20 February 2006

An Interview with Darian M. Ibrahim, B.S., J.D.

Darian Ibrahim is an associate professor of law at The University of Arizona. One of his scholarly interests is the legal status of nonhuman animals. I asked Professor Ibrahim whether he would "sit" for an interview via e-mail. He graciously agreed to do so. Rather than ask the questions all at once, I asked them one at a time, so that I could follow up on his answers. I hope you enjoy—and learn from—the interview.

KBJ: Tell us about your background, Professor Ibrahim. Where were you born and reared; where were you educated; what were your main influences? I'll ask specifically about animals in my next question.
DI: Thanks for having me. I grew up in Clemson, South Carolina, where I also went to undergraduate school and earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. This was followed by law school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I gravitated toward corporate law, which I practiced first as a summer associate at a large firm in New York City, and then as an associate at a large firm in Atlanta. I worked in my father's small businesses while growing up, which may have had something to do with my choice of corporate law, and particularly corporate law as applied to small businesses, as a field of legal practice. I now teach and write on corporate law at Arizona.
KBJ: How and when did you become interested in animals? Would you say that you love animals, or only that you respect them? Did you take a course on animal law in law school? What did you think about Pierson v. Post, which I assume you studied in your property-law course? (You might want to state the facts of the case—and the court's ruling—for readers who are unfamiliar with it.)
DI: I became interested in animal rights after my wife and I decided to get a dog, which quickly led to two, and then three. Although I had always realized, as an intellectual matter, that there was much animal suffering in the world, the experience of rescuing dogs from bad situations (literally) brought it home for me. After struggling with the realization that the animals on my dinner plate were morally indistinguishable from the dogs I was doting on, I gave up eating meat and a few months later became a vegan.

I both love and respect animals, but more importantly, recognize that they have inherent value inconsistent with the law's treatment of them as mere property like tables and chairs. Pierson v. Post, which dealt with the claims of two hunters regarding ownership of a fox both were pursuing, illustrates that the law sees animals as nothing more than resources to be owned and used for human ends. I did not take a course on animals in law school—I'm not sure Cornell even offered such a course, or that it does now. My education on animal law has come primarily from the works of Rutgers law professor Gary Francione, who explains the importance of abolishing animal exploitation through the incremental eradication of the property status—a position I fully agree with.
KBJ: Is it important that those who agitate for animal rights be vegetarians? As you know, philosophers say that arguments stand or fall on their own merits. If this is so, then the fact that the person making the argument consumes animal flesh is irrelevant to whether the argument is sound. Even hypocrites can make sound arguments. And yet, many people think it a criticism of an argument that the person making it does not live in accordance with its conclusion. They say to the arguer, in effect, "Who are you to try to get me to abstain from meat, when you don't?" How do you make sense of all this?
DI: Great question. I think that veganism is mandatory for those who argue in favor of animal rights. Anything less is inconsistent and irrational. There is no logic in arguing that animal exploitation is wrong, on the one hand, but then supporting it through purchases and consumption, on the other hand. While the source of an argument may not matter logically if the argument is sound, as a practical matter it is unrealistic to ask others to stop eating animals if we as animal advocates will not even do so.

What I think is even more troublesome is that many animal advocates are not even arguing for or focusing on vegetarianism, let alone veganism, despite the fact that food accounts for 98% of our domestic animal use. The fallback position is often something to the effect of "eating animals is okay if they are treated humanely," which is the essence of the animal-welfare (as opposed to animal-rights) position. In my opinion, "humane treatment" is an oxymoron. Most of our uses of animals, including for food and experimentation, simply cannot be accomplished without inflicting tremendous suffering and also death upon the animals used. To think it can be otherwise is unrealistic. Whether one is an advocate of animal rights or animal welfare, the choice as I see it is either to avoid animal exploitation or to support it largely as is.
KBJ: Isn't there a morally relevant difference between factory-farmed meat and meat from free-range animals? Peter Singer argues that there is. Our first goal, he says, should be to end factory farming, since that is where most of the suffering occurs. Many people who do not object to the use of animals as resources find it troubling that the animals whose flesh they eat were made to suffer. It seems to me that there is room here for rational persuasion. Surely it would be a better world without factory farming than with it, even if animal flesh is still consumed. Do you agree?
DI: It is not possible to produce affordable meat, dairy, or eggs without factory farming. Commentators including James Rachels have recognized that large-scale food production necessarily involves much animal suffering and cruel methods. Even Peter Singer writes in Animal Liberation that "It is not practically possible to rear animals for food on a large scale without inflicting considerable suffering. Even if intensive methods are not used, traditional farming involves castration, separation of mother and young, breaking up social groups, branding, transportation to the slaughterhouse, and finally slaughter itself. It is difficult to imagine how animals could be reared for food without these forms of suffering. . . . The flesh of animals reared and killed with equal consideration for the welfare of animals while they were alive would be a delicacy available only to the rich." (Animal Liberation, 3rd ed., p. 160)

I think the "free-range" concept is very dangerous. Contrary to common opinion, it does not mean a return to family farming; rather, it is a non-legal, industry concept that allows corporations to charge more for animals who are treated largely the same as factory-farmed animals. It also allows consumers who might otherwise become vegetarians or vegans to continue purchasing animal products under the false premise that the products are "cruelty-free." (A quick search revealed this website discussing the free-range myth.)

Apart from my view that the humane treatment of exploited animals is possible only in theory, I disagree with Singer and others who claim that animal suffering is all that matters. I believe that animals have an interest in continuing to live above and beyond their interest in not suffering, and that to kill an animal for food or other human purposes under even the best circumstances is a moral wrong in and of itself. And I hope to convince those who think otherwise!
KBJ: Let's turn to the law, Professor Ibrahim. You mentioned that the law treats animals as "mere property." What is the alternative? Surely you're not advocating that animals be treated as persons for legal purposes. But what other legal status is there? What exactly would you like to see changed, and how would these changes play out in practice? In other words, describe what you would consider a just legal regime with respect to nonhuman animals.
DI: I am in fact advocating that animals be treated as legal persons, but only for very limited purposes. The law treats even artificial constructs such as corporations as legal persons for a multitude of purposes. For instance, corporations are considered persons under the Constitution's equal-protection clause enacted for the benefit of freed slaves. Given that, animal personhood does not seem that strange an idea to me.

Of course it is silly to say that animals should be given all the rights that human persons have. Rights should correspond to interests. Humans have an interest in education; animals do not. Therefore, only humans should attend schools. But both humans and animals are sentient, which means they both have interests in not suffering and in their own lives that should be respected. To classify animals as property by definition negates all of their interests. To classify animals as persons solely for purposes of recognizing that they are not human resources is what I would consider to be a just legal regime.
KBJ: What about insects, reptiles, and rodents? How would the law deal with these animals? Would you abolish hunting? How about rodeos, circuses, and zoos?
DI: If an animal is sentient, we should respect its interest in not suffering and continuing to live. Sometimes we do not know whether an animal is sentient—insects are a perfect example. But there is no doubt that the animals we eat, experiment on, hunt, and use for entertainment in rodeos, circuses, and zoos are sentient. Therefore, all of these activities must be abolished under the theory I adopt.

Interestingly, Professor Francione points out that there is already widespread agreement on most of this, if you really think about it. We all agree that because animals can suffer, we should not cause them to suffer without a good reason. Indeed, every state has an anticruelty law that purports to prevent "unnecessary suffering." The problem is that almost every use of animals these laws allow cannot be described as "necessary" in any sense of that word. It is not necessary to eat meat, and in fact it is bad for us—we only do so because we like the taste. But this is not necessity, it is something far less. So the problem is that we do not practice what we preach. If we did, we would not use animals for any of these unnecessary purposes because they cause unnecessary suffering—the very thing we claim to reject.
KBJ: Is there a prima facie obligation to obey the law? If so, under what circumstances is disobedience justified to protect animals? If you believe that disobedience is sometimes justified to protect animals, must it be nonviolent? I guess what I'm wondering is what you think about the tactics of organizations such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). If you believe violence is sometimes permissible to protect animals, do you believe that it's prudent? Won't it alienate precisely the people you hope to bring around to your view of animals? I believe this is Peter Singer's position on violence. As a utilitarian, he won't rule it out categorically, but he thinks it is counterproductive. If you share his view, will you publicly condemn violence in behalf of animals, by ALF or others? And if you do condemn it, do you condemn it categorically or only conditionally? If only conditionally, what are the conditions in which it is justified?
DI: I categorically condemn violence as a means of protecting animals. I believe it alienates those who could be convinced, and is inconsistent with a movement whose ideal is based on peace and non-violence toward all beings. While I understand the frustration felt by those who engage in such tactics—the amount of animal suffering in the world is mind-boggling, after all—I think they are going about things in absolutely the wrong way.
KBJ: Name some people—lawyers, philosophers, scientists, laypeople—who have inspired you in your work on animal law. Please explain the nature and extent of the inspiration. Do you feel as though you are standing on the shoulders of giants? From whom have you learned the most?
DI: I am most inspired by the work of Gary Francione and his rights-based theory of animal law. The way he has combined philosophy and law to show how Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism and the property status of animals combine to eviscerate the force of animal protection laws is just brilliant, in my opinion. He has been criticized within the movement for drawing a hard line between animal rights and animal welfare, but I think he has many good reasons for doing so, which I attempt to expand on in my work. I think the rights position is far more coherent than the welfare position, even if the goal is simply to protect animals from suffering. I do not consider myself to be a radical person, actually—I am a corporate lawyer after all—but animal rights and veganism as its baseline makes sense to me.

I have learned the most from Professor Francione, and also a good deal from UCLA law professor Taimie Bryant. I very much hope to come to know other animal-law and animal-rights scholars as I continue my work, as I still have much to learn.
KBJ: What can humans learn from dogs?
DI: I learn the meaning of unconditional love and kindness from my three incredible dogs each day. What is also important is that nowadays the only animals with which most humans interact are the dogs or cats they keep as companions. As I said in my first answer, my dogs caused me to rethink my relationship with other animals, and ultimately to make the connection that I was harming these animals through my purchases and consumption of their flesh. If other people who love their dogs and cats also made this connection, I think there could be many, many more vegans in the world and a significant reduction in animal use and suffering. Also, whenever scientists "discover" that animals are intelligent or have distinct personalities, as we sometimes read about in the news, I imagine that anyone who lives with a dog or cat finds this rather obvious.
KBJ: Tell us about your animal-related scholarly projects. Can we expect a book from you anytime soon?
DI: I have three forthcoming law-review articles on animal law, each of which should be in print sometime in 2006. For those who might be interested, these will appear in the Journal of Animal Law & Ethics (Penn Law); the University of Chicago Legal Forum (Chicago Law); and Law & Contemporary Problems (Duke Law). Then I will turn to other projects that expand my work on the connection between corporate law and animal mistreatment, which I hope will include a book at some point. Animal law is a rapidly growing field, and I am thrilled to be a part of its expansion.

Thanks again for interviewing me—it has been a pleasure. And keep up the blogging!
KBJ: You're welcome, Professor Ibrahim. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Keep up the good work in behalf of animals.

Addendum: If you would like to read Professor Ibrahim's forthcoming essay on anticruelty statutes, click here, scroll, and download the essay from one of the four sites provided.

Addendum 2: If you enjoyed this interview and would like to see other interviews with professors, let me know.

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