I’m going to start this post with a disclaimer of sorts. I generally don’t write about animal rights theory on this blog unless it relates to my family. Though I frequently read animal rights books, blogs and consider myself well versed on animal rights theory, this blog is about raising my kids. So I don’t tend to focus on theory too much. Also, there are others who articulate animal rights theory much better than I do, and I feel that what I would write in this blog would be a repetition of what they already eloquently say.
But today I'm going to break character and delve into animal rights, specifically the debate within the larger animal activist movement about how best to spend our time advocating for animals. If you’re here to look at pictures of my kids, this probably isn’t the post for you. On the other hand, if you consider PeTA an animal rights organization, maybe this is the post for you.
I went to a debate on Friday night and I need to write about it. My thoughts about this are like a raging fire in my brain, actually, and I’m pretty sure the only way to extinguish it is to relate how frustrating the experience was for me, and maybe to help you feel some of my frustration (as Bleeding Gums Murphy once said,
“The blues isn’t about feeling better, it’s about making other people feel worse!”).
The debate, titled “Is Meat Ethical?”, was between PeTA vice president Bruce Friedrich and a member of the University of Minnesota debate team whose first name was Nick. I didn’t catch his last name.
I arrived about ten minutes early and a couple members of Compassionate Action for Animals (CAA) were handing out leaflets for their Veg Week. A young woman asked me if I wanted a brochure and I said sure. CAA is a local new welfarist animal activist group.
Hold on. Some of you might not know what I mean when I say “new welfarist”. In a nutshell, new welfarists (like PeTA) focus on the treatment of animals and spend time and money trying to incrementally improve that treatment. They have the long-term goal of animal liberation, but they focus most of their money, energy and time on regulating industry rather than educating the public about veganism.
CAA is a new welfarist organization which focuses primarily on educating the public, though they have also done work with industry and declared incremental changes as victories. They have a “Veg Week” and encourage people to go vegan or vegetarian, confusing the drastic difference between the two and perpetuating the
idea that the average person doesn’t have the wherewithal to understand a cogent argument and choose to be vegan without first being vegetarian or without first reducing their meat intake or cutting meat out one day a
I’m not picking on CAA here, I’m just trying to convey who they are and what they believe (as an organization).
In regard to the new welfarist ideas on reductions in animal suffering, I personally don’t think that supposed short-term reductions in suffering are anything to toot your horn about.
First, how do you quantify suffering? How do you know that birds crammed onto a floor are suffering less than birds crammed into cages?
Second, when an animal organization declares one type of exploitation as being better than another type, they implicitly encourage people to purchase that “better” product of exploitation.
Third, there has been animal welfare for about a couple centuries now, and we’re using more animals in more horrible ways then we ever have before. Animal welfare doesn’t reduce demand. If it did, demand would have been reduced by now, instead of growing exponentially.
I’m an abolitionist vegan, which means that instead of advocating for bigger cages or no cages, I advocate for no ownership at all. Abolitionism is, as far as I’m concerned, the only logically consistent approach to animal rights.
If you’re one of my readers who doesn’t read a lot about animal issues, you might think the differences between welfare and abolition are like the differences between two slightly different religions, where one kneels during prayer and the other doesn't for example, and you’d be excused for thinking so. But for
people who think about these things and engage in animal advocacy, it's clear that the differences between abolitionism and new welfarism are quite pronounced and that they have real-world consequences.
OK, that was one hell of a diversion, but I wanted to provide some context for the debate.
So the debate started and Bruce Friedrich was introduced and here’s the first thing he said:
“Why do University of Iowa graduates put their diplomas in their car window? So they can park in handicap zones.”
Oh yes he did! He started off with an ableist joke. As VP of a profoundly sexist organization, this didn’t surprise me.
Friedrich went on to say in his opening comments that as long as you oppose being wasteful with food, oppose global poverty and animal cruelty (he presented them in that order), then you’ll agree with him that eating meat is unethical. He didn’t need to talk about the first two points at all to make his case, but he did,
which left the debate wide open, unfocused and wasted a lot of time. More time was spent debating the economics of global poverty than debating whether or not animals should be treated as resources.
Friedrich said that the only ethical diet is a diet that avoids meat. He did use the word “vegan” a couple times, but he also used “vegetarian” and he used them interchangeably. Is it any wonder that people are confused about what these words mean?
