BOOKS: Putting the Horse before Descartes

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From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  April 2011:

Putting the Horse before Descartes:
My Life’s Work on Behalf of Animals
by Bernard E. Rollin
Temple University Press (1852 N. 10th St., Philadelphia,  PA  19122),  2011.  283 pages, hardcover.  $35.00.

Bernard Rollin offers,  in the 16 chapters of Putting the Horse before Descartes: My Life’s Work on Behalf of Animals,  two chapters of autobiography plus random vignettes; a concluding chapter of tributes to colleagues and scattered thoughts;   and thirteen chapters adapted from his favorite lectures and essays.

Rollin has for more than 40 years taught ethics to animal husbandry and veterinary students at the University of Colorado in Fort Collins.  Along the way Rollin has also taught ethics,  as applied to animals,  to legions of policymakers,  animal industry executives, biomedical researchers,  and anyone else willing to listen.  Most of his work has consisted of lectures and essays,  delivered in the persona of a philosopher who looks and usually speaks like a wise and kindly rabbi,  yet also is a power-lifting Harley Davidson rider who occasionally detonates fusillades of obscenities and makes a public issue of rather unwisely refusing to wear a motorcycle helmet. Both in speaking and in writing,  Rollin is predictable primarily in always “putting the horse before Descartes,”  distinguishing authentic ethical considerations from mere ideology.  Rollin has little use for the sort of philosophy that can be logically extended into absurdity,  such as the exercises in abstraction for which the 17th century vivisector Rene Descartes is lastingly known.

The philosophical idea that appears to interest Rollin most is telos,  the Aristotelian notion that each animal has “a unique set of functions,  needs,  and interests,”  which together create “the ‘pigness’ of a pig,  the ‘dogness’ of a dog,”  summarized in the espression,  “Fish gotta swim,  birds gotta fly.”
Rollin’s bottom-line ethical conclusion is that “If human nature determines human rights, i.e. the aspects of humanity that are protected by our legal/moral systemŠanimal telos,  and the fundamental aspects of the animal’s life flowing from that nature,  should determine the features of an animal’s nature we protect.”

Rollin finds that most people agree, including about 90% of the western ranchers he often addresses in his local speaking appearances.  Thus recognizing the telos of animals might be a part of the telos of humanity, from which veterinarians,  scientists,  and agribusiness exempt themselves at risk of becoming seen as monsters,  if not actually becoming moral monstrosities.

A chapter entitled “Pain & ideology” opens with an extended discussion of how surgery on infants was usually done without anesthetic until under 25 years ago.  The chapter moves from there into the frequent “scientific” denial of animal suffering in research –and discovers the origin of the scientific dogmas governing the non-use of anesthesia in the cultural values of the 19th century,  not scientific evidence.
“It took me until the mid-1980s,”  Rollin recalls in an earlier chapter,  “to understand how scientists could deny the relevance of ethics to science and deny the reality of consciousness [in animals]ŠI became aware that,  as an undergraduate,  I had been taught precisely the patterns of thinking I was now criticizingŠI had learned–and believed–the mantra ‘Science is value-free in general and ethics-free in particular.’  I realized that scientists were learning a set of beliefs along with the data of the science,  even as people learn logically questionable precepts in their religious educationŠI saw that these beliefs were very much like religious belief,  and that no amount of rational argument could dislodge them–in other words,  that an ideology of science was taught to nascent scientists from the beginning of their education.”

Rollin then cites 10 examples from his own experience in which scientists sabotaged their own work and careers by placing the ideology of science, especially as regards denial of animal pain, ahead of what should have been obvious if they had applied scientific observation to their learned assumptions.

Rollin emphasizes the need for scientists and other animal users themselves to introduce ethical discussion of what they do–and to respect the ethical conclusions of an informed public.  Asserts Rollin,  after reviewing the evolution of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act from 1965 to the present,  “The issue of research that oversteps the bounds of decency is a social issue concerning which current laws are silent. The next reasonable step in creating morally sound laws governing the use and treatment of laboratory animals would be to allow the decisions for which invasive animal research is to be done or not done to fall on those who allegedly will benefit from it,  rather than on those who clearly stand to gain from doing more research.”

The first three-fourths of Putting the Horse before Descartes focuses on scientific issues,  including the introduction of biotechnology.  Rollin arrives at the realization that the enduring popularity of the Frankenstein story,  told first by Mary Shelley in 1818 and now retold at least 2,666 times by Rollin’s count,  is that it expresses the anxiety of the public about change introduced by scientists without adequate ethical discussion and appropriate restraints on the possible catastrophic consequences.  Though this has been recognized by literary critics for nearly 200 years,  including by Mary Shelley herself, versions of Frankenstein and similar stories are still not usually incorporated into the formal ethical education of scientists.

The concluding fourth of Putting the Horse before Descartes explores how the ethical mistakes of science are echoed and amplified many times over in factory farming.

Along the way,  Rollin gets so much right that his errors are especially jarring.

Rollin recounts,  for example,  that at the 1978 American Humane Association conference he “criticized the more-than-50-year-old mantra of spay and neuter,  which was ineffective,”  he claims,  in reducing shelter admissions and killing.  In truth the AHA had grudgingly approved of dog and cat sterilization only five years before,  after 50 years of vehement opposition to the procedures as “vivisection,” though the AHA had  rescinded opposition to scientific vivisection 20 years earlier.  The AHA originally opposed dog and cat sterilization, after the American Veterin-ary Medical Association approved the surgical methods in 1923,  because the AHA was then fighting eugenicists who sought to forcibly sterilize girls who were consigned to orphanages,  and felt that endorsing dog and cat sterilization would set a bad precedent.

At the same AHA conference that Rollin addressed,  Robert Wilbur of the Pet Food Institute presented data showing that about 41% of the female dogs in the U.S. and 31% of the female pet cats had been spayed– not half enough to begin reducing shelter admissions and killing. Wilbur also presented evidence that the numbers were going down where the sterilization rates approached 70%.  Since then,  the U.S. dog sterilization rate for both genders has risen to more than 70%,  the pet cat sterilization rate for both genders exceeds 85%,  and the volume of shelter killing has fallen by more than 80%.

A related fumble comes in Rollin’s concluding pages,  where he describes his role in efforts to replace the use of carbon dioxide to kill laboratory rodents with decompression,  then projects that decompression might be a better way to stun pigs than carbon dioxide,  now the usual method in Europe and Australia.
Rollin’s critique of carbon dioxide gassing is accurate.  Compassion In World Farming has called for the abolition of carbon dioxide stunning for these very reasons.  Rollin also accurately summarizes the two most common problems in decompression:  that decompression chambers leak and repressurize,  and decompression is often done too rapidly.  Either problem results in great pain to the victims.

But Rollin hopes that improved technology can make decompression acceptable.
This was also the hope of the AHA from 1950,  when it introduced the technique to the humane community,  until 1985,  when after every animal shelter in the U.S. had already quit decompressing animals,  the AHA quit pushing it–until 2010,  when it resumed promoting decompression,  now as a way to kill chickens.

If societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals could not make decompression acceptably humane in 35 years of trying,  even given the weaker humane standards of that era, there is no reason to believe the meat industry can do any better,  since the sole object of meat slaughter is simply making animals dead.
Neither is there any reason to expect good faith effort from the slaughter industry, in view of more than 50 years of frequent slaughter industry noncompliance with the never well-enforced and eventually legislatively weakened Humane Slaughter Act.
-Merritt Clifton

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