Tag Archives: animal rights

Animal Cruelty: Who is to Blame?

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

For many of us who are aware of the multitude of ways that animals suffer at the hands of humans around the world, this ubiquitous cruelty is the most pressing social justice issue of them all. From declawing to debeaking, ear clipping to tail docking, the suffering that human beings inflict on animals being used for food, clothing, research, ‘pets’ and entertainment appears to know no bounds, and the many brutal ways in which we force animals to succumb to our desires appear to be limited only by the scope of our imaginations.

But why does all this cruelty take place? And what can we do about this horrifying brutality as individuals? It’s easy to point the finger at the direct perpetrators of animal cruelty as being villains who need to be brought to justice. It’s much harder – and yet much more significant – to turn that critical eye inward and ask oneself, ‘What am I doing to contribute to this?’ But it is only by asking that question that the path toward emancipation from barbaric injustice becomes clear.

The vast majority of the time, money and effort of animal welfare organizations goes toward trying to develop new laws and regulations to address the many separate issues relating to animal cruelty, while at the same time trying to force the industry to adhere to those currently in place.  As explained in Are Anti-Cruelty Campaigns Really Effective?, these efforts consistently fail to create any significant improvement for animals.

Behind these campaigns lies a hidden assumption that the animal industry is responsible for animal cruelty. But is this assumption warranted? Isn’t industry simply a middle agent put in place to do the dirty deeds requested by consumers of animal products? Although it’s true that the animal industry is an eager and aggressive middle agent, its role is only that of middle agent. As such, while institutionalized exploiters certainly have a lot to answer for, it is consumers who are primarily responsible for animal cruelty through their purchases of animal products.

Many people will likely respond that their concern is not with the rights of animals not to be enslaved and killed, but with the excessive brutality in the animal industry; gratuitous violence for instance, and the cruelty that is inflicted on animals along the way to being slaughtered and butchered – debeaking,  dehorning, detoeing, mulesing, castration, tail docking, etc. But as long as our society continues to treat animals as property and economic commodities, our legal system will continue to accept such mutilations as a necessary evil on the way to providing goods and services to a human population largely indifferent to what is hidden behind remote sheds and slaughterhouses.

In any case, even if we did find some way to eliminate every single practice involving physical mutilation, it’s impossible to make slavery and murder anything other than slavery and murder. We can slap fancy labels on the products of animal misery and market them as ‘humanely-raised’, ‘animal compassionate’, ‘ethically-produced’ or ‘guilt-free’, but needless killing is needless killing, and no amount of regulation can change that.

It is understandable that individual stories of horrific suffering make people want to seek out the perpetrators, bring them to justice, and protect potential victims from experiencing the same treatment. But pointing the finger at institutional exploiters ignores the most significant issue – that no matter what the suppliers do along the way, consumption of animal products ultimately requires taking animals’ lives.

How can we expect morally decent behavior from the people we ask to carry out the task of breeding, confining and ultimately killing and butchering the animals we choose to enslave and eat? These are innocent beings who most people would rather caress and embrace than hurt and kill.

There is something very unjust about the fact that we delegate the most obscene work of our society to a select few who are emotionally hardened enough to carry it out, only to later denigrate them for their disconnection from their natural sense of empathy. When thinking about it honestly, most of us would be hard-pressed to find it in ourselves to slaughter an animal – or to rip off her skin, or slice open her body to remove the entrails, or butcher her flesh into supermarket-sized pieces… And yet, we continue to ask others to do it for us, while most people refuse to even watch these things on video or hear others describe them.

But our distaste toward being involved in such violent acts isn’t something that should be squelched and suppressed, as Michael Pollan or Julie Powell would have us believe. No – we should be grateful for the revulsion we feel when we imagine what happens to animals in between being born and being on our plates. Our horror is a sane reaction to practices that are nothing short of horrifying.

We cannot separate ourselves from depravity simply because we have found a way to tuck the dirty deeds out of sight – behind the walls of slaughterhouses and other obscure buildings. And all the disconnection and indifference in the world cannot change the fact that it is impossible to distinguish the immorality of a Pollan-style DIY approach from the immorality of any other act of unnecessary violence.

In any court of law, those who are complicit in a crime are considered to be responsible along with those who carry it out.

As expressed so eloquently by Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

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Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals

Blind Tradition: The Historical Moral Status of So-Called “Brutes”

From pre-history until the 20th century, it was believed by almost everyone that humans needed to use and eat animals to thrive and even to survive. This was especially true prior to the 19th century; and philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant had grossly distorted visions of the nature of nonhuman animals which fit well with the idea that God “put” animals in our world for our use, and that we had no moral obligations to animals whatsoever. Descartes viewed animals as insentient automata or “God’s machines”. For Descartes, one of the founders of modern vivisection, the intense squeals of dogs being beaten or tortured were merely the sounds of a broken machine, not cries of extreme pain. John Locke viewed animals as natural resources, like land and trees, which we may acquire as property and have “natural rights” to that property. For Immanuel Kant, animals were literally “things”: “…Beings whose existence depends…on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things.” (Kant, 1785) The old, traditional distorted view of animals is still in our language today as most of us refer to an animal as “it” even when we know the sex of an individual animal and therefore his or her proper gender.

Given the prevailing view and circumstances of the 17th and 18th centuries that animals needed to be raised, used, and killed for basic human needs, is not surprising that thoughtful philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant sought to avoid thinking and writing seriously about the similarities between humans and nonhumans and how those similarities might have serious moral implications. Instead, to protect the perceived need of animal use, they emphasized a morally irrelevant difference between nonhumans and most, but certainly not all humans: rationality. Another, more intellectually honest approach would have been for these thinkers to admit that there were morally relevant similarities, and that these imposed a direct duty to animals to reduce suffering as much as possible, but that ultimately, moral consideration would have to yield to the perceived survival needs of humans. But we have to remember that these were times when women did not count as full persons, and humans owned other humans as chattel property and were often as cruel to human slaves as to nonhuman slaves. We can see how even careful thinkers as Locke and Kant may have been lost in the fog of their culture’s deeply-held prejudices.

“Food” Animals and Human Brutes

The torture endured by farmed animals from birth to slaughter in our industrialized and mechanized processing systems is unimaginably horrible, and there is no significant difference between free-range, cage-free, and “certified humane” versus the traditional industrial methods, despite the misleading claims of large welfare organizations (incorrectly referred to by the media and themselves as “animal rights” organizations). If you are born a chicken in the most “humane” environment, the best thing that might happen to you is that you are gassed or tossed alive into a wood-chipper as a baby chick, so you don’t have to experience a life of hell as a cage-free or “certified humane” egg chicken (a “layer”) or flesh chicken (a “broiler”). Make no mistake; both the old methods and the new, so-called “humane” methods rely on intensive confinement with filthy conditions, diseases, no individual attention, and no veterinary care to speak of. One thing is obvious: It is literally impossible to raise and slaughter hundreds of thousands, millions, or billions of nonhumans without industrial methods. What is less obvious, but nevertheless true, is that “humane” labels are little more than a marketing ploy to ease the growing public sensitivity to the (unavoidable) reality of animal agriculture’s cruelty. Further, transportation and slaughter itself is extremely cruel, with slaughterhouse workers intentionally torturing animals, especially chickens, and animals often inadvertently being boiled or ripped apart alive (such cruelty is common knowledge among welfare advocates and has been documented in the Washington Post [‘They die piece by piece’] and in various films and documentaries of slaughterhouse conditions). When we do these things to a dog or cat, we are charged with a felony; when we do these while marketing unnecessary food preferences, we get paid a wage for it. Even if it were possible (and it’s not possible) to heavily police transportation and slaughter so that the cruelty was significantly reduced, it is still wrong to treat sentient beings with a crucial interest in their life and its quality as a means to an end. We need not wonder who the brutes are; a mirror will tell us.

