Animals Are Not Our Tasters: We Are Not Their Kings
An Animal Rights Article from


Dr. Tom Regan,
July 2011

What we do know is this: We allow to be done to nonhuman animals what we would not tolerate in the case of human animals. Yet both have eyes, and appetites, and passions, and pains, and pleasures, and are hurt, and bleed, and die. I cannot see that we are anything but morally prejudiced and woefully inconsistent in our beliefs, attitudes and actions here. Heaven forbid that we should do to humans what now is being done to other animals. But heaven help us to stop doing these things to these animals.

Animals, in short — as this all too brief inventory may at least suggest — have been systematically and relentlessly exploited in enough ways and in enough numbers that one would hope (for the sake of animals) that we humans would have by now exhausted our enthusiasm if not our curiosity. But such is the ingenuity of the human mind that just when a moral optimist would dare to hope that we might outgrow the sins of our fathers, what do we find but the spirit of inquiry reasserting itself.

Heaven forbid that we should do to humans what now is being done to other animals. But heaven help us to stop doing these things to these animals.

The last thing animals need are new reasons for exploiting them. They have already been drowned enough, shocked enough; burned, starved, bled enough; been socially deprived, blinded, rendered deaf and denied sleep enough; had their brains scrambled, their limbs severed, their internal organs crushed enough; suffered induced heart attacks, induced peptic ulcers, induced paralysis, induced epileptic seizures enough; been forcibly made to smoke cigarettes, ingest heroin and cocaine enough; been used in enough high school science fairs, in enough college laboratories, in enough sessions of “practice” surgery; been living targets in enough tests of military weapons, irradiated in enough nuclear explosions, suffered enough in research in germ and chemical warfare; been made to swallow enough brake fluid and carburetor cleaner, had their eyes blinded by enough paint stripper and face cleaners, had their bare skin exposed to enough caustic industrial and commercial chemicals and solvents.

Animals, in short — as this all too brief inventory may at least suggest — have been systematically and relentlessly exploited in enough ways and in enough numbers that one would hope (for the sake of animals) that we humans would have by now exhausted our enthusiasm if not our curiosity. But such is the ingenuity of the human mind that just when a moral optimist would dare to hope that we might outgrow the sins of our fathers, what do we find but the spirit of inquiry reasserting itself.

There is a new incentive for animal exploitation being added to the already crowded agenda. Genetic engineering (so-called) has found an uncomprehending, powerless, and apparently limitless supply of “subjects” on which to devise and perfect its young ideas. It’s all part of the “biotechnological revolution,” a technological approach to agriculture; for example, described by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the following way: “biotechnology is broadly defined to include any technique that uses living organisms (or parts of organisms) to make or modify products, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific use. New biotechnology techniques make it possible to move genes from one organism to another — a potential for mankind to alter genetic traits.”

It all sounds rather exciting, certainly challenging. It also sounds just a bit scary. You put the results of such research, assuming it bears fruit, in the wrong hands, then quicker than you can say “Adolf Hitler” you’ll have the very serious threat, the very serious possibility of those slumbering yearnings about a “master race” reasserting itself. It’s the same kind of serious threat, the same kind of serious possibility we wince at when we think of today’s nuclear weapons getting in the hands of terrorists with itchy trigger fingers and intimations of immortality. The social responsibility of scientists extends not only to those humans now alive but also to those yet to come — assuming we are not the last. It is a sobering thought, one that might have the power to delay, though probably not the power to deny, the blossoming forth of the most fundamentally invasive form of science we have ever known.

My interest in gauging the threats posed by biotechnology includes but goes beyond the worries over what might become of us — us humans — if or as, this revolution succeeds. As the USDA description points out, the techniques of biotechnology can be used to “improve … animals” whereby “animals” the author evidently means to exclude members of the species Homo sapiens. What does the word “improve” mean here? Perhaps the best way to proceed is by way of example. So allow me to quote excerpts from a January 12, 1986, UPI story set in Athens, Ohio. The headline (as this appeared in The Houston Post) reads: “Genetic specialist predicts way to aid farmers, industry.”