After closing his arguments about meat being unethical he undercut them by showing the first minute or so of Meet Your Meat.
Meet Your Meat (a video Friedrich co-directed) is a film that focuses exclusively on the animals at factory farmes. So yet again, he left the debate wide open and basically invited his debater to talk about the virtues of “happy meat” and “humanely” raised animals. In fact, there were times when both of them seemed to completely agree on the point that supposedly humane raising and slaughter of animals is commendable.
Part of Nick’s counter-argument, of course, was that the problem isn’t meat, but the way the animals are raised. He maintained that there were ways of doing it that gave animals good lives and that killing them for meat wasn’t necessarily wrong. To buttress this idea, he quoted Peter Singer. He called Singer the father of the animal rights movement, a title that is often attributed to him.
Singer himself is not a rightist though, and he doesn’t actually argue for animal rights (the term appears in his book Animal Liberation, but he later said he regretted ever using it). He’s not vegan, he promotes welfare reforms and maintains that death is not a harm for non-human animals. For a critique of Singer’s views, I suggest reading the essay “Peter Singer and the Welfarist Position on the Lesser Value of Nonh...” by Prof. Gary Francione.
So where would Nick have gotten this crazy idea that Singer, a man who says there’s nothing inherently wrong with killing animals, is a proponent of animal rights? Why, from Bruce Friedrich’s PeTA, of course! When you click on “read more” under “Why Animal Rights” on PeTA’s home page, there’s Singer’s book, Animal Liberation.
(For an analysis of the myriad contradictions of PeTA, I suggest reading Dan Cudahy's essay,
PeTA, a Corporate Tangle of Contradictions.)
Nick also said that hunting gives animals a nice clean end to their lives instead of starving to death and that it manages populations which lessens suffering of deer.
Friedrich’s response to this wasn’t that we shouldn’t kill deer because they have an interest in living their lives and that to ignore that interest for unnecessary reasons is wrong. No, instead he said that Nick was wrong on his population point because hunting actually increases populations since deer breed more when under
So … Friedrich’s argument is that people shouldn’t hunt because if they do there will be more deer?
Wouldn’t you expect the VP of an animal rights organization to instead defend a deer’s right to live free from unnecessary harm and death? Me too! Which is why I and many others contend that PeTA should not be considered an animal rights organization.
For all the contradictory messages that come out of PeTA, Friedrich could have just as well debated himself.
Friedrich also kept coming back to the point that if we wouldn’t do something to the cats and dogs in our care, then we shouldn’t do it to any other animals either; that the abuses that farmed animals endure would be cause for legal action if they were inflicted upon our pets. But what he didn't say is that there are plenty
of horrible things we can do to our companion animals that are perfectly legal, but would not be so if we did them to our children.
Given that, you'll understand then why Friedrich’s insistence that we should treat farmed animals as well as we treat our cats and dogs rang just a tad hollow and frightening to me.
Friedrich also maintained that any meat you buy in any grocery store is the product of great suffering. He repeated this several times, which made me wonder about that love letter PeTA wrote to Whole Foods…
The debate then moved into the “questions from the crowd” period.
I asked one. It went like this (it was, for the most part, a prepared question):
I would like to read part of a letter to John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, one of those grocery stores you keep talking about, on January 24th, 2005.
"The undersigned animal welfare, animal protection and animal rights organizations would like to express their appreciation and support for the pioneering initiative being taken by Whole Foods Market in setting Farm Animal Compassionate Standards. We hope and expect that these
standards will improve the lives of millions of animals."
This letter was signed by, among other organizations, PeTA.
Nick’s defense of “happy meat” is a symptom of organizations like PeTA focusing on factory farms instead of animal rights.
How can you argue that eating meat is unethical when the organization you are Vice President of is actively congratulating businesses for killing animals for meat? To say out of one side of your mouth that killing animals is wrong and then say out of the other side that you appreciate
companies who raise and kill animals "humanely" is indicative of some awfully confused thinking. If it's wrong, it's wrong. Just as someone wouldn't say that putting padding on a waterboard makes waterboarding better (note: my waterboarding example came from a Gary Francione post, Ingrid Newkirk on Principled Veganism: “Screw the principle”), or raping gently makes rape better, anyone who takes the interests of animals seriously should not say that inflicting somewhat less suffering on animals while they're alive makes the unnecessary suffering and death of that animal any better. Arguing for better treatment and then patting yourself on the back when a company takes heed only serves to make people feel better about eating animal products.
