Month: May 2008

Thought for the day – Francione

Mary Martin deconstructs an editorial in today’s New York Times, which states in no uncertain terms that “animal husbandry has been turned into animal abuse.” I’d like to chime in on a quote Mary pulled from a Pew Commission report referenced in the editorial:

“The present system of producing food animals (sic) in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.”

(emphasis mine)

I was surprised Mary didn’t include a deconstruction of the hideously speciesist term “food animals” (i.e., nonhuman animals bred, confined and killed for the purposes of consumption), but she was already taking on a lot with that post, primarily the underlying assumptions in the editorial and these reports. It would seem that they all take for granted that consuming other beings is necessary.

As vegans know, there is some faulty thinking behind this assumption, and I wanted to expand on Mary’s post briefly by offering an excerpt of my own, from Gary L. Francione’s Introduction to Animal Rights, in which he works from the principles that inform our animal welfare laws and builds out from there, doing the proper mental math:

…we are supposed to balance our interests against those of animals in order to determine whether particular animal use or treatment is necessary. But because animals are property, and because we have great respect for property rights, we have decided–before we even start our balancing process–that it is morally acceptable to use animals for food, hunting, entertainment, clothing, experiments, product testing, and so forth. That is, we generally do not question whether particular institutions of animal use are necessary; rather we inquire only whether particular practices that are part of those various institutions are necessary.

(emphasis mine)

This is a very important distinction, but it is frequently overlooked even by animal rights advocates. Focusing on how animals are treated takes as its base assumption that using animals is necessary and acceptable in the first place. Those of us who purport to advocate animal rights ought to be focusing everything we have on exposing the inaccuracy of this assumption, not reinforcing it with activism that seeks to regulate the ways in which humans treat nonhumans.

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Hypocrisy and animal advocacy

Hypocrisy on the High Seas

In a new article published by the German newspaper, Die Welt, Australian philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer attempts to shift the international debate over whale hunting and slaughter from protecting an endangered species to protecting whales as “social mammals with big brains, capable of enjoying life and of feeling pain – and not only physical pain, but very likely also distress at the loss of one of their group.” In doing so, he turns the tables on Westerners who condemn whale hunting while continuing to support other forms of hunting, and to consume the bodies and secretions of other morally relevant ‘factory farmed’ beings. However, it is odd that he narrows the hypocrisy to consuming factory farmed beings. After all, animals bred, confined and killed in non-intensive conditions have as much an interest in avoiding pain, suffering and death as factory farmed animals, much less free-swimming whales.

Singer’s basic assertion in this piece is that it is impossible to humanely kill whales, and thus whaling is unethical. It’s hard to disagree with this statement, though whaling is unethical even if suffering could be eliminated, and it begs the question of whether it is possible to humanely kill other beings. Later in the article, Singer refers to sentience as a basis for extending moral consideration to other beings (“the wrongness of causing needless suffering to sentient beings is not culturally specific”) but, unfortunately for some animals, he does not seem to view sentience as a sufficient characteristic for protection from being unnecessarily treated as a means to human ends. When it comes to the wrongness of unnecessarily killing sentient beings for our purposes, presumably without causing them suffering, Singer looks to their cognitive capacity, a characteristic that is irrelevant to whether or not they deserve moral consideration.[1]

Are some animals more equal than others?

While Singer maintains that an animal’s sentience is sufficient for us to avoid unnecessarily causing him or her any pain or suffering, it is conceivable under his theory that unnecessarily killing certain animals could be justified. One gets the impression from his work that it does not harm some animals to be killed, assuming it is done painlessly. In his book, Practical Ethics, he states that there is

no single answer to the question: ‘Is it normally wrong to take the life of an animal?’ The term ‘animal’–even in the restricted sense of ‘non-human animal’–covers too diverse a range of lives for one principle to apply to all of them.[2]

Here he determines quite arbitrarily that sentience alone is insufficient for determining whether or not it is acceptable to kill animals in the normal course of events. For Singer, there must be some criteria other than sentience we must take into account when giving equal consideration to their continued existence:

Some non-human animals appear to be rational and self-conscious, conceiving of themselves as distinct beings with a past and a future. When this is so, or to the best of our knowledge may be so, the case against killing is strong, as strong as the case against killing permanently intellectually disabled human beings at a similar mental level.[3]

Singer basically layers cognitive capacities over sentience in order to determine whether or not it is morally acceptable for us to (painlessly) kill other beings. For Singer, the wrongness of (painlessly) killing animals derives from the loss of pleasure that it may involve, not ignoring an individual being’s interest in continuing to exist. So, even if a whale could somehow be killed painlessly, it would still be wrong to kill her because she presumably has a sense of self, a sense of the future, and because any calves she had might suffer psychologically (and even physically) from the loss.

