I’ve been a vegan animal rights activist for more than 23 years now and am still. I was co-founder and organizer with University of Toronto Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and long-time activist with groups including Canadian Vegans for Animal Rights, ARK II, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Animal Alliance of Canada, Freedom for Animals, Toronto Animal Rights Society, the Toronto Vegetarian Association, the Toronto Veggie Pride Parade, and Toronto Pig Save. I have organized demos, given talks and workshops, liaised with media and spoken to them including on TV and radio, acted in street theatre, designed logos, made banners, wrote pamphlets, created posters and postered, composed a constitution, leafleted, picketed, stuffed envelopes, phoned to give notice, and so on and on. I filled every role, President, Vice-President, Secretary, and Treasurer for University of Toronto Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I take some pride in these accomplishments, and added my group affiliations to my website bio today.
I still drive truck for the Toronto Veggie Pride Parade and have given an end-of-parade talk for them this year. I am active with animal rights groups at the University of Toronto, now coming together—tonight with our first meeting—in the form of the U of T Animal Rights Club. This grew from a campus-based anti-vivisection group with which I have been recently active. I still give talks on behalf of the Toronto Vegetarian Association in schools and at events. I wrote a few papers for Toronto Pig Save this year, including a short one I co-authored with Jana Crawford, attended a slaughterhouse vigil and protest, and helped with an art display for this group too. I served as a car driver for several groups, as well as for attendees at an animal rights conference at Brock University this year as well. I helped look after a local animal rights sanctuary, Cedar Row, for a whole week with my wife as we do every year. The aforementioned meeting tonight inspired me to make my bio more inclusive of my activist, and not just my academic, side, as I am supposed to say a few words this evening to the group.
Despite my efforts on many fronts, there has still been a shift in my focus for activism from grassroots, where I have a long and involved history (unbeknownst to many) to what I call “ideas-roots” activism. Grassroots has a few meanings:fundamental, and common, or involving ordinary people as opposed to professionals or elites. I think grassroots often implies local groups as opposed to better-funded and more bureaucratic national groups. Animal Alliance of Canada and PETA are national groups. But both involve ordinary activists and sometimes do (or in the case of Animal Alliance did; they have shifted their focus to politicking) the same as grassroots, as in picketing, for example. Grassroots isfundamental in a sense. It is fundamental to democracy to involve the common people. It is fundamental to social change also to involve everybody as much as possible, including for both informal change and also formal change—as in new laws or policies.
Yes, “ideas-roots” is my own term. Yes, some will find it is none too pretty. What does it mean? Well, I am a philosopher who thinks about the roots or justification of the animal rights ethic, or at least a version of same. A big idea, as it were. And a big deal too, in pretty much every sense there is. I also investigate the ideological roots of speciesism and show that it is not rooted in good reasoning, let us call it. I additionally write animal rights materials for general audiences, and that activity provides “ideas-roots” in a more straightforwardly activist, less formal, and far less thorough-going sense.
Henry David Thoreau penned: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” He is extending a rhetorical flourish more than making an exact statistical formulation of a ratio here. But his point is well taken. How many people are trying to get at the root of evil? People will disagree about what that root of evil is, let alone how many are at it. Marxists might say: capitalism. Religionists: original sin or the devil. As a philosopher, I think that the root is lack of education, which would focus not only on ideas, but also our affective side (feelings, desires, and so forth). I agree with Marx that economics is part of the problem. Also, when we look at how there are philosophies pro and con animal rights, we start to realize that echoes of those philosophies are found in lives of all those people who have never studied philosophy, never investigated the justification of their beliefs, nor critiqued problems of justification in others’ beliefs. So common opinions, too, have often unsuspected roots in philosophy.
Ideas-Roots and Intuitionism
We need to look at the roots of these philosophies themselves. I am working on developing a “post-intuitionist ethic.” Intuitionism states that the foundation or root of an ethical theory is some fundamental belief(s) that cannot rationally be defended because intuitions are so basic, and furthermore, that intuition is said or implied by intuitionists not to need defence. If you have a belief, justifying a belief, and so on, unto infinity, then your process of justification perhaps never gets off the ground. You have to start somewhere. But do we need to start with intuitions? I contest that and offer “feeling cognition” as only one part of an alternative. How many ethics people have I met who try to go beyond intuitionism? Mostly skeptics who attack ethics as a whole. I have not met a single other soul trying to work out this problem in a really serious way.
Evelyn Pluhar, though, critiques Tom Regan’s intuitionism in her ironically titled book, Beyond Prejudice, but relies on intuitions of her own in mirroring—in an animal rights way—Alan Gewirth’s theory of human rights. She does not intuit that we all need a certain amount of well-being and freedom to act at all, as Gewirth states. Granted, that is just a fact. Someone who is very ill or quite strait-jacketed cannot do very much, let us confess. But the idea that everyone should therefore claim a right to well-being and freedom? An intuition. And the proposal that we should apply a “principle of generic consistency” so that we end up awarding rights to others humans and nonhumans? An intuition.
Similarly, Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, lambastes Regan for overtly relying on intuitions in The Case for Animal Rights. And here we go again. Singer relies on the intuition that we ought equally to consider equivalent interests, and also the characteristic intuitions of utilitarianism:
- we can intuit that pleasure, pain, pleasure, preference-satisfaction and preference-frustration are of positive and negative value in ethics, respectively, and
- we ought to maximize net good overall as the act utilitarians say.
Intuitionism is bad enough. Hypocrisy only complicates things further. We need not only to talk the talk of anti-intuitionism, but also to walk the walk. I hope that I am not just another unwitting hypocrite in seeking a post-intuitionist ethic. I’m sure many thinkers would be willing to lay odds that I am, if only because no one has really gone beyond intuitionism before in moral theory. I might be tempted to lay some side-bets myself, just to be sure.
Is intuitionism a problem? Well, if it is a problem, in a justification system, for the justification to break down, then it is a problem. If it is unacceptable to judge with prejudice, then it is an issue. If it cannot rule out other moral views which also depend on their own intuitions, then we have to question the practical utility and theoretical conclusiveness of such a method. If prejudices cannot be peaceably mediated, and this leads eventually to violence as a way of sorting out our ethical differences, such as in the American Civil War and the U.S.-Vietnam War, then together with the other issues I have mentioned here—and more besides—we have a full-blown intuitionist crisis on our hands.
Lack of Appreciation for Ideas-Roots Work
Not everyone appreciates my ideas-roots labours of love. One prominent activist said he could not understand why I would try to develop the strongest case for anti-animal rights. It is simply so that we can defeat the other side. We do not do so by refuting claims made in an obviously faulty fashion. That is called a straw man argument. But this great anti-vivisection activist—who is today very active—still could not see the point. I won’t embarrass him by naming him.
A graduate student studying Kant—whom I also will not call out to public account—says he really does not care about intuitionism. So he does not care aboutjustification, which people have been taught to seek from high school and on up? A department head in philosophy, kept anonymous here, told me, “We don’t do your kind of philosophy here,” meaning animal-positive and rigorous philosophy presumably. Indeed, a formal mentor for the philosophy job market advised me that departments are just going to throw my applications into the trash when they see I do animal rights work. It does not matter that Professors Wayne Sumner, Evelyn Pluhar, and Michael Allen Fox consider my theory of superiorism to be the strongest anti-animal-rights theory. It does not matter that Fox has publicly written that my own ethical theory “subsumes and surpasses all other moral views.” In other words, it has not mattered much—so far—that some experts have the opinion that I am a leading thinker in my field on both sides of the debate. Prejudice is often more powerful than professionalism.
Indeed, Francionists personally insult and attack me. One of the most prominent of them tried to get me fired from Brock University, and they have a history of sabotaging book sales of their targets too. Joan Dunayer’s book, Speciesism, was rated low on-line by swarms of vicious factions that might well be dominant in the Francionist movement. The Francionists try to critique my position in favour of anti-cruelty legislation while showing they do not even understand the case that I am making, and so they cannot defeat it. Meanwhile, my “Animal Rights Law” paper has won over several Francionists to the other side. The ones who apparently do understand it. A lot of activists, with varying degrees of respect, put my ideas-roots writings and so forth to one side, because it is irrelevant to their own activism. The latter is fair enough in today’s world, but the arrogant and often ignorant dismissals of my type of specialized work I fail to find very inspiring.