Animal agriculture, on its modern scale of production, is an environmental disaster, with “cattle” and hog waste polluting groundwater, rivers, and streams and killing millions of fish throughout the country; and flatulence contributing significant quantities of carbon and other pollutants into the air. “Food” animals, particularly “cattle” and pigs, are reverse protein factories, consuming up to 10 times more protein in their short lives than they provide after they are slaughtered for food. A vast majority of the land used for growing plant food is to feed animals who will use up to 90% of that protein in their daily living, returning relatively very little after slaughter. The only way to achieve more pollution and greater inefficiency in food production is to breed and raise more nonhumans for food.

The Solution to Animal Agriculture

Now, early in the 21st century, more and more mainstream dieticians and health professionals are telling us that balanced vegan diets are optimal for our health. (For information about vegan nutrition, see the link on this blog.) There are now vegan alternatives to most animal-based ingredients and expanded vegan options, making gourmet vegan entrees and desserts as delightful to the palate as non-vegan versions ever were, and much healthier too (see the vegan menus links in this blog). Dieticians are also telling us that traditional animal-based diets, especially in the quantities we consume them, are literally killing us with heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, strokes, and cancer. For clothing, there are now synthetic materials, such as nylon, synthetic fleece, faux “leather”, faux “suede”, and faux “fur”, which easily replace, and are better than, the animal alternatives. The solution is to go vegan.

Animal Experimentation: Archaic, Brutal, and Dangerous

The things we do to sentient nonhumans in labs, 90% of the time for trivial reasons and never for crucial reasons, are beyond savage. Again, if we are unspeakably cruel to a dog or cat in the street, we get hit with felony cruelty charges (as we should); if we do the same thing in a lab under a thin veneer of respectability backed up by the law (laws heavily influenced politically by the vivisection industry), however, we get paid a wage.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of well-researched literature showing that modern alternatives to animal testing and training on animals, such as computer modeling and simulation, human tissue research, clinical observation and research, epidemiology, pathology, genetics, prevention, autopsies, and post-marketing drug surveillance are making animal testing archaic, obsolete, and even dangerous to humans. Indeed, it is blind tradition, powerful business interests, and wealthy lobbying which supports a vast majority of current animal research. Jean Swingle Greek, DMV, and C.Ray Greek, MD, have contributed volumes of valuable research, ranging from non-technical research appealing to the lay reader to highly technical research appealing to scientists and health professionals on the lack of need for animal use in modern medicine. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is also playing a valuable role in educating scientists and health professionals about responsible alternatives to animal testing.

Moral Reflection and Conclusions: The Personhood of Animals

We are clearly no longer in need of any animal use which would preserve the meaning of the word “need”, and in fact, if there is a need, it is a need to avoid animal use for our health and environmental sustainability. This has profound implications for our behavior toward nonhumans. Nonhumans have always had morally crucial and important interests in not being intentionally harmed or killed. The psychological and emotional interests of sentient nonhumans are too similar to and overlapping with our own to continue to ignore those interests, especially at a time when ignoring those interests is so unnecessary and destructive in so many ways. Rationality is a nice tool to use for good or evil, but it has no moral relevance when it comes to crucial basic interests such as the avoidance of serious physical or psychological harm or death. It is arbitrary to look to rationality as defining moral or legal personhood. Also, to do so is to necessarily exclude many humans from personhood, such as infants, the senile, and the mentally disabled or mentally ill. Sentience, the ability to have experiences (including pleasure and pain), is certainly sufficient for moral and legal personhood, and any being who has sentience to the high degree that cows, pigs, chickens, geese, deer, goats, sheep, elk, marine mammals, and many fish do, clearly has crucial interests and profound corresponding moral claims on our behavior. There may well be other criteria which would also suffice for personhood, such as the likely future acquisition of sentience. Such a criterion as a high probability for future sentience would be appropriate for considering the moral and legal personhood of comatose normal human adults and fetuses. Criteria other than sentience for moral and legal personhood, however, are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that sentience itself is sufficient.

It has been clear empirically, even from the 18th century, that there is no non-arbitrary way to distinguish morally relevant characteristics of humans from nonhumans. In other words, there is no morally relevant characteristic which all humans and only humans have which would give humans special moral consideration. As such, attempts to distinguish between humans and nonhumans on species membership alone, without some morally relevant characteristic that all and only humans have, is plainly arbitrary, and therefore, is plainly speciesist. Such speciesism is every bit as morally unacceptable as racism and sexism. There may have been a weak excuse for such speciesism back in Locke and Kant’s day, considering the perceived need to use animals and the cultural racism and sexism of the time (all of which itself was wrong, even then), but with the knowledge and alternatives available today, there are no more excuses, not even half-baked excuses. A speciesist is a racist is a sexist: it is all the same moral wrong. If we do not consider ourselves racist or sexist, and if we are to avoid hypocrisy and maintain consistency, we must eliminate our speciesism by going vegan.

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The Importance of Being Vegan

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World – a non-profit educational organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making the transition.
This article was originally published July 8, 2011 on Care2.


“If a man earnestly seeks a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from animal food.”
– Leo Tolstoy

Intellectually, most of us agree that inflicting unnecessary harm is unjustified – whether the victims are human or not. Yet somehow, most of the same people who subscribe to this belief are willing to turn a blind eye to such harm when they themselves receive some kind of advantage from it – whether the benefits are in the form of food, possessions, vanity, or amusement.

Sadly, because widespread violence against animals in the form of ‘agriculture’, ‘research’ and even ‘entertainment’, is sanctioned by mainstream society and its legal systems, the majority of people tend to be unwilling to see this brutality for what it is, and to step outside of the pervasive conditioning that makes such atrocities possible.

It’s true that more and more people are beginning to speak out about the many abhorrent abuses that occur within the animal industry, and the movement to ‘improve conditions’ for these animals continues to gain popularity. And yet, each one of the awful practices that animal advocates protest passionately against – intensive confinement, enforced insemination, separation of mother and child, castration, de-horning, tail docking, de-beaking, mulesing, de-toeing, live scalding, force molting – all of these horrific procedures, and many more, exist because an ever-growing number of human consumers continue to create demand for animal products. To an industry that views sentient beings as economic units – money-making machines – it is unavoidable that such violence will be viewed as an acceptable means to the end of delivering products that turn a profit.

In any case, even if every one of the aforementioned practices were abolished, it would still be immoral and inexcusable to use other sentient beings as resources. In today’s world, vegan alternatives are available for every single significant purpose for which we currently use animals*. Increasing numbers of people are embracing veganism as the solution to the problems we experience as individuals and as a society – from our many health crises, to our environmental emergency, to the issue of escalating violence – all of which have us living in some degree of fear for the future.

*NB: Although animal products are used in certain items for which there currently are no consumer alternatives – such as computers and car tires – there are alternatives that could easily be used in their manufacturing.

As this movement for animal emancipation grows in size and strength, a powerful example is being set by the individuals who refuse to take any part in the brutal oppression of innocents that we call ‘the animal industry’. Men and women all over the globe –simply by living as vegans – are demonstrating that there is no moral justification for the harm we inflict on animals.

Some people might attempt to justify consumption of animal products for reasons of health. And yet, an increasing number of medical professionals are beginning to realize that not only are plant-based diets nutritionally complete, but they are actually more nourishing and far less toxic than their animal-based counterparts. In addition, the public is beginning to realize that many of the major dangers associated with diet – heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and many, many more – are exacerbated by the consumption of animal products, and can actually be avoided by adopting a vegan diet.

According to the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, the American Dietetic Association (“the ADA”):

“…Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases… Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”

In other words, the official position of the – very mainstream – ADA is that including animal products in one’s diet is not only unnecessary, but can actually be harmful to our health.

What about our other uses of animals? Leather, wool, silk, down, fur, toiletries, cosmetics, entertainment, sport, the vast majority of our experimentation – all of these are also clearly unnecessary under any coherent concept of the word “necessary”, as there are vegan alternatives available for them all.

Veganism is not a fringe philosophy – it is a moral baseline that is consistent with beliefs that most of us already hold. Veganism is a simple matter of refraining from participating in unnecessary and harmful use of sentient beings. As most people are naturally opposed to unnecessary violence, becoming and staying vegan is not a matter of changing any of our basic moral beliefs. It simply requires us to be willing to change the habits we have developed that prevent us from living according to our principles.

Every one of us has been conditioned by the propaganda of a highly speciesist society – a worldwide culture that is extremely prejudiced against the interests of those animals who did not have the good fortune to be born onto this planet in human form. And yet, every one of us has the power to break free from this indoctrination. Becoming vegan is simply recognizing and admitting who we really are – it is the opportunity to become who we would be if no one had ever taught us that it’s okay to turn our backs on the needs and rights of our fellow animals, that it’s okay to ignore their pain if it leads to our pleasure.

Is veganism a sacrifice? Not at all. On the contrary, it is every non-vegan choice that sacrifices our own inherent goodness. Once you make the decision to live consistently with your values, the rewards – in the form of a healthier body, clearer mind, and more peaceful conscience – will be both profoundly apparent and a source of continuing joy.

But even if veganism does require us to give up some of our favorite foods, beloved items of clothing, and cherished habits, does that question really matter? The institution of slavery and the treatment of sentient beings as ‘things’ – whether human or nonhuman – are inherently and gravely unjust.  The changes that veganism requires of us, and the rewards that veganism brings, are irrelevant to the true moral question:

Is the taste of a particular food, or the way you feel in your favorite pair of shoes or your winter coat, more important than the life and freedom of another living, feeling being?

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On Cruelty Videos

At least a few times every year, an animal welfare organization sponsors an undercover investigation and generates a “cruelty video” showing the torture that various innocent nonhumans endure in slaughterhouses, feeding operations, laboratories, rodeos, zoos, circuses, or various other locations of animal use. I covered a classic case of an undercover investigation and the resulting video in a blog post entitled, PETA’s Undercover Investigations: Another Example of the Welfarist Business Cycle.As I noted in the blog post on PETA’s investigation, undercover investigations (and the related cruelty videos) don’t seem problematic from an animal rights point of view. After all, human rights organizations routinely investigate, report, and promote videos depicting severe human suffering to bring the public’s attention to a problem and garner political support to end such abuses. However, when human rights organizations depict cruelty toward humans, they are sending an unequivocal message that the rights violations – slavery, exploitation, and killing – are wrong and should end. In contrast, animal welfare organizations (PETA, HSUS, et al) object only to how the slavery, exploitation, and killing are carried out. They do not object to the unnecessary slavery, exploitation, and killing, per se. The animal welfare organization’s call to action is for the viewer to send a donation to the organization and usually a letter to an industry executive or governmental official either to enforce existing regulations or to adopt new regulations or methods.

In contrast to an animal welfare organization (e.g. PETA, HSUS, Mercy for Animals, et al), an animal rights organization might show the video; but if it did, the message would be first, that all institutions of animal use are unnecessary and harmful, and therefore wrong and should end; second, that the viewer should therefore go vegan as a minimum standard of decency; third, how to go vegan by providing information on vegan recipes and nutrition (perhaps in the form of Internet links to various sources of information); and fourth, perhaps consider a donation to help our work in providing vegan education to the public.

Cruelty videos are considered essential for animal welfare advocacy because it is the treatment, not the unnecessary use, to which welfare organizations take exception. Cruelty videos are nonessential, and possibly even detrimental, for an animal rights organization because it is the unnecessary use alone to which the animal rights organization takes exception. The reason that cruelty videos can be detrimental to an animal rights organization’s mission is that such videos inherently focus on treatment, not use, even though the cruel treatment is an inevitable symptom of the disease of use. By focusing on treatment, such videos do not suggest that use ought to end, but that use ought to be regulated.

Given that cruelty videos focus on treatment instead of use, a question arises as to whether it is ever appropriate for an animal rights organization or advocate to use cruelty videos in vegan education. On one hand, Professor Gary Francione provides good reasons to consistently avoid cruelty videos in vegan education. On the other hand, there have been many people who have become vegans as a result of the emotional impact that such videos can deliver. Some of these vegans have later gone on to become abolitionist vegans after hearing or reading the overwhelmingly strong evidence and cogent arguments supporting the abolitionist approach.

Is the emotional impact of cruelty videos strong and effective enough to justify occasionally showing or linking to them, despite the confusion that may arise by the focus of such videos on treatment rather than use, and other good reasons to avoid them set forth by Professor Francione? The best answer appears to depend on the circumstances.

Since cruelty videos are essential to animal welfare organizations and provide big fundraising opportunities, animal welfare organizations will continue to generate these videos and the big news stories that usually accompany the initial publication of the videos. At times when these videos are in mainstream news, abolitionist vegan advocates should at least have a response to the videos that includes, but goes beyond, the legitimate complaint that they focus on treatment, not use. A more effective response would be that all commercial use is cruel, and that virtually all cruelty and use, illegal and legal, is unnecessary, and therefore gratuitous.

There is no meaningful difference between the legal use and cruelty that is required to process animal commodity units efficiently versus the illegal so-called “gratuitous cruelty” that is not required to process animal commodity units efficiently. As Professor Francione has correctly stated, 99.999% of our uses of nonhumans are for pleasure, amusement, or convenience. None of those uses are necessary in any coherent sense of that word. Therefore, whether the pleasure and/or amusement is that of the non-vegan’s preference for animal products or the slaughterhouse worker’s preference for a diversion from the boredom and frustration of processing sentient commodity units, it is all gratuitous, and the “legal cruelty” is often far more severe than the “illegal cruelty.” The difference between legal and illegal treatment is whether or not the cruelty results in efficient processing. The severity of the cruelty is irrelevant in the eyes of the law, and always will be irrelevant as long as nonhumans are legal property. [1] And as long as people are not vegan, nonhumans will always be legal property.

Aside from responding to such videos by explaining that all use and cruelty is unnecessary and should be abolished, not regulated, abolitionist vegan advocates should be careful about sharing or promoting such videos while they are headline news. If the videos are shown at all by abolitionists while the videos are headline news, the abolitionist message should be front and center: that use must be abolished, not regulated; that people must go vegan to end the torture and unjustified use, not choose animal products with a vacuous feel-good label. These videos are already getting plenty of viewing attention; the problem is that the associated message is predominately for enforcement, more regulation or more efficient methods, not a call for veganism and abolition.

During quieter times when such videos are not in the news, they might be effective for emotional impact. If the video has an explicit regulationist message, such a message may override any benefit derived from emotional impact, despite an advocate providing a contrary abolitionist message, and the video should therefore be avoided. If the video has no explicit welfarist message, and a strong abolitionist message is presented both before and after the video, the video’s treatment focus may be overcome sufficiently to justify the option of its presentation for the purpose of emotional impact.

Finally, cruelty videos are always, at best, optional tools for abolitionist vegan advocates to generate an emotional impact. The abolitionist message does not depend in any way on how animals are treated; only that they are used, and that all of our uses are for unnecessary pleasure, amusement, or entertainment. When in doubt, it is best to avoid such videos.

[1] Professor Gary Francione provides overwhelmingly strong evidence in case law and legal theory that anticruelty laws are based solely on maximizing the efficiency of animal exploitation and have nothing to do, in any practical sense whatsoever, with the type or severity of the cruelty or maltreatment. Moreover, since humans have respect-based legal property rights of which the object of that right protection is nonhuman animals (who have no rights), the most trivial of human interests will always trump the most crucial of nonhuman animals’ interests. Our legal system strongly resists punishing rightholders in the least for violating even the most crucial of interests of their property. Consider reading 1) Animals, Property, and the Law; 2) Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement; and 3) Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog, all by distinguished law professor and philosopher Gary L. Francione for detailed analyses and numerous case law studies supporting these claims. (Note: There are links in the side bar to Amazon.com for Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement and Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog.)

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PETA’s Undercover Investigations: Another Example of the Welfarist Business Cycle

During the day or two after I published PETA: A Corporate Tangle of Contradictions, I had a friendly email exchange with a reader who wrote that she was reconsidering her support of PETA as a result of the blog entry, but that there was still a lot she liked about PETA. She mentioned specifically that she liked PETA’s undercover investigations, and that the recent Land-o-Lakes investigation was one that stood out as an example.Removed from the context of PETA’s welfarist philosophy, undercover investigations don’t seem problematic from an animal rights viewpoint. After all, human rights organizations routinely investigate, report, and display human rights violations to bring the public’s attention to the problem and garner political support to end such abuses. As such, it’s understandable why someone who objects to many of PETA’s activities might see undercover investigations as an exception – as an activity in which an animal rights organization would naturally engage.

Placed back into the context of PETA’s welfarism, however, we see that their undercover investigations are more of the same single-issue and welfare campaigns dressed up in a heroic gown. Whereas a human rights organization would unequivocally claim that rights violations – slavery, exploitation, and killing – are wrong and should end, PETA merely wants the target exploiter to observe traditional welfare standards while rights violations continue.

Undercover investigations are just another example of PETA’s role in the industry-welfarist partnership as both strategic advisor on quality control and traditional welfare cop. An analogy in capital markets is the independent auditor reporting on the financial statements of publicly-held corporations. The auditor isn’t looking to end the financial reporting or the client’s business, but to make sure it complies with existing financial reporting standards. Auditing welfare conditions and financial reporting are both lucrative businesses. PETA doesn’t oppose industry’s exploitation per se; they just want industry to exploit and kill according to generally accepted exploiting standards and to receive their compensation from consumer-donors for their work as industry’s quality control auditors.

Using the Land-o-Lakes investigation as an example, we see that PETA’s blog report on the investigation emphasizes how important it is for Land-o-Lakes to “buy milk only from farms that meet our 12-point animal welfare plan, which would prevent much of the suffering we documented at this farm.” PETA’s 12-point animal welfare plan reads like an industry consultant’s quality control recommendations and refers to industry’s own standards and literature (e.g. Elanco Body Scoring Chart for Dairy Cattle and the American Veterinary Medical Association’s AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia). [1]

Does PETA suggest that people go vegan? No. The blog report states “For those of you who can’t stomach the thought of eating butter after watching that video, take a minute to tell Land-o-Lakes to implement our 12-point animal welfare plan. Then check out one of the many vegan butter alternatives that are widely available.”

What should the reader infer from PETA’s blog report on the investigation? I suppose it depends on how well the reader can “stomach the video”. What’s right or wrong for PETA depends on the reader’s visceral feelings about welfare violations in the video, not on any concept of justice or rights. Apparently for PETA, what’s right or wrong is merely a matter of our individual emotions or ability to stomach welfare violations. Further, as long as Land-o-Lakes eventually implements PETA’s welfare plan, we can infer from PETA that we should go back to eating butter at that time. PETA’s concern is not with rights violations (i.e. the enslavement, exploitation, and murder of these innocent beings), but with traditional welfare violations (i.e. treating the cows in ways that are not optimally efficient for exploiting them).

Undercover investigations should function in an animal rights movement the same way they do in a human rights movement: to bring attention to the issue and continue a dialogue about ending rights violations. In other words, undercover investigations should function solely as a catalyst for vegan education. Outside of that particular context, they are worse than useless. In supporting PETA’s attempts at improving quality control over exploitation and killing through undercover investigations, donors ultimately support industry.


[1] Some readers may not be aware that animal agribusiness, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Veterinary Medical Association Political Action Committee (AVMAPAC) all strongly support each other politically and economically. The AVMAPAC is in a close partnership with industry’s political and economic interests as brief research on AVMAPAC’s legislative positions make clear.

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PETA: A Corporate Tangle of Contradictions

In the media and the minds of most people, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”) is the corporate embodiment of “animal rights”. In some respects, this common belief in the connection between “animal rights” and PETA is understandable. Browse PETA’s website or literature and you’ll frequently see the terms “animal rights” and “vegan” mentioned favorably, as well as their motto, “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment”. Indeed, PETA wants to be thought of as the largest and best-known “animal rights” organization in the world, and they have the resources, relative to other individuals and organizations involved in animal advocacy (approximately $34 million in annual revenues) to keep that impression strong in public discourse and the media.Despite the “animal rights” public image PETA intentionally promotes, however, their underlying philosophy and activities, by and large, are decidedly welfarist and substantially contradict any coherent notion of animal rights.

PETA’s Self-Contradictory Philosophy of Animal Ethics
PETA is notorious for calling the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer “the father of the animal rights movement” as well as calling Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, the “bible of animal rights”. Ironically, however, Singer is an act-utilitarian who explicitly rejects rights for anyone, human or nonhuman. In contradiction to PETA’s motto, Singer believes that animals are ours to eat, wear, and experiment on (1, 2, 3). According to Singer, as long as we raise and kill them “humanely”, or as painlessly as reasonably possible, there is nothing wrong with using animals for our purposes. In other words, for Singer, following the 18th century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham who founded the animal welfare movement 200 years ago, the issue is treatment, not use.

So, according to PETA, we have an “animal rights” philosopher who “fathered” the animal rights movement and wrote its “bible”, but in bold contradiction, would agree with Jeremy Bentham that rights (for anyone, including humans) are “nonsense upon stilts”.

Why does PETA, whose motto claims that animals are not ours, and presents itself as an “animal rights” organization, promote a philosopher who rejects animal rights and strongly believes that it is morally permissible to exploit animals? This is the core contradiction that lays the foundation for most of the other contradictions that we will explore in this essay.

PETA’s Self-Contradictory Activities

Like a serious error made early in a long math problem, PETA’s philosophical self-contradiction carries through to most of the activities in which they engage, rendering those activities confusing and misleading at best, and at worst, antithetical and regressive to animal rights. If our philosophy – our blueprint and foundation for carrying out our activities – is seriously flawed, then no matter how well we execute that philosophy, it will lead us down the wrong trail and end in botched and bungled results. What follows is a list of activities regularly carried on by PETA – welfare campaigns, sexism, embarrassing publicity stunts, a self-interested business model, and worst of all, unjustified killing – that boldly contradict the philosophy of animal rights and its foundations of justice, nonviolence, good judgment, and equal consideration of others based on morally relevant criteria.

PETA’s Welfare Campaigns Contradict Animal Rights

PETA allocates a substantial portion of their money, time, and effort to high-profile campaigns that attempt to reform and regulate the methods and practices of the animal exploitation industry. This helps to reinforce the speciesist paradigm in two significant ways: 1) By adding additional layers of rules and regulations and additional “inspector” jobs, it strengthens the legislative, economic, and bureaucratic system that supports animal slavery; and 2) Through the marketing of these reforms and regulations, people feel better about contributing to the rape, torture, and murder [1] of tens of billions of innocent beings annually, which in turn increases industry’s profits.

These welfare campaigns are consistent with Peter Singer’s speciesist [2] utilitarian philosophy, but contradict any meaningful concept of animal rights. It is useless to talk about what “rights” someone may have if they do not have a basic right not to be intentionally killed or seriously harmed for the preferences of others. For example, consider how we would assess a human rights organization running campaigns for regulations prohibiting certain methods of slavery, rape, torture, and murder, instead of campaigning consistently and unequivocally for the end of these practices. The vast majority of us would oppose such a human “rights” organization that lacks ambition to the point of implicitly condoning such activities, regardless of their superficial mottos and platitudes about “rights”. The only thing stopping us from opposing PETA for the same reasons is our speciesism.

PETA’s Killing Policy Contradicts Animal Rights

Sadly, there are thousands of cases annually in our extremely speciesist society where dogs and cats are found in a condition so painful, deplorable, and irreversible that the only appropriate course of action is euthanasia. If I’m ever in a terminal state of severe pain or coma, I hereby express my immense gratitude in advance to those who will end my life quickly and painlessly. In such cases where life no longer holds inherent value due to the permanent changes in its nature (i.e. terminal severe pain or coma), PETA does and should euthanize animals.

But PETA goes beyond merely euthanizing terminally ill or unadoptable animals. In another contradiction of animal rights, PETA kills healthy, adoptable dogs and cats who are classified as “unwanted”. PETA also opposes no-kill shelters. Of course, both of these policies are consistent with Peter Singer’s welfarist (and speciesist) view that dogs and cats have no interest in continued existence; only an interest in not suffering. But these policies are not consistent with the animal rights view that sentient nonhumans have an important interest both in continued existence and in not suffering. When these two interests strongly oppose each other, we may have a difficult decision to make, but being “unwanted” is not the same as enduring terminal suffering or a permanent coma. When PETA kills a healthy, adoptable dog or cat who they deem “unwanted”, it is a decision based on anthropocentric utilitarian preferences, not animal rights. [3]

Again, the vast majority of us would strongly oppose a human rights organization condoning and even engaging in the mass killing of human refugees; and attempting to justify such actions by pointing to the problem of overpopulation and the potential suffering of the refugees if we don’t kill them. It is speciesism that prohibits people, including many animal advocates, from recognizing the injustice in this act.

PETA’s Sexism Indirectly Reinforces Speciesism

Speciesism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism are all bigotries rooted in the same underlying confusion that ignores morally relevant characteristics, like sentience or interest, in favor of morally irrelevant characteristics, like species or race, in providing equal consideration to others. And yet so many people are strong, passionate advocates trying to eliminate one or more of these prejudices while ironically scoffing at another. It is common to see feminists, LGBT activists, and civil rights advocates ridicule concern over speciesism while blithely ignoring the underlying implications of their dismissal. Many condemn the bigotry of others, but cannot see their own.

The same goes in the other direction for PETA and their sexism. If PETA is exploiting women in fur and flesh campaigns, reinforcing the current societal paradigm which sees women as objects and their bodies as commodities, why should anyone take seriously what such a hypocritical organization has to say about speciesism? Advocates of social justice issues render their own cause trivial when they trivialize the causes of others.

PETA’s Publicity Stunts Trivialize a Grave Injustice

When we look at successful social justice movements of the past – 19th century abolition of slavery, the suffragists, and the civil rights movement – we see that their leaders were people of strong, serious, and noble character. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks were not the kind of people who would have engaged in silly or embarrassing publicity stunts to grab the attention of the media of their time. When they received attention from the public, it was because of the moral power of their message and words, not because they “got naked” or engaged in shock humor or other stunts that trivialized the injustices they were fighting against.

In contrast, PETA is best-known for its obnoxious and often sexist publicity stunts and gaudy self-promotion, appealing to the lower aspects of human attitudes and behavior. Sadly, PETA cannot even attempt to speak with moral authority because it would so blatantly contradict their attitudes and actions as manifested in “Save the Whales” billboards that make fun of female obesity, banned television advertisements, and sexist campaigns like “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur”.

PETA Is a Business

PETA’s self-contradictions can be traced to two primary factors: 1) their contradictory blend of traditional utilitarian-welfarist philosophy (animal are ours…) with a façade of rights-sounding rhetoric (“animals are not ours..”) and 2) that PETA is, among other things, a corporation existing as a legal person, but with none of the potential conscience of a human moral agent.

PETA’s business cycle starts with single-issue and welfare campaigns against targets selected as low hanging fruit – practices that industry would not mind changing even if only for public relations reasons, but often for profitability reasons as well. PETA then sends out the urgent call to donors: “HELP! Donate as much as you can or we might not win this victory!” Donors – most of whom are not vegan, and are therefore contributing to the very problems to which they donate money to “resolve” – respond by opening their checkbooks and filling PETA’s coffers. After several weeks or months of campaigning, the target exploiter “gives in” to PETA’s campaign. PETA immediately declares “VICTORY!” to their donors and, usually as part of the deal with the target exploiter, PETA promotes the exploiter in a public relations campaign, as they did for KFC Canada.

The result of the business cycle is that PETA wins donations and reinforces their reputation as the “watchdog” over industry, enabling them to perpetuate the cycle indefinitely. Non-vegan donors win a “victory” and a false sense that they are doing something to offset their own personal contribution to the hell that their innocent victims endure. The animal exploiters win by increased misguided public confidence that these products are “humane” and by obtaining the public relations support of a (so-called) animal “rights” organization. The losers, of course, are the innocent beings who are exploited and killed for the trivial pleasures of those who see them as commodities.

Further, since there are so many ways in which we exploit and inflict cruelty on sentient nonhumans, and since industry is so resilient to the temporary and superficial changes brought about by the so-called “victories”, the opportunities for the welfare-campaign-donation business cycle can easily last indefinitely, or for as long as industry itself lasts.

PETA’s Opportunity Cost

PETA’s contradictions in philosophy, rhetoric, and activities – which have led to profound public confusion and fortification of the utilitarian-welfarist status quo that has been in existence since Jeremy Bentham – have been a barrier to progress in advancing animal rights, and will continue to be a barrier as long as they continue as an animal welfare organization.

However, PETA as a barrier to animal rights is only one part of the cost to any viable abolition movement. The other part is the opportunity cost incurred by PETA. We should ask not only how PETA could remove itself as a barrier, but how much more PETA could do by being consistent with animal rights philosophy in their public education. What if PETA dropped the garbage – the single-issue campaigns, the welfare campaigns, the sexism – and engaged solely in creative, nonviolent vegan education? When we add the opportunity cost to the barrier cost, the total cost to progress in animal rights is enormous and tragic.

Vegans Against PETA

Is it any wonder why vegans who are serious about animal rights and the eventual decline, fall, and abolition of industrial animal exploitation and killing are against PETA? In Abolition versus Welfarism: A Contrast in Theory and Practice, I explained industry’s strengths and weaknesses and explained how welfarism caters to industry’s strengths, while the abolitionist approach attacks industry’s weaknesses. PETA’s welfarism, sexism, and trivializing publicity stunts all play to industry’s strengths. Only a strong and consistent message that we are not morally justified in exploiting sentient nonhumans and that veganism is a minimum standard of decency will shift the paradigm and result in the eventual abolition of industrial exploitation and cruelty. Large, corporate organizations like PETA are the last groups we need to make this progress. Only a strong, grassroots, abolitionist animal rights movement will succeed.

Further Reading

The topic of new welfarism in general and PETA in particular is too broad to tackle with adequate depth in a blog essay. As such, I highly recommend reading Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement by Professor Gary Francione for a far more comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the problems with new welfarism and PETA. In addition, the links above offer additional information and perspective on the topic of new welfarism generally.


[1] By “murder”, I mean unnecessary, intentional killing. At least 99% of the intentional killing of animals in our society is unnecessary, in any meaningful sense of that word, and qualifies as murder if any act does.

[2] Although Peter Singer talks a lot about avoiding speciesism (and implicitly denies that he is a speciesist), his assumption that sentient nonhumans have no interest in their continued existence is itself plainly speciesist. We do not need on-going “projects” in our life, as Singer believes we must, to have a strong and important interest in continued existence. All sentient beings struggle for existence, and it doesn’t take an expert in ethology to confirm it. This struggle for existence makes the interest in continued existence obvious. To deny it in nonhumans, or to define “an interest in continued existence” to the exclusion of this struggle, is speciesism.

[3] An in-depth analysis of the dog and cat population and guardian management issue is beyond the scope of this essay, so I’ll only say that the underlying disease is the institution of “pet” ownership and its resultant breeding and lack of spaying and neutering that is responsible for the myriad of problems leading to enormous suffering and intentional killing of millions of dogs and cats annually. If PETA ever decides to take a rights-based approach to this issue, they’ll assist no-kill shelters; increase their contributions to TNR programs; and educate the general public about why the institution of “pet” ownership is immoral. All breeding is irresponsible; and spaying and neutering is essential for all existing dogs and cats.

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Cultural Prejudice, Sentience, Rationality, and Basic Rights

In the essay Sentience: The Morally Relevant Characteristic Justifying Basic Rights, I explained the moral relevance of sentience in justifying a basic right to physical security; that is, a basic right not to be tortured, killed, or caused serious physical or psychological harm. While I believe I was sufficiently clear in articulating the relevance of sentience, the essay was somewhat abstract and theoretical and most of us remember points better if a concrete example is provided. This essay will provide a concrete example of why sentience, rather than rationality or any other criterion, is the morally relevant criterion for the right not to be exploited, tortured, or intentionally killed.
An Example of Two Children [1]

Suppose we have two equally sentient 10 year-old children, Child A and Child B. Child A is a math prodigy and is already starting on university-level mathematics and advanced formal logic. She is the epitome of rationality. Child B, by contrast, has trouble with the most basic arithmetic, cannot read despite his efforts and the efforts of his parents and teachers. He also has emotional problems. He may have a slight degree of rationality, but it is negligible.The two children are out walking together in their neighborhood and are abducted by a dangerous psychopath. The psychopath takes them to a remote cabin and proceeds to torture and kill them, thus violating their basic moral right to physical security.Basic Rights Based on RationalityAccording to the theory that rationality is the relevant criterion for basic rights, it is Child A who has a much greater interest in not being tortured and killed because Child A is highly rational. Under this way of thinking, it doesn’t matter very much if Child B is tortured and killed, because although he is equally sentient and his life is important to him, he is not very rational. So under the “rationality justification”, we ought to be morally-at-ease with the psychopath torturing and killing quasi-rational Child B, or at least it would not be nearly as morally wrong as torturing the highly rational Child A, which would be a grave wrong due to her impressive abilities in analytic geometry and modern logic. Make sense? Anti-animal-rights advocates who (misguidedly) base rights on the possession of rationality are forced to say it does make sense to deny that Child B has any basic rights.

Basic Rights Based on Claims or Power

(The “rights theory” of claiming or fighting for rights criticized in this paragraph is not worth considering other than to ridicule it, but since some of the more obtuse, but presumably armed-to-the-teeth, anti-animal-rights advocates bring it up on occasion, I’ll mention it here. If you’re of average intelligence and you skip this paragraph, you won’t miss anything serious.) According to the theory that the ability to claim or fight for rights is the relevant criterion for basic rights, if our psychopath doesn’t speak the children’s language, the children won’t be claiming much of anything from the psychopath’s point of view (assuming the children are aware that they can claim some rights here), and will therefore have no rights and no serious moral wrong will have been done since the rights weren’t properly claimed. If “claiming” rights is taken to mean “fighting for” or “defending” those rights, I suppose it’ll depend on how well the children can fight the psychopath. If the psychopath is a full-grown, healthy, average-sized adult, the children again have no rights (since the psychopath wins the fight), and the psychopath has done no serious moral wrong in torturing and killing them (since he won the fight). Any “rights theory” that depends on claiming or fighting for or defending one’s rights oneself simply reduces to rational egoism or some kind of Hobbesian social contract. Under such a reduction, the weak simply perish at the hands of the strong in an implicit war of all against all. It is the rejection of morality as a guide to our character, habits, and behavior.

Basic Rights Based on Sentience

According to the theory that sentience is the relevant criterion for basic rights, both children, A and B, have an equal interest in not being tortured and killed because both are equally sentient. Under the “sentience justification”, their rationality and abilities in abstract thinking per se are irrelevant, as are appeals to power and might irrelevant, and because of their sentience alone, it is equally wrong to torture and/or kill each of them.

Challenging Our Cultural Prejudice

If we are to avoid dogmatism and be reasonably consistent in our moral thinking, we are compelled to apply the same criterion – sentience – to sentient nonhuman beings as we do to sentient human beings when it comes to the right not to be exploited, tortured, and intentionally killed.

The fact that the children happen to be human is as irrelevant as the fact that they happen to be of a certain sex or ethnic group. Speciesism, sexism, and racism are at their root all the same “-ism” and the same cultural prejudice. The only difference is the other who is unjustly excluded from the in-group. The bases of arbitrary discrimination are like different flavors of non-dairy rice or soy ice cream (which is delicious, by the way). Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry flavors are the metaphorical differences of species, sex, and race and the non-dairy ice cream is the metaphorical injustice and cultural prejudice underlying the superficial differences of species, sex, and race. What flavor of prejudice are we embracing today? Or are we too determined to avoid the question in defense of our existing habits and trivial preferences to give it the serious thought it deserves?

Of course, as history has shown, the deeper the cultural prejudice, the blinder the prejudiced person is to the wrongness and injustice of their prejudice. The same arguments used to defend the cultural prejudice promoting the ownership, exploitation, torture, and abuse of slaves in 19th century America are regurgitated today to defend today’s cultural prejudice promoting everything from industrial animal agribusiness to raising pigs or chickens in one’s backyard in a quaint, peaceful environment only to unjustly send them to slaughter when the prejudiced human has decided that it’s time for that being to die. Even in many cultures today, women are viewed as property or servants of the men in the community. Yet people who are marinating in a cultural prejudice – whether the prejudice is against women, certain ethic groups, or species – are at least very reluctant to transcend it, and more often seem completely incapable of even seeing it as a problem. The cultural prejudice is even stronger when it is as widely held as our society’s speciesism is today.

We need to recognize and acknowledge our cultural prejudices and moral blind spots, which are every bit as wrong as the prejudices of cultures that severely abuse women and slaves in our own time or abused slaves a century or two ago. We need to apply that “rationality” – of which we’re apparently so proud – to our thinking about our own behavior toward nonhuman beings. We need to go vegan and encourage others to do likewise.


[1] I chose children rather than adults for the example because of the innocence and vulnerability that children have in common with the typical nonhuman beings who we exploit and kill. Such innocence and vulnerability of any victim (whether human or nonhuman) adds to the moral wrongness of exploitation and killing. By “innocence”, I mean a lack of experience in the world as a moral agent, not whether or not a sentient animal or 10 year-old child can cause serious harm to another. Both obviously are capable of serious harm to others in certain conditions, but they would not be culpable for such harm since they lack moral agency.

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Do Vegans Violate Animal Rights?

Last week’s essay, ”Contrasting Harms”, was dedicated to the issue of contrasting the harms between vegan and animal agriculture populations, and found that 1) in feeding equal populations, any system of animal agriculture would be significantly more harmful than a vegan system of agriculture, and 2) the current animal agriculture system is unimaginably more harmful than a vegan system of agriculture, particularly in the degree of cruelty involved, but also in the number of deaths involved in each system.This essay will directly address the claim of some animal exploitation advocates that since 1) vegans consume grains, soybeans, corn, and other crops, and 2) crop production causes field animals to die, that 3) vegans cause animal deaths, and 4) are therefore violating the rights of animals.

A Comparative Analogy in Human Rights

On American highways and roads we inadvertently, but predictably kill an average of 38,000 human beings annually. This annual average of approximately 38,000 human deaths is as reliable and predictable as the change of seasons. Although we try to keep this number “as low as reasonably possible” through reasonable measures, such as speed limits, seatbelts, air bags, and anti-lock brakes, we do not take stringent measures to eliminate a majority of those 38,000 highway deaths, such as reducing the speed limit from the range of 55 to 75 miles per hour (88 – 120 kph) to the range of 35 to 50 miles per hour (56 – 80 kph) using either mandatory engine governors and/or extremely heavy fines or jail time for even moderate speeding. Are we violating human rights by only taking reasonable instead of stringent measures to prevent these fatal accidents? Most, if not all of us, would say no, there are no human rights violations inherent in our current highway and motor vehicle system, even if we inadvertently, but predictably kill 38,000 random humans annually, and even if we only take reasonable measures instead of stringent measures to prevent these deaths.

Let’s compare the “inadvertent motor vehicle fatalities” situation (“Situation A”) given above with another situation, which we’ll call the “prisoner execution” situation (“Situation B”). Situation B is as follows: To reduce the financial and economic burden of housing prisoners and to rid the country of its most violent sector, both for short-term relief of the violent burden and as a long-term “social improvement” program, we have adopted a policy of executing 38,000 prisoners annually, with the 38,000 to come from the prisoners with the most jail time left to serve. As the prison population declines due to our new execution program, the policy will eventually be tapered down from “38,000 prisoner executions no-matter-what” to executing anyone convicted of a crime normally garnering a sentence of greater than or equal to 4 years in prison. Of course, many of these prisoners will not have murdered anyone and will be receiving a punishment greater than their crime, but we anticipate that it will have positive deterrent and “social improvement” effects on society. Also, there will come a point when we’re killing far less prisoners than 38,000 per year. In addition to that, we kill 38,000 innocent people on our highways annually because of our lax driving restrictions, so why not kill not-as-innocent prisoners?

What’s the problem with Situation B? The problem is most of us would call this prisoner execution policy a very serious human rights violation.

Why do we come to different conclusions about human rights violations in the above two situations? In both situations, we can clearly foresee, with virtually no doubt, that 38,000 humans will be killed as a result of our policy. In both situations, the economic, social, and/or practical gains are significant.

There are at least a few reasons we come to different conclusions with regard to human rights in these two different situations, and they are as follows:

1) In Situation A, the policy of “allowing speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways” is not wrong in itself. By contrast, in Situation B, the policy of “executing prisoners innocent of capital crimes” is wrong in itself.

2) In Situation A, the bad consequence of 38,000 traffic fatalities is a foreseen side-effect, but not an intended consequence of the policy of “allowing speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways”. Our intent in our policy of “allowing higher speed limits” is not “to kill more drivers.” By contrast, in Situation B, the bad consequence of 38,000 prisoner fatalities is a foreseen and intended consequence of the policy of “executing prisoners innocent of capital crimes”. Our intent in our policy of “executing prisoners” is “to kill prisoners.” The dead prisoners will not be merely “foreseen side-effects” of our executions.

3) In Situation A, the good economic and practical consequence is a direct result of “speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways”. The higher speed limits themselves bring about the good consequence. The 38,000 annual traffic fatalities – which we are also taking reasonable measures to prevent from being higher – do not themselves bring about the good consequence. By contrast, in Situation B, the good economic and practical consequence is a direct result of the 38,000 annual prisoner executions. The prisoner executions themselves bring about the good consequences.

A Parallel Comparative Analogy in Animal Rights

Because of our policy of allowing speeds in excess of 35 to 50 mph on our highways, we inadvertently, but predictably kill thousands of humans. In the same way, because of our policy of allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops, we inadvertently, but predictably kill millions of wild field animals.

We, as vegans supporting animal rights, are willing to incur the crop production fatalities for the same reasons that a majority of people in our society, as citizens supporting human rights, are willing to incur the traffic fatalities on our highways. We, as vegans supporting animal rights, are unwilling to incur intentional slaughterhouse fatalities for the same reasons that a majority of people in our society, as citizens supporting human rights, are unwilling to incur the prisoner execution fatalities. The reasons stated above for the human rights case are the exact same reasons stated below in the animal rights case for easy comparison. We’ll call the inadvertent crop production fatalities “Situation C” and the intentional slaughterhouse fatalities “Situation D”.

1) In Situation C, the policy of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops” is not wrong in itself. By contrast, in Situation D, the policy of “slaughtering nonhuman beings” is wrong in itself.

2) In Situation C, the bad consequence of millions of crop production fatalities (to feed hundreds of millions of people) is a foreseen side-effect, but not an intended consequence of the policy of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops”. Our intent in our policy of “allowing crop production using machines” is not “to kill more animals”. By contrast, in Situation D, the bad consequence of billions of animal deaths is a foreseen and intended consequence of the policy of “slaughtering nonhuman beings”. Our intent in our policy of “slaughtering animals” is “to kill animals.” The dead animals will not be merely “foreseen side-effects” of our slaughterhouse operations.

3) In Situation C, the good consequence of obtaining economically affordable vegan food for hundreds of millions of people is a direct result of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops”. The machines themselves bring about the good consequence. The millions of wild field animal fatalities – which we should also take reasonable measures to reduce – do not themselves bring about the good consequence. By contrast, in Situation D, the (so-called) “good” consequence (and perhaps bad health consequence) of obtaining animal products for consumption is a direct result of “slaughtering nonhuman beings”. The slaughterhouse operation itself brings about the consequences.

The three reasons why Situations A and C are not rights violations can also be applied (and are applied) to rights questions involving self-defense, just war theory, triage, and health care economics. Crop production deaths are merely another paradigm case among many analogous cases where we accept regrettable consequences due to various other factors, such as intent, direct causation, and significantly worse alternative consequences.

It should be clear by now that if animal exploitation advocates are going to accuse vegans of animal rights “violations” because of inadvertent, but foreseen crop production deaths, they certainly ought to lead the way in criticizing our society’s human rights “violations” because of inadvertent, but foreseen traffic fatalities. If animal exploitation advocates think vegans should avoid machine-harvested crops, then they should literally ”walk” the talk and avoid modern rapid (and potentially lethal) transportation, not to mention go vegan and grow their own food manually. Of course, if they are reasonable and care about the rights of animals, the only imperative is to be vegan.

