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If You Think It's Murder, Act Like It

"Animal Liberation will require greater altruism on the part of human beings than any other liberation movement. The animals themselves are incapable of demanding their own liberation, or of protesting against their condition with votes, demonstrations or bombs. Human beings have the power to continue to oppress other species forever, or until we make the planet unsuitable for living beings. Will our tyranny continue, proving that we really are the selfish tyrants that the most cynical of poets and philosophers have always said we are? Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending the ruthless oppression of species in our power, not because we are forced to do so by rebels or terrorists, but because we recognise our position is morally indefensible? The way in which we answer this question depends on the way each one of us, individually, answers it."
Peter Singer

An old philosophical tradition consists in simply expounding the truth as one sees it. One then just waits until sheer force of argument allows one's conclusions to become generally known and luminously self-evident. Perhaps this sort of dispassionate engagement with the issues will indeed prove enough to rescue billions of presently unborn victims of human inhumanity to non-humans in decades to come.

        Unfortunately, disembodied rationality, even if it existed, would be causally impotent; and very little good to anyone. Certainly, placing one's faith in the dawning light of reason isn't always a recipe for success where immensely powerful and hostile vested interests are at stake. And the vested interests defending animal-exploitation are very powerful indeed.

        So how can the revolution in our treatment of our fellow subjects be brought about?

        There was a time not so long time not so long ago when the idea of philosophers in the dominant Western analytical tradition actually doing anything to promote ethical conduct would be regarded as incongruous to the point of being laughable. Within the academic profession itself, making any first-order ethical judgements - as distinct from practising meta-ethical analysis of the linguistic meaning of value-judgements - was regarded as faintly disreputable. Being right in one's judgements counted for more than doing right. Indeed, even after the demise of Oxford-style linguistic philosophy, students in ethics classes were - and still are - graded purely and simply on the basis of what they say - and not for what they do outside the seminar-room. Admittedly, the question of whether those who presume to mark and grade students of Ethics would be better qualified to sit in judgement than their charges is at the very least open to debate. But either way, if morality of any kind is more than empty vapouring, then surely deeds rather than empty pieties are what matter. This demands a strategy of action.

        As it stands,Taking Animals Seriously is a well-written, well-researched piece of analytic philosophy. If it convinces any sceptical or under-motivated readers of the intellectual underpinnings of the case against animal-abuse - as I think it should - then it will serve a valuable purpose - if it then bestirs them to take action. What the work as a whole doesn't do is offer policy prescriptions in a political sense. It amounts to an ethical treatise-cum-philosophical study of non-human minds, not a political tract. DeGrazia advances closely-reasoned arguments on what ought to be the case. He sets out, in general terms, how we ought ethically to behave. Yet Taking Animals Seriously ducks any investigation of the specific mechanisms by which even its own comparatively tame proposals can be made to happen. Certainly, it doesn't devise any sort of political strategy, or lay out an organisational framework, by which a revolution in the treatment of our victims can be brought about.

        So what should be done - or, much better, what should we ourselves do - to try and stop the holocaust?

        First, here's a schematic review of some of the options.

        Acts of violence against the abusers rarely help the abused. They are part of the very Darwinian heritage one is trying to transcend. This isn't a call for sanctimoniousness - as distinct from clarity - in condemning the actions of the minuscule handful of activists tempted to pursue this sort of radical activism. Passive, turn-the-other-cheek acceptance of unprovoked violence directed against oneself may be admirable. Acquiescence in its institutionalised and unprovoked infliction on others demands less stoicism and no great heroics.

         None of these caveats changes the fact that violent action against other persons is - in general - disastrously ill-conceived. Most of us are ourselves, in any case, so implicated by our consumerist lifestyles in the exploitation of others that the singling out of some abusers rather than others is often a matter of punishing visibility rather than objective consequence. Typically, it is the ramifications of our acts that are frightful, not the inherent character of the agents who commit them. Thus condemnation of animal-abusers - or those who in vain try physically to stop them - should at best be seen instead as a rhetorical tool of purely instrumental value. It's not a matter of some metaphysical assignment of guilt. Under the eye of eternity, even a Hitler or a Pol Pot is no more guilty - or innocent - than a smallpox virus. For we are all animals. Our behaviour is exhaustively described by a set of natural laws which we didn't choose and of whose playing out we are all a part. Fortunately, it transpires that a non-obvious consequence of these laws is the development of a species blessed with a capacity to overthrow the Darwinian regime to which those same laws gave rise. Suffering, it transpires, has temporal boundaries as well as spatial ones.

