The Necessity of Theory

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

A Simple Thought for Christmas 2010

We will never have peace on earth as long as we have suffering and death on our tables or on our backs.

Peace begins with what you eat, wear, & use.

Being vegan is not sufficient for leading a nonviolent life—but it is most certainly necessary.

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

No, Ethical Veganism is Not Extreme

Dear Colleagues:

There is nothing extreme about ethical veganism.

What is extreme is eating decomposing flesh and animal secretions.

What is extreme is that we regard some animals as members of our family while, at the same time, we stick forks into the corpses of other animals.

What is extreme is thinking that it is morally acceptable to inflict suffering and death on other sentient creatures simply because we enjoy the taste of animal products or because we like the look of clothes made from animals.

What is extreme is that we say that we recognize that “unnecessary” suffering and death cannot be morally justified and then we proceed to engage in exploitation on a daily basis that is completely unnecessary.

What is extreme is pretending to embrace peace while we make violence, suffering, torture and death a daily part of our lives.

What is extreme is that we excoriate people like Michael Vick, Mary Bale and Sarah Palin as villains while we continue to eat, use, and consume animal products.

What is extreme is that we say that we care about animals and that we believe that they are members of the moral community, but we sponsor, support, encourage and promote “happy” meat/dairy labeling schemes. (see 1, 2, 3)

What is extreme is not eating flesh but continuing to consume dairy when there is absolutely no rational distinction between meat and dairy (or other animal products). There is as much suffering and death in dairy, eggs, etc., as there is in meat.

What is extreme is that we are consuming a diet that is causing disease and resulting in ecological disaster.

What is extreme is that we encourage our children to love animals at the same time that we teach them those that they love can also be those whom they harm. We teach our children that love is consistent with commodification. That is truly extreme—and very sad.

What is extreme is the fantasy that we will ever find our moral compass with respect to animals as long as they are on our plates and our tables, on our backs, and on our feet.

No, ethical veganism is not extreme. But there are many other things that we do not even pay attention to that are extreme.

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

The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights in China!

Dear Colleagues:

A number of you have written to ask about getting abolitionist theory into countries like the People’s Republic of China. Well, here is a photo of my book, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, translated and published in China by the China University of Political Science and Law Press in Beijing. The University has one of the top rated law colleges in China:

Cover of Chinese translated Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?

The Abolitionist Approach pamphlet is also available in Chinese.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

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.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione

I Hate to Say It, but Sarah Palin is Right: A Response to Aaron Sorkin

December 9, 2010

Aaron Sorkin
The Huffington Post

Dear Mr. Sorkin:

In a recent blog post on The Huffington Post, you criticize Sarah Palin, whom you quote as stating, in response to criticisms of her hunting and killing a caribou on her reality TV show:

“Unless you’ve never worn leather shoes, sat upon a leather chair or eaten meat, save your condemnation.”

You acknowledge that you eat animal products and have shoes and furniture made of leather but you claim to be able to distinguish yourself from Ms. Palin. You state to her:

You weren’t killing that animal for food or shelter or even fashion, you were killing it for fun. You enjoy killing animals. I can make the distinction between the two of us but I’ve tried and tried and for the life of me, I can’t make a distinction between what you get paid to do and what Michael Vick went to prison for doing. I’m able to make the distinction with no pangs of hypocrisy even though I get happy every time one of you faux-macho shitheads accidentally shoots another one of you in the face.

Sorry, Mr. Sorkin. I cannot think of a single thing that Sarah Palin has ever said with which I agree. Ever. Really. Ever. But on this, she’s dead right and you’re dead wrong.

You object to her killing the caribou because it was unnecessary; she did it because she enjoyed it.

And why do you eat meat and animal products?

That’s a rhetorical question. There’s only one answer: Because you enjoy it.

There is no necessity involved. You do not need to eat animal products to live an optimally healthy life. In fact, mainstream health care people are telling us every day that animal products are detrimental to our health in one way or the other. But you do not even have to agree with them to agree with the plain and indisputable fact that we do not need to eat animal products to live a healthy life. It’s a matter of palate preference and nothing more.

And animal agriculture is an environmental disaster.

The best—indeed, the only—justification we have for inflicting suffering and death on 56 billion animals annually (not counting fish) is that they taste good. And it does not matter whether you eat conventional animal products or the “happy” meat and animal products promoted by various animal welfare groups and advocates in their attempt to make the public feel better about consuming animals: all of the animals we use for food, including the most “humanely” raised and killed, are treated and slaughtered in ways that, were humans involved, would, without doubt, be characterized as constituting torture.

The fact that you pay someone else to do the dirty work is morally irrelevant. I teach criminal law. If you pay someone to kill another human, try telling the judge that the killer actually enjoyed the act of killing but that you just paid for it. The judge will tell you that you’re both guilty of murder. You’re both equally culpable.

I won’t bother to comment on the shoes and furniture. Again, those choices reflect nothing more morally weighty than fashion, and that has no moral weight at all.

As for Michael Vick, as I have argued, Vick apparently liked sitting around a pit watching dogs fight; the rest of us like sitting around the barbecue pit roasting the flesh of animals who, under the best of circumstances, have had a worse life and death than Vick’s dogs. To criticize Vick for his morally unjustifiable acts while we engage in conduct that is morally no different is nothing more than hypocrisy.

Sorry, Mr. Sorkin, as someone who embraces progressive politics and who finds Sarah Palin objectionable on so many levels that it is difficult to count, she’s right on this. You have no moral standing to criticize what she did.

I would ask that you consider going 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.


Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University School of Law–Newark

© 2010 Gary L. Francione

The Absurdity of Competing “Humane” Labels: HSUS v. Perdue

Dear Colleagues:

Sometimes one does not know where to begin.

This is one such time.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has apparently filed a class action suit against Perdue Farms:

The Humane Society of the United States announced the filing of a class action lawsuit against the nation’s third-largest poultry producer, Perdue Farms, over the company’s alleged false advertising of factory farmed chicken products as “humane.”

The suit—filed by an HSUS member on behalf of consumers duped by Perdue Farms—alleges that Perdue is illegally marketing its “Harvestland” and “Perdue” chicken products with “Humanely Raised” labels in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. The complaint seeks a jury trial and compensatory damages for the class members, as well as injunctive relief against further use of the “Humanely Raised” claim by Perdue.

“Companies like Perdue are exploiting the dramatic growth of consumer demand for improved animal welfare for their own profit,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel of Animal Protection Litigation for The HSUS. “Rather than implementing humane reforms, Perdue has simply slapped ‘humanely raised’ stickers on its factory farmed products, hoping consumers won’t know the difference.”

The standards upon which Perdue has based its “Humanely Raised” claim are the so-called “Animal Welfare Guidelines” of the National Chicken Council—the trade group for the chicken industry. The suit alleges that those guidelines allow for treatment that no reasonable consumer would consider “humane.”

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., among the world’s foremost farm animal handling and slaughter experts, put it bluntly in an industry trade journal: “The National Chicken Council Animal Welfare audit has a scoring system that is so lax that it allows plants or farms with really bad practices to pass.” In her book Animals in Translation, Grandin explained, “Today’s poultry chicken has been bred to grow so rapidly that its legs can collapse under the weight of its ballooning body. It’s awful.”

I have no doubt that the Perdue chickens are not “humanely” treated. I have no doubt at all. Read more