Snoopy as a Sex Machine

The Globe and Mail has just published my review of David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography. I’ll have more to say about this book in the next couple of days, but in the meantime enjoy the review. Here’s how it starts off:

For Snoopy, 1970 was the summer of love. In July of that turbulent year, the canine hero of the Peanuts comic strip went back to the school of his original dog training, the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, which, like many a real-world campus, was being torn apart by political strife. Protesters objecting to the use of dogs in Vietnam rioted at the Puppy Farm. Amid the ensuing melee, Snoopy met a young “girl-beagle” who was blessed with “soft paws.” To the annoyance of his owner, Charlie Brown, Snoopy kept mooning over the “girl-beagle,” writing her passionate letters and calling her long-distance.

Snoopy’s romantic entanglements with the young “girl-beagle” mirrored the real-life personal tribulations of his creator, cartoonist Charles Schulz. As biographer David Michaelis makes clear in his eye-opening and controversial Schulz and Peanuts, the artist crafted Snoopy’s story as an allegory for his own search for love outside his troubled marriage.

From Ayn Rand to Animal Rights: An Interview with Henry Mark Holzer

The following two-part interview is one I originally conducted for Herbivore, an animal-rights magazine based in Portland, Oregon. The magazine declined to publish it, for reasons they never shared with me. Given that Herbivore readers were the original audience, most of the questions focus on animal issues. However, I am posting it here on the hope that it might also be of interest to a general audience. It appears here for the first time.

Henry Mark Holzer at the River Rats/Nam Pows Reunion in  Fort Worth, Texas, 2002.
Henry Mark Holzer at the River Rats/Nam Pows Reunion in Fort Worth, Texas, 2002.

Henry Mark Holzer served as Ayn Rand’s lawyer in the 1960s and 1970s. Click on his Web site, and you’re liable to come across an article defending the war in Iraq or blasting the likes of John Kerry. Yet Holzer has long combined right-of-centre political advocacy with an equally impassioned advocacy on behalf of animals—what you might call putting the right in animal rights.

Holzer is a vegan who taught at the Brooklyn Law School until his retirement in 1995. Much of his work on behalf of animals has been conducted on a legal level. Over the years he’s been involved in several important cases, including one that concerned animal sacrifices performed by adherents of Santeria, an Afro-Carribean religion, that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Holzer’s other noteworthy activities have included working with his wife Erika Holzer to rediscover and restore a film version of Rand’s novel We the Living that was illegally made in fascist Italy, only to be lost for many years.

Holzer now lives in Bermuda Dunes, California. From there he shared his thoughts about the early days of the animal protection movement, right-wing support for animals, and life with Ayn Rand.

When did you first become interest in animal issues, and what form did your original involvement take?

In about 1970 I contributed money to Friends of Animals (FOA) for their campaign to end the slaughter of baby seals in Canada. The FOA founder and president, Alice Herrington, contacted me because she saw on my letterhead that I was a lawyer. At dinner, she told me of the religious exemption in the federal Humane Slaughter Act, I told her it was arguably unconstitutional, I sued (Jones v. Butz), and began looking into broader animal rights issues. That case, and a New York case I brought (unsuccessfully) to close the Central Park zoo in Manhattan, are the first two anywhere to use the phrase “animal rights.”

Compared to today, were there less organizations and resources available to animal advocates of your generation in the early days? Was it even more challenging to advocate for animals back then?

If we define “the early days” as when I brought the Kosher Slaughter Case in about 1970, there were no legal animal advocates, except perhaps the very few “in house” lawyers who worked for the very few national organizations e.g., the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)—but they didn’t do “principled” cases like the Kosher Slaughter case. They did mostly very fact-specific cases (e.g., closing a rotten shelter). The resources (e.g., data banks, case books) were nonexistent.

It was more challenging in the sense that what some of us were trying to do was writing on a clean slate. There were few if any precedents, and to most people, including lawyers and judges, the idea of any kind of animal rights was absurd. Now, “animal law,” is an accepted, if not welcomed, specialty. In the early 1980s, together with the International Society for Animal Rights I organized the first conference ever held of lawyers who were interested in the subject of animal rights. We scoured the country obtaining names, and names from names, etc., and had about thirty attendees. Most of today’s prominent lawyers in the field were there. Indeed, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and David Favre’s organization at Michigan Law School (the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center) came out of that conference. That was truly the beginning of an organized animal rights legal movement in the United States. Now there are law school case books, appellate cases, law journals, data bank. Internet sites—many legal tools.

A New York based practioner of Santeria.
A New York-based practioner of Santeria.

You worked on a high-profile 1992 Supreme Court case, Church of the Lukumi v. Hialeah, which revolved around the issue of animal sacrifice. The case was brought by practioners of Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion, who objected to an ordinance in the Florida city of Hialeah outlawing the sacrifice of animals in religious rituals. What was the nature of your own involvement in the case, and what message do you think animal advocates should take away from the Court’s decision?

I am a trustee of Institute for Animal Rights Law. The Institute, at my behest, filed two “friend of the court” briefs (written by myself and a former student) in the Supreme Court and we attended oral argument. Essentially, our position was that the Santerians’ claim to free exercise of religion did not trump the city’s power, in those narrow circumstances, to prohibit the practice of animal sacrifice and the consequential dumping of dead animals throughout Hialeah. We lost 9-0. There were at least three messages: (1) the city should have had better counsel, (2) the Supreme Court’s “free exercise” jurisprudence is in disarray, with very fuzzy lines existing about what “free exercise” really means when it is arguably in tension with other public values, and (3) all judges need to have their consciousnesses raised about animal issues. The latter has been happening, but it is a slow, tedious process.

You and your wife Erika Holzer were Ayn Rand’s lawyers in the 1960s and early 1970s. What kind of cases did you work on in that capacity? What was she like as a client? (You must be asked this all the time).

I am.

I represented her in almost everything, except literary and tax matters. Mostly, dealing with people who wanted something from, or had done something to, her. An example of the former would be a TV show that wanted her to appear; the latter would be some folks who had opened a store selling “The John Galt line of draperies.”

As a client, she was easy, and she was difficult. She was a genius, so she quickly grasped what needed to be understood, and all the implications down to the end of the line. She was a genius, so she would be impatient and not infrequently kill the messenger (or the lawyer).

Your readers might be interested in knowing that once she said to me that if I could figure out a theoretical basis for animal rights, I “would be doing the world a great service.”

For part two click here.

Henry Mark Holzer Interview: Part Two

U.S. postal stamp featuring Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand postage stamp, released in 1999.

For part one click here.

Do you remember the context in which Rand made her (surprisingly sympathetic) comment? I don’t take you to be trying to turn her into a posthumous champion of animal rights. Yet her remark would seem to suggest she was not as dismissive and hostile to the idea as many writers influenced by Rand seem to be. Is that how you took it?

My wife and I were in her apartment, in the room she used as an office. I had recently brought the Kosher Slaughter case and, on the fly, we were saying something about animal rights. Erika had just crossed the threshold between her office and the hallway, as I approached it. Ayn was still in the room. Almost to my back Ayn made the statement I have quoted above.

I do not believe she was anything approaching “a champion of animal rights” because she ate meat, wore fur, and never once—except that time—ever said anything to me even remotely suggesting that she had given the subject any thought. Frankly, when she made the statement I was, to say the least, quite surprised. “Reason is paramount,” etc. And animals can’t reason, etc.

That said, however, she said what she said, with apparent sincerity. That’s how I took it. We never returned to the subject. Her acolytes, who to this day deny that she could ever have made such a statement, are mistaken. They were not there. Erika and I were—and that’s what Ayn said.

Film poster
A poster for the 1942 Italian version of We The Living, starring Alida Valli and Rossano Brazzi.

You and your wife played a remarkable role in rediscovering the film version of Rand’s novel We The Living. The movie was originally made in Italy in 1942; thanks to your efforts, a new version of the movie played in North America in 1986 and received terrific reviews. How did you rediscover the film and what challenges did you have to overcome to bring it to the screen?