I ask this question under the assumption that you agree with most policy decisions of PeTA. If you don't, I apologize, though I don’t know why you would remain VP if that’s the case.
Can you explain why your organization supports animal compassionate standards and what those standards are?
He answered my question with three main points (everything in this post is paraphrased, by the way):
1. PeTA, of course, wants to see animal liberation, but incremental reforms in the meantime are important. They are steps toward liberation.
2. He likes to apply the golden rule in situations, and the way he applies it is by asking himself, if he were a chicken and in a small cage, wouldn’t he want to have a bigger cage or
not be in a cage at all?
3. He also dragged out the familiar new welfarist assertion that focusing on welfare reforms helps the animals who exist right now.
And this is when my head nearly exploded. I think it was right at this moment. Because I had so much to say in response, but I wasn’t the one on stage with him. My question was over
and that was it.
So I’m going to douse my brain fire by responding to Friedrich’s points here in this blog, where people might read it and get something out of it (but even if they don't, I had to write it down somewhere and this seemed like the best place).
1. Incremental reforms are not steps toward liberation. Instead, they further entrench animals into the property paradigm, writing more laws about animal ownership and codifying the ways in which animals can be used to satisfy our every whim. They make people feel better about animal products overall, thereby increasing
consumption. And when incremental reforms are touted as victories by organizations such as PeTA, it gives people the impression that, if they eat these products of less suffering, they are off the hook; they’ve
fulfilled their moral obligations to animals. Why would an animal rights organization perpetuate this view?
2. The golden rule? If you’re hitting me in the head with a tire iron while kicking me in the shin with steel toed boots, wouldn’t I ask you to stop doing both? Wouldn’t your obligations to me (based upon the golden rule) demand that you stop doing both? If you stopped doing just one, let’s say the tire iron to the head, should I congratulate you? Thank you? Give you an award for your humane kicking of my shin?
Shouldn’t the application of the golden rule demand that we advocate for the end of animal use? Don’t you think the chickens would rather we do nothing unto them?
Should PeTA have given an award to Temple Grandin for designing “humane” slaughterhouses that cause somewhat less stress for animals? How about if these slaughterhouses also increase the efficiency and rate with which animals are killed, and increase the profits of the businesses who run and rely on those slaughterhouses (all of which means more dead animals)? How does applying the golden rule lead you to award and promote a slaughterhouse designer? How does this create anything but confusion and continued slaughter?
3. Friedrich says that welfare reforms are helping animals right now. To not work for welfare reforms now, he says, is to abandon the animals who are alive and suffering at this very moment. But in his answer to another question about "happy meat", he laments the fact that broiler chickens live only seven weeks.
When a welfare reform laws are passed, they don't go into effect within seven weeks. It usually takes years. And more often, they are not enforced or never go into effect. So, by passing reform laws, you’re not helping the chickens who are alive now (remember that they have, at most, seven weeks to live), you’re not
helping the chickens who are alive in the future (at the very least, you might be hurting them a little bit less, but you’re not helping) and you’re wasting precious time and resources on further entrenching the
property status of animals while you could instead be putting all that effort into vegan education.
What does vegan education do?
Well, it helps a lot of people go vegan. And what does that do?
It reduces suffering in the short and long term.
If Hank goes vegan tomorrow, he removes himself from the demand for chickens to be raised and slaughtered (a chicken not brought into existence doesn’t suffer at all). Hank’s decision to not buy chickens’ flesh immediately starts to have an effect on the pocketbooks of those who raise chickens for meat. And while it’s true that more chickens are always being brought into existence - it’s a market that’s expanding, not contracting - Hank’s refusal to buy animal products causes that market to expand at a lesser rate. And eventually, given enough time and enough Hanks, this rate of expansion will level off and then start to decrease. The more vegan education, the more vegans, the sooner this can happen.
There you go. Short term and long term goals met and there’s no confusion about what we “animal rights people” maintain we owe animals.