This theory is all well and good for cetaceans, primates of all species and probably most mammals, but what of beings with diminished, indiscernible, or simply no higher cognitive abilities? Do they not have an interest in continuing to survive? We can’t say that they do, for that would be biologically and evolutionarily counterintuitive, regardless of their ability to conceive of themselves, the future, or any other cognitive characteristics. All sentient beings have an interest in survival, so any additional criteria are irrelevant.

Sentience: The basis for animal rights

Apparently Singer believes that non-rational, non-self-conscious sentient beings do not have an interest in continuing to exist, which justifies taking their lives for our benefit so long as it is done painlessly and so long as we replace such beings with new ones to continue experiencing pleasure in their stead, as if individual beings are somehow replaceable. He asserts that a “wrong done to an existing being can be made up for by a benefit conferred on an as yet non-existent being.”[4]

First of all, if killing a being is wrong, as Singer states it is, shouldn’t we avoid committing that wrong in the first place? Second, this statement suggests that the individual matters less than that individual’s capacity to sense. As long as the sensations continue, the individual sensing them appears to be totally interchangeable.

Fascinating.

How might we replace individual beings with like beings? Animals are not inanimate, insensate household furnishings you can replace at will with a quick trip to IKEA. In fact, it is this attitude toward animals that leads to problems like overpopulated shelters and rampant animal cruelty. Unlike furniture, sentient beings have a demonstrable interest in continued existence, whether or not they are rational and self-conscious, and so it harms them to end their lives, regardless of whether or not they are killed painlessly, much less “replaced” by someone else.

Even if we were able to find a suitable replacement, we would not permit the slaughter and consumption of a human being who lacks self-awareness and is irrational. This is not simply out of concern for such a person’s familial attachments, nor is it due to species bias, though that may well be the rationale some individuals use. Ultimately the reason that we do not as a general matter permit the slaughter and consumption of such mentally incapacitated human beings is because we recognize that depriving them of further existence would harm them irrevocably.

By the same token, there is no justification for slaughtering and consuming nonhuman animals. As with human beings, their sentience is a sufficient criterion for us to also protect their interest in continued existence with a legal prohibition, or the basic right to not be treated as a means to our own ends.

Rights? What rights?

Of course, Singer rejects the existence of rights, beyond the term’s rhetorical usefulness[5], so how are we to protect whales under his theory, much less any other beings? He does not prescribe any remedy, other than perhaps an intimation that a morally wrong activity such as whaling ought to be rejected by those in the society that perpetrates the activity, such as Japan. In turn, anyone who objects to whaling would be hypocritical not to reject the killing of any other rational, self-aware beings–such as pigs, cows and, yes, chickens–even if it were done painlessly. But what of those that continue to accept whaling or steak-eating as morally acceptable? Without prohibitions that ban the use of nonhuman animals as a means to our ends, such practices will continue, however unpopular various types use may become.

Many countries provide basic rights for humans to avoid this very problem. Most of us agree that it is wrong to treat humans as a means to our own ends. But because some people do not agree with us, we have passed laws as a means of protecting humans from such people. Any justification for failing to extend similar basic rights to any sentient nonhumans is arbitrary, as they too have a demonstrable interest in not being used as a means to human ends.

Which animals?

If basic rights are legislated on behalf of any beings, they must be legislated on the basis of their sentience, not their cognitive capacity. Otherwise the law(s) would unjustly exclude morally relevant sentient beings. By focusing on whales–and on their cognitive capacity in particular–we risk seeing such laws passed, creating a new, arbitrarily-derived hierarchy under which some sentient beings could legally be harmed.

Certainly we should not ignore the plight of hunted whales. But we must encourage people to see whales as representative of every sentient being, and to encourage an attitude toward all beings that is consistent with their attitude toward whales. We should be asking that every sentient being is accorded the right not to be treated as a means to human ends, not just those with big brains. Otherwise, we too are hypocrites.


[1] The point of this entry is not for me to sit behind a computer and take potshots at Peter Singer, but to critically assess his argument, as everyone should. Because this site aims to promote animal-friendly living, in particular living a life that is consistent with respecting the interests animals have in not being used as a means to human ends, it is my goal here to further clarify the positions animal advocates ought to be taking publicly if they intend to abolish animal exploitation.

