Decision-making criteria in animal rights advocacy

tl;dr – When setting out to achieve any objective, if you properly understand your desired outcome and what is necessary to achieve it, then you find built-in decision-making criteria for how to make the most effective use of your time. This common sense approach to productivity is roundly ignored by those who support the abolition of institutional animal exploitation but who engage anyway in reformist activities which do not meet the decision-making criteria that derive from an understanding of the aims of abolition–why abolition is the objective and what is required to bring it about.


There’s nothing like an impending deadline to help clarify what has to be done right now (with the recent closing on the first home my wife and I had ever purchased, and the subsequent remodel, I can definitely speak to this), but when one is pursuing long-term goals–in the case of animal rights advocacy, very long-term goals–one often needs some help to determine what next actions to take. In anticipation of the upcoming launch of the International Vegan Association, which was occupying a lot of my time outside of work, and the impending closing on our house, I needed to step back and take stock of all my various personal long-term projects and, after determining which were still priorities, I clarified my objectives for those projects so that I could arrive at some decision-making criteria that would help me better determine how best to spend my time in pursuit of those projects. The criteria helped me to be confident that I was focusing only on those activities which would contribute meaningfully to my objectives. If any proposed actions didn’t fully align with my objectives, they were simply dropped off the to-do list. As I took the time to evaluate my plans with this ‘high-altitude’ approach, it occurred to me that there was a useful lesson here for animal advocates.

The conventional wisdom

One of the most disturbing tendencies in the realm of animal advocacy is to downplay or even to criticize theory and critical thinking. Reading books doesn’t ‘help animals,’ the line goes. “They’re suffering while you’re sitting around talking about theory.” “Get off your butts and ‘do something’ for animals.” And many people heed this call. After all, how can doing something to ‘help animals’ be wrong? Besides, it’s a lot easier get volunteers to commit to holding up signs in front of a restaurant or circus, to canvas for signatures, and to distribute pamphlets encouraging people to eat less meat than it is to get them to read and critically think about animal rights ideology.

JDD Protest 09-20-2006 [use for blog to illustrate past activism?]And for the volunteers, hey, it feels kinda good to be ‘doing something,’ even if one is not sure what is being accomplished in the overall scheme of things, other than ‘helping animals.’ Not that people think much about it. I mean, I should know. I held up banners, signed petitions and all that for years before I started thinking about what I was doing and why–how I fit into the big picture and how what I did might contribute to the end of institutional animal exploitation. Eventually I realized that I had been flailing around, playing Whac-A-Mole, never really addressing the underlying problem facing animals. How can we be effective advocates for animals if we don’t understand the fundamental obstacle to meaningfully protecting animals and what is needed to secure that protection? What are we even advocating at that point? I hadn’t even known about the fundamentals of animal rights, much less understood or addressed them in my advocacy. Indeed, once I started educating myself about animal rights, it blew up my understanding of animal advocacy, and I saw more clearly when people in the mainstream ‘animal protection’ movement rejected actual animal rights ideology. It was truly perplexing. And still the vast majority of animal advocacy done on behalf of animals continues as I had experienced–pursuing welfare reforms, regulations, confusing single issue campaigns, and the like. What an extraordinary waste.

Why it doesn’t work

The fact is, most of us simply wouldn’t accept this ‘just do something’ or ‘do anything’ approach in our professional or personal lives if we wanted to be successful, and the reason is simple: we can’t be successful at anything without fully understanding just what success looks like. What is our objective? Is it the right objective? Why? What steps are necessary to achieve that objective? We use this sort of natural planning model in other walks of life, almost taking it for granted as the logical way to get things done, and yet this approach is routinely ignored in animal advocacy. Many activists I’ve talked to about what we should be doing with our time have thought less about our endgame and the actions necessary to achieve it than they’ve ever thought about what it will take to pull off a successful job search or house move.

But if you need a job, to go with that example, you don’t typically just ‘do anything.’ You do that which helps get you gainfully employed. So, logically, you think about what actions are required to achieve that outcome and set about doing them in the order needed to get there. This isn’t to say that everything has to happen in a precise order for all objectives, or that everyone is going to go about getting a job in the exact same way, but clearly updating your resume is going to come very close to the top of your list, and you’re probably not going to add ‘plan vacation’ to your list of actions necessary in order to get a job. You’re going to assess the viability of a job-seeking task based on its relevance to accomplishing your objective, and you’ll surely want to avoid counter-productive activities.

This is not to suggest that abolishing the property status of animals is equivalent to a job search, but it should be clear that, to achieve abolition, there will have to be performed a series of actions directly related to that objective. These actions won’t always have to occur in a specific order (though often there is a best next action), but when we carry out specific tasks or physical actions in the service of our objective, it’s because we have good reason to believe that they will move us toward our objective in a practical and meaningful way. We don’t want to waste our time, nor do we want to work against ourselves by engaging in activities that, for example, reinforce the notion that our sole moral obligation to animals we use is to use them more gently. I’m reminded of the notes I was reviewing how Stephen Covey identified the problem with setting a ladder against a wall and reaching the top only to find the ladder was placed against the wrong wall–you waste precious time and energy only to find that you’ve been working against yourself. If non-abolitionist advocacy does actually offer us steps anywhere, it is up a ladder on the wrong wall.

Unlike the natural planning model, the ‘do anything’ approach fails to provide us with the sort of decision-making criteria we need to understand how best to spend our time in the service of what nearly all of us seem to say we want–the abolition of institutional animal exploitation. ‘Helping animals’ and ‘reducing suffering’ (a key rationale behind many animal protection campaigns), while noble in intent, aren’t concrete objectives. It more or less amounts to ‘Be kind to animals,’ which pretty much every decent person already agrees to anyway. On the other hand, abolishing the property status of animals is a very clear, specific outcome–a measurable one, no less.

Applying the natural planning model to animal rights advocacy

In order to bring about abolition, which most ‘animal protection’ advocates claim to support, there are simply a finite number of things we can do at any given time or in any context in order to make progress toward that outcome. We need direction and focus to take on those most needed actions. Frankly, given the enormity of this objective and the sheer number of things we could be doing at any given moment, the natural planning model should be welcome for its enormously helpful decision-making criteria. It’s quite helpful to have a means for filtering out all the things you could be doing with your time but which wouldn’t necessarily serve your most vital interests in the all-too-brief amount of time we have to make a difference in this world. Not everything we ever do in life has to help us achieve abolition, of course. We have to refresh ourselves sometimes, for example. But these must be conducive to achieving our goals and not work against us. Certainly if we are hoping to achieve any meaningful outcome, then it is necessary to focus on those activities which directly produce progress toward that outcome. Otherwise you’re spinning your wheels, or worse.

Abolitionist animal rights thought would enter the public debate faster and in a more impactful way for animals if all would-be abolitionists together used the same abolitionist decision-making criteria to guide their activities. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers could be marshaled into a more potent force as their work becomes aligned with the objective of abolishing animal use. Simply applying the natural planning model to animal rights advocacy would lead to abolitionist actions. If a potential action conflicted with abolitionist principles, it would simply be avoided. Activities which, by way of not being clearly pro-abolitionist and so fail to challenge the current paradigm, would be avoided as well. That would leave those activities which undermine the property paradigm. And while that leaves plenty of room for creative, vegan advocacy, it also narrows the range of activities and offers the greater strength that comes from focus and clarity of purpose. If, properly understanding our objective, decision-making criteria helps us determine that, yes, a given action aligns with our objective directly (it promotes a consistent abolitionist message), then we know we’re pointed in the right direction and doing work that will meaningfully contribute to our goal of abolition, bringing it that much closer to reality.

This theme runs throughout Prof. Gary Francione’s work <>, making its first extended appearance in Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement <>. Francione has long observed an ‘animal protection movement’ comprised of individuals who themselves generally claim to want an end to the abolition of animals’ property status. But what distinguishes the ‘protectionists’ from the abolitionists is that, rather than pursuing means which directly resemble our end of abolition, they–for various reasons Francione describes in Rain Without Thunder–actually reinforce the existing property paradigm by promoting vegetarianism, larger cages or other forms of more ‘humane’ exploitation, and so on, rather than challenging the notion of using animals in the first place. In focusing their resources on animals’ interest in not suffering, animal groups educate people not that they can’t in good conscience use animals, but that animals want to suffer less, and so consumers learn simply that they need to do a better job of sourcing their animal products from ‘responsible’ animal users. When we look to match up our actions with our desired outcome, we can readily see the problems with this sort of approach.

If it’s important for us to consider how to achieve our objectives in any other aspect of life, think about how much more critical it is that we critically examine the things we do or propose to do as activists. There are only so many resources available to try to counter the forces that would keep people using animals, and there are so many ways in which we can go off track. As Prof. Francione says, it is a zero sum game. When we work on behalf of animals’ rights, we simply cannot afford to bypass the decision-making criteria offered by rights theory. How can we expect to be make meaningful progress toward the outcome of abolition if we ignore what’s necessary to achieve that outcome?


Free abolitionist vegan pamphlets announced

I’m pleased to announce that, thanks to the support of a kind and generous donor, the Boston Vegan Association has launched a major new initiative. Effective immediately, the organization will fund the printing and distribution of its full-color abolitionist vegan outreach pamphlet to qualifying advocates throughout North America.

To learn more about the program and how to apply, visit the pamphlet application page.

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