By: Irfan Khawaja  Date: 01/15/2012 Category: | Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare |

“Animal right seems a topic for cranks.”

So wrote Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick in his review of a book on animal rights in The New York Times Book Review in 1983.(1)

What a difference a few decades makes! Twenty or 30 years ago, animal rights might well have been called “a topic for cranks,” but you wouldn’t get away with a statement like that today – not in public, anyway. Animal rights is no longer merely a curious topic in the Sunday papers; it’s a movement with a large and vocal constituency and a powerful lobby backed by deep pockets and the force of law. That is: animal rights has gone mainstream, a fact with serious implications for the biomedical and biotech industries of New Jersey.

The animal rights movement’s influence is seen in its purest form in academia. At Princeton, there is of course Peter Singer, father of the animal liberation movement and DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values. In his 1975 book Animal Liberation, Singer called for the wholesale abolition of all animal-model research, comparing such research to “the atrocities of the Roman gladiatorial arenas or the 18th Century slave trade.”(2) On this view, animal-model research is little better than a criminal enterprise, and the people engaged in it are little better than criminals.

To see how these ideas are put into practice, visit the Animal Rights Legal Clinic at Rutgers Newark, run by Professors Gary L. Francione and Anna E. Charlton. Their web page describes their mission: “One of the goals of the animal rights movement is to try to eradicate the status of non-humans as property, and to recognize that animals should be thought of as persons under the law.” Nor is this just a matter of theory. “We have trained law students from Rutgers and other institutions, in lawyering skills such as case and statutory analysis and litigation techniques and strategies, in the context of cases involving animal rights issues, or the intersection between human and animal rights.” The response has been tremendous, they report: “In every semester since we began operation in 1990, we have had to turn students away” for lack of space to accommodate them(3).


The real world

Ah, you might respond, but that’s academia, not “the real world.” Well, back in “the real world,” things are following the script written by the academics. The movement cleverly splits its efforts between its “good cops” and its “bad cops.” One relatively shadowy side of the movement (e.g., the Animal Liberation Front, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) vilifies and terrorizes scientists and corporations in an effort to stop research by intimidation or overt violence. The other more prominent side (e.g., PeTA) issues constant harangues, ultimatums, and lawsuits to achieve more or less the same end. With the assistance of mainstream groups like the Humane Society of the US, prominent politicians like the Garden State’s own Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) and a bevy of clueless Hollywood thespians, the movement has succeeded in pushing its agenda to the forefront of the national consciousness.

The consequences for the biotech and biomedical sector in the Garden State are both obvious and grim. At a rally held last December at Palmer Square in Princeton, I heard members of the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance say quite emphatically that they intended to take their agenda to the (then) new administration, and make animal rights one of its highest priorities. Remarkably, they’ve made good on their promise. On July 26 of this year, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that Governor McGreevey had thrown his weight behind the formation of an innocuously-named Animal Welfare Task Force, designed, in the governor’s words, “to take a proactive step towards designing a new future for animal welfare in New Jersey.” According to the Star-Ledger, one of the task force’s members is Theresa Fritzges, a member of…you guessed it, the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance, a group (in the article’s words) that “opposes the use of animals for clothing, food and medical or commercial testing.”

A clear lesson emerges: when politicians say they want to take a “proactive step” on the animals issue, unless they meet resistance, what they mean is that they want to advance the animal rights agenda. Needless to say, they have met little resistance so far.

Though the threat posed by the animal rights movement to industry is obvious enough, New Jersey’s business leaders seem to be responding to it as if in slow motion. {Apart from some sporadic – and legitimate – concerns about terrorism, there has been little recognition among business leaders of the radical nature of the animal rights movement’s goals, its remarkable political power, and its willingness to push its agenda as far as it will go.} What organized resistance there is to the animal rights activists in New Jersey has come from the grossly underfunded New Jersey Association for Biomedical Research. By default, resistance has also come as a defensive response from institutions like Huntingdon Life Sciences that have faced legal or other challenges by the activists. But such resistance has served at best as a stop-gap measure, slowing the activists down, while posing no serious threat to their basic agenda.

