The Necessity of Theory

Dear Colleagues:

Many animal advocates seem to think that we don’t need any theory. We just need to act “for the animals”; we can worry about theory later on.

That view is mistaken in at least two respects.

First, if we do not have a theory, how are we to choose what things we should promote? If I want to do something today to help the animals, and I do not have a theory as to the moral status of animals and what things I ought to do, how will I choose what to do?

If I want to spend this afternoon talking with a group of people about animal exploitation, and I do not have a theory, how will I choose what to talk about? How will I choose whether to argue that they ought to consume no animal products or that they ought to consume supposedly “happy” animal products?

The answer is very clear: we cannot make any intelligent or informed choice if we don’t have any theory that guides our choice. Before I talk with people; before I decide what activism to pursue, I have to be clear as to whether the correct moral position is that we ought to consume “cage-free” eggs, or whether it is that we should eat no eggs; I have to be clear as to whether the correct moral position is to eat chicken that has been gassed rather than electrocuted, or whether it is to eat no chicken.

It is interesting that most of those who claim that we don’t need a theory to act “for the animals” right now do have a theory: they embrace the theory that the issue is not that we use animals but how we use animals; that it is acceptable to use animals as long as we treat them in a “humane” manner. So these people claim that we should not bother ourselves with the abstractions of theory; we should just go out and promote “cage-free” eggs or gassed chicken or whatever.

But their position is informed by a theory.

And that brings me to my second point.

Sometimes, some ideas are so much a part of our culture that we are not even aware of the extent to which they shape our reality. One such idea is that men are, as a group, more valuable than women and that women are valued more for their appearance as providers of sexual services than for their abilities. That idea is so much a part of our culture that many of us are not even aware of it; we see as “normal” the way that women are represented culturally and we do not see that representation as reinforcing patriarchy.

Another such idea is that animals do not care about whether we use them but only about how we treat them. That is an idea that we can trace back historically and it is the very foundation of the animal welfare position that dominates our thinking about the human-nonhuman relationship just as patriarchy dominates our views about the value of women.

In the 19th century, progressive social reformers, such as Jeremy Bentham, argued that we should include animals in the moral community because, even though they were different from humans in various ways, they could, like humans, suffer and that was sufficient to ground our moral obligations to animals. According to Bentham, although a full-grown horse or dog is more rational and more able to communicate than a human infant, “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” But this did not mean that we could not use and kill animals for human purposes as long as we treated them well. According to Bentham, animals live in the present and are not aware of what they lose when we take their lives. If we kill and eat them, “we are the better for it, and they are never the worse. They have none of those long-protracted anticipations of future misery which we have.” If, as Bentham apparently maintained, animals do not as a factual matter have an interest in continuing to live, and death is not a harm for them, then our killing of animals would not per se raise a moral problem as long as we treated and killed animals “humanely.”

And that is exactly how most of us think about the matter of animal use. Bentham’s view is explicitly promoted by Peter Singer and even rights theorist Tom Regan maintains that death is a greater harm for humans than for nonhumans because the latter have fewer opportunities for satisfaction than do the former.

I would suggest that this view-that our use of animals, if “humane,” is morally acceptable-is, in one form or another, accepted by just about everyone. That is, even those people who have never heard of Jeremy Bentham or Peter Singer buy into this theoretical view that is so pervasive that no one even recognizes how much it shapes our view of the human-animal relationship.

And, like the pervasive sexism of our culture, it is wrong.

The theoretical view that animals do not have an interest in their lives and do not care about whether we use and kill them as long as we do so “humanely” is based on the notion that to have an interest in continuing to live requires a sense of self-awareness that we associate with normal humans.

And as I discuss in my most recent book, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? and in Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, and on this website, that is a speciesist position in that it arbitrarily privileges humanlike self-awareness.

This theoretical view about the lesser value of animal life is the 800-pound theoretical gorilla in the room. Whether we like theory or not, we need to come to grips with this idea before we undertake animal advocacy. If we agree with Bentham and Singer and with the dominant theory of animal welfare, then we promote welfare reform; we promote “cage-free” eggs; we promote consuming chickens who have been gassed rather than electrocuted; we support “happy” meat/dairy labels; we promote “flexitarianism” and view veganism simply as a way of reducing suffering. If we don’t support that theoretical view, and if, instead, we regard all sentient beings as having equal moral value for the purposes of not being used as a resource, then we promote veganism as a non-negotiable moral baseline.

And we cannot claim to accept equality but support reform for the reason that people are going to continue to consume animals anyway. Putting aside that if we really believe in equality, promoting welfare reform is similar to promoting “humane” slavery or pedophilia, animal welfare does not work as a practical matter. Animals are commodities; they are property. It costs money to protect their interests and the most “humane” treatment schemes will never rise above the level that would be characterized as torture were humans involved.

Try as you will, you cannot avoid theory. You can only choose a theory of equality or choose to accept the dominant theory of welfare, which assumes that animal life is of lesser moral value.

But choose you must and your activism will necessarily be informed by the choice that you make.

If you are not vegan, go vegan. It’s easy; it’s better for your health and for the planet. But, most important, it’s the morally right thing to do.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione