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The Late Bernie Rollin: A Man for All Seasons and Reasons

Agree or disagree with Rollin, he made people think deeply about diverse issues.

A Tribute to a Deep Thinker and Ethicist

By Andrew Fenton, Ph.D., and Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

Bernard Rollin passed away on November 19, 2021.1

I, Andrew, had the privilege of coming to know Bernie through our shared interests in animal research ethics and animal advocacy. In 2017, two things brought us together: A World Congress on the 3Rs; as well as our work on the first amicus brief in support of the efforts of the Nonhuman Rights Project to relocate two captive chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, to an appropriate sanctuary. My experience of Bernie was someone with deep compassion for animals and even those who use animals in agriculture or scientific research; he also had strong views that were forcefully stated but often reasonable. Even when disagreeing with him, Bernie had a way of lifting one up. Conversations with Bernie were a mix of good humor, repartee on philosophy or ethics, and our experiences chatting with folks who use animals. I treasure those conversations with Bernie.

Courtesy of Linda Rollin, No Usage Restrictions
Source: Courtesy of Linda Rollin, No Usage Restrictions

When thinking about Bernie’s approach to animal research ethics, three pivotal considerations come to mind. First, Bernie was a fierce defender of the view that most of the animals commonly used in scientific activities (e.g., mice, rats) are sentient. Second, Bernie was unwavering in his view that all sentient animals were due compassionate treatment that respected their "natures" (what he called their teloi). Third, Bernie challenged the regrettably common view that humans enjoy a privileged or exalted moral status (or moral importance that constrains the choices we make) that permitted treating animals in a way we would not treat human members of our communities.

Those even with a passing familiarity of Bernie’s work will know that he bemoaned the impact of the view that science is value-free (a sort of “ethics-free zone”) as well as a narrow understanding of scientific confirmation through experience. For Bernie, because science was thought to be an ethics-free zone, it came with the unfortunate consequence whereby ethical considerations brought inappropriate constraints on scientific pursuits. It also meant that scientists tended to shallowly engage various publics when defending animal use: benefits arising from animal use were taken to be sufficient justification; those who opposed it were misanthropes or labeled anti-science. A narrow understanding of what could be scientifically confirmed allowed scientists to dismiss ethics as nothing other than the expressions of emotion or feelings, and also dismiss talk of mental states in other animals (like fear, joy, love, pain, and suffering) as anthropomorphic.

For Bernie, such disregard for both the sentience of other animals and ethics did not reflect conceptions of animal minds or ethics in greater society, and as society looked more to law or policy for the protection of animals from wanton cruelty, scientists were increasingly finding themselves out of step with public views about the ethical treatment of research animals. When discussing these changing social views, Bernie would foreground our knowledge of animals in our daily experience. Of course, science has also been relevant here. Human brains have an evolutionary history; as human minds are in some important sense a product of our brains, our minds have an evolutionary history too. Because of our shared biological “plumbing,” it is reasonable to think that what supports such human psychological states as pain, fear, joy, or love also supports similar states in many other animals.

What’s more, the scientific use of animals to understand such things as depression or pain, if taken to be valid, revealed the belief that animals so used could be depressed or feel pain. This, for Bernie and many others, pushes “mind-talk” beyond our species. That ethics is more than expressions of emotion or feeling is captured in such insights as the moral importance of human sentience. Our pain or suffering matters to us and we demand that others take our interests in being free of pain or suffering seriously when deciding to act or not act. That pain or suffering matters no less to other sentient animals was front and center for Bernie. He would remind us that nothing short of ideology or prejudice allows us to discount “animal mattering” in the favor of humans.

What followed from these kinds of considerations was a moral imperative to treat all sentient animals compassionately and in ways that are sensitive to their “nature." To explain what he meant, he would talk of the “pigness” of the pig or “cowness” of the cow. This doesn't have to be understood as the essence of a species. Bernie meant common capacities such as the abilities of pigs, cows, or humans that reflect our various biological endowments and their evolutionary history. Taken together, this implied that animal pain during research was to be ameliorated and suffering avoided.

Bernie's tireless and hard work to change animal welfare laws in the U.S. is a matter of record. However, he didn’t settle for just that. He stressed that an animal's pain or suffering was pain or suffering, regardless of species.

Bernie also reminds us that favoring intellectual capacities to justify our moral supremacy threatened various neurodiverse members of our communities, not just other animals, and that that was not morally acceptable. Taken together, those considerations should unsettle the confidence of scientists that their use of animals passes moral muster. For those still taken with the appeal to benefits, Bernie had another biting come-back. Let us assume that the benefits to humans are necessary and sufficient to justify animal use. How much animal use is to our benefit? This, Bernie notes, precludes using animals merely because regulations require it, or for weapons testing, or to satisfy scientific curiosity.

Bernie’s determination and strength of view, his unfailing commitment to defend those who cannot defend themselves against those who can, and yet compassion for those who do use animals are captured in his work. A treasure that will continue to inspire, uplift, and push us all to do more and do better.

Bernie Rollin as the Prototype "Radvocate"

"He has a Great Dane named Molly and a stocky pit bull named King. His friends describe him as extremely intelligent and sometimes combative, though they also add that he's kind, caring, honest, passionate and thoughtful." —Bernard Rollin lauded with a lifetime achievement award from the non-profit Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research.

For the past few months I (Marc) have been playing with the idea of the ways in which people, like Bernie, could normalize their deep concern for animal welfare/wellbeing and, in fact, are not radicals but rather "radvocates"—people who take what many think are radical ideas and make them part of mainstream thought and turn the tables so that people who choose to harm and kill nonhumans are the "radicals." Bernie was very effective at getting people to change their views.


1) For more about Professor Rollin see: "Bernard Rollin lauded with lifetime achievement award: Philosopher fights for the 'things that can't'" and click here and here.