A friend of mine recently asked the following question: “What do you say to people who are vegans and who educate others about veganism but who are also concerned about circuses, hunting, and other particular forms of animal exploitation. Do you advise that they not address those issues at all and just focus on veganism?”
Of course not.
It is certainly the case that I do not advise that advocates spend their time and resources on single-issue campaigns. The reason is simple: single-issue campaigns invariably convey the impression that some forms of animal exploitation are morally distinguishable from others and are worse or should be singled out for special criticism. For example, a campaign against fur conveys the impression that there is some morally relevant difference between fur and other forms of animal clothing, such as leather or wool. A campaign against eating animal flesh conveys the impression that eating flesh is morally more objectionable than drinking milk or eating eggs. A campaign against conventional battery eggs suggests that “cage-free” eggs are morally desirable.
This problem is inherent with single-issue campaigns in a society in which animal exploitation is regarded as normal. If X, Y, and Z are all considered as normal practices in a society and are closely related, then a campaign against X, but not against Y and Z, suggests that there is some relevant difference between X on one hand and Y and Z on the other. For example, we live in a society in which it is considered as normal or “natural” to eat animal flesh and other animal products. A campaign that focuses on flesh conveys the impression that there is a moral difference between flesh and other animal products, which is not the case. The proof of this is found in the fact that many animal advocates are vegetarians but are not vegans. If they draw a distinction, then what can we expect from the general public?
This situation is to be distinguished from one in which X, Y, and Z are all regarded as objectionable activities or practices. For example, we all regard genocide as a bad thing whether it is happening in Darfur, Somalia, or Bosnia. If we have a campaign to stop genocide in Darfur, that does not mean that we think that genocide in other places is acceptable. We regard rape and pedophilia to be morally objectionable. A campaign against one does not imply any tacit approval of the other or any view that one is morally distinguishable from another.
This inherent problem with single-issue animal campaigns is exacerbated by the fact that animal groups that promote these campaigns often explicitly praise exploiters who may stop or modify some exploitative practice but who continue to engage in other, related practices. For example some animal advocates praise “cage-free” eggs as the “socially responsible” alternative to conventional battery eggs. Many large animal advocacy organizations sponsor or approve of “humane” labels that are placed on animal products. A prominent animal ethicist claims that being a “conscientious omnivore” is “a defensible ethical position.” This conveys a very clear and explicit moral message: some forms of animal exploitation are morally acceptable.
Moreover, single-issue campaigns not only create the misimpression that some forms of exploitation are qualitatively different in a moral sense from others, but often result in false “victories.” For example, the single-issue campaign in California against foie gras (1, 2) resulted in a law that was actually supported by the one foie gras producer in California because it immunized him against any legal action until 2012 and will probably be repealed before it ever comes into force if foie gras production can be made to be more “humane.”
So I am not a fan of putting time and money into single-issue campaigns. I maintain that our time, effort, and other resources are better placed in promoting veganism. As long as 99%+ of the planet regards the eating of animal foods and consumption or use of animal products to be acceptable, we will never make the paradigm shift that we need to make if we are going to dislodge the notion that humans have a moral right to exploit nonhumans. We need to build a nonviolent movement for abolition that has veganism as its moral baseline.
But that does not mean that we should not oppose particular types of exploitation. For example, last weekend, a horse, Eight Belles, who ran in the Kentucky Derby was killed immediately after the race and on the track when her ankles gave out as a result of her running for a duration and at a speed for which she was not suited. I was interviewed on a radio show and asked about my views on the matter of Eight Belles. I explained that I opposed all horse racing but as part of my general view that humans have no moral justification for using nonhumans at all, including for food. The host of the program picked up on that and talked about how he very much loves and cares for his dog but had a barbecue that past weekend at which he consumed other animals. So in a matter of a few minutes, the connection between horse racing and other forms of exploitation, particularly eating animal products, was made.
When we do discuss and criticize particular forms of exploitation, it is important to make clear that we regard the particular practice as morally unjustifiable and not that we think that the practice or activity can be made to be better if only we regulate it so that it is more “humane.” And it is crucial to make clear that our opposition to the practice or activity is part of our overall opposition to all animal use. We should not shrink away from making clear that we seek the abolition of all animal exploitation.
So when you are confronted by a particular practice or activity and want to or are asked to comment, you should do so if you are inclined. Just be clear that the solution to the problem is not to make the activity or practice more “humane,” but to recognize that the practice is transparently frivolous, as are most of our uses of nonhumans, and should be abolished–as should all animal exploitation.
Here are two examples:
Q: I was reading about foie gras. The way they make it is terrible, isn’t it?
A: It surely is. But it’s not really different from everything else we eat. The steak you had tonight, or the glass of milk you drank this morning, involved a production process every bit as horrible as that involved in foie gras. And we have no right to kill nonhuman animals just because we think they taste good irrespective of how well we treat them.
Q: The circus is coming to town. What do you, an animal advocate, think about the use of animals in circuses?
A: I think it’s terrible. We impose suffering and death on animals for sheer amusement and that is really inconsistent with what we claim to believe when we express our agreement with the idea that it’s wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering on animals. But then, using animals in circuses is really no different from eating animals, which is also something that involves our pleasure or amusement and is just as inconsistent with what we say we believe. There is no way to make sense out of the fact that we treat some nonhuman animals as members of our families and we stick forks into others or torture them for our enjoyment in circuses, zoos, or rodeos.
Whether you should spend your time and energy on legislation concerning circuses is another matter. As I have said, at this point in time, the cultural context is such that it makes far more sense to spend our time focused on the use of animals for food, which is the primary practice that, in effect, legitimizes other forms of exploitation. But if you do decide to campaign against circuses, your campaign should, at the very least, oppose the use of all animals in circuses and have no exceptions, and make clear that circuses are no better or worse than other forms of animal use, all of which should be abolished if we are to take animals seriously.
Gary L. Francione
© 2008 Gary L. Francione