Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Older Animal Rights Ethics and the Public Opinion War

I have nothing personal against previous animal rights theories, although part of my work happens to critique them, along with all other major moral theories. Personally, I have been an animal rights vegan for more than 21 years. So part of me cheers every time I see another defence of animal rights. I also do not object to animal rights theories nearly as much as the speciesist, anti-animal-rights views. To me, speciesism is a reality, and a horror show which indicates that there is a lot more bad and wrong about anti-animal-rights world views. There are countless metaphorical tons more that are objectionable. Dr. Kaufman, in his review (see my last blog entry) of my forthcoming book, Universal Animal Rights, wrote: “Previous attempts to defend animal rights [before Dr. Sztybel’s theory of best caring] have been far more powerful than arguments against animal rights…” Yet, all along, I have maintained that the debate hitherto has been logically inconclusive, and that, in all honesty, one witnesses a deadlock of intuitions on both sides. Best caring, my ethic, is meant to change that stalemate situation. So if, technically, neither side wins logically in prior discourse, would it not beg the question, or assume what one needs to justify, to claim that the previous animal rights arguments have been more powerful than those of the other side?

It depends on what one means by “powerful.” Neither side has been extremely logically powerful. However, there is more to life than logic. There is also the power of persuasion or of being plausible. Frankly, even in the absence of proof, we can speak of which side has the better image in the inevitable propaganda or public relations war between animal rights and its nemeses. This optics question extends not only to animal rights activists and those who react to them, nor only to political or legal arenas, but also in fact into the more diffuse realm of academic theory regarding animals. It turns out that different theories have, or are apt to have, better images with the majority of the general public. Obviously, theories have a grand and shiny image with their own proponents, but that is a trivial fact. Of course they do. But that does not say which view has more social power due to the number of people who are or would be attracted or repelled.

In this essay, I will show how previous animal rights arguments are apt to project a better image than is the case with the “antis.” I will as usual maintain that the older animal rights views are vulnerable because logically, there is an “out” for any of these views. But I will likewise show that all of these exit strategies from the animal rights views are not very flattering for the people who would jump ship. They all look bad—even embarrassing—to the antis.

Older Generation Animal Rights Arguments and Insights

There is a great deal of suffering and death associated with using animals for food, clothing, entertainment, hunting, experiments, and so forth. Accordingly, the core of animal rights arguments have addressed these harms in a principled manner. It all looks really awful in practical terms if you see multimedia images of how animals are actually exploited, such as at PETA.org. First I will outline the older animal rights arguments themselves, and then the exit strategies that might be used by the antis. All along we will consider the public image for each idea or set of them.

