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Professor Robert Garner

December 11, 2010

Professor Robert Garner

11 December 2010

Professor Garner is professor of political theory at the University of Leicester in the UK. He obtained his BA from the University of Salford and his MA and PhD from the University of Manchester.

Prof. Garner specialises in animal rights; the focus of his principal research interest has been on the political representation of nonhuman interests, which are taken to include the interests of nonhuman animals and other non-sentient parts of nature. This is an area of study that fits into the broader subject area of environmental politics.

He is the author of 5 books in this area, including The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?(2010) with Professor Gary Francione, Animal Ethics (2005), The Political Theory of Animal Rights (2005), Animals, Politics and Morality (2004) and Environmental Politics: Britian, Europe and The Global Environment (2000).

ARZone: Professor Garner, when and how did you get involved in animal protection?

Robert Garner: I was concerned about the treatment of animals quite a while before I started focusing on it as part of my academic work.

That was, I guess, when I was in my teens, too far back than I care to remember (1970s to be precise!). Unlike a lot of people, I can’t remember a particular Road to Damascus moment, but, I guess it was hearing about the suffering inflicted on animals from the media and from people I knew to the point where I couldn’t ignore it any more. I was more of a left-leaning person then but now the right/left spectrum means a lot less to me politically.

Could you please outline some of the improvements that could be made for other animals living today, from the perspective of those other animals, through campaigns aimed at the regulation of their treatment?

Yes, clearly the biggest improvement would consist in not using animals at all as a source of food or as laboratory subjects.

Giving that’s not, at present, an option there are a variety of improvements that could be made, short of abolishing particular practices. The end of factory farming, or the worst excesses of it, is clearly the most important, given the number of animals involved and the level of suffering inflicted.

Some of these changes – the abolition of battery cages, sow stalls and tethers, the veal crate and so on – are beginning to happen in Europe and I think there is some movement in the States too – the success of initiatives in a number of states and the publicity given to the conclusions of the Pew Commission to name but two significant developments. There is also a great deal of scope for improvements in the way that animals are transported. This has been a big issue in the UK, particularly in the 1990s, but it is one that can only be decided at a European Union level. Indeed, it is at the supranational level where a great deal can be done. Globalization is shifting power from the nation state to international organizations and animal groups should orientate themselves to be able to respond to this

For instance, arguably the biggest constraint on those in Britain who want to see improved farm animal welfare is the World Trade Organization whose laissez faire  ideology often prevents governments in Europe, or even the European Union itself, from acting to improve animal welfare.

In terms of animal experimentation, the improvements recommended will depend upon the nature of the legislative regime. In Britain, a cost-benefit clause in the legislation already allows, potentially at least, for the pretty stringent protection of animals. This should be exported to the United States where, traditionally, only the condition of animals prior to a procedure being carried out is regulated by the state.

The problem in Britain is that the process is so secretive that it is difficult to know whether the regulations have been enforced, and there is some evidence that it is not! Anti-vivisection groups have campaigned for greater transparency but with limited success.

Some important changes have happened in Britain, though, over the past decade or so, such as the ending of cosmetic testing on animals and an end to the use of wild-caught primates.

I found your assessment in the essay “Animals, Ethics and Public Policy” of our failure to understand, with respect to the moral personhood of nonhumans, the import of the argument about so-called “marginal humans” quite interesting. Would you please elaborate on that point for our members?

That’s a difficult question to answer briefly! Very basically, as many of you will know, the argument from marginal cases is a device used by philosophers to challenge the view that we can distinguish morally between all humans and all nonhuman animals. So, if an opponent of animal rights makes the claim that humans are morally superior because of the characteristics they possess and animals don’t, the retort is that not all humans – babies, the severely cognitively disabled etc. – actually have these characteristics. The logic, then, is to either treat these marginal humans in the same way that we currently treat animals or to treat animals and marginal humans in the same way that we would treat ‘normal’ humans. If we accept the argument from marginal cases, or at least this latter version of it, then, there seems little in the way of according humans the same moral status as nonhumans.

Given that failure & considering that the argument from marginal cases has, in your words, a “logically flawless character” what do you envision for the future insofar as the prospects for a non-speciesist paradigm shift in the broader public?

Not much, I’m afraid. The argument from marginal cases plays better in the philosophy classroom than it does in the general public.

Of course, it is, to some extent, mistaken, because we DO treat marginal humans differently, particularly when it comes to their liberty. It doesn’t seem outrageous morally, for instance, to deprive those who have severe dementia of their liberty.

