Animals as Property and the Rape Analogy: A Postscript

Since I posted Veganism: The Fundamental Principle of the Abolitionist Movement yesterday, I have received a number of emails from people who found the analysis helpful to their thinking about the issue. A number of people have asked questions which, although different in their particular aspects, focus generally on two issues—the status of animals as property and the rape analogy. I am offering this to address these two general issues.

Animals as Property

First, some people have asked me to explain in greater detail the point about animal welfare failing because animals are property.

This is an issue about which I have written a great deal. A good place to start learning about the problem is the presentation, Animals as Property, which is on my website.

In an extremely abbreviated nutshell: Animals are property; they are economic commodities. Because animals are property, they are regarded exclusively as means to our ends. Animals have no inherent value; they only have extrinsic or conditional value to the extent that we value them. As far as the law is concerned, nonhuman animals are no different from any other of the things that we own.

There is, of course, a factual difference between animal property and other sorts of property in that unlike our cars, iPods, etc., nonhuman animals are sentient. They have subjective awareness. They have interests. There are things that nonhumans want, desire, or prefer—in particular, they have an interest in not suffering, not experiencing pain, and continuing to live. In this important way, animal property is different from every other sort of property. A cow is a sentient being who is subjectively aware and can suffer; an iPod is not a sentient being and has no subjective awareness. There is nothing that an iPod wants, desires, or prefers.

The problem is that it costs money to give protection to animal interests. For the most part, we only protect those animal interests that we get an economic benefit from protecting.

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Veganism: The Fundamental Principle of the Abolitionist Movement

Many animal welfare advocates claim that the rights position, which seeks the abolition of animal use, is not practical because it rejects incremental change and does not provide any guidance for what we should do now—today—to help nonhumans. These critics of the abolitionist position argue that we have no choice but to pursue more animal-welfare regulations—more attempts to make animal exploitation more “humane”—if we want to do something “practical” to help animals.

The notion that animal welfare regulations provide significant protection for animal interests is about as wrong as wrong gets. As I have discussed in my writing, because animals are property, they are only economic commodities with nothing but extrinsic or conditional value. Their interests have no inherent value. As a result, standards that require their “humane” treatment are interpreted in an economic sense and limit protection to what will provide an economic benefit to humans. Purported improvements in animal welfare do very little, if anything, to increase protection for animal interests; for the most part, they do nothing more than to make animal exploitation more economically efficient and socially acceptable. Moreover, there is no historical evidence that animal welfare regulation leads to abolition.

The welfarists are also mistaken to claim that the rights position does not provide any practical incremental steps that we can take on the road to abolition. There is very clear guidance for incremental change: veganism.

Veganism is not merely a matter of diet; it is a moral and political commitment to abolition on the individual level and extends not only to matters of food, but to clothing, other products, and other personal actions and choices. Becoming a vegan is the one thing that we can all do today—right now—to help animals. It does not require an expensive campaign, the involvement of a large organization, legislation, or anything other than our recognition that if “animal rights” means anything, it means that we cannot justify consuming or using meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or other animal products.

Veganism reduces animal suffering and death by decreasing demand. It represents a rejection of the commodity status of nonhumans and recognition of their inherent value. Veganism is also a commitment to nonviolence and the animal rights movement should be a movement of peace and should reject violence against all animals—nonhuman and human.

Many animal advocates claim to favor animal rights but continue to eat animal products. Indeed, many “leaders” of the animal movement are not vegans. That is no different from someone who claims to be in favor of the abolition of slavery but who continues to own slaves.

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The Great Ape Project: Not so Great

If you have been involved in the animal rights movement for any length of time—indeed, if you have contributed only to one animal organization in your entire life—you probably receive a seemingly endless number of fundraising solicitations. Last week, as I was sorting through all of the many opportunities being offered to me to “help the animals” by writing a check, I noticed one from the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) asking for money to support “Project R&R: Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories.”

NEAVS tells us that chimpanzees “share 96% of our genes. They live in families, protect their young, form friendships, and express joy, sorrow and anger. They display intelligence, humor and compassion.” The theme of the campaign is that because chimpanzees have cognitive capacities and a genetic profile similar to ours—they are “real individuals, with unique personalities and needs just like you and me.” NEAVS seeks donations to launch an informational and legislative campaign to join those countries that have “banned or severely limited research on chimpanzees and other great apes.”

The NEAVS campaign and similar efforts—there are a number—are not new or original. In 1993, a number of scholars collaborated on a book of essays entitled The Great Ape Project (GAP). The book was accompanied by a document, “A Declaration on Great Apes,” to which the contributors subscribed. The Declaration states that the great apes “are the closest relatives of our species” and that these nonhumans “have mental capacities and an emotional life sufficient to justify inclusion within the community of equals.”

Since 1993, there have been efforts in several countries to limit or stop research on great apes. The idea behind these efforts is that because the nonhuman great apes have characteristics thought to be uniquely human, such as self-awareness, abstract thought, emotions, and the ability to communicate in a symbolic language, they are entitled to certain fundamental rights.

I certainly agree that it is wrong to use nonhuman great apes in research or in circuses, or to confine them in zoos, or to use them for any other purpose. But I reject what I call the “similar minds” position that links the moral status of nonhumans to their possession of humanlike cognitive characteristics. The exploitation of the nonhuman great apes is immoral for the same reason that is immoral to exploit the hundreds of millions of mice and rats who are routinely exploited in laboratories or the billions of nonhumans who we kill and eat: the nonhuman great apes and all of these other nonhumans are, like us, sentient. They are conscious; they are subjectively aware; they have interests; they can suffer. No characteristic other than sentience is required for personhood.

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A Frequently Asked Question: What About Plants?

One of the questions most frequently asked of any vegan is: “what about plants?”

Indeed, I do not know any vegan who has not gotten that question at least once and most of us have heard it many times.

Of course, no one who asks this question really thinks that we cannot distinguish between, say, a chicken and a head of lettuce. That is, if, at your next dinner party, you chop a head of lettuce in front of your guests, you will get a different reaction than if you were to carve a live chicken. If, while walking in your garden, I step on a flower intentionally, you may quite correctly be annoyed with me, but if I intentionally kicked your dog, you would be upset with me in a different way. No one really thinks of these as equivalent acts. Everyone recognizes that there is an important difference between the plant and the dog that make kicking the dog a morally more serious act than stepping on a flower.

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A “Triumph” of Animal Welfare?

I admit to being a harsh and relentless critic of animal welfare. For the past 15 years or so, I have argued that because animals are property, animal welfare standards will generally only protect the interests of animals to the extent that the protection facilitates economically efficient exploitation. Animal welfare campaigns, for the most part, involve animal advocates trying to persuade institutionalized exploiters that “better” animal treatment will translate into greater profits and this reinforces the status of animals as economic commodities with nothing more than extrinsic or conditional value. Moreover, animal welfare is counterproductive because it misleads the public into thinking that exploitation is being made more “humane,” and this encourages continued animal use in a variety of ways.

I am frequently criticized by animal welfare advocates as being too negative in my assessment of animal welfare reform. This essay is the first in an occasional series that will examine particular animal welfare campaigns to see if my analysis is fair.

In 2002, animal advocates, led by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Farm Sanctuary, and others, succeeded in getting nearly 700,000 signatures to put on the ballot in Florida a proposal to amend the state constitution to ban what are known as “gestation crates.” Voters approved the proposal, and the Florida Constitution makes it a misdemeanor as of 2008 to confine a pregnant pig in “an enclosure,” or to tether a pregnant pig, in “such a way that she is prevented from turning around freely.” Peter Singer claims that the amendment is a “triumph” (New York Review of Books, May 15, 2003, at 26) and as “near the top” of the list of the most important animal welfare victories of the past 30 years.

For at least six reasons, the characterization of the Florida amendment as a “triumph” demonstrates that the bar of progress is ridiculously low where animal welfare improvements are concerned.

First, the campaign against gestation crates, which began in Florida but is now being conducted in other states, and which recently prevailed in Arizona, is based explicitly on making animal exploitation more efficient. Animal advocates promoted the amendment as a way to keep larger, intensive hog operations out of Florida, and thereby protect property values and tourism. They maintain, as a general matter, that alternatives to the gestation crate, such as group housing, will reduce costs and increase productivity.

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Peter Singer Supports Vivisection: Why Are You Surprised?

The Sunday Times (UK), November 26, 2006, reports that in a BBC documentary, Peter Singer, described by The Times as “father of the modern animal rights movement” meets with Tipu Aziz, an Oxford vivisector who uses primates in his research on Parkinson’s disease. Aziz informs Singer that he induces parkinsonism in primates and claims that his use of 100 monkeys has helped 40,000 humans. Singer replies:

Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment. I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided—I take it you are the expert in this, not me—that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see that as justifiable research.

So far, I have received 64 emails from animal advocates in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere expressing astonishment and disbelief over Singer’s position. Almost everyone starts her message with some expression of astonishment, such as “Can you believe what Singer has said?”

My answer is simple: Why are you surprised?

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