My wife and I found the film, no one else. She and Duncan Scott, per Rand’s instructions, restored the film and wrote some 4,000 subtitles.

We found the film by backtracking a few slim leads Rand provided, and by utilizing some contacts in Italy. It’s a very long story which has been told, in part, elsewhere. (See

The challenges included: finding it, making a deal with the people who owned it, copying the highly inflammatory nitrate negative onto safety stock in Rome, shipping everything to New York, convincing US Customs that the safety stock was safety not nitrate, quarantining the nitrate and eventually destroying it, having Rand tell us what to cut from the nearly four-hour film (in the midst of her breakup with Nathaniel Branden), storing the film from August 1968 to the mid-1980s, making a deal with her estate, cutting the film, writing the subtitles, finding a distributor, and promoting the film. Other than that, it was easy.

One of the reasons we were interested in interviewing you is that you do not fit the stereotype of an animal rights advocate. Rather than a hippie or Green Party member, you’ve long been active on behalf of libertarian and conservative causes. Have you ever encountered the view that animal advocacy and right-of-centre political beliefs are incompatible? What would you say to counter it?

I often encounter that attitude because it is a fact that most animal advocacy comes from the left. It is an interesting question as to why. One could say, superficially, that the left is where the bleeding hearts are, and concern for animals is consistent with those kinds of values. The mistake is that those on the right are also “bleeding hearts” (note the quotation marks), but we simply bleed for other things: victims of terrorism, crucified businessmen, our military, deserving students who lose out to affirmative action, the unborn—and more. In other words, because one of the left’s big lies, too long unchallenged, is that it is they who “care,” they have had a near monopoly on animal advocacy. But the right has a strong claim to it as well—even given the NRA, hunters, etc.—but they have not often asserted it. I am sure the macho problem of many on the right has something to do with this as well.

Are animals gaining more advocates outside the left? Former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, for example, made a big splash with his 2002 book Dominion. Aside from Scully, are you aware of any other prominent libertarian or conservative voices on behalf of animals?

Not that I am aware of. I fear that in libertarian and conservative circles, though there are of course exceptions, there are not many animal advocates. Anecdotally, the few non-prominent voices tend to be more libertarian than conservative. Don’t forget, to the extent conservatives are religious (quite a few), there is a lot of biblical baggage regarding animals and humans having sovereignty over them. Among all the animal advocates I know, only one is a conservative. Finally, it needs to be understood that by “animal advocate” I mean someone who acknowledges that animal have rights, even though the nature and scope of those rights are complex to define and to apply.

Looking back over your career as an animal rights proponent, what would you say your biggest victory has been?

My biggest victories have been (a) launching a movement of lawyers who now work for animal rights, (b) introducing into federal and state case law the literal term “animal rights,” (c) helping legitimize the very concept of animal rights and showing that it is very much more than the proverbial “little old ladies in tennis shoes.”

Frontiers of Justice

Martha Nussbaum

Here is a version of a review I wrote of Martha Nussbaum’s book Frontiers of Justice. Although I wrote it last year, it has just been published now in the journal Philosophical Books. Nussbaum writes so much so fast, I see she already had another book out before my review appeared!

My original draft included a bit more explanatory material about John Rawls, but it was taken out during the edits. For anyone unfamiliar with his work, Rawls is famous for his device of the Original Position, which asks us to imagine collectively choosing principles of justice from behind a Veil of Ignorance (another famous Rawlsian term of art). By bracketing our knowledge of our place in society, Rawls argued, such deliberations would lead us to agree on a social contract that upholds impartial, and therefore just, social arrangements.

UPDATE: I’ve inserted the original page numbers in square brackets, in case anyone who does not have access to Philosophical Books would like to cite it. The reference is:

Lamey, A. (2007). “Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (review),” Philosophical Books, 48/4: 376-81.

Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership
By Martha Nussbaum
Belknap/Harvard University Press 2006, xiii + 487 pp. US$35.00

How should we measure human development? The most popular method used to be to focus on wealth and income, as when international development agencies rank countries according to their per capita gross domestic product. Critics, however, have long noted shortcomings with this approach. Consider for example a wealthy person in a wheelchair: her problem is not a financial one, but a lack of access to public spaces. Even if she were to hire porters to carry her in and out of stores and libraries, that would not really address her situation. There is a basic sense of dignity and self-respect that comes with being able to move around on one’s own. Even for a disabled millionaire, that will only be possible when public buildings are wheelchair accessible. To fully grasp what the handicapped need, we have to look beyond purely economic [377] measures of well-being, and take into account the actual capabilities people can exercise in their daily lives.

The example of the well-off person in a wheelchair illustrates what Martha Nussbaum calls the capabilities approach to human development. It was first pioneered in economics by Amartya Sen (who came up with the wheelchair example), and Nussbaum has for years been associated with a more philosophical variation, which uses the idea of capabilities to outline basic political principles. In Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Nussbaum takes this project even further, and applies the capabilities approach to issues of justice involving not only the disabled and the global poor, but animals as well.

Nussbaum’s analysis has three primary goals. One is to advance concrete proposals to improve the condition of animals and distant and disabled people. Second is to offer a critique of the social contract tradition in philosophy. Even the most sophisticated contract theories, Nussbaum argues, cannot give an adequate account of the entitlements of the three groups she examines. Hence Nussbaum’s third project, an extended brief for the capabilities approach itself, a major strength of which, she argues, is that it can address the “three unsolved problems of justice” (p. 9) her book deals with.

In a very fundamental sense, this is a book about John Rawls. Frontiers is dedicated to Rawls, and his ideas are subject throughout to a respectful but critical examination. Nussbaum points out that there is a restriction on who can imaginatively enter Rawls’s Original Position: only entities that possess a sense of justice and a high degree of rationality are admitted. This means that the claims of severely mentally impaired people and animals will be ruled out from the start, as they do not conform to the Kantian conception of the person which Rawls takes as a prerequisite for being owed strict justice, as opposed to stray crumbs of charity.

Nussbaum, however, highlights an even deeper problem. It concerns the motivation Rawls’s hypothetical contractors have for deliberating over social institutions in the first place. Rawls sees his parties as occupying what David Hume called the Circumstances of Justice: a situation in which resources are moderately scarce, and the contractors are all roughly equal in power, so that none can easily dominate the others. Conditions of this kind mean that the parties have to co-operate to achieve their own goals. And this, in turn, means there is an element of self-interest in the parties’ motivation.

The motivation of self-interest introduces a “deep tension” (p. 119) in Rawls’s theory. His basic vision of justice is caught between two competing first principles, that of impartiality vs. mutual advantage. One of Rawls’s principles would have us approach justice by asking, What is in it for everyone? The other asks, What is in it for me and anyone who might benefit me? These concepts are ultimately irreconcilable, yet both are present in the Original Position. The ideal of impartiality is embodied by the Veil of Ignorance, while the motivation of mutual advantage is introduced by the Circumstances of Justice.

Nussbaum skilfully demonstrates how the presence of a strong mutual advantage account of justice, which defines advantage largely in economic terms, prevents Rawls from acknowledging the full moral worth of mentally [378] and physically handicapped people, let alone animals. There is little economic advantage in treating the handicapped with equal respect. Indeed, there have often been considerable incentives to do the opposite, as when during the 19th century the mentally retarded served as a revenue source in freak shows. Nor are the handicapped and animals so equal to us in power that we need to co-operate with them to achieve our projects. They are all too easily dominated by our greater abilities. A central paradox of the mutual advantage view is that it places some of the most helpless members of our society beyond the pale of justice—even though our everyday morality says these are the people who most need moral protection.