I appreciate that Singer and others are attempting to turn the international debate over whaling into one that focuses on the moral problem of unnecessarily harming animals for our benefit, rather than merely the conservation of “natural resources”. However, I am concerned about the repercussions of his exclusive approach. If we base our attitude toward animals on their intelligence, and not on their sentience, we risk leaving morally relevant beings out of the discussion, and that would merely perpetuate the speciesism we are attempting to end.


[2] Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press; 2 edition, 1999) 131
[3] Ibid. 131-132
[4] Ibid. 133
[5] Herbivore Magazine, July 2007, Interview: Peter Singer

Chicago’s foie gras ban repealed

Foie gras prohibition has been repealed in Chicago, and it comes as no surprise. Mayor Richard Daley was hell-bent on defeating the ban from the get-go.

However, I originally saw the near-unanimous support for this ban among Chicago’s aldermen as an encouraging sign. I supported the campaign at the time, thinking it was an incremental step toward abolition (though I confess to having little idea what abolition really meant back then). Here we had not a regulation of animal treatment, but an outright prohibition on selling a certain kind of product derived from animals. Good news, or so it seemed. Right away, Chicago restaurateurs made a mockery out of the ban by giving foie gras away for free with the purchase of another product, or turning into “duckeasies”.

But loopholes weren’t the only problem. The fundamental flaw with this ban, as I have come to understand it, is that it was based on the cruelty of foie gras production in particular (primarily the forced feeding), as opposed to the immorality of unnecessarily using any animals as an instrumental means to our ends. In other words, this was a ban on a certain type of product, not any sort of incremental legal admission that animals deserve the right not to be used as property.

It’s actually kind of amusing to review a post a wrote in September 2006 [the post has since been deleted], as it reads almost identically to some of the letters and comments I’ve received about my “Abolitionists: Fringe or Core?” post, suggesting as it does that this anti-foie gras campaign, even if unsuccessful, would promote “a national awareness of the cruelty inherent in the modern diet, and an alteration in people’s food choices.” Well, unless the alteration we are talking about is the rise of “happy meat”, I was being awfully unrealistic.

I experienced a major shift in thinking here at AAFL a few months after this ban was passed–not all that dissimilar from when my paradigm shifted toward veganism–and I have come to reject as counterproductive measures that reduce animal advocacy to addressing certain “most egregious” cruelties and that do not strike at the root of our collective presumption that it is acceptable to use animals in the first place. Chicago’s foie gras ban is a perfect case in point. Single issue campaigns like these (and those against other “low-hanging fruit” like fur, for example) fail to change the popular view of animals because they perpetuate speciesism by implying that certain forms of exploitation are worse than others (they even suggest that foie gras would be more acceptable if forced feeding was not being used), and they typically fail to address the interest animals have in not being used instrumentally as a means to our ends.

In reality, a wide array of animal uses cause unnecessary harm, and of course all animal advocates know this. So why aren’t we all focused on abolitionist vegan advocacy? Apart from the political value of focusing supporters on a single campaign goal, it has also been said that such an approach is unrealistic. But we have here evidence that reductionist animal advocacy is unrealistic, seeing as how it expects to deliver animals from suffering without addressing its root causes.

Now, I don’t write this to perpetuate “infighting”, as some would suggest. I seek to critically examine what we do on behalf of animals, and to explore ways we can act that are most consistent with our beliefs and that are most effective for animals in the long-run. If we do not allow for critical thinking, then we have already lost. I mean, who do we think we’re fooling? Even the mainstream media understands the inconsistency of focusing on one form of animal exploitation over another. As Jeffrey Steingarten writes for Men’s Vogue:

When we buy the flesh of a mammal, bird, or fish in a restaurant or food shop, we are an agent in the slaughter of another living thing. We are taking life. This is a serious act, not a casual one. But our purpose is not survival or even sustenance; most of us can live comfortably without eating meat. No, our goal is pleasure, pure sensory pleasure. We chew on the succulent muscle of a steer, crunch through the crackling skin of a pig or turkey, suck out the marrow from the shin of a calf. If we are willing to kill for our pleasure, shouldn’t we also be willing to force-feed ducks for our pleasure?

Ultimately, if we want to see enough popular support for an effective, permanent ban on animal-derived consumer products, we have to shift popular opinion in favor animal rights, and that means spreading a consistent message about vegan ethics far and wide, not the message that only certain forms of animal use are bad. Only after that shift occurs will we have the broad-based support we need to promote legislation that recognizes the interests of nonhuman animals and abolishes their exploitation on the basis that unnecessarily using them for our pleasure or profit harms those interests.

Abolitionists: Fringe or Core?

Background

In its May+June 2008 Reader Letters section, VegNews magazine is taken to task by its activism advisor:

In the recent article about the humanecalifornia.org ballot initiative (“Taking the Initiative,” Jan+Feb 2008) to ban some of the worst confinement practices on factory farms, I was disappointed to see equal weight given to statements by a fringe group opposing such bans. Attacking progress may make the critic feel relevant but does not result in meaningful change for animals. Such negative views are not widely shared in the animal protection movement and should not be portrayed as if they are to newer activists who can sometimes easily be pushed to a counterproductive approach.

The author of this letter is activist/attorney Bryan Pease of Animal Protection and Rescue League, an organization that actively promotes husbandry reform campaigns such as the initiative favorably discussed in the article.

Writer Mat Thomas begins the piece by claiming that, if passed, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act would “set a new precedent for animal protection by improving the lives of more farmed animals than any voter initiative in US history.” He goes on to repeatedly quote the senior director of HSUS’s Factory Farming Campaign in support of the act’s benefits. HSUS is, along with Farm Sanctuary, one of the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act’s main proponents. Thomas sets aside just one paragraph in the middle of the article to ‘balance’ the piece with a perspective from Friends of Animals’ legal director, Lee Hall.

After briefly paraphrasing Hall’s question as to whether “husbandry campaigns truly cultivate respect for animals or merely reinforce their status as commodities,” Thomas wraps up the paragraph with a single quote. Hall asks where society can find a coherent message, if not from vegetarian activists, “Steadfast support for the movement to opt out of animal agribusiness would cultivate and strengthen genuine respect for animals and the ecology.”

Marginalization

For the crime of including this single bit of animal-friendly critical thinking, Pease expresses his disappointment that “equal weight” was “given to statements by a fringe group.” Maybe he expected readers not to go back and examine the Jan+Feb issue, but anyone who does so will see that Hall didn’t receive anything resembling equal weight in Thomas’s article. Equal weight for the abolitionist viewpoint would have meant offering a more meaningful opportunity for Hall to describe how husbandry campaigns reinforce animals’ status as commodities, which is ultimately at the crux of this debate. Of course, such a discussion would have undermined Thomas’s thesis.

Still, Thomas’s lop-sided approach is not enough to satisfy Pease. Unable to brook any dissent, he attempts with his bullying letter to debase an animal rights activist who was simply asking us all to ponder whether husbandry reforms are actually effective animal advocacy and to suggest that it would be consistent with vegetarian ideals to ask people to opt out of consuming animal products altogether. In addition to calling such a view “negative,” Pease packs his brief letter with other loaded, unsupported and biasing terms or phrases, like “attacking progress,” “may make the critic feel relevant,” “counterproductive” and, most notably, the marginalizing “fringe,” when describing Hall’s group, Friends of Animals.

In effect, by browbeating readers–and even VegNews’ editors–with his authoritarian argument that abolitionist statements should not be given “equal” weight, Pease demands that the magazine suppress opposing views. Even more pernicious, and in the same vein, he patronizes newcomers to animal advocacy by trying to prevent them from hearing other points of view, a suggestion that newer activists are incapable of thinking for themselves.

In light of his predilection for censorship, it should come as little surprise that Pease does not mention Friends of Animals or Lee Hall by name in his letter. It’s as if he is afraid of bringing further attention to them. But perhaps his greatest disservice to FoA, to animals and, frankly, to the animal rights movement is his cavalier dismissal of the organization as a fringe group. I wouldn’t object here if you found Pease’s attempt to marginalize abolitionist animal rights activists to be eerily similar to ongoing efforts made by those profiting from animal exploitation to marginalize vegans and animal advocates (poke around the Center for Consumer Freedom’s website, animalscam.com, if you don’t know what I mean). His VegNews letter is a very deliberate attack on a group promoting animal rights and veganism, and from the same guy who claims that Hall is attacking “progress”.

A false corollary

So, what sort of “progress” is Pease claiming? He doesn’t tell us. If, as many modern animal advocates do, he means progress toward the abolition of animal exploitation, then his claim is untenable. This is the message Hall was trying to deliver. Unlike Hall, who recognizes that husbandry reforms are inconsistent with an abolitionist approach, Pease and others believe such reforms will somehow lead to abolition, as if there was a correlation between regulating the treatment of animals and abolishing their use. But there is no correlation.

