Violent Imagery in Animal Advocacy

I am asked with some frequency about whether it is advisable to use violent imagery, such as films depicting slaughterhouses or factory farms, as part of abolitionist vegan education. When I express hesitation and concern, people who know of my background will often say, “But didn’t your visiting a slaughterhouse have a profound effect on you?”

It certainly did. But we have to distinguish between the source of our moral concern about animals and the arguments we make in favor of abolition and veganism. In my last post, Moral Concern, Moral Impulse, and Logical Argument in Animal Rights Advocacy, I maintained that rationality is absolutely essential to effective animal rights advocacy but that for a person to be receptive to rational argument, she must first have at least some moral concern about animals. She must have a moral impulse to want to do the right thing concerning at least some animals in order for her to be able to respond positively to logical arguments about what the right thing to do is. Moral concern and moral impulse may come from many sources. If, however, a person simply does not care morally about animals and does not regard animals as members of the moral community in any sense, logic and rationality aren’t going to be very helpful.

In my case, my moral concern about animals was triggered by a visit to a slaughterhouse and a concurrent recognition that a commitment to nonviolence was seriously incomplete if it did not apply to animals. It was that moral concern and very strong resulting moral impulse that led me to develop the abolitionist approach to animal rights that includes all sentient beings within the moral community and identifies veganism and abolition as the only coherent responses to a recognition of the inherent moral value of animals.

But to say that something served to trigger or awaken moral concern in someone is not to say that it will also be an effective advocacy tool to use for those who already have moral concern but are confused about what that means in terms of their own lives and their advocacy efforts. Showing gory movies to someone may trigger her moral concern, but most of the people who are going to watch such movies in the first place are already concerned about animals and are trying to figure out what to do with their concern. The danger is that the gory movies get concerned people to focus on issues of treatment and not use, particularly when they are presented, as they often are, as explicit or implicit calls for welfare reform. This is particularly the case with respect to videos that depict factory farms or the “abuses” of factory farms. Many people who see such films come away with a very clear welfarist message that the solution is “happy” labels, family farms, CCTV, and just about everything except veganism. We all know such people.

And that’s the risk. Indeed, when we first started this website, there were gory pictures on the banner. One of the reasons that I removed those pictures was that some people commented that animal advocates needed to focus on welfare reforms to “improve” animal treatment. That missed the whole point of the site!

In addition, I think that there is a significant difference between visiting a slaughterhouse and seeing a movie of one. The latter will be gory, but part of the horror of a slaughterhouse is the eye contact you make with particular animals whom you will never forget. If that sort of experience does not awaken any predisposition you have to experience moral concern for, or kinship with, nonhuman animals, I am not sure what would.

So I think that we must be careful in using these materials in advocacy. I am not absolutely opposed to them; they may facilitate someone who is struggling with these issues to develop the moral concern that makes her receptive to the rational arguments in favor of veganism and abolition. And they may be useful in persuading someone who is already concerned and already has a moral impulse to go in the abolitionist direction. But, in the latter case, they may also push that person in favor of focusing on treatment and not use and then we shift to “happy” meat and welfare reform.

I stated in the essay on moral concern:

As a general matter, I am not saying that we should use the source of our moral concern to argue for animal rights. That would make no sense. If the source of someone’s moral concern for animals is that she read Black Beauty as a child, I am not saying that we should promote reading Black Beauty as a means of advocating animal rights. Indeed, there are plenty of people who read Black Beauty as children and who did not become vegans. But that book (or any number of countless other books, experiences, etc.) may have triggered the moral impulse in someone that makes her receptive to rational arguments we can make as abolitionists to get her to see all sentient beings as members of the moral community and veganism as the only coherent response given her moral concern. But if she has no moral concern in the first place, she will not be receptive to those arguments.

Someone may have developed her sense of moral concern working on a farm, intensive or not, but we would not advocate that people work in such places to persuade them to become vegans. That would not only be impractical but it is not clear that it would be nearly as effective as logical arguments made to someone who already has moral concern.

I knew someone whose moral concern was triggered by working as a student assistant in a lab that used animals. She stopped working in the lab and volunteered for a large animal welfare group and became a vegetarian for several years. She became a vegan after reading Introduction to Animal Rights, stopped promoting welfare reform, and started doing vegan education. She responded to the logical arguments of Introduction to Animal Rights because she was morally concerned about animals as the result of her laboratory experience. But I would certainly never recommend that someone assist in an animal lab in order to become a vegan.

The take-away point: don’t confuse the source of moral concern, which may be just about anything, with the logical arguments we make in favor of veganism and abolition.


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

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione