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Locke's illogical attack on animal rights
 
By Robert H. Bass
web posted July 11, 2005

In a recent op-ed, Edwin Locke retreads his well-worn anti-animal-rights tirade to briefly mention current events, such as the campaign by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) against the biomedical research firm, Covance.

Along the way, he manages to cram a lot of undocumented and unelaborated charges into less than 700 words. That's a powerful tactic if you want to discredit somebody – tell enough lies or half-truths that nobody can pick them apart in less than several thousand words and you can count on editors not to let their columns be taken over by the debate. That puts the honest debater at a disadvantage: in the space available, only a charge or two can be rebutted, and the rest are left untouched. Observers are inevitably left with the impression that there is no answer for the rest.

Rather than participate in the mud-slinging contest, I shall address just two points. One is what has been going on at Covance. The other is the shaky foundation of illogic upon which, Locke alleges, the entire animal rights movement is built.

What's going on at Covance gets only the briefest of mentions. The reader learns that the firm engages in animal testing and that PETA has launched a campaign. Why? Locke does not tell you. Perhaps he doesn't want to encourage curiosity. Perhaps he suspects that people would be upset if they knew. You don't need to speculate about what you would think, though. You can find out. Visit www.covancecruelty.com and view the video footage. See for yourself how the monkeys are beaten, caged and terrified. Apply Locke's own standard to it, "Of course, it is proper not to cause animals gratuitous suffering," and ask yourself if the kind of treatment you are observing is, by any stretch of the imagination, not gratuitous. Watch the film and see if you can tell yourself that the way the Covance animals are restrained, caged, beaten and terrified is all necessary.

But Locke's principal complaint is about the illogic of the animal rights movement: " I know firsthand that the whole movement is based on a single--invalid--syllogism, namely: men feel pain and have rights; animals feel pain; therefore, animals have rights." The only thing right here is that it is an invalid syllogism, no better than 'bread is made from grain and is good with jelly; rice is made from grain; so rice is good with jelly.' As he says, this is invalid. So far, so good.

Where did he get the idea, though, that the whole animal rights movement is based upon that syllogism? Consider Peter Singer's influential Animal Liberation, which PETA's president has called one of the most important animal rights books ever written. I'll bet Locke can't find his invalid syllogism endorsed anywhere in its 300+ pages. Or look at Tom Regan's nearly-as-influential Case for Animal Rights. Locke won't find his syllogism there, either. Perhaps he overlooked Singer and Regan when he was trying to identify what the whole movement is based upon? If so, he was terribly careless.

I suspect something else is at work, though. Locke tells us that "man's rights ... depend on his ability to think" and that "Rights are ethical principles applicable only to beings capable of reason and choice." What Locke doesn't want you to ask is: What about the humans who cannot think, who are not capable of reason and choice? That included all of us when we were babies. It includes some of our fellow human beings throughout their lives. It will include some of us as we age and succumb to Alzheimers' or senile dementia. Does he really believe that none of these people have any rights? Apparently so, if rights only apply to beings capable of reason and choice. The babies, the handicapped, and the senile must be rightless. (Maybe, Locke thinks we should use them in medical experiments!)

A different argument, which Locke would surely have found, had he looked at Singer or Regan, is that since babies and the others don't have reason or choice, but do have rights, possession of reason and choice can't be necessary for rights. And if rights are not based on reason and choice, what good alternative is there that will cover the babies and the rest but that will not also cover many non-human animals? If anything deserves to be called the one argument the animal rights movement is based upon, this is it. Most likely, that's the reason Locke presented such a caricature of the animal rights movement: He wasn't prepared to deal with the real arguments.

Robert H. Bass, Ph.D, is Visiting Assistant Professor, in the Department of Philosophy at the University of North Florida. His current research centers upon the relation of virtue ethics to politics and to our treatment of animals.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Animal "rights" versus human rights by Edwin A. Locke (June 6, 2005)
    Animal rights activists aren't trying to stop drug testing on animals just because they love animals, writes Edwin A. Locke. It's because they also hate humanity
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