Book Review: Animals as Persons

Animals as Persons: Essays on on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation was released May 23rd, but it has taken me a while to finish reading Gary L. Francione’s latest book because I’m perpetually swamped lately. However, working it into my ridiculous schedule was relatively easy, in part because the book is comprised of individual, self-contained essays that allowed me to conveniently break my reading up into manageable sessions as time permitted. You might find this helpful as well. While the essays range in length, none of them are terribly long (particularly after the first two), and together they all provide an excellent and highly readable introduction to Professor Francione’s abolitionist theory of animal rights. If you are one of those people who have put off reading his earlier books due to time constraints or for any other reason, this might be an ideal place to start.

I recommend not skipping over the introduction, particularly if you’ve never read Francione before. In it, he gets right to the pivotal assertion that the animal advocacy movement is, in effect, two very different movements: one that seeks to abolish animal exploitation by eradicating the property status of animals, and the other a movement that seeks the regulation of animal-using industries while failing to effectively challenge the property status of animals.

He expands on the core concepts of abolitionism in the first chapter, “Animals as Persons.” That essay is itself a relatively brief but thorough presentation of Francione’s theory as developed more fully in Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? (ITAR) While it is not a substitute for reading that book, “Animals as Persons” is a very clear essay that will quickly have you up to speed on the basic concepts.

The next chapter is an essay called “Reflections on Animals, Property, and the Law and Rain Without Thunder.” In it, Francione responds to various critics who have argued that the property status of animals does not necessarily prevent advocates from improving animal welfare, and that animal welfare regulation is an effective way of moving incrementally toward recognition that animals have more than the value that we assign to them.

You don’t necessarily need to have read the two books to appreciate “Reflections,” though I’m sure I got more out of it because I had. I found the essay particularly interesting because Francione deconstructs real-world legislation such as Florida’s gestation crate ban and California’s foie gras ban. While he frequently deconstructs current events on his blog, as he did with the announcement that KFC Canada would adopt a controlled-atmosphere killing policy, these case studies offer new readers relevant and useful applications of his abolitionist theory.

In his third essay, “Taking Sentience Seriously,” Francione focuses on flaws in the “similar-minds” theory, a critical analysis all the more relevant in light of news that Spain’s parliament plans to extend legal rights to life and freedom for great apes. Based as it is on cognitive abilities rather than sentience, this pending legislation is a case in point for Francione, so you’ll definitely want to read chapter 3 if you don’t know why this seemingly good news is a bad precedent for animal rights.

Returning to his critics, chapter four’s essay, “Equal Consideration,” focuses specifically on Cass Sunstein’s review of ITAR, in which he claims that Francione fails to justify why animal advocates should not focus on regulating human treatment of animals rather than abolishing animal use. This gives Francione an excellent opportunity to point out some fatal flaws in Sunstein’s thinking, along with that of Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer, who seem to believe that some sentient beings have no interest in continuing to live, despite the logical implication that their very sentience gives these animals an interest in continued existence.

Francione’s fifth essay examines the justifications for vivisection, which he also covers in IATR (along with descriptions of numerous specific experiments). Here, too, he observes that even if there is some plausible empirical claim for necessity, this form of animal use cannot be morally justified. “The Use of Nonhuman Animals” is one of the clearest, most concise critiques of vivisection I have read, from both the empirical and moral points of view. While the empirical section should be sufficient in and of itself to clear up any confusion as to whether vivisection is as valuable as is usually claimed, Francione footnotes our way to additional resources, and of course he follows this up with a moral critique that is impossible to refute without engaging in hypocrisy.

His next essay, “Ecofeminism and Animal Rights,” is actually a 1996 review of Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals, in which he examines arguments made against animal rights and for an “ethic of care.” Like Cass Sunstein’s review of IATR, essays in Beyond Animal Rights suggest that we do not need to end the institutionalized exploitation of nonhuman animals in order to include them within the moral community, and even go as far as to actually legitimize that exploitation, ironically perpetuating speciesist hierarchy at the same time that they condemn the rights view as hierarchical. Francione swiftly and effectively counters these views.

Finally, Francione turns his attention to perhaps the world’s best-known animal rights author and philosopher, Tom Regan, who in his seminal The Case for Animal Rights makes a sustained, comprehensive, and complex philosophical argument for animal rights. In the course of his argument, which can be seen as a case for which criteria are valid for inclusion in the moral community, he presents the “lifeboat case” as an example of a conflict between rightholders. The lifeboat case is a hypothetical scenario Regan resolves in part by claiming that death is a greater harm to humans than it is to nonhumans such as dogs. Francione critiques this view with “Comparable Harm and Equal Inherent Value,” a 1995 essay updated with a 2008 postscript to respond to the new preface Regan wrote in 2004 for the second edition of The Case for Animal Rights, in which he responded to critics of his lifeboat example.

One of the few drawbacks of gathering together all these different essays is that, even though the case studies and responses to specific criticisms may prompt you to understand Francione’s abolitionist theory more clearly, you frequently end up reading the same thing you’ve read elsewhere in his work, including other essays in this book, and sometimes nearly even verbatim. However, it is that very deja vu experience that reminds you how so many supposedly different debates always come back to the fundamentals, which we would do well to learn… and that may just be the reason Francione keeps repeating them.

In recapping his abolitionist animal rights theory and defending it with such precision, clarity, and authority, Gary Francione successfully reasserts the view that nonhuman animals will not be meaningfully protected from unnecessary harm so long as they are considered human property, and that welfare reforms or variations on the theme are incapable of leading to their emancipation. Animals as Persons is a must-read for anyone claiming to support or to even simply be interested in animal rights. Right now you can purchase it and all Columbia University Press animal studies titles at a steep 50% off until August 1st.

While you await your copy, you can read the publisher’s interview with Francione and listen to his most recent interview (part 1) on Vegan Freak Radio (part 2).

I like to hear from you. Comment below or email me.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for the review. I’ve been attempting to read his other two books mentioned here and have been having trouble, so this one seems a bit easier to read due to the way it’s organized. I plan on purchasing as well. THanks for the tip on the 50% off deal!

  2. When I read Beyond Animal Rights, I did not come away at all with a feeling that it condoned institutionalized exploitation of animals. Granted, it’s an anthology, so there is some variation in viewpoints, but my strong and enduring impression is that it considered exploitation so prima facie wrong, so plainly repugnant, that it was one of those things that we know a priori; that we don’t need to engage in deductive philosophical reasonings to realize its wrongness.My impression also, from the book, was not that rights are unnecessary but that they don’t go far enough and don’t take into account the totality of our relationships with nonhumans. Rights establish a minimum standard of conduct by moral agents, and implicitly assume that moral agents are competitors. But an ethic of care asks us to go beyond the minimum and be compassionate, to listen to our hearts, for that is what may truly bring about a peaceful harmonious world, not merely a non-violent co-existence.

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