The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act is not progress toward abolition because it does nothing to address the root causes of animal suffering. Instead, it superficially focuses on the symptoms of their use as property: their ill treatment in factory farm operations. Further, assuming the act is passed and not later overturned–and that it is actually enforced–we won’t necessarily see any empirical reduction in animal suffering. The suffering will simply look different, as animals are transferred out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak. Now, if someone has developed a new-fangled gauge for quantifying the suffering of animals for the sake of comparison, please let me know, but this would still miss the point: The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act intends to replace one form of animal exploitation for another. Even if someone could empirically prove that this act would meaningfully reduce the suffering of animals, it is hard to see how one can call it progress for animals when its aims are not even pointing down the right ‘slippery slope’.

Regardless of any regulations successfully mandated by husbandry reforms, the industry will go on using animals in hatcheries, on farms and feedlots, during transport, at stockyards and in slaughterhouses. After all, there’s nothing to stop them. Farmed animals are property of the industry, things for owners to use for their own benefit, and laws regulating the treatment of animal property further entrench the commodity status of animals, as Hall suggests.

Paving the way… to happy meat?

Worse, such laws make the use and consumption of animals seem more palatable. As far as traditional welfarists (i.e., those who accept the use of animals for human ends) are concerned, their moral obligation to reduce the suffering of those whom they wish to eat will have been discharged by this act, and now they will proudly eat their ‘humane’ animal products. If I had a dollar for every time someone responded to my veganism by stating that they only eat cage-free eggs or free-range flesh, I could probably cover the hosting costs for this blog.

Speaking of money, another way ‘humane’ organizations undermine abolitionist advocacy is by selling animal exploiters on the improved economic efficiencies, the potential for increased demand, and the market premiums associated with adopting husbandry reforms, going so far as to produce research reports supporting these claims. Why are animal protectionists promoting husbandry reforms as a means to increase demand for animal products? Such tactics, like the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, facilitate the enhanced exploitation of animals, without doing anything to prevent animals from being used as a means to human ends.

In order to abolish animal exploitation, wouldn’t it make sense that the means to this goal resemble the ends? In other words, shouldn’t animal rights activism be focused on eliminating the roots of animal suffering–that is, the instrumental use of animals for human benefit? It is hard to see how such an approach can be construed as ‘counterproductive,’ as Pease claims. On the contrary, abolitionists are critically engaged in pursuing effective campaigns to foster veganism while engendering respect and meaningful protection (rights) for animals, which seems to me rather more productive than easing the consciences of those who consume animal products.

Fringe v. core

Perhaps Pease is correct in one sense. While it is hard to see how any rational being might consider Hall’s views negative, it is clear that they “are not widely shared in the animal protection movement.” This should come as no surprise, given the widespread shift toward husbandry reform campaigns carried out by activists participating in what is still frequently referred to by many as the ‘animal rights movement’.

The appeal of the phrase ‘animal protection movement’ is no doubt its value as a generic, catch-all phrase calculated to create as broad a band of supporters as possible to negotiate non-rights husbandry reforms with industry or to push legislative initiatives, while not scaring off supporters and potential supporters with the term ‘animal rights’. Even when the term ‘animal rights’ is mentioned, it is often used to describe non-rights protections or activities, either as a “loosely” defined term or “as a rhetorical tool as part of a political campaign”. In effect, ‘animal rights’ has become rhetorical shorthand to refer to any ostensibly pro-animal activity, even those that have no direct correlation with securing basic rights for animals.

To achieve and maintain ‘legitimacy’ with institutions and the public, the ‘mainstreaming’ of the animal rights movement into the animal protection movement–a rebranding, if you will–has led to the suppression, marginalization and even outright rejection of those who promote the movement’s core animal rights ideals. Activists that advocate for an abolitionist approach to animal rights are labeled ‘fringe’, ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ in a bid to put as much distance between them and husbandry reform advocates as possible. Now, I don’t know about you, but it would seem to me that–in a movement claiming to be in favor of animal rights–the activists whose means are consistent with the movement’s abolitionist ends should be considered the core, not the fringe.


Learn more about the arguments discussed above by reading Gary L. Francione’s Rain Without Thunder.

Boston Globe publishes my Eight Belles letter

Today the Boston Globe published a letter I wrote in response to the widely-covered Eight Belles “breakdown” at the Kentucky Derby over the weekend. An article in the Globe had only mentioned her injury and death in passing.

My letter is only two short paragraphs, so click through and check it out (the original article is linked in my letter). Let me know what you think in comments. I’m pretty happy with it, but I don’t imagine many will heed my words. Most people are advocating… wait for it… reform.

William C. Rhoden gave the sport a fairly sound thrashing in his New York Times column, unlike PETA. He compares the sport to animal fighting and questions its legitimacy, while PETA jumps on the reform bandwagon.