On March 31 of this year, Dr. Steven Best, self-proclaimed press officer for the Animal Liberation Front and Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Texas, El Paso gave a lecture at TCU. That lecture was attended by Douglas Lucas, a student at TCU, who took copious notes and provides us with a well-written and concise summary of Dr. Best's effort, which is divided into several sections: Background, Setting, Lecture, Questions and Answers, After the Lecture, and finally Letter to the Editor.
Mr. Lucas's page is well worth reading and strikes me as being highly credible. But don't take my word for it — take a gander yourself so you can get a feel for how he thinks, and how meticulously careful he evidently has been. For my part, I'll deal with a few of the more salient points about the lecture. But before I do, here is my impression of the ground Dr. Best covered.
First, Dr. Best is quite redundant and repetitious. It's almost as if he believes that if he offers the same unsupported assertions and opinions in slightly different ways, they will persuade. They do not.
Second, and building off the first point, Dr. Best seems to have little regard for the intelligence of his audience. He evidently believes they are incapable of critical thinking. I base this opinion on the fact that his argument is one based on emotion and repetition, not evidence and logic. That should become clear as you read what I've written.
Third, Dr. Best bases his case on assumptions that are all too often questionable, if not outright disputable. No matter how well designed and constructed the superstructure of a building, it will tumble if the foundation is flawed. And so it is with Dr. Best's beliefs: their foundations are weak in the extreme.
Fourth, in response to a question about his colleague Dr. Jerry Vlasak advocating the assassination of a few scientists to prevent the deaths of many animals, Dr. Best claimed to have seen the tape, and claims that Dr. Vlasak didn't say what anyone viewing the tape can verify for himself: that Vlasak did, in fact, advocate killing scientists.
Fifth, Dr. Best uses rhetoric the way college student firebrands of the '60's did, employing liberal amounts of hyperbole and demonization and redefining words to meet his ideological agenda. He attempts to move the emotions rather than enlighten the mind. As entertainment, that's great, but as a way to lead the world into a new system of morality, that is not the way to go.
And now to specifics:
[ . . . ]
I knew about the animal rights movement beforehand. . . . Thus, I correctly predicted the basic thesis of Dr. Best's stance: ALF actions are justified because animals have rights; animals have rights because the capacity for suffering is the fundamental criterion in establishing who has rights. What I did not predict was just how little detailed, philosophical argument Best would provide for his position.
Mr. Lucas kind of nails it right here: "What I did not predict was just how little detailed, philosophical argument Best would provide for his position."
This, of course is how AR people generally present their case: they present an unsupported opinion as if it were a fact — that animals have rights because they can suffer. However much we might respect Dr. Best's right to have such an opinion, the opinion itself lacks any basis for being taken seriously, absent any effort on Dr. Best's part to tell us why it should be.
Dr. Best, in typical AR form, fails to build a case to support his assertion that the capacity to suffer is of greater moral relevance than simply being a human being, or having the intellectual capacity to suffer through the anticipation of a horrible event ("If you don't do what I want, I'm going to light your children on fire . . .") or simply the state of being alive itself.
One could just as easily assert that only humans have rights because only humans are human. Or that every animal with fur has rights. Or that every animal larger than a bread-box has rights. Or that only those creatures with the intellectual capacity to write sonnets or guitar pieces should have rights. Or that all creatures who can anticipate the future and develop and transmit symbolically to others contingency plans to meet upcoming problems should have rights.
Mr. Lucas perceptively points out that Dr. Best didn't justify why his position is to be preferred to any of a number of alternatives to it.
Dr. Best simply stated an opinion. What he did not do was build a case for why that opinion should trump mine, yours, or the opinion of Mr. Lucas.
In short, Dr. Best argued: animals, as "thinking," "feeling," and "experiencing" beings, have basic rights because, specifically, they have the capacity to suffer.
We have a duty to protect those rights.
This is altogether typical of the AR "case." Here we see in full bloom Dr. Best's unsupported assumptions and personal opinions masquerading as deep philosophical insights.
For example, Dr. Best skims over the nature of the rights-giver, though one gets the impression that the "giver" must inhabit the mystical world of spirits, rather than the material world of humans. The capacity to think, feel and experience seems to imbue to a life form possessing them something akin to an immortal soul. Of so Professor Best seems to suggest.
Who should decide what properties of living things imbue them with "rights," and why should we accept Dr. Best's preferences over the many alternatives?
Dr. Best would have us accept as fact his unsubstantiated, unsupported opinion that animals have rights. Then, he would have us accept the burden of a duty to protect the rights that Dr. Best's unsupported opinion attributes to animals!
Can you see how shallow and silly this is?