        The issue of nonviolent direct action to prevent the institutionalised atrocities of the death-camps and factory-farms is more complicated; and ultimately less clear-cut. In the end, however, one's conclusions - I think - have to be broadly similar. Brute force usually doesn't work. Once again, however, such a plea for legalism shouldn't be used as pretext for the usual knee-jerk sanctimony. Unwarranted self-righteousness tends to get directed against those with the courage to show more than an easy but vicarious stoicism at the suffering of the oppressed. For there is an incongruity to our hand-wringing over Why Didn't We Bomb the Death Camps? for instance, and our condemnation of the Nazi experiments on humans as the ultimate abomination - while at the same time we collaborate with regimes guilty of sanctioning the very same acts of killing and cruelty against highly sentient non-humans (who are invariably described as only animals, as though their vulnerability and helplessness meant they mattered less then the reigning Herrenvolk). We may be baffled how Eichmann and Mengele could be decent family men and yet do such terrible things to children. Yet their attitude to their helpless victims was not radically different from ours to "inferior beings". Only a few of us actively enjoy causing suffering to those we exploit and kill. For the most part, we are simply oblivious to it. Or we (mis-)conceive it as too trivially insignificant to worry about. In our case, our victims are, after all, subhuman - not even untermenschen - and our use of the very word "animals" coveys a sense of superiority and disdain. For the most part, it is simply a matter of convenience to treat non-humans in the way we do. Abusing animals for money, taste or curiosity and even fun has for long simply been a part of the way the world works.

        Of course, in the wake of the growth of the animal-rights movement, there has recently arisen a hitherto unfelt need to demonise and demean our non-human victims - and those who try to help them - now that our previously well-nigh unquestioned right to kill and exploit them is being challenged. Bloodsports enthusiasts, for instance, currently spend a lot of time cataloguing the alleged depredations of our victims on the environment. Recreational animal-killers go to extraordinarily lengths to avoid admitting that they themselves enjoy hunting and killing other creatures for fun. But then until a few years ago such rationalisations seemed scarcely called for. Selfish DNA had honed our intuitions so that the most agonising bloodshed seemed simply "natural".

        Given the enormity of what we're perpetrating, then why the qualms one may feel about going beyond restrictive legalism - itself a tendentious term, since all governments in the world today rest on some original act of illegality? Aren't all methods of bringing the old order to an end justified? The dilemma for the ethical utilitarian, typically of a legalistic and profoundly pacifistic bent, is that history doesn't show that the quiet conscience, or even full-throated protest, is more successful than physical intervention. The most effective tactic historically has been a combination of both. Thus from a utilitarian perspective, it's hard to know whether sabotaging the economic and technological infrastructure of the death factories, and physically destroying the machinery of killing, vivisection and factory-farming, isn't morally justified if at all feasible. Perhaps it is. This is because threats to the apparatus of oppression steeply push up the costs of abuse. [Threatening the oppressors raises darker issues altogether] The ghastly if sometimes high-minded atrocities committed in university 'research-labs', for example, have been scaled down - though they still continue - not in the main through Damascene conversions, conscience-stricken crises of faith in the still hours of the night, or the genteel promptings of ethics committees. They've been restricted because of the high price of security measures needed to safeguard those laboratories where the horrors have been taking place. It would be nice - and extraordinarily convenient for the liberal bourgeois sensibility, whether wired for the digital age or otherwise - if history recorded that oppressor groups did succumb to polite and dignified protest. Unfortunately, not many instances of such spontaneous acts of collective goodwill spring to mind. We're far too good at rationalising base self-interest.

        Tactically, on the other hand, there are certainly strong arguments in favour of legalism. Despite the strict pacifism of most ALF activists, it's inevitable that the profiteers and the bureaucrats in charge of the non-human killing-apparatus, and the beneficiaries of the whole economic empire of ancillary services on which it depends, will talk - invariably without irony - of the violence and terrorism of their opponents. In the Orwellian lexicon of the killers and their apologists, the destruction of 'private property' - i.e. the instruments of mass-killing - is invariably dubbed 'violent' and "terroristic." The institutionalised physical abuse and killing of non-humans, on the other hand, is bizarrely categorised as law-abiding and peaceful(!). Transposing the respect due to sentient beings as subjects to physical objects is simply one of the more grotesque examples of the ideology of animal-abuse. Whatever the grisly ironies, the fact remains that the power of the modern state is always likely to snuff out direct action. The only possible exception is the coordination of mass civil-disobedience which follows breakthroughs to a critical mass of public support; after which it should be unnecessary. Moreover direct physical action against the material infrastructure of abuse also distracts attention from the arena where the decisive battle will actually be lost or won. The battle for the "hearts and minds" of the human population is a phrase lamed by overuse; but it's as relevant as ever. To believe otherwise is to fall victim to a utopian romanticism which misreads the realities of political power in the modern state.

        On balance, then, the slaughter and abuse of our victims will probably be preventable only when a majority of the population in mainstream human society can be induced to accept that our present-day systematic abuse and killing of non-humans is morally wrong. For all its manifold failings, liberal capitalist democracy does offer the mechanisms to enforce majority-decisions when consent is obtained through the ballot box and its impending digital successors. True, much of our nominal democracy today is indeed a sham. Yet it is not a complete sham. If enough of the population oppose a ruling government, then the regime in question can be peacefully ousted. Likewise, if enough of the population come to recognise that institutionalised killing and abuse of non-humans is morally wrong, then such killing and abuse can be curtailed; and subsequently abolished in law. The full resources of the state can then be deployed to enforce that abolition.

        Unlikely? Over the past hundred and fifty years, the state has steadily extended its quasi-monopoly of coercive acts in human society to an extent that would have once been unimaginable. For sure, violence today as practised by e.g. teachers on school-students, husbands on wives, and citizens against each other, still occurs. Yet it's vastly less common than it was in the past. It is increasingly taboo. Legal sanctions against interpersonal violence, and enforcement-mechanisms to prevent it, have steadily grown in depth, scope and effectiveness. Endorsing the liberal-democratic state's quasi-monopoly on violence, and calling for it to be extended rather than challenged, might sound a wildly paradoxical plea. It sounds even odder from a tender-minded radical who advocates a wholesale and nonviolentrevolution in our behaviour to non-humans. Yet the machinery of the animal holocaust - organised as now in the final flourish of the Late-Darwinian Era on a scale and systematicity that dwarfs anything practised by our ancestors - is likely to be dismantled by essentially peaceful and legal means. Full-blown revolutions (as distinct from political coups) are rare even when the victims are human and can potentially fight back. When the oppressed are mute and helpless, the preconditions for an insurrection of the oppressed do not exist; and they never will.

        So there is clearly a daunting struggle ahead. Life-stylism by itself is not remotely enough. Simply refusing to pay others to commit acts of violence on one's behalf is indeed important; for boycotting meat-products and their producers diminishes the financial incentives for killing and abuse. Yet the cultivation of personal purity - though commendable - can become a disastrous distraction. Such distraction occurs when an otherwise admirable desire to banish all trace of personal complicity in animal-abuse eclipses the struggle to promote collective action against the institutional system of animal-exploitation as a whole. Animal-abuse itself needs to become a criminal offence. It can't be left as a matter of consumer choice or personal taste. When it gets phased out, it will be abolished "from above" as much as "from below". This can only happen, however, if most people - if necessary a bare plurality - can be persuaded that it is morally unacceptable for anyone to do it.

        This transformation depends on inducing a fundamental shift in the beliefs and values of a majority of politically active adult humans. Or, much more optimistically phrased, it depends on extracting and making starkly explicit the full consequences of beliefs and values we already hold: namely the extension of the kind of love and privileges given to, and genuinely deserved by, Rover, the adored family pet, to the similar creatures we are paying to have abused and butchered. A whole range of life-forms typically treated as objects must come to be treated as fellow subjects.

        Just how likely is this shift to occur? And by what means? Can present trends to vegetarianism, and increasingly veganism, be extrapolated deep into the next millennium?

         To some extent, the sea-change in prospect is likely to be demographic and generational rather than the product of mid-life conversion experiences. The defensibility of animal-abuse, even under its innumerable euphemisms, tends to seem less "obvious" to younger people. The struggle that will be waged is both ideological and scientific. In the battle to win converts, the Net offers an immense opportunity to subvert the ideology of oppression. As global Net-use and digital convergence accelerate dizzyingly, and web-enabled devices promise to proliferate all over the globe, it's becoming clear that here is where the long-term ideological battle will be won or lost.

        This rallying-cry might seem a naïve piece of Net evangelism. And trusting that the weak and the vulnerable might ever be protected by the powerful might seem naïve in the extreme. Yet once the incentive of self-interest has been stripped away, and genetic-engineering allows us to produce whatever food-products we like without causing death or suffering, then our argumentative blind-spot is likely to disappear. Invoking genetic-engineering as a solution to today's biggest source of systematic animal-abuse, namely the factory-farming of live animals for the purpose of eating their flesh, is likely to make most progressive radicals queasy. For unquestionably there is enormous scope for biotechnology to be perverted for purposes which have nothing to do with the global welfare of either humans or animals. Yet unless genetically-engineered test-tube meat delicacies can be mass-produced cost-effectively, we will have to rely exclusively on moral arguments against animal-abuse. This will mean a far longer delay before a liberation of the oppressed and immeasurably more bloodshed.