The main reason for its failure to influence, though, is that it is so abstract, and doesn’t take into account the relationship that people have with other, marginal, humans. The care ethicists have got that right I think. They would say that what matters morally is the relationships we forge with other humans and non-humans, and the emotional weight we attach to them. This allows animals to be included. But the problem is what do we do with those animals we don’t have any particular emotional attachment to? The care ethic, then, seems to work quite well for companion animals but not for distant animals in factory farms and laboratories.

In your paper, “In Defence of Animal Sentience: A Critique of Cochrane’s Liberty Thesis,” you write that: “the campaigns of the animal rights movement have been based more on opposing the suffering of animals than their lack of freedom, or indeed the fact that they are killed.” You say something similar in the videocast you kindly recorded for Animal Rights November at UCD in Dublin. Is it not the case that the campaigners you refer to as animal rights advocates are people who, by and large, do NOT adhere to the philosophy of animal rights as laid out, for example, by Regan and Francione, and is it not the case that their preference to focus on the opposition to suffering as opposed to issues of freedom or killing places them as animal welfarists in orientation rather than animal rightists?

Good question! I was referring to the gut instincts of some animal activists as opposed to their well thought-out moral position, if indeed they have one, not that they ought to have one of course!

Insofar as they do have a moral position which opposes the suffering of animals then I don’t think it is inconsistent with a rights position, but it is inconsistent with the rights position put forward by Regan and Francione. There is an important distinction in animal rights thinking that I’m trying to articulate here. The first position – held by Tom and Gary and a number of others – is what I describe as the use position. This argues that what is wrong with our treatment of animals is the fact that we use them. That is, to use them – as sources of food or as experimental subjects – is to infringe their rights.

This position only works if we also argue that animals have a right to life and a right to liberty.

The second position is the so-called ‘sentience’ position. This is a position that I seek to articulate but I think it has quite a long history in animal ethics – it can be found to some extent in the work of James Rachels as well as David DeGrazia and the British political theorist Alasdair Cochrane.

This position rejects the idea that animals have a right to life and a right to liberty but still insists that animals have a right against others inflicting suffering on them.

My point in the article was that adopting this sentience position can justify pretty radical changes in the way that animals are currently treated. It is absolutely not the same as welfare.

An animal welfare position does not recognize animals as having any rights. It accepts that animals have an interest in not suffering, but argues that this interest in not suffering can be overridden in order to serve human interests.

The sentience position would not allow that. If a practice causes animals to suffer it is morally illegitimate, whatever the benefit to humans. Done.

As I understand the position, you don’t believe that a rights-based approach to solving the problem of the exploitation of nonhumans is likely to work. But if I understand what you are advocating for, it is not merely an approach which seeks better treatment of nonhumans within the current systems of exploitation, but an elimination of the majority of those systems entirely. I am reading you correctly?

I’ve provided some of the answer to your question in my response to the previous question.

I hope that after explaining my argument it might become clear why I think adopting a rights position based on sentience might justify abolitionist objectives.

This is entirely a factual question rather than a moral one. That is, if animal agriculture can remove suffering it is morally legitimate. The same applies to animal experimentation.

In the former, for instance, if an extensive system of animal agriculture removes the suffering associated with factory farming it becomes preferable morally.

Whether it could remove all suffering is doubtful though. Likewise, if animals avoid suffering in the course of a laboratory procedure then it is morally legitimate. Issues of liberty and life do not apply. Done.

In the videocast you prepared for Animal Rights November in Ireland recently, you asked if it were possible that, as almost all of the large animal advocacy organisations advocate for reforms of the treatment of other animals, which falls short of abolition, could all of the big orgs be wrong in their advocacy. You suggested it would be possible, but unlikely.

Could you please explain why you feel it’s unlikely that the large orgs could all be wrong, when some may suggest the large orgs may in fact be part of the problem hindering the abolition of exploitation with their poverty of ambition and reluctance to ask for anything more than regulation of treatment?

I think it is unlikely they are wrong, simply because of the number of people involved in these organizations and their experience of animal advocacy.

Remember that some of these organizations – I’m thinking, for instance, of the anti-vivisection organizations in the UK – make it clear that they are totally opposed to the use of animals, and the politicians and civil servants with whom they have contact know this and some may well respect them for it. These anti-vivisection groups also know that they would get absolutely nowhere if they sought to ask governments for too much.

I think a study of animal protection politics supports this. In the run up to the passage of the 1986 Act on animal experimentation in Britain, for instance, there were those groups who made it clear they wanted much more. They became irrelevant to the negotiations.

Of course, some national organizations are moderate anyway, and no-doubt others are too timid. But all of them?

Of course, it is a different point to say that the animal movement should not involve itself in this kind of politics and simply become a moral crusade attempting to influence the public directly. I have argued against this strategy on a variety of grounds. Put starkly, there is absolutely no evidence it will work and, in the meantime, attempts to improve the welfare of animals in a gradual way will be sacrificed.

In your essay, “Political Ideology and the Legal Status of Animals”, you argue that while a full recognition of animals’ rights is not possible while nonhumans remain the property of others, abolishing their property status would be neither necessary nor sufficient “in order to ensure a high degree of animal protection.” Instead, you suggest that what is required is a shift away from thinking of nonhumans in ways which are for humans, “self-regarding” towards ways which are “other-regarding”. It seems incongruous to imagine any meaningful “other-regarding” of those who remain little more than things in the eyes of the law. Would you explain what you mean?

What I was arguing is that it is not the property status of animals as a legal construct that is preventing their better treatment, but rather a more general ideology that regards intervention to restrict what owners do to animals as illegitimate. It is not the case that animals are regarded in law as mere things. All animal welfare statutes in the Western world recognize the intrinsic value of animals. Insofar as these statutes aren’t enforced, the explanation doesn’t lie in the property status of animals per se but rather in the wider political, cultural and economic climate in which they operate.

To illustrate this point, a piece of legislation aimed at ending the property status of animals wouldn’t have any effect without wider support for the objective.

More to the point, it wouldn’t happen anyway without a general waning of the view that animals are ours to do with as we please. Done.

Considering that what Francione suggests is that legal protections for nonhumans cannot occur in any meaningful way until a critical mass of vegans exist in the population vegans who presumably would be “other-regarding” with respect to nonhumans, are the two of you saying essentially the same thing?

No, we are not saying the same thing, I should quickly add!

In the sense that in my view it would not require a critical mass of vegans to effect any meaningful change, but rather a wide-spread acceptance that animals have interests which deserve to be considered. I would argue that there is, perhaps, a greater acceptance of that in the UK and some other countries in Europe, than there is in the United States.

There is much stronger support for libertarianism in the United States. People there, I suspect, are much less likely to be prepared to accept the limitations on individual freedom that we accept in the UK. Twice in the 20th Century, for instance, the government in Britain cancelled elections and imposed enormous restrictions on individual liberty in order to fight world wars. Done.

Tasmania, Australia made a decision this year to ban sow stalls after 2017. My experience has been that the general public, once hearing this decision, are now comfortable resuming their pig flesh consumption. Animal welfare orgs’ claims of “victory” seem to allow many people to believe that pigs now walk into the slaughterhouse in excitement that they’re about to be slaughtered, after leading a utopian existence to that point. This all seems to happen despite the ban being in only 1 state, being phased in on a voluntary level after 2014, and being more than likely subject to future challenge. Are these kinds of actions in keeping with your idea of Animal Protectionism? As a general matter, should they be considered “victories” for other animals or not?

I maintain that each welfare measure should be judged on its merits. This one, in terms of the phase in period and its geographical coverage, seems very limited, and the animal protection movement ought to say so. I still maintain, though, that having no sow stalls is better than having them. As part of your question, you raise the issue that Gary and I discuss extensively in our book the issue over whether welfare reforms are counterproductive because they make meat eating more acceptable. I haven’t got the time here to repeat that debate in detail but I will make a couple of general points.

First, it might be argued that some welfare reforms are ethically desirable irrespective of the degree to which they are a stepping stone to more radical measures.

Second, the counterproductive argument is based on the assumption that the best way of achieving a vegan future is to make things so bad for animals that people react against it, and refuse to eat meat.

I have a number of responses to this. Can factory farming get much worse? Has it stopped people from eating meat? Is it morally valid to let animal suffering increase and do nothing to support measures to reduce it?

My answer to all three questions is no.

Your position seems to hinge on the notion that sentient beings can have an interest in not suffering, while not have a concurrent interest in a continuation of life. I would perhaps phrase such a position as to say that, for instance, a chicken would care how big the cage she spends her life in is, but she wouldn’t care about her life itself. If that admittedly simple example speaks adequately to your position, can you help me understand why it isn’t a contradiction? Why would she care how she spends her life if she cares not for her life in the end?

It is not so much that animals don’t care for their lives. What I’m getting at is the view that the interest that animals have in continued life is less than humans. This is not a particularly contentious position to hold. There is actually a consensus amongst animal ethicists (Regan, Singer, DeGrazia to name but three) that the lives of humans are worth more than those of non-humans, that the cost for humans of dying is greater than the cost for non-human animals.