“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” the story begins, “but Tom Wagner is doing it every day. The Ohio University zoology professor,” the story continues, “is using ‘designer’ genes to make pigs grow three times faster than normal, and he has planned a way to bottle genetic material for sale to farmers, who will then inject their own animals to enhance their good qualities … Through animal biotechnology, Wagner hopes to you will double the number of hogs you can take to market in a year, sharply cut feed costs and make more economical use of your barns. Thus you can pay off debt faster on buildings and equipment.

For the consumer, the quick growth means pork with less fat and cholesterol…
The economic implications of this ‘genetic delivery’ system are not lost on Ohio’s state government, which has designated Wagner’s project as one of six Advanced Technology Application Centers in Ohio and is pumping more than $3 million, matched by $4 million in federal funds, into the research.

I think this tells us rather well what it means to talk about “improving animals” in the present context. If hogs do not grow fast enough, could be raised more cheaply, or could produce a meat with less fat and cholesterol, then let us seek to discover the means to ”improve” on lazy porcine metabolism. Or if hens do not lay enough eggs, or do not lay them fast enough, then let us find the genetic keys to unlock their ovarian sluggishness. And if dairy cattle do not produce enough milk, well, then let us find the way to overcome the udder limitations of bovine nature.

And if someone were to ask a researcher like Tom Wagner whether what he is doing is in the interests of the hogs, or the hens, or the dairy cattle, I think we understand that the question answers itself. Considerations about what’s in the interests of these animals just aren’t part of what it means to improve them. “What’s-in-it-for-these-animals?” is no more a question that gets asked in this context than is true when rabbits are blinded with paint thinner, guinea pigs have their internal organs burst in the wake of being force-fed the latest version (the “new, improved” variety) of silver polish or hair spray, or Goobers (the baboon’s name whose heart was transplanted into Baby Fae) becomes an all but anonymous part of medical history.

But who are we, we humans, to suppose that we are entitled to bypass this question about What’s-in-this-for-these-animals? Who are we to claim the right to exploit animals in the ways we do, either the old ways of toxicity testing and learned helplessness experiments, for example, or the new ways of primate colonies for organ transplants and the genetic “improvement” of farm animals? No one (surely) will suggest that we have the right to exploit animals as we will merely because we have the power to do so. Might does not make right within the human moral community. Why should things be any different when we consider the moral community that includes the animals I’ve mentioned?

Perhaps some will be tempted to deny that there is such a moral community. After all, we belong to one species, these other animals belong to different ones. Morality, on the current view holds only between the members of our own species, not beyond it. I don’t think this view has anything but prejudice on its side. The 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes tried to dress up this prejudice in fancy rational clothes. He put animals outside the moral community on the grounds that only humans are aware of anything. Put a child’s fingers in the fire and it hurts. Set fire to a cat and the cat feels nothing. Since the moral community for the Cartesian consists only of those who feel and are otherwise aware of things, we humans are in, nonhumans are out.

I must assume that no otherwise sensible person would today openly advocate the Cartesian view. Voltaire speaks well for all us ordinary folks when he asks the Cartesian whether “nature has arranged all the means of feeling [in the animals I've mentioned], so that (they) may not feel?” No the physiology and behavior of these animals are just too much like our own to find it reasonable to maintain that we hear and smell and see, but they do not, or that we experience hunger, cold and fear, that we know the comfort of pleasure and the bite of pain, while they experience nothing. If all who feel and are aware are members of the moral community, then Tom Wagner’s hogs and the other animals I’ve mentioned are in, not out.

There are familiar religious responses that attempt to exclude animals from the moral community. One rests on the dominion God is said to have given us over his creation, animals included. If “dominion” is taken to mean “subjugation,” and if the moral community excludes those whose very nature it is to be subjugated, then animals and the rest of God’s creation are excluded from membership.