Mr. Lucas could, but the Chairman of a Philosophy Department evidently could not.
Just as in the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, the Underground Railroad, and the Boston Tea Party, moral rights can supersede laws.
Dr. Best's point is a non-sequitur — I accept at face value that moral rights can supersede the laws of men. But it doesn't necessarily follow that Dr. Best's cause is either morally right, or if it is, tht breaking laws in furthering the cause is justified.
Make a case, Dr. Best. Don't just assert . . .
Mr. Lucas is entirely correct when he says that Dr. Best failed to provide arguments to back up his assertions.
The "just warfare" theory would endorse the ALF because other means of changing society are not possible,
Again we see the shallowness of Dr. Best's thought processes, or the contempt he has for his audience . . .
Or both . . .
Because the "just warfare" theory applies to some cases doesn't mean it applies to all. Indeed, for the theory to have any validity at all, it can't apply in every case; it must apply in some but not others.
The burden of proof lies with Dr. Best to show that it applies to his case; the burden of proof does not fall on others to disprove any unfounded assertion he cares to make . . .
And of course, there certainly is another means of changing society, redistributing power, as it were: persuasion and ballots.
If Dr. Best cannot persuade, perhaps it is because his ideas are loopy rather than that the citizenry are dense, cruel or selfish.
and because the ALF does not harm living beings or noncombatants. The animal liberation movement will not go away. It is the next step in humanity's moral evolution.
Actually, we have every reason to believe ALF cares more about symbolism than about the lives of the animals it says it seeks to liberate.
And how, precisely, do we know that the animals "liberated" by ALF operatives from the University of Iowa in November of 2004 are better off today than they were under the care of their University custodians?
We have no idea what happened to them — did ALF release them into the countryside as winter was approaching? Are the animals still in cages? Are they being provided proper food, water, sanitation and veterinary care?
Where is the oversight, the transparency?
We don't even know who took these animals — for all we know, the anonymous ALF operatives might have left them to die of neglect, starvation and exposure in their cages. Why should we assume that the vandals, thieves and thugs flying the ALF banner would tell us the truth about what happened to the animals?
Why would Dr. Best not register some concern about what happened to these animals?
Here are some choice comments from Dr. Best (long paragraph - paraphrases): There is "unanimous consensus" today the Boston Tea Party colonists were heroes. The liberation movement is the practical extension of animal rights. Like it or not, the movement is growing.
Again, Dr. Best fails logic 1: because some acts of violence and disobedience may be justified doesn't mean that all are.
Dr. Best's whole case hinges on his unsupported opinion that rights are based on creatures being able to feel, think and experience (why not some alternative criteria, like being human, being alive, or being bigger than a bread-box?). And again we ask: why are his criteria more morally relevant than the criteria you, I or Mr. Lucas can dream up?
Why should the Best-ian spiritual framework, if that's what it is, trump traditional Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.?
The ALF is considered a top terrorist group (I [Mr. Lucas . . . ed] think he said by the FBI). The USA is organized around the slavery of billions of sentient, feeling, thinking animals, animals who "share the same interests we do."
Yes — the FBI does consider the ALF to be one of the top domestic terrorist groups.
When the word slavery is used to define elements of the human/animal interaction that Dr. Best finds unethical, it cheapens the meaning of the word, and trivializes what happens in situations like this in Sudan, this in Eastern Europe, and what's going on in the Middle East.
Dr. Best has every right to push such moral equivalence if he wishes, and to do so by expanding the definition of slavery. I do not see the moral equivalence that Dr. Best wishes me to, and I'm unwilling to expand the definition of slavery at Dr. Best's whim.
You make your own call.
And now follows what appears to be Dr. Best railing against the establishment using 1960's era rhetoric.
The animal liberation movement is the "most dynamic political struggle" of our time. The world is run by a "group of world masters" [ . . . ]. The US government has not yet used murder against the animal liberation movement as they did against the Black Panthers, but the classification of a "domestic terrorist" subsumes "anyone who speaks out against the government."
Actually, people speak out against the government all the time and aren't called terrorists. I know I do! It's just those pesky elements of violence, vandalism and intimidation — the acts themselves, advocating the acts, apologizing for the acts, and enabling the actors — that catches the eye of the FBI.
Do you see how silly this is? Dr. Best and his ALF thugs support terrorists and their actions, and then he claims "foul" when they attract the attention of the feds . . . Duh!
He was labelled as a terrorist and almost banned from England for "exercising his right to free speech." The animal liberation movement is the next step in humanity's moral evolution.
Er, Dr. Best? England is under no obligation to admit anyone to within their borders, and the US is the only — yes, only — country of which the government guarantees your right to free speech (in the US, laws curtailing speech must be viewpoint neutral, and speech can be curbed only according to rules of time, manner and place, equitably enforced).