So, I am not saying that nonhuman animals lose nothing by death. To be harmed by death requires only sentience given that death prevents the future possibility of pleasurable experiences

So animal lives matter and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that they don’t. And this complicates things ethically, and I was trying to simplify things a bit by emphasizing the importance of sentience. It is also politically important to make the argument as basic as possible, and I think focusing on the capacity to suffer does the trick. I think at heart too most animal advocates are really driven by the suffering of animals as opposed to their deaths or lack of liberty

But if you want me to elaborate on the exact ethical consequences of this slightly revised position I’m happy to do so.

In your co-authored book with Gary Francione, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? you state that animals have a right not to suffer “unacceptably.” How do you determine what levels of suffering are “acceptable”?

Of course, Gary is right to say that a great deal depends on the ability to quantify what degree of suffering is acceptable

This is not, however, an exact science

I still maintain though that we can talk sensibly about degrees of suffering. Clearly, all of us suffer to some degree! But we all know what the difference is between a great deal and a little and we should aim to only accept minimal suffer.

Is animal rights a moral crusade or a political social movement or both? If both, how does it implement a strategy utilising both?

I think it has to be both. There is no substitute for political action. The danger of focussing on the moral crusade aspect is that politicians can wash their hands and ignore it. In addition, moral crusades in liberal societies presuppose an alternative moral position. The state in liberal societies can then deny responsibility for what is essentially a matter of individual conscience. As an academic with a background in politics you would expect me to say that being involved in politics is crucial for a social movement

In a chat a couple of weeks ago some people said that stuff like breaking into mink farms to let the minks go free is a good thing to do.  What do you think?

I think that direct action that doesn’t involve threats of violence to people should be considered, but each case ought to be considered on its merits.

Questions like: Is it going to work? How many animals will be saved? What will the public reaction be? Are key ones for me.

Bearing in mind that you are not going to be able to rescue all of the animals kept, for instance, in mink farms, you need to consider whether rescuing some is going to hinder or help the campaign against mink farms.

I think the answer will depend on a variety of things, such as the nature of the issue, the type of activity and the sympathy of the media.

In your recent paper, “Animals, Ethics and Public Policy,” you note the irony of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation being regarded as the “bible of the animal rights movement.” Would it be an advantage for the case for animal rights, in your view, if the animal protection movement did not characterise Animal Liberation as a work of animal rights theory – and would it be useful for the theory of animal rights if organisations that follow Singer’s philosophy, like Vegan Outreach and (particularly) PETA, were not identified as animal rights groups?

I don’t think it will make much difference to be honest. Singer has explicitly stated that he is not an advocate of rights but he has also said that rights are a useful rhetorical device. At a theoretical level, it is important that Singer’s view is distinguished from a rights view but at a practical level it doesn’t, in my view, matter that much

Of course, if you think, like Gary does (and you may well too) that Singer  provides a version of animal welfare, then you might disagree with me.

I would dispute this interpretation of Singer. Of course, Singer’s emphasis on sentience, and his tendency not to advocate an abolitionist position, means he is closer to me ethically than Gary and others are!

You said that the lives of other animals do matter morally, and that this complicates things a bit. You offered to elaborate on the ethical consequences of this, so, it you have time remaining, would you please?

I think the ‘enhanced’ position I advocated later, which recognises that animals have an interest in life is more ethically desirable

This position would be more stringent. It would, for example, rule out animal experimentation and the raising and killing of animals for food unless human life were at stake.

The position based entirely on sentience would only prohibit these things if suffering was involved, its a bit more complex than that but it’s difficult to do it justice here.

Although you think that factory-farming cannot be morally justified, if animals could be raised in a pleasant way with minimal suffering and killed in a relatively painless way for food, or if animals could be used in experiments with minimal suffering and significant benefits for humans, you could not object, could you?…

Let’s take a very clear example: I have a cow who lives in the back garden. I treat her very well. I shoot her (one bullet; instantaneous death) and kill her and eat her. Have I done anything morally wrong?

According to the position I have elaborated earlier, such an action wouldn’t be morally justified, because the animal is not being killed (in the case of the cow) to save human lives.

Holding a pure sentience position would be different in that animal lives are not part of the equation. The final point I would make here though is to suggest that basing animal rights on sentience alone is easier to grasp, and represents a sea-change in the way animals are treated. Animal rights advocates have, in my view, to be constantly aware of the environments within which they are operating.

Professor Garner, are you Vegan? If you are Vegan, please consider going Vegan.

I am 99% vegan. Occasional lapse with cheese!

But no milk!

Thank you, Professor Garner.

You are welcome. It has been a pleasure to be on here.


Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) is a voluntary, grassroots, abolitionist animal rights social network created in December 2009 with the aim of encouraging rational dialogue in the animal protection movement.

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