In his later work Rawls tried to develop a contract theory that would address one of Nussbaum’s three central problems, namely, the question of international justice. But Rawls’s solution was simply to propose a second contract, this time between sovereign states. Among other problems, Nussbaum argues, Rawls’s two-stage contract treats as legitimate countries that violate the human rights of their own citizens. A more promising solution is offered by thinkers such as Charles Beitz and Thomas Pogge, who propose a Rawlsian Original Position that includes everyone on earth. These global Rawlsians share Rawls’s commitment to impartiality but not his attachment to mutual advantage. Their proposals thus preserve the Veil of Ignorance (and extend it across national borders) but reject the Circumstances of Justice. This, however, leaves them without an account of the motivation of the contractors in the Original Position. Perhaps the parties engage in deliberations out of a commitment to global equality as such. But if that is the case, why use the contract device at all? Why not simply argue for equality and be done with it? According to Nussbaum, global Rawlsians have not given an adequate answer to this question.

Like the global Rawlsians, and like Rawls in his impartialist mode, Nussbaum’s theory is based on an intuitive commitment to equal dignity and respect. The organizing idea she uses to advance this ideal, however, is not a contract, but capabilities. Thus, much like Aristotle, Nussbaum stresses the good of political participation. Her list of central human capabilities includes 10 items in all, made up not only of traditional political goods such as the right to bodily health, religious freedom and literacy training, but also more modern entitlements such as the ability to live in harmony with nature and the right to enjoy recreational activities.

Nussbaum’s virtue-ethics approach is based on a rejection of the naturalistic fallacy. We can and should devise the ‘ought’ of human flourishing from the ‘is’ of human capability (or at least those capabilities we admire: Nussbaum notes there are negative human abilities we should not encourage). This however is not the same as saying that people should be forced to exercise the capacities Nussbaum highlights. She stresses that her theory is “emphatically liberal,” (p. 217) and that the central capacities should form a schedule or rights and opportunities guaranteed to everyone rather than a basis for coercion.

The public policy measures Nussbaum does endorse include guardianship laws for the disabled as currently found in Sweden and Germany, as well as, in the American context, the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates an education individually tailored to the needs of every [379] disabled child. In the realm of international justice, Nussbaum proposes, among other measures, higher international labour standards, more foreign aid and a global resource tax. When it comes to animals, she notes that other species have their own central capabilities. To promote their flourishing in the short term we should implement labelling laws indicating the conditions under which meat animals live and die. In the long term, we should push for a consensus against eating pigs, chicken, cows—any sentient creature that feels pain.

Nussbaum’s advocacy claims often have a familiar feel. To be sure, her section on animals contains a highly original discussion of the painless killing of food animals, which Nussbaum forcefully argues is still wrong because it prevents the future exercise of the animal’s central life-functions. With that exception, however, while there is often considerable sense in Nussbaum’s political proposals, it usually comes at the price of originality. Although Frontiers criticizes utilitarianism, for example, there is little difference between Nussbaum’s recommendations regarding global justice and those Peter Singer puts forward in his utilitarian work One World: The Ethics of Globalization. As for the disabled, one hardly needs to be a neo-Aristotelian to support the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These consideration sometimes make it unclear as to what is gained by adopting the capabilities approach, if it makes so little difference in terms of what political measures are put forward.

Nussbaum’s more philosophical analysis also contains an element of familiarity. This is especially true of her critique of Rawls. Going back to the 1980s, critics such as Thomas Scanlon, Brian Barry and Will Kymlicka have all diagnosed the same tension between impartiality and mutual advantage in Rawls’s work. This is the central theme, for example, of Barry’s 1989 book Theories of Justice, a major work of Rawls scholarship that anticipates nearly all of Nussbaum’s criticisms (and which is noticeably absent from her bibliography).

Nussbaum writes that the social contract tradition has “profoundly shaped thinking about justice in the Western tradition, not only in philosophy but also public policy and international relations.” (P. 26) But Kymlicka notes in his widely used introductory political philosophy text that, “social contract arguments are usually thought of as being weak” (p. 59). Surely this is a more accurate assessment of the status and influence of social contract theory, given all the problems Nussbaum and others have pointed out. Nussbaum, however, frequently makes it sound like she is the first person to notice the drawbacks she discusses. The effect, unfortunately, is a little bit like watching someone make a show of pushing through an open door.

That leaves the affirmative side of Nussbaum’s analysis, her capabilities approach. Certainly it contains many interesting and intelligent elements. But even here, it is often not clear what new idea is being put forward. Nussbaum sometimes seems to suggest that the important thing about capabilities is that they actually be exercised. Particularly when she aligns herself with Aristotle, Nussbaum seems to imply that it would be best if people actively participated in political life. More often however, Nussbaum says it is not the exercise of any capacity that is important, but a person simply having the potential to exercise that capability. This is no doubt Nussbaum’s considered view. But if so, it is not clear how it differs from other liberal theories that emphasize autonomy and choice without reference to capabilities. [380]

Indeed, for a philosophy called the capabilities approach, it is surprising how little theoretical work capabilities do in Nussbaum’s own account. This is particularly evident in Nussbaum’s discussion of two controversial ethical issues.

The first is animal experiments. Nussbaum writes that her theory is “animated by the Aristotelian sense that there is something wonderful and worthy of awe in any complex natural organism.” (p. 94) She thus draws a sharp distinction between her approach to animals and utilitarianism, which, she notes, treats some creatures as means to the ends of others. Yet when it comes to experiments, Nussbaum writes that, “As a matter of ideal entitlement theory, this research is morally bad. As a matter of current implementation, I do not favour stopping all such research immediately. What I do favour is: (a) asking whether this research is really necessary to promote a major human or animal capability” (p. 404).

Nussbaum’s position on experiments is a reasonable one, but it is a thoroughly utilitarian view of animals, despite what she says. More to the point, it is misleading to claim that animal capabilities serve as her position’s theoretical foundation. This become clear when one recalls Nussbaum’s remarks about the inviolability of mentally disabled humans, whom Nussbaum argues should never be treated as means to the ends of others. Nussbaum’s view is thus that no human being, no matter how underdeveloped his capabilities, can be treated as a means, while any animal, even the most intelligent great ape, can be used this way if the benefits are large enough. Either way, individual capabilities never enter into the analysis. Nussbaum’s recourse to what she calls a “species norm” (p. 179) account of capabilities to address this is unsuccessful. Among other problems, it is incompatible with Darwinism: animal species are constantly evolving new norms and capabilities.

Finally, there is abortion. Number three on Nussbaum’s list of central capabilities is choice in matters of reproduction. Yet it is unclear how this is connected to any capability of the kind Nussbaum discusses. The capacity to give birth, for example, is surely “wonderful and worthy of awe.” But those of us who support abortion rights would seem committed to the view that it is sometimes necessary to actively prevent the exercise of this natural capability. It thus seems no more plausible to say abortion rights are rooted in the exercise of a central human capability than to say they are grounded in such a capability’s deliberate frustration.

Nussbaum presents her central capabilities list as the subject of an overlapping consensus. This idea, which derives from Rawls, is based on the belief that people of different religious and philosophical views can endorse political institutions and entitlements which are philosophically and religiously neutral. As Nussbaum puts it, her list of capabilities are presented “without reliance on metaphysical and epistemological doctrines (such as those of the soul, or revelation, or the denial of either of these) that would divide citizens along lines of religion” (P. 163). But to put forward any proposal regarding abortion, either for or against, is to inevitably divide people according to religion. Whatever the strength of the overlapping consensus model in other areas, it is unrealistic to believe abortion rights can command such widespread assent. They need to be defended on other grounds. [381]

There are positive aspects of Frontiers of Justice. Nussbaum has a thought-provoking discussion of the different attitudes men and women have toward caring for dependents such as elderly parents. She is also to be warmly commended for her many sensible political recommendations. But overall, one phrase came to mind while reading her 480-page book. It was the remark often attributed to Samuel Johnson upon receiving a writer’s unpublished work: “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

Animal Fair, Animal Foul

I recently wrote a “three for thought” piece for The Globe and Mail, discussing three books about the ethical status of animals. It seems to have now disappeared behind a paywall, so here it is again.

