia of chickens, cows, pigs and sheep without pain relief”.  It also includes severe confinement of animals for long periods and transport over lengthy periods without adequate space, water, food and attention. 

Ms Marriott produced some novel arguments for not recognising non-human animal rights.  Firstly, recognition apparently means humans and non-humans would live separately and, as “everything is inextricably linked cutting out a section of the cycle would mean the system would collapse inevitably”.  It is hard to begin to take this seriously, given that the “section of the cycle” involving the domestication of non-human animals is itself leading to devastating habitat loss and ecosystem collapse.  More broadly, humans, particularly under capitalism, have long since been inimical to, rather than part of, the natural world.  This has all happened with non-human animals having no rights.

Presumably in anticipation of this response, Ms Marriott asserted that the grasslands around Broome need to be managed “so that native flora and fauna can prosper”.   Regarding native grasslands, the CSIRO has this to say about the neighbouring Pilbara region:

“The ecosystems within the ancient and arid landscape of the Pilbara are under growing pressure from a number of threats including increases in total grazing pressure by native, feral and domestic ungulates and herbivores, invasion by exotic plants and animals, predation by feral predators and altered fire regimes.”[i]

So the human role here is a desperate rear guard attempt to preserve something of the grasslands decimated by post-European colonisation through overgrazing with introduced non-human animals and the introduction of plants and other non-human animals who, having been abandoned or let loose, have become feral.  The CSIRO’s ‘solution’ is “managing” feral ungulates, creating predator proof sanctuaries, and “managing” feral cats.  The major impact of grazing introduced non-human animals, which continues to expand, is predictably barely a consideration. 

Secondly, Ms Marriott asserts that vegan (or near vegan) diets make people sick.  Her friend, Lucinda Giblet, evidently became “more and more sick ... weaker and weaker”.  She continued to consult doctors and naturopaths who instructed her to have animal protein.  Apparently Ms Giblet made a miraculous recovery (although that conclusion was left for the audience to draw).  It is unclear why Ms Giblet didn’t consult a vegan friendly dietician, or what dietary expertise the doctors and neuropaths possessed.[ii]

Thirdly, grazing non-human animals is evidently needed in developing nations to deliver their populations from poverty, prevent starvation and “develop the children’s brains”.  How to assist developing nations with their food requirements is a vexed and complex question to be sure but it is hardly solved by Ms Marriott’s simplistic notion of using animals as “banks”, i.e., as investments to be sold by parent farmers to fund their children’s educations.  The emerging truth is that the animal industry is a major contributor to poverty and starvation in third world countries.[iii] 

Despite our abhorrent treatment of non-human animals, Dr Cannold, ethicist (and former vegetarian), maintains we all want to look after animals.  She stormed to the microphone declaring herself “really pissed off” by the “false opposition, false analogy and false facts” perpetrated by the Affirmative speakers.  The Negative side had apparently “raised some very serious issues” such as the role of science and the plight of people in developing countries that didn’t seem to matter to those opposite.   

It also appears Dr Cannold imagined the audience didn’t “give a damn about” Lucinda Giblet.  Dr Cannold proceeded to recount her own experience of becoming severely anaemic when pregnant and a vegetarian.  Dr Cannold “chose her obligation to her developing child on medical advice” and recommenced eating meat.  She did not divulge the credentials of those who provided the advice, or say why she did not resume her vegetarianism once her pregnancy finished.

The audience no doubt expected big things when Dr Cannold announced she had calmed down and was going to explain exactly what giving rights to non-human animals would entail.  Dr Cannold characterised non-human animal rights circumspectly as the right to life.  In general terms (and citing Carl Cohen), Dr Cannold asserted that if non-human animals have rights, they have a right not to be killed to advance the interests of humans (who she accepts do have rights).  A right to life on this characterisation is therefore what Tom Regan refers to as a negative right.  It is a right not to be killed in the absence of necessity.  The correlative duty is therefore not to kill non-human animals, or place them in harm’s way, in the absence of necessity.[iv] 

What does this mean, Dr Cannold asks, “to you, to your life, to people in the developing world, to sick children”?  According to Dr Cannold, the implications are that, not only would humans not be able to  experiment on non-human animals, breed them for food, clothing, or medication, use their labour, hunt or fish them (even if traditional practices required this), or use them for entertainment, “Australian farmers, hunters and researchers would have to accept a duty not to kill them”. 