And, of course, Dr. Best has every right to believe what he wishes about the "moral evolution" of mankind. But I, for one, find it chilling, considering how ill-founded the basis for his "morality" is . . .
More 1960's revolutionary rhetoric . . .
Mankind is on "a rapid road to oblivion." In over 3 decades, the ALF has never killed a human being. The whole argument turns on whether animals have rights. "If humans have rights, animals have rights for the very same reasons," including their ability to act on their own basic interests, and ultimately because of their capacity to suffer at the hands of others; it doesn't matter that they can't compose a sonata or write poetry.
Dr. Best seems to have adopted the old legal saw that "like deserves like treatment." In Dr. Best's mind, morally relevant "likes" are sentience, and the capacity to feel, think and experience.
But why should Dr. Best, or someone of his choice, be the one to determine which characteristics are morally relevant? Why not the Catholic church, the secular humanists, the Ku Klux Klan, or Osama bin Laden?
If animals have these rights, those rights trump property rights. Animals are nobody's property to begin with. "Justice cannot be gained and won through ~political mechanisms in this country" (not sure if he used the word "political" or "legal" or something similar).
Of course they can! It's done all the time! Perhaps the outcomes are not ones that meet with Dr. Best's approval, but our political and legal system really does work, however messy, and with however many fits and starts there might be.
More rhetoric . . .
Money and power completely corrupts the system; the law does not reflect the will of the people but the will of the powerful. Power does not respond to reason or the people's will, but only to counterpower. The ALF is not a slippery slope to all kinds of law-breaking because we can discern between justice and injustice: this is not moral relativism.
"We can discern between justice and injustice . . ." Dr. Best is projecting: he has constructed his own moral framework, and assumes that it and it's superiority are so blindingly obvious to every living soul that it could only be rejected by people willfully acting out of sheer perversity.
There is no room in the Best-ian mind to accept that people of good faith, vitally interested in living up to the highest moral standards, could possibly oppose him and his beliefs on moral grounds alone.
To Dr. Best, those who oppose him recognize true justice and injustice full well (as he would define them), but willfully choose to ignore them to pursue their own selfish goals. . . .
More 1960's rhetoric . . .
In our culture, property is more sacred than life. [ . . . ] After 9-11 Bush said: "Any nation has the right to defend themselves from terror"; Dr. Best takes this to mean the "animal nation" as well.
Again, we have to accept Dr. Best's definitions of terror, defense and nations . . . which are stretched to fit his ideology.
The ALF is considered a terrorist organization, but they do not have ideological/political/economic motives based on their own interests (but only the interests of animals), they are not directed toward innocent noncombatants, and the definition of "violence" is unclear. The ALF does "try to create a psychological climate of fear."
The ALF tries to create a psychological climate of fear . . .
Translation: the ALF is a terrorist organization.
The ALF is not a terrorist organization, but a counterterrorist organization.
Right — the ALF just tries to create a psychological climate of fear . . .
Notice how Dr. Best projects a uniquely human quality to animals: humans can be terrorized by anticipating future events that are communicated to them symbolically — which is the means by which ALF tries to create a psychological climate of fear. Posting personal information on websites, violating and vandalizing office and lab space, etc. all have an effect on humans that they could never have on animals. So why does Dr. Best feel that lab rats, sitting in cages, are terrorized?
***Animals are exploted for "alleged research value."*** Many people intuitively support the ALF: if someone in their neighborhood were trapping stray cats and killing them, they would save the cats; same thing if children were being tortured, etc.
The fact that people care for the welfare of animals doesn't mean that they support ALF . . . .
[ . . . ]
The Question and Answer Session
Dr. Best called on people raising their hands. I only took notes for some of the exchanges.
[ . . . ]
Q (me): According to The Daily Iowan newspaper, on January 21st of this year, you gave a speech at the University of Iowa and said if you were given a choice between saving either your dog or a human stranger from a burning house [at this point Dr. Best starts nodding and smiling], you said you would choose your dog [some laughter covers me up now, but not too much]. Is this report accurate? If your egocentric pleasure in your dog trumps such consideration of the lives of others, would not the egocentric pleasure a scientist feels from being healthier as a result of research, "alleged" or not, trump the lives of experimental animals?
Wow! That's quite a question.
A: Well, it's a funny thing you bring that up, because they made that into a soundbyte, it became headlines, you know, the speech was during Martin Luther King, and the material I was talking about didn't get attention...we have to break the question down. It's "not my egocentric pleasure, but overcoming speciesism." Is it my dog or your dog? Is it my dog or a stranger? "My dog is family to me." "It's not egocentric"; it's "intuitively justifiable." It's a question of choosing the being you are closest to; that's why people don't respond well to sending money to African children...I suspect most people would save their dog.