Proponents of Animal welfare has a new hero in Tre Smith. Smith, as everyone knows, is the Toronto Humane Society officer who found an unconscious Rottweiler inside a sweltering SUV and smashed his way inside to save its life. After Smith handcuffed the dog’s owner to the vehicle and left to seek veterinary attention, the shackled man was attacked by angry animal-lovers. Smith has been legitimately criticized for leaving the dog’s owner in such a vulnerable position. What is noteworthy, however, is that even Smith’s sharpest critics say he was right to smash the window and save the dog.

It was not always this way. Prior to the 19th century, no one considered animal suffering important enough to commission inspectors to seek it out, let alone destroy property to stop it. The moral status of animals has risen over time, and many practices that were once common, such as the dog fights Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was recently convicted for organizing, are no longer tolerated. Should this trend be encouraged? If so, how much? There is now widespread concern for cats and dogs, but what about the animals we encounter in zoos and rodeos, or even slaughterhouses? To what degree, if at all, do we have an obligation to concern ourselves with the suffering of animals that are not our pets?

The most influential book on these questions is also one of the most controversial. Animal Liberation (New York Review, 1975), by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, has sold over 600,000 copies in English and been translated into 17 languages. Singer’s argument is based on the idea that when we are morally deliberating over some course of action, we need to give equal weight to the interests of all the parties involved. To justify different standards of treatment, we need to show that one party has an overriding interest the other does not.

Applied to animals, this way of thinking captures two ideas that are pure common sense. One is that there are many entitlements only humans should have. Granting chickens the right to vote makes no sense, because they lack the cognitive abilities required to do so, and so have no recognizable interest in casting a ballot. Singer would also agree with the conventional view that Smith was right to break the glass. The interest of the owner, a few hundred dollars to replace the window, was clearly outweighed by the dog’s interest in avoiding a painful death.

Singer’s controversial side comes out when he applies the equal consideration idea to all our dealings with animals. According to Singer, many of the things we do to animals, including hunt them for sport or confine them in zoos, serve little purpose other than entertainment, and so cannot justify the confinement or harm involved. Singer also says we have a moral responsibility to avoid meat, given the wide availability of healthy vegetarian alternatives.

One response to Singer is to say that equal consideration applies only to people. This approach usually involves identifying some specifically human attribute, such as language or the capacity to engage in moral reasoning, as the real basis of moral worth. But an implication of this view is that dogs in hot SUVs can be left to die—which many people clearly reject. Another problem is that there are human beings, such as the severely retarded, who cannot speak or deliberate over morality. Any threshold restrictive enough to exclude animals inevitable leaves out some people as well.

Such considerations highlight the stubborn logic of Singer’s position, which has now inspired many other people to write their own books on animal protection (a better term for “animal rights,” as many animal advocates do not employ the idea of rights). As a genre these books are highly repetitive, and usually offer arguments only slightly different from Singer’s. An important exception however is Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (St Martin’s, 2002), by Matthew Scully.

Scully is a conservative Christian who used to make his living writing speeches for George W. Bush (if you can call that living!). Surprisingly, his book has inspired many social conservatives to come out against factory farming. Scully’s religious rhetoric will touch a cord with Christian readers, but one need not be a believer to appreciate his book. Unlike Singer, Scully endorses medical research involving animals (surely a strength of his position). Scully is also a gifted writer, and his chapters on big-money safari hunters, the whaling industry and modern meat production are masterpieces of non-fiction prose. On a stylistic level, Dominion is the best book on animal protection yet to appear in English.

An ethical interest in animals often leads to an interest in vegetarianism. Unfortunately, the vegetarian cookbook industry seems to be in the permanent grip of new-age hippies and Hare Krishnas. Anyone turned off by such associations should seek out How It All Vegan (Arsenal Pulp, 1999), by Canadian authors Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer. Refreshingly, they do not discuss Chakras, or offer instructions on how to become a practicing druid. Barnard and Kramer rather adopt a down to earth approach, and focus on everyday meals someone might actually eat. The clarity and simplicity is no doubt why How It All Vegan has sold 150,000 copies, won several awards and begotten two sequels. Much like Singer and Scully, Barnard and Kramer remind us of that there are ways to save animals that do not require breaking into cars.