But this surely has got the message all wrong. Creation was good before we humans came on the scene, according to the Genesis account, and the role God gave to us, the role of his vice-regent on earth, surely means that we are called upon to take care of his good creation in the name of his purposes, not in unrestrained pursuit of ours. The Anglican cleric Andrew Linzey expresses this point admirably when he states that “it is now commonly held… that although dominion involves the exercise of power, it is an exercise that must be subordinate to the moral purposes of God.”

“On a theistic understanding of creation, such as the Christian entertains,” no less important members of the Anglican Church have written, it is a mistake to suppose that all animal life exists only to serve human kind; or that the world was made exclusively for man’s benefit. Man’s estimate of his own welfare should not be the only guideline in determining his relationship with other species. In terms of this theistic understanding man is custodian of the universe he inhabits with no absolute right over it.

Here, if not before, we will be told that animals lack immortal souls and that only those who have them belong to the moral community. Well, all this is controversial at best — controversial; first, because it is not certain that we humans have the requisite sort of soul; and controversial, secondly, because it’s uncertain that animals do not. For not only do we find attributions of souls to animals in many religions of the world — in Hinduism and Buddhism, for example — we also find an increasing number of Christian and other western thinkers well disposed to the view that we humans are not unique in having the wherewithal to join the celestial chorus. In some elusive, possibly mystical sense, all of creation, including every animal other than the human variety, awaits the day of ultimate redemption — on this view.

But suppose the case is otherwise and that we humans are the only terrestrial species with immortal souls. What hearing could this possibly have on whether animals are members of the moral community here on earth? If Descartes was correct and animals felt nothing, then perhaps their cries and groans could be regarded as the morally indifferent sputterings of machines fun afoul.

But of course Descartes is not correct. The pains of animals are no less real than their eyes and ears. True, if they lack a soul, and if they therefore have no possibility of life after their terrestrial death, then there is nothing that can happen to them in a future state that would possibly compensate them for their earthly travails, including the misery they experience in human hands, not excluding the hands of the Tom Wagners of the world. But if that were true (as the influential Christian theologian C. S. Lewis saw), our duty to make their lives good here on earth would not be lessened. On the contrary, this duty would be increased. I don’t myself see how morally serious Christians (and the same applies to morally serious Jews) can avoid the conclusion that we need to get the hogs and other farm animals of the world out from under the tyranny of science.

When the very idea of “improving animals” doesn’t even include any mention of how the animals themselves will benefit, we can safely assume that, viewed from any credible theistic vantage point, something has gone wrong.

Some there are who would accept the preceding and yet still put animals beyond the moral pale. The grounds they would invoke are biological in nature, broadly conceived. We are, according to this view, the apex of the biological world, the species toward which all of evolution has been inexorably moving. And just as we find that there is nothing wrong with the other species below us utilizing those species still lower than themselves, so we, the top-dog in the community of life, so to speak, are at liberty to utilize all those species below us in order to advance our own interests. If then, the application of gene-splicing technology promises to further these interests, we are guilty of no wrong in using it.

This position, as pervasive as it is in our secularized scientific community, commits just about all the textbook fallacies in moral theory. Suppose it is true that all the other species utilize species “below” them (whatever precisely that means). Then that is a fact. But from this fact (assuming it is one), it does not follow that we humans ought to utilize the species below us, or that we do nothing wrong if we do so. Neither values nor moral principles follow logically from facts. What is true of the world is not the same as, and does not entail, what ought to be true in it. Even if it were true (which of course it is not) that all human beings eat other animals, it would in no way follow that they ought to, or that they do nothing wrong in doing so.

Questions of ethics are not questions of fact — at least not facts of the sort we can discover in, say, biology. Put another way, ethics is not one of the natural sciences. We need to ask moral questions about the scientific aspirations of the Tom Wagners of the world, not assume that their science itself provides us with the answers.

