It is only a small sample but it comes from a significant corner of the academic community, a law school where I was invited to give a talk on the debate about animal rights. I did deliver such a talk at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, law school on October 21, 2010, and I was surprised how few supporters of animal rights showed up for my talk even though several of them were invited and there was even talk of a formal debate.
I mentioned this at the dinner that followed and was told that there had been a concerted effort by local animal rights advocates to boycott my lecture. Word had gone out to members of the community of animal rights advocates, via email and such, about how I have written critical papers and a book on the subject and how no one ought to show up for my talk.
I am, after 40 years of teaching, still a bit naive about the nature of academic life so I was somewhat taken aback because my understanding had always been that it is at universities and colleges that debates and discussions about controversial issues are carried out, usually in an atmosphere of civility. Alas, I must not really be as aware about how universities and colleges work as I would like to be.
The reality seems to be that in many such communities discussions aren't all that welcome. Instead the attitude is combative: Let's show those with whom we disagree that we are against them, solidly, that we have no respect for the idea of a philosophical debate on the topic but want to silence, boycott, or exclude those who don't already fall in line with our position.
It is this attitude that was in evidence here, or so my hosts informed me. I had written papers and a book on the topic of animal rights and environmental ethics in general over the last 20 years. I wrote on animal rights first because I had been working on natural rights theory for a good bit of my career, starting with my doctoral dissertation. When I first heard that there are those who believe that animals have the sort of rights we human beings are said to have, as per the Declaration of Independence and the philosopher John Locke, I wanted to see whether the ground for making this claim exists. If the underlying facts are not there, then no such rights could be supported, I figured, and indeed that is how it turned out when I looked at the matter closely.
Having natural human rights depends on the fact that human beings are moral agents and in human communities they require a sphere of personal moral authority – or what the late Robert Nozick called "moral space." Natural rights are what circumscribe this sphere, spell out where it is that a person is in charge of what happens and where other people must not enter without being invited to do so. In this "space" people do as they choose and get judged or evaluated based on standards of morality. Unless they enjoy the liberty or freedom to act as they choose, their conduct lacks moral significance. Their moral agency would then be undermined. So their basic rights are necessary conditions for acting in morally significant ways in the company of other people. (Others are free to interfere or refrain from doing so, whereas non-human agents aren't free to do so.)
Well, this is a controversial position and I have had my critics over the years and have been giving some talks and writing a few papers around college and university communities in America and abroad laying out the case as I see it. In most cases I have met with civil opposition. I did, however, notice that although I discuss them in some detail, neither of the prominent animal rights – or animal liberation – defenders, Professors Tom Regan and Peter Singer – have bothered to acknowledge by arguments (even when we have been invited to contribute to the very same book of collected papers on the topic). I have puzzled over this but thought that perhaps it is due only to these folks being quite busy with various tasks and having no time to deal with what I have written (although they both know me personally).
The experience at Madison was an eye opener. It appears that the lack of attention to my arguments from these prominent figures may be quite deliberate, a kind of boycott instead of an oversight. And that suggests a measure of anti-intellectualism, a refusal to engage on the topic at hand. But why? Is it to marginalize criticism of their views? Is it to play a certain kind of strategy whereby the refusal to take account of criticisms is meant to exclude the criticisms from the discussions? I am not sure – I haven't asked. But it is an interesting phenomenon for sure.