The Importance of Ideas-Roots Activism
But ideas-roots activism is crucial for intelligently deciding on movement strategy. It is also indispensable for championing animal rights not only in the rarefied academic realm of universities and intellectual readers and discussants. Consider that professional law-makers—politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, and members of the judiciary—typically have an academic background as a part of their professional development. And those on the forefront of legislative reform are essentially trying to put ethics into practice. They are trying to show that their approach is more reasonable or better in various ways. Guess the only way you can try to show this with full seriousness? You guessed it: ideas-roots work, including not least of all at the philosophical, academic level.
It is not easy to be an ideas-roots activist, especially when you side with the animals. And I do not mean just the intellectual challenges when you try to confront the age-old, “heaviest duty” problem of intuitionism. No university offers animal ethics courses to teach in my region. (That might have something to do with why I have not taken a single animal ethics course at the University of Toronto either, but only “straight” ethics courses. Nothing else was available.) I was fortunate to have taught some 13 university courses and to have earned two post-doctoral fellowships in animal rights ethics. But I cannot yet make a living as an ideas-roots person. And that is hard, in ways that I will not elaborate. Opportunities do not reflect the sheer import of finding ideological roots for liberation.
Conclusion: in Search of Roots on the Road to Liberation
Some might object that I am being elitist by voicing the Thoreau quote. That I am saying that animal rights grassroots is less important than animal rights ideas-roots. I never said that though. All I need do is observe that he is right about few attacking the roots, and that both grassroots and ideas-roots are absolutely essential for advancing the cause of the liberation of sentient beings. So one is not put on a plateau above the other. As for the more intangible question as to which role attracts the most prestige, our society generally gives more credit and credence to ideas-roots people, but I am not asking for any special privileges. Just the freedom to think, to write, and to speak. Ideas-roots people such as myself have to go through extensive training. I studied at university for some 14 years, including my teacher’s degree. That is part of who I am. Not everyone has done that, and such preparation attracts formal and informal recognition. But again, I am not asking for any special favours. I certainly do not want an air hose in order to create a big ego-balloon for myself. Because ideas-roots work is very specialized, I need to use my rare qualifications to do it. The world needs both grassroots and ideas-roots, but the animals need me to put most of my energy into the former. The animals get more mileage out of me that way. But they also get more mileage out of most people doing grassroots.
In a future era, perhaps the grassroots will also firmly and symbiotically be rooted in ideas-roots, and appreciate how fundamental the latter is. Maybe future activists will have a philosophical grounding, which today is so sorely lacking. And maybe future academics will be plugged more and better into the activist community. Indeed, maybe people will one day walk on nicely rooted grass, breathing the free air of liberation, including among a human populace that is no longer permitted to be so ignorant about ethics and humane concerns. Maybe ideas-roots—not by that name of course—will one day be a privilege and duty, at least to some extent, for citizenship.
Alex Hershaft, long-time great activist and convenor of Animal Rights 2010, told his audience not to obtain any graduate degrees, that they are supposedly a waste of time for animal rights activists. He is thinking about his own chemistry doctorate. But he is giving bad and overgeneralizing advice, because animal ethics has an important role in society as I have proved above, and cannot be fully developed without academic study of some sort. And animal ethics impacts law, literature, media studies, sociology, and on and on.
We need to agitate at the grass-roots and in fact nationally and internationally rooted arenas, but also to find our sea legs in a philosophy that seems like the best possible vessel for carrying us forward in the river of history. The boat will not be perfect. If we cannot truly go beyond intuitionism, maybe we need to keep patching up leaks in our program of justification using the putty of pragmatism. But move forward we must, and we should not take the important role of providing ideological roots for granted.
David Sztybel, Ph.D. has been an animal rights activist for more than 22 years. He has published numerous articles pertaining to the liberation of all sentient beings and has lectured at the University of Toronto, Queen's University, and Brock University. See David Sztybel's Cyberpage at: davidsztybel.info