Still, biology is not irrelevant to working our way toward some sensible ethical position concerning our sometimes terminal scientific interactions with nonhuman animals. Advocates of animal rights like myself sometimes argue that excluding animals from equal moral consideration, denying them full membership in the moral community, is in some ways analogous to such prejudices as sexism and anti-Semitism. When people hear this for the first time, they sometimes are shocked. Some are even offended. But consider how Shakespeare has Shylock, a Jew, address those Christians of his day who were in the habit of discriminating against him. “What’s his reason?” Shylock asks of the Christian, and then goes on to answer in these words:

I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die?

James Gaffney, a Catholic ethicist at the University of Loyola in New Orleans, offers the following telling insights into Shakespeare’s understanding of moral prejudice:

… in this savagely righteous denunciation of chronic injustice perpetrated by Christians upon Jews, what Shylock insists upon is not the Jew’s humanity, but his animality, not his rationality but his organicity and sentiency, and not his capacity to be offended but his susceptibility to bodily hurt. He is thus able to make his moral point with great effectiveness without even risking his adversaries’ contemptuous dismissal of any claim to human dignity. He strategically chooses the low ground because on that low ground even the most virulent anti-Semitism cannot obscure the justice of his complaint.

Gaffney, who is well aware of the astonishing dimensions of neglect of animals in Catholic theology — “how far Catholic moral theologians have been from [recognizing the moral claims of animals],” he writes, “may be drearily indicated by the fact that in most of their books, if there should occur any index reference to animals, it would probably lead the reader to only a portion of the treatise on lust dealing with the sin of bestiality!” Gaffney goes on to add that “what for Shylock was the shrewdly chosen low ground must, I suppose, be considered the high ground for animals. But I do not see why that should make the same sort of argument morally unpersuasive when used in their behalf.

With that finding of Gaffney’s I heartily concur, and the refusal to acknowledge the legitimate place of animals within the moral community, or to deny them equal moral consideration because they belong to species other than our own, would be no less a form of moral prejudice, and a moral prejudice of the same sort as a Christian’s attempt to exclude Shylock because he was a Jew. We mean, then, those of us who champion the cause of animal rights, no insult to Jews or any other historically oppressed members of the human family when we liken the prejudice against nonhuman animals to the prejudices these humans have had to bear.

Jews and blacks and other minorities — my own Irish forebearers included — are not the less in our eyes because we see an analogy with the oppression of animals in their own oppression. Nor are animals the more in our eyes. Each is what each is. Nothing more. But nothing less. Each is one who has eyes, organs, affections, passions, one who knows warmth and cold, one who bleeds when pricked and dies when poisoned. Recognition of our shared animality marks the beginning of the new consciousness that underlies the struggle for animal rights.

But this marks the beginning only. Our shared animality is a fact. But facts are not values. The whole challenge of adequate theory construction in ethics remains. And on that topic the pressures of time oblige me to say little and to attempt to prove even less. Permit me to work my way toward my less ambitious conclusions by the following route.

Once we have accepted our shared animality with the hogs in Tom Wagner’s care, for example, we need to ask whether we would accept the same kind of exploitation we find in his barn to continue if human beings were the subjects of his research. Would we, that is, tolerate the notion that Tom Wagner’s brand of science really is “improving” human beings if he is able to get them to grow three times faster, produce cuts of meat that are lower in fat and cholesterol, and the rest of it. I must profoundly hope that none today would rise to vote in favor of this modest proposal.

Human beings, even the weakest among us, do not exist for the purpose of someone else’s gustatory delight or as tokens in some economic game called commercial human agriculture. Other humans, in other times and places, may have made a practice of eating fellow Homo sapiens, but that fact was sufficient reason to confirm the identity of the chefs as savages or barbarians. We civilized folk have risen above all that. We wouldn’t dream of doing the horrible things to humans that we allow to be done to animals, whether on the farm or in the laboratory.

Well and good. As far as it goes. But does it go far enough? What could possibly be the defense of our savage exploitation of the animals in our care? I have explained why it cannot be any more reasonable to suppose that a difference in species could justify this than it would be to suppose that Christians were justified in exploiting Jews. Notions about who or what has a soul are no more effective as defenses, and our supposed God-given right to dominate the world should lead us, not to live off the backs of animals, as we in this culture do, but to try and stop those who do so.

