On March 8th I debated Prof. Gary Francione at Rutgers School of Law.
It was an interesting, heated but civil debate, with a somewhat anticipated outcome.
In a few words, we have profound, irreconcilable differences.
There is a deep, fundamental gap between the views of the vast majority of the public and anyone whose moral theory declares permissible to flip a coin in order to decide who to save in a burning house, a human or a mouse.
And this is exactly what Prof. Francione and a handful of his followers (about 5 out of 120 members in the audience) were prepared to do. Of course, they are right. They are right in that this is precisely what Prof. Francione’s theory of animal rights demands them to do. Why? Because the theory considers the mouse and the human as both sentient beings that deserve exactly the same level of moral consideration.
The root of our differences can be traced down to his position that there are no morally relevant characteristics that would make the loss of life for the human any different than the loss of life for the mouse. Prof. Francione view is that the same things are at stake.
Here, of course, he stands against the philosophical current:
For example, Peter Singer recognizes that "to take the life of a being who has been hoping, planning and working for some future goal is to deprive that being of the fulfillment of those efforts; to take the life of a being with a mental capacity below the level needed to grasp that one is a being with a future -- much less make plans for the future -- cannot involve this particular kind of loss."
Ortega y Gasset explained that “Human life is the execution of an aspiration -- a life's plan. Human life is a process that cannot be reduced to mere living by satisfying our immediate biological needs. Humans are not content with living, they need to live well and realize their ambitions.” and this, of course, is a relevant reason why animal and human interest in life are not similar.
Tom Regan agrees when he writes “[...] the harm that death is, is a function if the opportunities for satisfaction it forecloses, and no reasonable person would deny that the death of any [...] human would be a greater prima facie loss, and thus a greater prima facie harm, that would be true in the case [of] a dog”.
In my opening remarks, I presented reasons for why we must reject the animal rights view, which equates the moral status of all sentient beings. I did this by giving examples of how applying the theory to various scenarios would lead us to behave in ways that conflict with our moral intuitions. I argued that once we reject this extreme view, all we are only left with theories based on the notion of unequal moral status between animals and normal humans (such as the two-tier or sliding scale model of moral status). All of these theories allow animal experimentation to various degrees.
I explained how researchers view very concrete situations as being comparable to the burning house scenario, such as porcine heart-valve replacement surgery, the polio epidemic or the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
I explained also why I believe we have obligations to other living beings, but that these obligations do not imply that animals have rights, as they cannot behave as autonomous, rational moral agents in a community of equals. This, of course, is a point made by Carl Cohen in various occasions.
Unfortunately, there was no effort on Prof. Francione’s part to pinpoint the flaws in my reasoning. One of the virtues of his theory is that it is extremely simply to understand, extremely simple to apply, and the consequences are straightforward. My main point was that the consequences of the theory are in direct conflict with the moral intuition of the vast majority of the public and we must reject it.
Instead, his attacks on animal research amounted to a potpourri of classic mischaracterizations by animal right activists of the actual science, our true intentions, and personal ethics, all of which are difficult to address in a few minutes in a debate.
For example, I pointed out to the use of primates in the development of the polio vaccine that has helped to nearly eradicated the disease from the face of the planet and will continue to save lives for generations to come. The benefits are unmeasurable. He responded that animals were not truly needed in the development of the vaccine, in direct contradiction to statements by Dr. Albert Sabin.
I noted that there is vast scientific consensus (92% agreement) from both scientists and physicians alike on the necessity of animal research to advance medical science and knowledge. He countered that, on this matter, the jury is still out.
He criticized the scientific community for not including mice and rats in the animal welfare act (AWA), but his true position was exposed when he declared the AWA “not worth the paper on which it is written”. Let us be clear: there are no amendments to the AWA whatsoever that would make the research ethical in the view of animal rights activists.
He criticized me for not being vegan, while it is evident that even if all scientists were to become vegan tomorrow the research would still be viewed as unethical in their eyes. (Incidentally, I think the ethics of animal food can be defended, but this is an entirely different topic and debate).
I clarified that I am opposed to the use of animals for the development of yet another lipstick, but that there is an obvious need to ensure that any chemicals we bring to our homes are safe to humans and animals alike. I noted this is not the type of toxicology work done at our universities.
During our mutual questioning I asked him if his education campaign to break the cycle of “supply and demand” of animal food also extended to the benefits generated by animal research, such as vaccines. In other words, was he willing to ask the population at large to stop vaccinating their children?
He responded that in fact he would not vaccinate his children (he has none, although he did not say if his dogs are vaccinated), and later he clarified his opposition to vaccination rests not only for ethical but other reasons, which he never explained. I expressed my dismay at his anti-vaccination position.
Many of the questions directed at me by the audience dealt with the question of moral status of animals and humans. I explained that I do not claim the moral status of all humans is above the moral status of all animals. A number of questions regarding marginal cases ensued. I think this can be a productive and interesting discussion to have in society, but it is only a discussion that is possible once we accept the unequal moral status of animals and normal humans. Clearly, it is not a discussion that is even theoretically possible within the framework of animal rights theory that equates the moral status of all sentient beings.
I had a nice and frank conversation with Prof. Francione prior to the debate. As he correctly judged, our positions are “miles apart”. My perception is that he is a good man, with noble intentions, but philosophically I think he is as wrong as anyone can be.
Both Prof. Francione and I agreed on one thing: the debate was a good example of how passionate but respectful discourse is possible on controversial issues in our society. I want to publicly thank him for his invitation to debate.
Prof. Francione and I will share a video of the entire event once it is ready.