  1. We should abolish cruelty in the world and indifference to suffering within ourselves. This position has been maintained by traditional animal ethics people, but many have shown that all animal usages involve great disregard of animal interests. Therefore all animal exploitation is mired in cruelty. In public image terms, opposing cruelty is spot-on. No one could object to it, and anyone who opposes it sounds, well, cruel and uncaring about suffering, which the public thinks is a really bad thing. No intellectual gymnastics could seriously alter this practical, public perception. However, the silent contract that academics maintain with the goal of truth-seeking features some serious logical exit-clauses, even from extending the principle of anti-cruelty as far as it goes, which I outline below.
  2. We should not permit harm or suffering that is not necessary. This is very related to the last point, emphasizing harms to animals in a different way. Laws speak of avoiding unnecessary suffering, and Robert Garner, Gary Francione, Mark Bernstein and many others, for example, framing vegetarian arguments have used this simple but powerful appeal. It carries a grand public image for reasons already given. One special way out of the “unnecessary suffering” argument which I myself have illuminated in this blog is that anti-animal-rights people can say that they do not need to eat meat to survive, so the suffering involved is not needed in that sense. But they can say that they need to use certain means to have meat-eating, and suffering is inevitably associated with those means. If animals have no rights, there is nothing wrong with using those means. However, in terms of public image, people will overall concede that they do not need to eat meat in any compelling sense. They are still indifferent to the suffering involved in eating meat because they are accepting the whole industry. Some suffering may be needed as part of that means to an end, but the whole industry is not something we need to affirm. Choosing to perpetuate suffering and death somehow never looks good, except perhaps to the peculiarly morbid, and that explains why a lot of meat-eaters are embarrassed when confronted with the realities connected to their habit, and often seek to avoid considering this topic either frankly or in depth.
  3. We should reject speciesism just as we reject racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination. Singer, Regan, and many others have appealed to this idea. This again relates to allowing harm, if we oversimplify matters. Those who are subject to prejudicial discrimination often suffer major and undue harms. I did not need to come along with best caring for it to look bad for anyone to say that suffering only matters if you belong to the human species. That really seems like an irrational, even mindless, idea. There are exit strategies that I dutifully (from the standpoint of academic rigour) list below, but at the very least this accusation creates a cloud of suspicion around anti-animal-rightists that is not easy to dispel. And we will see that the exit strategies do not improve the public image of those who are compared to racist supporters of slavery, for example.
  4. We should carry on with an equal considering of interests, including the interest in avoiding suffering. Peter Singer emphasizes this aspect. Tom Regan emphasizes the equal inherent value or dignity of animals, and Francione points to an equal interest in not being considered property. Again, opposing the bad things looks great, but so does the additional factor of upholding equality. In public perception, inequality always appears nasty, even if people resentfully have to put up with it under certain conditions. Some might relish inequality, but in the majority view such a gleeful disposition towards inequity inevitably appears villainous.
  5. There are no morally relevant characteristics to differentiate animals from humans. Again we can, for the sake of simplicity and clarity, consider the interest in avoiding suffering, harm, and death—things that we can avoid by refusing to exploit animals. Why do we not subject humans to like suffering, harm, and death? What is relevantly different between humans and other animals? Species as an answer looks really bad. Being of a different species does not make one’s suffering into a good or neutral thing. Or if one says that humans are rational, language users, more self-aware, morally capable and culpable, that may be true of the majority of humans. But emphasizing these qualities does not look especially good on closer examination, although it is the #1 strategy used by anti-animal-rights theorists in the academic literature. Most people would agree that these things—rationality and so forth—are of value, so citing them might be thought to be of value too and therefore relevant. However, this appeal looks really, really bad when it is pointed out that there are humans who cannot (hardly) reason, use language, exercise self-awareness or moral judgment, and so on. Should they have no rights either? This looks terrible. Atrocious. Mean. Outrageous even. As I have shown elsewhere, attempts to justify treating mentally disadvantaged humans differently from animals do not work either and would not withstand public scrutiny.

Let it be noted that best caring can straightforwardly argue that the above considerations flow from my theory’s premises: it is not best to be cruel, to allow unnecessary suffering, engage in discriminatory oppression, and to fail equitably to consider interests in not suffering. Also, animals with their goods and bads inherently have a share in what is best, or the most good and least bad. Whether they can speak, reason, and so on are irrelevant to whether animals have this inherent share. So best caring bears out these traditional notions nicely. However, there are even more specific theories of animal rights to consider:

  1. Kant’s theory has been mirrored by Julian Franklin. Kant speaks of regarding rational beings as ‘ends in themselves’ (or they are not to be used as a mere means, and are to have a dignity of the sort that rights protect), and emphasizes that we need to be able to universalize our moral rules. There are logical ways out of this including that we can universalize virtually any moral rules, and the exit strategies below provide additional ways of disrespecting animals while respecting humans. But still, there are image problems with objectors to Franklin’s adaptation of Kant. It does not look good exploitively to use animals as mere means, instruments or tools, and to have a disregard for their harm and suffering. Here we get back to cruelty again, and how it does not look good except maybe to psychopaths. And there is something noble about making it universal to avoid all avoidable suffering and death. Again, the opposite is to affirm some suffering and death. Does that look good? If it does, then so does the image of a grinning deaths-head hovering in a painting of a post-apocalyptic cityscape. (Which can ‘look good’ from the standpoint of artistic talent, and so on, but not in the relevant sense of appearing like a morally good scenario to contemplate.)
  2. Neo-Kantian John Rawls has the idea that we can imagine ourselves as spirits not yet born. What rules of justice would they set, if they do not know if they will be born rich or poor, ‘white’ or ‘black’, male or female, and so on? Mark Rowlands and Mark Bernstein have capitalized on this idea from an animal rights angle. We do not know if we will be born rational or human either. But such beings would vote for the protection of everyone who, like themselves, are nonrational or nonhuman. Again, there are exit strategies. One can set any moral rules from the unborn position. But again, principles that are complacent with suffering and death do not look good. One can stipulate that one could only be born into a normally rational species. A rational human could conceivably be born a mentally challenged human with a congenital defect, for example—but as a newt? A newt is not a form of life that would accommodate who a rational framer of justice-rules really is. But still, the anti-animal-rights interest is always bent on accepting cruelty, suffering, and death. It does not look good. Never has, never will. And there is an intrinsic appeal, even a sort of nobility, to considering both good and bad no matter what species you belong to, indeed, wherever good and bad might be found.
  3. Alan Gewirth says we all need freedom and well-being to act at all, so everyone should rationally claim rights to these things, and the principle of generic consistency says that we should treat like cases alike and therefore grant rights to all who can enjoy freedom or well-being. There are ways out of this. Other exit strategies discussed below treat like cases alike. There are other outs since again my discussion here is not exhaustive. But the public likes freedom and well-being. It never looks especially good to squelch them and to conduce towards their opposites.
  4. Joan Dunayer stresses the role of compassion in rights, as well as justice. This seems straightforward. If animals’ suffering and death is not equitably considered, how could that be just? How could it be compassionate? I myself published a list of objections to the related feminist “ethic of care” in my essay, “The Rights of Animal Persons.” I think these are pretty convincing in rebutting simple appeals to compassion, empathy or sympathy, although my best caring framework is nevertheless, in part, an offshoot of the ethic of care (it also shares key insights with all of the major ethical theories as I show, mostly in my upcoming book). Quite regardless, being uncompassionate, insensitive, or mean never looks good, now does it? Most who would throw out caring altogether look, well, uncaring, and that looks bad.
  5. Virtue ethics is another possible basis for animal rights or equivalent. Cruelty never seems virtuous but only vicious. But hardly anyone uses this approach, so I will not discuss it further.

It is needless to add that we cannot afford an exhaustive survey of all animal rights ideas in this blog entry. However, one can more than get the general idea from the above samples, all of which put forward such sterling images. Now then. What about the anti-animal-rightists? They can maybe show that the animal rights defenders of previous theories cannot have the last word in the overall debate. So does everyone end up looking the same in terms of public image?

Exit Strategies: Going Beyond Older Animal Rights Views and into the Ills of Ignominy

There are many ways out of the older animal rights strategies listed above. I cannot list all of them here. To get a really substantial sense, yes, you’d have to read my book. Shameless to say, but true. But in any case, this wiggle-room makes the people who worm their way into it appear in a bad or at least questionable light:

  1. Cartesianism René Descartes argued that animals really do not have minds, and therefore they have no interests to consider. Anyone who accepts this point of view can deny they are cruel or commit unnecessary suffering if there is no animal suffering to begin with. Similarly, beings with no interests cannot be oppressed or meaningfully be subject to an equal consideration of interests. Not possessing interests is a morally relevant characteristic in this context. A Kantian could universalize only treating beings with interests as ends in themselves. A Rawlsian would say we cannot be born as beings without interests, and contra Gewirth, animals would not have any well-being or freedom that matters to them on this world view. Compassion or justice for beings without interests is also without any worldly bearing. Still, this Cartesian sort of stance appears out of touch with the latest science and evidence concerning animals and their apparent cognition. True, it may be hard absolutely to prove that animals are more than biological machines without being able to read their minds, but it still seems unscientific nowadays to dispute the overwhelming balance of evidence. People who resort to this tactic seem more like they are fooling themselves, trying to deceive others, or are just trying to rationalize their own cruelty. I did not need to come along to refute Cartesianism in this respect (although my book, to be fair, contains helpful additional ideas on this question). Others such as scientists have already done this amply and well.
  2. Ethical Egoism This view holds that all moral agents ought to base all of their actions in self-interest. However, they hold that doing so does not mean failing to consider others. For it is in everyone’s self-interest to agree to rules against stealing, murdering, raping, and so on. Yet it is not in moral agents’ self-interest to agree not to harm animals, because the nonhumans cannot offer anything in return for such an agreement (apart from, perhaps, special cases of so-called "pets," but if an egoist tires of a "pet," look out, animal!). If an egoist does not owe animals any moral regard, obviously this includes consideration for suffering, let alone equal consideration. There is no speciesism on such a view since it is no injustice to disregard animal interests as a rule, and also no altruism inherent in the Kantian views or ones based simply in compassion—especially there is no altruism for animals. So ethical egoism can beat its way out of the older animal rights arguments. Don’t take my word for it. Research it yourself. I certainly do not have room to assess every animal rights defender’s way of dealing with ethical egoism or other exit strategies here. But regardless, how does ethical egoism appear? In the eyes of the egoists, it is just fine, thank you very much. In most peoples’ eyes, though, selfishness is a vice. It is churlish and morally ugly. We all know what it is like to deal with people who always have self-interest as their paramount concern, and most of us find that to be a distinctively unpleasant experience. Egoists get out of animal rights, but to be candid, they do not look particularly good saying they don’t care about cruelty or harm to animals out of mere self-interest.
  3. Superiorism Again, the view that animals are not rational, and so on, means that they do not count morally (as much) to a lot of people. But how good does it look to say that an animals’ hellish agonies on a factory farm do not matter because the animals cannot add up a list of figures? It looks terrible. Like a pathetic rationalization of cruelty. In Universal Animal Rights as elsewhere, especially my article “Taking Humanism Seriously,” I even build up this line of thinking into superiorism, or the view that animals have less worth that they either enjoy in their own lives or create in other lives, therefore they are worth less (even if not worthless) morally. But even though the old animal rights defenders provide nothing at all to defeat this superiorist view, to my knowledge anyway, how does superiorism look? Well, superiorism trades on inequality, and in ethics, that never looks good. There is a passion for equality in society that most people share. Also, it gets hard to affirm rights for mentally disadvantaged humans in this context, and that just disgusts people. Superiorism also seems to give the most good and protection to those whose lives are already richest in goods, neglecting those less fortunate, and that strikes most as an unjust general tendency. The opposite of justice, actually. Most people think that special consideration and moral attention needs to be given to those less well off, as John Rawls emphasized in his book, A Theory of Justice. True, humanity as a whole tolerates horrid poverty in this world on a most alarming scale. But who argues in favour of squalor? Argument and profession of principles is cheap, and few would like to pay the price of looking bad in what they profess.
  4. Moral Skepticism On this view, there are no moral absolutes. It seems to follow as a logical consequence that morally, “anything goes.” Sometimes this view is associated with ethical relativism. That is, in the absence of moral absolutes that are universal, ethics can only be understood relative to specific cultural contexts. Skeptics can use strategies such as anti-intuitionism, and point out that all of the animal rights views rest on intuitions. So these can be just swept aside. Including intuitions about eliminating all suffering, considering it equally, or about adopting the Kantian frameworks, or needing to adhere to some ideal of universal compassion. The skeptics would say that speciesism is just an arbitrary cultural construct and has no compelling or absolute reality. However, most of society would say that disregarding cruelty because not everyone can agree on ethics is an atrocious stance to take. People would not have stopped the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis who orchestrated the Holocaust because of moral skepticism. And it does not look good to advocate cruelty in any other context either. Anti-animal-rightists are not going to win the public relations war this way.
  5. Pragmatism Pragmatists such as John Dewey deny that philosophers can establish any moral absolutes. I suppose they are moral skeptics of a sort. But unlike many skeptics, they say that we can still speak of what “works” in society, or what is comfortable or agreeable for people to adopt ethically. A pragmatist, like the moral skeptic, would deny that we have any absolutes bearing on us to prevent the suffering of animals. Pragmatists might protest that they are practical people, and animal use is just business after all. However, this exit strategy faces the same stubborn challenge as all the others: cruelty, or disregard of suffering, harm, and death, NEVER looks good, regardless of whether its tacit acceptance stems from the lips or actions of pragmatists, profiteers, or anyone else.
  6. Spiritual Dogmas Many, many people point out that the Bible says humans have dominion over nonhuman animals, so we can use animals as we please. The word of God is often said to trump human moral philosophers’ principles such as nonharming, equal consideration, criteria of who has moral status, and the principles of neo-Kantians or compassion advocates. However, does disregard of suffering look good? First of all, it is contrary to ‘the spirit’ of the spiritual traditions if one looks closely. Second, cruelty of that nature never looks good in whatever context, be it spiritual or secular, be it advocated from the pulpit or within a spiritual tract.
  7. Utilitarianism Now the above exit strategies might allow any kind of animal exploitation whatsoever. Most utilitarians are actually speciesists who do not consider nonhuman animal interests on a par with those of human animals. However, even utilitarians such as Peter Singer, who insist that the suffering of animals needs to be counted equitably has, on occasion, indicated that one can mount a moral defence of certain kinds of harmful medical research on animals. So this is a partway exit strategy from abolitionist animal rights, since Singer agrees we can do away with meat, fur, leather, hunting for fun, or maintaining animals in deprivation, cruel training and squalor for pathetic animal acts.