        Isn't this plea for a futuristic cruelty-free diet a cop-out? Doesn't gesturing in the direction of future food technologies just enable their armchair advocates to live comfortable lives of genteel digital radicalism in the meantime, while our victims live miserable lives followed by gruesome deaths?

         Possibly such advocacy is self-serving. One should never underestimate the human capacity for self-deception. Yet biotechnology offers the most effective long-term global strategy for success in purging the world of cruelty and pain. Simple cost-considerations are likely to make genetically-engineered single-cell protein food cheaper and healthier (no pesticide-, hormonal- and antibiotic- residues etc). Money and morals fused together make a potent combination.

        Of course, most of us aren't genetic engineers. We can't grow mouthwatering steaks-in-vats ourselves, or synthesise drugs evoking the illicit tastes and textures of the depraved appetites of the past. So what can we do instead? Surely not just wait until some ill-defined (bio-)technological determinism sweeps the old regime aside. Organising systematic ideological warfare on behalf of our victims using the new electronic media is going to be vital. Sound-and-video-footage of the kind that simply wouldn't be allowed on traditional TV must be smuggled out from the factory-farms and death-factories. It must be disseminated over imminent Web-TV to the widest possible audience. Admittedly, the publication of such horror-footage will provide morbid titillation to corrupted minds; but it will upset most people. It may even shock some of them into action - or abstinence. For if one had to watch the life and death of the creature the remains of whose body was sitting on one's plate, then one almost certainly would be too revolted to eat it. After all, at present that piece of meat seems so innocuous. Bad things often do.

         Trying to counter the billions of dollars worth of propaganda currently pumping out the opposite message, namely the terrible myth that non-humans are merely objects to be used, produced and eaten, might seem an unequal struggle. It is. Yet puncturing the tissue of deceptions on which the reigning speciesist ideology rests is potentially feasible. It can be done if the tender-minded activists who most strongly oppose animal-abuse can conquer their visceral technophobia.

        One final plea can be entered here. It concerns the grey area where life-stylism gets converted into something more powerful than the force of a good example. It's important that meat-eating should start to become socially unacceptable. Only after this is it likely to be criminalised if practised on the corpses of once-sentient animals rather than on tasty, genetically-engineered vat-proteins.

        Is widespread social stigmatisation of eating dead animals really a serious prospect within the foreseeable future? Perhaps surprisingly, yes. Couched in the abstract, the infliction of needless suffering on other beings is acknowledged by most people to be morally wrong. We need merely to make the connection between what we're doing and the suffering our actions cause at several removes: supermarkets today are cunningly designed to evoke warmth and friendliness, not sinister graveyards. By way of context, over the past twenty years or so overt racism has become socially taboo within more and more parts of society. So have the more virulent forms of, say, sexism and homophobia. Violence against children, too, a habit universally recognised by child-abuse experts as the cause of potentially long-lasting psychological damage, is heading in the same direction; though likewise in practice there is a fearful way to go. One may predict - as well as advocate - that some time over the next few decades, a similar growth of stigmatisation will attach to eating traditional meat-products derived from "livestock". This is a process that has already halfheartedly begun in progressive circles. Even on a relatively timid extrapolation of this trend, our descendants may view meat-eating with the revulsion and incomprehension we reserve for cannibalism or genocide against humans; and in particular the Nazi Holocaust. So if there is any sense at all to the notion of moral progress, it would be useful to try and imagine why posterity might see us in such an ugly light. DeGrazia gives us some telling clues. Taking Animals Seriously is an admirable, original and important book. Yet in the end, DeGrazia is too much an ideological prisoner of the old DNA regime to contemplate its total wipeout.

        It would be nice to end on an uplifting note. Such uplift would also be misleading and facile. Right now as you read these words, mass-killings and systematic animal-abuse continue at unimaginable levels. We are quite literally paying its perpetrators to kill their victims on our behalf. A sense of guilt and horror, not complacency, is needed to stop us. At the very least, if one is looking for a postscript to the call to take animals seriously, then it might well be: "If you think it's murder, act like it."

E-mail Dave

Animal Rights FAQ
The End of Suffering?
The Taste of Depravity
The Slaughter of Animals for Food
Paradise Engineering and Games Theory
Critique of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

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