Our supposed position at the biological apex of the world is, at best, a fact, and facts never yield the answers to questions of value. What we do know is this: We allow to be done to nonhuman animals what we would not tolerate in the case of human animals. Yet both have eyes, and appetites, and passions, and pains, and pleasures, and are hurt, and bleed, and die. I cannot see that we are anything but morally prejudiced and woefully inconsistent in our beliefs, attitudes and actions here. Heaven forbid that we should do to humans what now is being done to other animals. But heaven help us to stop doing these things to these animals.

For animals no more exist for us, to be used by us to promote our ends, however important these ends might be, than Jews exist for Christians, blacks for whites, or women for men.

Not so very long ago, kings and members of the royal family had a handy way to discover whether an ambitious rival had poisoned their food. Some powerless serf was forced to sample the meal. If he experienced no ill effects, then the food was judged suitable for the king. If the taster became ill or died, then the food never touched royal lips. The fact that the taster sometimes became sick or died carried no moral weight. The important thing was to protect those in power, not worry about the rights of those lacking royal blood.

But might does not make right

Animals are not our tasters. We are not their kings.

It is time — long past time — that we recognize this elementary yet profound truth and bring consistency to our moral life. Even when it comes to how we treat pigs. For pigs are destined soon to become the experimental animal of choice in the era of biotechnology. “A new, improved [we know what that word means] miniature pig soon may be rooting its way into research lab,” writes N. Scott Vance in the January 2, 1986 issue of Time Chicago Tribune. “Charles River Laboratories of Massachusetts is the world’s largest seller of lab animals,” the story continues,

early this year will unveil its trademarked Micropig — an 8-pound oinker that’s billed as the perfect replacement for the hound. It’s virtually hairless and friendly and doesn’t provoke emotional protests.

Emotional protests from the American public, that is. At least that’s the view of Michael Swindle of the Medical University of Southern Carolina, a consultant to Charles River. Animal protection groups, according to Swindle, “have used the dog as America’s sacred cow … They appeal for donations on the basis of our using dogs. But there will be little publicity or concern about using an animal in research … which everybody eats … We don’t eat dogs. It’s purely a perception thing.”

That much said, prospective clients might think for a moment or two before trusting their dog to Dr. Swindle’s care. But perhaps he is right about America’s ethical sense: Dogs are special to us. Pigs are not. The proof, one might say, is in the eating. And the non-eating.

Or consider this story by Katherine Eaker Perkins, writing in the Sacramento Bee.

Charlotte, blonde and cute, is downright piggish: at 9 a.m., she downs her first cocktail of the day and snorts for more. She slurps the second and clamors for a third. She doesn’t know when to stop and isn’t alone. Hortense and Gertrude and Wilbur are just as unrestrained. Only Oscar obviously doesn’t like the taste of alcohol. He stands quietly nursing his drink for an hour.

In case the plot isn’t already obvious, the headline (“Pickled porkers on scholarly binge”) and Ms. Perkins’ next remarks remove all the mystery. What we have here is — science.

The scene is not a neighborhood bar, but a laboratory at the University of California, Davis, where pigs are getting drunk. In fact, researchers from the medical school are leading these creatures down the path — to alcoholism. It’s all part of a scientific experiment to determine if alcoholics — who die by the tens of thousands each year from malnutrition-related diseases — are able to absorb and metabolize nutrients from their food.

Within a week of the test’s start, researchers expect the pigs to be consuming “the equivalent of 15 beers a day.” Ms. Perkins relates that she asked Tony Buffington, a veterinarian working on this project, which is jointly funded by the National Institutes of Health and Bristol Meyers for $2 million, whether he feels bad about turning these fastidious creatures into alcoholics lolling in their waste and suffering hangovers.”