No quick fix

The first step toward dealing with the animal rights issue is to understand the nature of the problem. Business leaders are fond of quick fixes, and are therefore addicted to the idea of defining every problem in terms of better public relations and better lobbying. But there’s no quick fix here. The animal rights crusade wasn’t born yesterday and isn’t going anywhere: it’s an organized movement with a worked-out agenda and the patience to put that agenda in place, piece by painstaking piece. Most importantly, it’s a movement that has spent decades trying to win the moral high ground – high ground that its opponents in academia and especially in the business community have willingly ceded. This is not the sort of thing that public relations people – allergic to the very idea of a moral concern – are equipped to handle.

It can’t be emphasized enough how uncompromisingly radical the movement’s goals are. Contrary to popular belief, the movement does not want improved conditions for laboratory animals or better regulation of their use and care; it wants (and says that it wants) the total and unconditional abolition of all animal-model research as such. As Tom Regan – author of The Case for Animal Rights and one of the movement’s most prominent theoreticians – puts it, all research that harms animals in any way “ought to cease.” Even if that means the total collapse of medicine and a colossal loss of human life? Yes, says Regan; after all, “We have…no basic right against nature not to be harmed by those natural diseases we are heir to.”(4) This claim, widely accepted by both activists and theorists – including the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance – means that the “rights” of animals must be respected, no matter what the cost to humans.



After understanding the specifically ethical nature of the problem, the obvious second step in dealing with this movement is to take ethically appropriate action. “Socially responsible” business practices are all the rage nowadays, but few advocates of social responsibility seem capable of using that concept to defend industry against the depredations of those hostile to its very existence. That, in any case, is what the circumstance demands: an intelligent commitment to self-interest and self-defense. Whether industry is up to the challenge is another matter. So far, the results have been disappointing; industry’s response to the activists tends to lurch wildly from complacency to panic, and from appeasement to hysteria. Unfortunately, the activists know that they have little to fear from either reaction.

At a minimum, “ethically appropriate action” against the animal rights movement means three things. It means, first, being clear about ethical priorities. Animal welfare is important, and cruelty to animals is abhorrent, but our first and foremost moral concern must be human well-being. When human well-being conflicts with animal welfare, the latter must give way; an ethical vision that slights this concern should be described as anti-human and dealt with accordingly.

Correspondingly, industry must make clear that while improvements to the conditions of laboratory animals can be made, the ideology of animal rights or animal equality is simply off-limits – not negotiable and not a feasible topic of discussion. No group that subscribes to this ideology can be taken seriously; indeed, every group that fails explicitly to disavow animal rights should be seen as the threat that it is and treated as the adversary it is.

Finally, industry needs to forge alliances with its natural allies. Many lives and livelihoods depend on animal-model research from philosophy and science to the agricultural and medical communities; biomedical industries should be in the business of seeking out such allies, and building on what they have to offer.

It may seem paradoxical to some to argue that business ought to defend its interests in the name of ethics. But there’s nothing paradoxical about it: the interests at stake are human interests; in defending them, industry would be defending all of us. Such far-sightedness may seem too much to ask of business leaders. But the alternative to far-sightedness in this context is too awful to contemplate. We simply have no other choice.



  1. Nozick, NY Times Book Review, 11/27/83.
  2. Singer, Animal Liberation, p. 94.
  3. Such ideas are finding a receptive audience among young people, particularly college students, something that became amply clear to me last semester while teaching philosophy of science at The College of New Jersey. A comfortable majority of my students were at least sympathetic to animal rights, and a surprisingly large proportion of them were active members of the animal rights movement. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has for years run a well-funded and well-organized college activist network, designed to recruit eager young students to its cause. And virtually every college campus – from Princeton to Montclair State – has an animal rights club of some kind. Suffice it to say that there is no activist network on the other side of the ideological divide.
  4. Regan, p. 388.

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