    Without going too much into this topic, how does Singer’s occasional advocacy of vivisection (as I’ve shown before, he does not maintain a consistent stance on this question) look? Anyone who reads my essay on the living will knows that many prominent European countries such as Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Denmark have a majority who oppose animal experiments, unlike in North America. So increasingly, vivisection does not look good period. People usually hate utilitarians in human terms who argue that a minority can be treated harshly or even killed in order to benefit a majority of people. This discussion conjures up images of Nazis experimenting on Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, and others for “the greater good,” or how Nazi Germans murdered 69,000 mentally disabled people until they were stopped, in effect, by protests from German citizens. And that general hatred of utilitarian rationalization of atrocities, so common in dramatic movies and TV shows, does not go away when we start thinking about animal rights. Most animal liberationists are animal rights adherents rather than utilitarians, so if I have shown that animal rights looks good and anti-animal-rights looks bad, it can be expected that in public image terms, abolitionist animal rights will sparkle more brightly than utilitarianism. Again, I am talking about the majority view here. Obviously, utilitarians themselves have no trouble whatsoever with their potentially harmful, supposed “calculations” as to what harms allegedly serve “the greater good.”

Not only have the old animal rights views, intuitionist as they are, failed to find their own justification from a rigorous academic point of view that includes an understanding of logical criticism (as I show elsewhere), but they also have not successfully defeated these exit strategy views of the antis, with the exception of the Cartesian one which is now very largely discredited. But the antis are still anti their own good image in the public eye, even in spite of themselves.

Objections and Replies

It can be objected that looking bad, hard, mean or cruel is not an academically or logically sound reason by itself for condemning anti-animal-rights. Rather, it just invites numerous possible accusations of logical fallacies:

  1. ad hominem This means insulting someone. Calling someone ‘cruel’ does not show they are mistaken.
  2. fallacy of appeal to misery Just showing that someone is miserable does not prove anything ethically. People can be miserable from disease and there is no moral wrong, or from a war that can be justified, or from a disappointment in a competition that is morally acceptable, or from emergency room triage that can be thoroughly defended. So pointing out that animals suffer at human hands does not show, by itself, that it is morally wrong.
  3. fallacy of appeal to popular opinion Just because the majority believes something does not show that it is right. A majority once believed the Earth is a weird, flat object around which the sun orbits, as things superficially appear.
  4. fallacy of inappropriate appeal to authority Animal rights philosophers pose as moral authorities perhaps. But if their case is logically inconclusive, then it is illegitimate for them to say anti-animal-rights is bad—or really looks bad—just on their say-so, however much their intuitions or opinions are elaborated.
  5. begging the question It might be objected that I am begging the question in holding that the older animal rights theories have always looked better. After all, if the anti-animal-rights people are right, then animal rights is in fact not better and should not appear that way either among right-thinking people.

However, applying these fallacies to my analysis of the optics war misses the point. I am not arguing that what looks good or bad decides any academic debate, so I am not committing any of these fallacies. Animal rights can be rigorously defended without any fallacious inferences and based solely in considerations of fact, as I try to show in my book that is at the time of this writing due out in October, and also in some of my essays such as “Animal Absolutes.”

It is true that the bad image of anti-animal rightists begs the question as to whether they are morally mistaken, but again, I am not speaking about proving which is better and hence which can be absolutely shown to be the better public image. I am speaking only about how things appear to the majority of people, or would appear if they gave the matter some thought. Public image is not about rigorous argumentation so much as it is about media exposure, what light people are presented in, how social identities are constructed, reputations, stereotypes, and subtleties such as psychological associations, metaphorical significance and implications, and even innuendo. The public image of animal rights or its opposite is not strictly relevant to academic animal ethics, but it is plenty germane to animal rights activism, which is in part political and involves a battle over public opinion. Also, there are inevitable politics involved in academics itself. Most academics, even philosophers, do not seriously consider animals, let alone formulate logically rigorous arguments concerning nonhuman creatures. So such academics are very much susceptible, only too much so, to the smoke and mirrors game (from the standpoint of scholarly seriousness) of public perception.

It might be argued that my considering indifference to suffering and death as “cruel” is a very unconventional way of conceiving cruelty. It is true that many people do not think a moment on nonhuman suffering and death. However, anyone who thinks that an animal on a sanctuary can live years of a good life, as the scientific evidence reveals, realizes that snuffing out a life, with thousands of such moments, is an enormous thing of great significance. And any consideration of suffering, realizing that it can involve agony or other strongly significant forms as in the human case, reveals this factor to be very substantial as a consideration. Recall that Dr. Kaufman’s remark is about whether animal rights arguments are more powerful than the opposition. This paper is not strictly speaking about how powerful is the speciesist power to ignore the interests of animals. Cruel disregard for animal suffering and death is a powerful consideration if callous overlooking of human suffering and death also is. And as we have seen, speciesists, in argumentative terms, do not have the argumentative means to whitewash suffering and death, which factors have such an intrinsically bad image. This bad image explains why most people do not wish to see films of animal suffering and death, and do not even wish to talk about it or to imagine these ills. That is because these things really do look bad to most people. If they did not, there would be no hesitation in exposing oneself to such realities. Apologists who do consider these ills typically go from the frying pan of defending the suffering and death and into the proverbial fire of the unsavory exit stratagems.

Intuitionists might object that they can, after all, resort to the above animal rights arguments, and so cruelty looks bad because intuitively, it really IS bad. Well, again, all of that does not seem so intuitively clear to anyone who sincerely adheres to any of the exit strategy views. Intuitions are irrationalist and prejudicial in the absence of evidence or reasons for the intuitions, and indeterminate inasmuch as any of the moral theories considered above, apart from best caring, are based in intuitions. Still, I agree that animal rights will appear “counter-intuitive” to most if they frankly examine the cruelty behind anti-animal-rights, or blatant disregard of harms such as suffering and death, which as considerations are so crucial in matters of human ethics and public policy.


The philosophical “ways out” of animal rights are not democratically strong, in a sense, if a majority of society would find them to be repugnant. One puzzle seems to arise from these reflections though. If anti-animal-rights looks so bad and always has since the animal rights debate began in earnest in the mid-seventies, why does the overwhelming majority of society reject animal rights, at least in practice? Why do most people think that meat-eating, fur- and leather-wearing, zoos and aquaria, hunting, and animal experiments appear normal and more or less OK, even if people are prepared to object to cases of especially egregious cruelty?

The answer is that, sure, if you look at the arguments, animal rights looks good and the antis look bad. But mostly, people do not look at all. The animal rights question is largely invisible in society, as are, in fact, the animals. How vivid are the animals languishing in factory farming to the ordinary person? They never see or imagine them. How many animal ethics courses (let alone programs) are there in philosophy departments around the globe? Very few indeed. Animal rights arguments, then, do not appear good whilst anti-animal-rights arguments appear bad if neither appears at all. Even if animal rights ethics’ inherent, intuitionist propaganda is of a higher quality than that of the antis, what matters that if animal rights propaganda hardly gets out of the starting block? Ignorance is a void in which floats many neglected realities and ideas that are not even considered, like mountainously-high piles of unanswered letters.

Regardless of whether the best caring defence of animal rights is successful, or even if it never came to exist, anti-animal-rights looks bad, and animal rights looks very good indeed. So Dr. Kaufman is right. From a certain point of view, the older animal rights frameworks, in social-psychological terms, are far more powerful than the anti-animal-rights views they have had to compete with. At least when both are examined clearly and insistently. However, a rigorous way of winning the animal rights debate through best caring bears out any actual or potential public opinion against cruelty and churlishness, using arguments that even scoundrels might find difficult or impossible to refute.

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