“You have to pretty carefully weigh what you do to animals in the interest of helping humans,” he is reported to have replied.

Buffington may understand a good deal of science but one has to wonder about his abilities as a moral philosopher. Like other animal researchers, he seems to assume that animals are just another sort of natural or genetically designed resource, born to be used in the name of the interest of a particular species — our species. But where there is no rational defense of a practice, there can be no reason to accept it as right. And there is no rational defense of our systematic, routinized, mechanized, and institutionalized exploitation of animals, pigs included.

Does this mean that animal rights activists take delight in the suffering of human beings? In the particular case of alcoholics in our midst, are animal rights activists only too happy to let them make it through their rocky life on their own, without any medical assistance? Here again the questions answer themselves. Those who care about the rights of animals cannot fail to care about the health of human beings. We should do what we morally can do to help the sick — by giving greater funding to alcohol abuse centers and psychological support facilities, for example, and increased funding for preventive programs; help that goes directly to the people who need it most and need it most immediately, not to speculative and all but hopeless research on helpless alcoholic animals.

A Christian who refused to support experiments on Jews would not prove how little he loved his fellow Christians. He would only show how much he respected the rights of Jews. Logically and morally, the case is no different with the animals I’ve mentioned. We who would have our science respect the rights of animals do not love our fellow humans the less. It is justice we respect the more, a justice that transcends the boundaries of our own species. By all means, then, let us reap the gains our science can yield — provided only that they are well- not ill-gotten.

When the dust settles and the opposing sides have had their say, Dr. Swindle’s remark, the one about, “It’s purely a perception thing,” still lingers. There is an element of wisdom here. For if we could see the animals in our laboratories differently, if we could reach a point of expanded consciousness where we sensed their beauty and dignity, their individual integrity and their moral kinship with us, then we would, perhaps, put an end to our own species’ variation on the theme of bestiality.

Such depth of perception was reached by Leonardo da Vinci, for example. Recall his monumental words: “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as we now look upon the murder of men.” St. Francis, too, acquired that vision. His words and deeds are legendary, and rightfully so. Of course, you and I are not required to raise ourselves to his ecstatic heights or to talk with our animal brethren before we can learn to recognize the massive scale of our exploitation of them for the great wrong that it is.

  • 3 animals killed every second in laboratories in the United States, probably twice that number worldwide
  • 10 billion animals killed for food, just in America
  • 10 million unclaimed and unwanted companion animals “put to sleep” annually in our pounds and shelters in the United States — and some 200,000 of these animals, the even less lucky ones, are sold to researchers to meet their death in one lab or another, in one experiment or another
  • $7 billion of federal support of animal-related research poured annually into the powerful wheels of the medical-industrial complex, a figure approaching almost $2 million dollars every hour of every day — just in the United States

Historically considered, there is perhaps only one other massive human evil to compare with it, one that I, as a gentile, would not allude to on my own initiative.

But Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, himself a Jew has. There is, he says, another Holocaust occurring, right before our eyes, only in this one it is nonhuman, not human, animals who are the victims.

When viewed against the staggering numbers involved, with figures in the billions, it is perhaps difficult to see the evil being done to Charlotte and Hortense and the other 40-odd pigs being encouraged to consume the equivalent of 15 beers a day. Perhaps our perceptions get numbed by the sheer volumes of the abuse. And so we look for help, for guidance so that we might better see and appreciate the desperate plight of Charlotte and the other “pickled porkers.”

And when we look, if we do, we find the help, the guidance in the person of St. Francis. For one of the animals into whose depths he saw and whose beauty he understood was a pig — a sow. I shall leave you with a reminder of his sense of this oft-misunderstood and much maligned creature, the one whose micro-sized offspring will be filling up the cages of our laboratories in the near future — in the name of “progress.” St. Francis’s loving perception of this animal is a vision to be compared with Tom Wagner’s, Tony Buffington’s, Michael Swindle’s, and the rest of the people who comprise the medical-industrial complex.

None are so blind as those who will not see.

Return to Animal Rights Articles