Ms Hatten would doubtless agree in broad terms with this assessment - she characterised (a standard view of) the rights of non-human animals as the fundamental right to be treated with respect as an individual with inherent value, which in turn gives rise to “a right to safety, life, freedom and food”.   Ms Hatten indicated non-human animals derive their inherent value by virtue of their sentience, which includes a myriad of features such as the capacity to experience pain, joy, hunger, loneliness, fear and stress, as well as a preference for life.  

Having laboured the implications for humans of non-human animal rights, Dr Cannold then simply declared the whole concept “nonsense”.   Perhaps she believes that merely listing the ways humans exploit non-humans is sufficient to establish as self-evident nonsense the view that they could have rights.  If so, it is, to the contrary, again little more than an appeal to the institutionalised speciesist attitudes and habituated selfish interest of the vast majority.

Like Dr Bourne, Dr Cannold trades in part on mixing genuine human interest in the face of necessity with selfish interests.  Interests like convenience, taste pleasure, clothing preferences, sport and entertainment clearly provide a motivation for denying basic rights to non-human animals, but are hardly a (self-evident) basis for declaring those rights nonsensical. 

Dr Cannold suggests (without argument) that there will be economic ramifications, consequences for developing countries, and possible human health considerations stemming from recognising non-human animal rights.  However, an increasing volume of research indicates the global economic outlook under a continuation of non-human animal exploitation is far bleaker and, as indicated earlier, there is a better promise for those in developing countries if the animal industry ceases.  As to animal experimentation, much of it is of little worth and (as with primate research) much of it abhorrent. [v]

Dr Cannold’s advice to the animal rights movement indicates how little she understands about animal rights, the movement itself and the futility of a ‘top down’ approach.  Apparently the movement should build strong coalitions to advocate for effective laws, compliance mechanisms and behavioural changes to stop the unnecessary suffering of intensively farmed animals.  That is to say, animal rights advocates should forget about challenging the current paradigm where animals are seen as expendable chattels and join the likes of the RSPCA and Animals Australia in championing welfare reform.

According to Dr Cannold, it is wrong to suggest to people that they can only meet their (ethical) obligations to non-human animals by becoming vegan.  Apparently humans can meet their obligations by: 

(1)       not eating animals that have been treated cruelly and intensively farmed; and then

(2)       either not eating or using animal products at all, or choosing to consume cruelty-free products (with ‘free-range’ eggs an example).

Dr Cannold has in another article styled herself as an “ethical carnivore” who “rarely feel(s) guilty”. [vi]  Her guilt is evidently relieved by assuming the lives of non-human animals are, from an ethical perspective, worthless and by averting her eyes to the reality of non-human animal suffering.   She lives comfortably in an imaginary world where everyone who desires meat can pay for the slaughter of farmed animals who have led cruelty-free existences and gone willingly to painless deaths.  

Ultimately, it is the selfish human desire for meat and other animal products, the pretence that non-human animals can be farmed and slaughtered without cruelty and the question-begging assumption that humans have a right to exploit non-human animals that remain as significant barriers to the recognition of non-human animal rights.

[i] Conservation-decisions/Pilbara-threat-management-report

[ii]   In Australia, contrary to the advice apparently received, both the Dieticians Association of Australia and the National Health and Medical Research Council maintain that humans can flourish on a plant-based diet and do not require animal products.

[iii] To appreciate the factors at play, see e.g. chapter 4 of Dr Richard Oppenlander’s book Food Choice and Sustainability.

[iv] Characterised this way, contrary to Dr Cannold’s assumption, humans would not be duty bound to protect non-human animals in the wild from their non-human hunters.   Nor in any event should humans assume this duty, as any effort to prevent non-human hunters from obtaining food actively endangers the lives of those animals as obligate carnivores.

[v]   See Chapter 2 of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation for a comprehensive assessment of this ‘industry’.

[vi] “Ethical Carnivores Care for Animals Too”,


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