And Dr. Best's revealing answer made Mr. Lucas's point in spades.
To Dr. Best, morality is simply a question of choosing the being you are closest to.
It's also known as the "me first" ethic . . .
What Dr. Best is saying is that the ultimate ethical standard is what each individual wishes to do. He is saying that since his dog is closer to him than your spouse, parents, kids and best friends, screw them all . . . unless he knows them.
His personal gratification trumps the lives of the people who mean the most to you . . .
And how chilling is that . . .? The term "Brave New World" has a whole new meaning . . .
[ . . . ]
Comment (not a TCU student, probably someone from the Fort Worth Vegetarian Society): Well, that gentleman over there [gesturing to me] is getting bogged down in details...
A: Yeah, you'd never be in the situation, a what-if like that is beside the point.
[I think the situation is relevant. First, it is a standard example in the discussion of animal rights. Second, it pertains to scientific experimentation. Do we save human lives through experimentation on animals, or do we save animal lives by "liberating" them from research facilities, as the ALF advocates? The burning house example is a good concretization of the issue.]
I agree. What more can I say? Mr. Lucas has nailed the issues . . .
[ . . . ]
Q (student): "Part of the property damage by the ALF includes medical facilities. This impedes human health. Wouldn't the ALF therefore endanger innocent noncombatants?
A [somewhat disjointed]: "Medical research"...there are "arguments against vivisection," saying that vivisection is "scientifically unsound" research. Animals have such "different metabolisms" than we do. [He gave a few more examples of differences between humans and animals, but I didn't catch them]. So, the research is of "dubious use". Dr. Greek has a book explaining why vivisection is unsound research; "I believe in those arguments."
Ray Greek is nobody I'd want to cite as an authority.
But then, I wouldn't invite Ward Churchill to write the forward to my book . . .
Dr. Greek gave a speech at the University of Iowa, same university I spoke at [looking at me], and "no one would debate him." If their arguments are so strong, "why won't they debate him?" [I forgot what he then said, as I was shocked by his comments on medical research, so I had trouble paying attention. He ended up saying something about the inhumane conditions of research justifies ALF intervention].
Well, the people at Iowa had just been attacked by ALF, and they were likely in the psychological state Dr. Best feels ALF is justified in creating: one of fear. Why make themselves more of a target than they already are, and why debate with someone who has the kinds of credibility problems Dr. Greek has (see the links on Brian Carnell's site)?
[ . . . ]
Dr. Best: I'll take one more question.
Q (me): You said the ALF shouldn't be considered violent...I saw the video of Dr. Vlasak—I'm not sure how to pronounce his name [Dr. Best looks puzzled—I think he's a spokesperson at the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, like you..." Dr. Best: Oh, Dr. Vlasak [smiling]. Me: Yeah, sorry. I saw the video of him, he was on Australian television, the program "Insight." [Dr. Best starts nodding]. He said he would support, in response to a question he said he would support killing five scientists to prevent the deaths of lots of animals, what do you think of that?
A: That was "blown up into a big Fox News soundbyte." He was just saying that if five scientists were killed, then that would be the logical result, animals would be saved" Me: I saw the video, it's quite blunt, he... Dr. Best: I saw the video too. It was just a logical point, they just took a soundbyte...I'm not advocating killing humans, and neither was Vlasak.
And once again, Mr. Lucas nails Dr. Best, and this time but good.
Either Dr. Best lied and said he saw the video when he really hadn't, or he lied about what Dr. Vlasak said. Don't take my word for it — watch the video yourself. You can find the link to it, along with a transcript of the relevant part, here.
After the Lecture
I approached Dr. Best after the question and answer session to make sure I understood his position concerning the burning house scenario. I asked him if he was arguing the human stranger's life and the animal's life have essentially the same value, so it's really only a choice of picking the lifeform he knows better. He agreed with my restatement of his view: if confronted with a choice between apple and apple, not between apples or oranges (as the saying goes), he's simply going to pick the apple he likes better.
I had hoped to encounter some challenging material. Dr. Best never bothered to refute other theories about the basis of rights. He didn't present any theory about the connections between nervous systems of different capacities and different forms of pursuing interests. Nevertheless, the experience was worthwhile. After all, I think a student's college experience is incomplete unless he attends at least one deliberately provocative, inflammatory lecture arguing for a position with which he does not agree.
What can I say? Mr. Lucas, you done yourself proud. Very proud indeed.
Of course, if Dr. Best would like to clarify any of his comments, or correct any misconceptions, I'd love to hear from him.
UPDATE 5/13/05. Edited for clarity.