BOOKS: Putting the Horse before Descartes: My Life’s Work on Behalf of Animals

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
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 silentŠThe 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.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.