Animal rights aren't a priority — and it's hard to imagine how they could be in a capitalist economy

An acclaimed neuroscientist's arrest draws attention to the structural inability to prioritize animal rights

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 3, 2018 7:30PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Carl de Souza)
(Getty/Carl de Souza)

I was talking to my friend the other day about her decision to stop eating meat and asked if she had made that choice for health reasons or ethical ones. She responded with an observation that stuck with me as I was writing this article — specifically, that it says a great deal about our culture that we find it easier, less shameful even, to justify not harming animals if we can claim to do so for selfish reasons, rather than selfless ones.

It's a valid point, but one that raises more questions than it answers. Why exactly do we feel the need, as a human society, to pooh-pooh the moral problems with mistreating animals?

This brings me to one of the big stories in science news right now. Nikos Logothetis, internationally acclaimed neuroscientist and a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics (MPI-Biocyb) in the small German city of Tübingen, was indicted in February for allegedly violating animal protection laws, according to Nature. The criminal case occurred after an animal rights group drew attention to undercover footage taken of Logothetis in 2014 that supposedly showed him mistreating research monkeys. Logothetis used to run a primate laboratory at MPI-Biocyb; because he studies how the brain makes sense of the world, his research inevitably led him to experiment on primates.

As a result of his indictment, Logothetis has been banned from both conducting experiments with animals and from supervising other scientists doing the same thing. MPI-Biocyb scientists have protested Logothetis' treatment, arguing that it denies him the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty (a court date hasn't been chosen yet) and that it leaves scientists vulnerable to any criticism from animal rights activists, no matter how irrational it might be. These are all potentially legitimate observations — if animal research is going to be common in these facilities, then scientists do need to be protected from facing consequences when claims against them are potentially spurious — yet it ignores the underlying issue at stake here.

That issue was inadvertently raised by Max Planck Society president Martin Stratmann, who told Nature that the consequences imposed on Logothetis were necessary because they "must uphold public trust that animal research is carried out properly." He added, "Any public perception that animals are being treated incorrectly will damage the image of animal research as a whole."

Notice the unspoken assumption that animal research can somehow be made savory, or at least minimally unsavory, if only the existing laws pertaining to animal rights are respected. This argument is the cousin of the one that my friend alluded to about how we are more respectful of policies that don't harm animals if they can be connected to human concerns — as opposed to caring about the suffering of the non-human creatures themselves. On both occasions — whether it's a vegetarian reassuring an omnivore that he or she is only avoiding animal-based foods for health reasons, or the lab owner telling the public that people need animal research so long as legal propriety is maintained — there is the unuttered but unmistakable rule that "practicality" somehow equals "allowing human beings to cause suffering to animals."

This assumption exists because we, as a species, have not evolved past an economy that renders animal rights at best irrelevant and at worst a dangerous (read: unprofitable) distraction.

When I say "economy" I refer to any economy in a market-based system, where supply and demand determines pricing and unprofitability is associated with failure. Within such a system, it makes sense that factory farms have become the norm, with the underlying ethic being the one summed up by National Hog Farmer in 1978:

"The breeding sow should be thought of, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine."

This may seem monstrous, but makes sense from a cold business perspective. When no one is guaranteed a living and people need to eat, anyone who wishes to make a living in a culture that regularly consumes meat must produce his or her product as quickly and efficiently as possible. Similarly, when it comes to conducting scientific research on a number of subjects, using animal subjects is often cheaper and more reliable than alternative, less cruel methods that might exist.

When it comes to the amount of money being made or lost, the fact that these animals are suffering is totally meaningless. Because in our economy the financial bottom line is the only bottom line that counts, this means that animal suffering in the world as it exists today is itself totally meaningless, save to those with the heart to proactively care.

And yet, with the exception of a handful of advocacy groups, most of us don't like to think about animals suffering. It makes us uncomfortable. Even people who don't prioritize animal rights issues still dislike the idea of intelligent creatures spending their whole lives in squalid conditions, isolated from their own kind, in a constant state of physical and emotional pain.

Unless you're a sadist or a sociopath, that thought is a deeply upsetting one. Yet because our economy, and consequently our entire social structure, cannot exist without animals suffering, we have to find our way of making peace with the fact that the edifice of the modern human world is built on the foundation of animal suffering. The simplest way to do that is to simply act as though regarding animal rights as important is an ideal to be scorned — or, at the very least, quickly subsumed with reminders that human beings come first.

For the record, I don't write any of this from a holier than thou perspective. I eat meat on a regular basis, wear clothes made from animal skins and read scientific articles that provide me with knowledge gleaned at the expense of suffering creatures of all kinds. When I say that human beings are guilty of hurting animals in order to benefit ourselves as a species, I point the finger at myself as much as anyone else.

Similarly, I am not attempting to argue that the interests of human beings shouldn't be held in higher regard than those of animals. Although I suspect that quite often the interests of both could be paid sufficient respect if we didn't live in a culture where everyone needs to maximize their profit margins, I would agree that if there is a choice between slaughtering animals or letting human beings starve, or experimenting on animals versus providing people with the medicines they need, people must win each time.

My point here is merely that, even in a case like that of Logothetis, which seems to revolve around animal rights finally being respected, there is still an underlying cultural discomfort with the idea that we should actually care about how animals are treated. It is one that in the grander scheme of things has very little to do with Logothetis and his fellow scientists, who are most likely good, intelligent people who simply want to advance the frontiers of human knowledge and make the world a better place. Indeed, it has very little to do with any group of "good guys" or "bad guys."

The basic problem is that, because almost every human being lives in a world where they need to make money to survive, we have no choice but to mistreat animals, even though deep down most of us know that doing so is wrong. More likely than not, if human beings could evolve past a social system that demanded the consumption of goods and accumulation of wealth, we would come up with common-sense ways to meet our needs vis-à-vis animals while minimizing their suffering in the process.

Of course, if human beings could evolve past our dependency on currency-based social constructs, a whole lot of other problems would also be solved in the process. Since we're nowhere near achieving that distant nirvana, however, it seems like the best we can expect are the piecemeal statutes in nations like Germany that try to protect animals in whatever minor ways we can.

Aside from that, they're doomed.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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