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Property Status and Animal Welfare: Two Deep Roots of Cruelty

Before we start on this essay, we should be aware that both last week’s essay, and as we will see, this one, are dealing with moral philosophy (i.e. reasoning from basic moral principles), the law (property rights, individual rights, and welfare laws), and empirical and rational fact (e.g. the full sentience of nonhumans and its relevance to a basic right to physical security). Yes, there are gray areas and dilemmas in some questions of moral philosophy, but the areas we’re covering now, despite controversy, are mostly black, white, and straight forward.The controversy comes from our acculturation and our moral psychology, or the question, “Why be moral (especially when nobody else is)?” Most people are intelligent enough to at least follow the easy moral reasoning that I’ve set forth and will continue to set forth in this blog. The controversy and conflict comes from the social momentum of the acceptance of animal consumption (i.e. acculturation) and the psychological conditioningof life-long habits that current non-vegans experience in the face of and opposed to straightforward moral reasoning from basic moral principles; moral principles which were already plainly accepted long before a consistent application in clear reasoning was made to nonhumans. I understand the inner emotional turbulence faced by conscientious non-vegans, but I encourage non-vegans to continue with moral and emotional strength and courage in honestly questioning the status quo and making the modifications in behavior which recognize the moral value of nonhuman beings.In last week’s essay, we established the moral fact of the basic right of nonhuman beings to physical security against humans in virtue of their sentience. Since sentient nonhumans are no different from humans in the only relevant criterion for holding the basic right to physical security (i.e. sentience), this moral fact is just as secure in knowledge when applied to nonhumans as when applied to humans. If sentient nonhumans don’t have this basic right, then humans don’t either. If a nonhuman being’s life is worthless, then so is all life worthless, obviously including ours. From my viewpoint, however, all life with a high degree of sentience (which includes all “food”, “entertainment”, and “research” animals) has inherent value which must be respected as an end in itself.

Inherent Value

There is another basic right which will be the topic of this essay which is essential to the basic right to physical security: the basic right not to be treated as a thing. We often value humans as a means to an end; but morally, most of us agree that valuing humans exclusively as a means to an end is wrong. We might pay one employee far more in compensation and rewards than another employee, but we don’t kill, maim, torture, dispose of, or own that employee as a thing. Another way of conveying the same idea is that humans, regardless of their utility value to others, or the quality or misery of their life, or their intelligence or severe lack thereof, or any other characteristic, have equal inherent value or value as ends in themselves. If the equal inherent value of a human is ignored and the only value that human has is his or her utility value or the value of some other characteristic, then that human being is treated as a thing and is therefore also outside of the moral community.

It is important to remember that equal inherent value, like the basic right to physical security, is based on sentience, defined in last week’s essay as a non-cognitive experience of a self (which includes the experience of pleasure and pain). Also, for precisely the same reasons that we cannot exclude sentient nonhumans from the basic right to physical security as explained in last week’s essay, we cannot exclude them from having equal inherent value. To exclude sentient nonhumans from having equal inherent value is as arbitrary as excluding intelligent and curious humans from education based on race or sex.

Property Status and the Law

American law recognizes two types of entities: persons and things. There is no middle category. During American slavery in the 19th century, a middle category was attempted, and slaves were considered “quasi-persons” or “ things-plus” or “3/5ths of a person”, but that category utterly failed to bring any significant “legal personhood” to slaves or any relief of the cruelty they endured as property of their owners. The law protects the rights of persons to do what they want with the things they own, and if there is ever a conflict between a person with property rights and the thing they own, property rights always win, regardless of any other law whatsoever “protecting” the thing. This was true without exception during American slavery, and it is true today in all of our relations with nonhuman beings.

The importance placed on property rights in Anglo-American law cannot be overemphasized here. Although I will not make any judgments about the propriety of this priority of property rights, it is not an overstatement to say that property rights are revered and sacred in the United States. Indeed, as irrational as it may be, it is not an exaggeration to say that some people in the United States consider their property rights to be just as important, if not more so, as their basic right to physical security (e.g. their right to life), and would just as soon be shot to death as give up even a trivial portion of property rights. This reverence for property rights is reflected in our courts and it is no surprise that the strongest slave welfare laws in the antebellum South did nothing to protect slaves, as chattel property, from unspeakable cruelty inflicted by their property owners. When the property rights meet welfare laws, it’s like a speeding freight train meeting a light warm breeze; the effect is negligible.

As long as it is the case that nonhumans are owned as things and their owners hold property rights over them (which is one and the same thing), welfare laws will never be able to protect against the flagrant and extreme cruelty which is routine in all of animal agriculture, much less protect equal inherent value or the basic right to physical security. The first fact that anyone genuinely concerned about animal cruelty must fully understand and accept is that welfare laws are and always will be impotent to prevent cruelty. The most welfare laws will do is to protect the interests of property owners in utilizing their property to its maximum economic potential. Welfare laws will always be disastrous for sentient nonhumans, doing no more than they have in the past: making humans feel better about the exploitation and cruelty inflicted on nonhumans.

Deep Roots of Cruelty

It has been established in this essay and last week’s essay that, if we are to avoid the exact same kind of cultural prejudice that upheld slavery and the subjugation of women for many centuries until the 20th century, then nonhuman beings must have equal inherent value and the basic right to physical security under the law, as they already do morally, whether it is recognized by law or not. A deep root of cruelty and one of the largest barriers to the prevention of cruelty (both industrial cruelty and household cruelty) is the moral and legal status of nonhuman beings as “things”. Another deep root supporting cruelty is the notion held by new welfarists that welfare laws can stand up to property rights and improve conditions for nonhumans in any significant way.

We do not need welfare campaigns to show the general public how cruel nonhumans are treated. Videos like The Faces of Free Range Farming and constant, widespread information on industry conditions will suffice to educate people over time. Industry cannot fight this because if they were forced to open their “free range”, “cage free”, “humane” and “compassionate” concentration camps and abattoirs to the public for regular widespread tours and viewing (even if only on television), the public reaction to the cruelty would defeat them quickly. Industry also cannot change because it is economically and logistically impossible to raise and slaughter billions of nonhumans for consumption without extreme cruelty. Indeed, it is each and every consumer of animal products, regardless of any “special labels” on those products, who are ultimately responsible for this extreme cruelty. With persistence and perseverance, our efforts at education will result in more people shedding cultural prejudices about sentient nonhumans and discovering that veganism is the only solution to the inevitable, widespread, and extreme cruelty endured by farmed animals, again, regardless of what “special label” is placed on the package, and that veganism is the only way to live in a morally adequate relationship to nonhuman beings.

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Sentience: The Morally Relevant Characteristic Justifying Basic Rights

In this essay, we will look at the moral relevance of sentience as the characteristic justifying a basic right to physical security (as defined in the next section), but first we should cover some preliminary notions which will set the stage for understanding how and why sentience matters when we are thinking about animal rights.A Brief Introduction to RightsA right is a way to protect an interest. Rights claims can be expressed as follows: A has a right to X against B by virtue of Y. A is the right holder; X is the interest protected by the right; B is the duty bearer; and Y is the relevant characteristic giving rise to X (i.e. the interest protected). We can also say that Y is the reason A has a right to X.

As there are many interests which vary widely in degree of relative importance from crucial to trivial, so there are many “rights” which vary in degree of relative importance in relation to the interest they are protecting. A right, the way the term is used in our society, can be as important as our basic right not to be tortured and killed or as trivial as our non-basic “right” of first refusal to buy an inexpensive and relatively unimportant item that a seller has set aside for us. It is therefore important to distinguish between basic rights and non-basic rights. In Introduction to Animal Rights [1], Gary Francione quotes the political theorist Henry Shue in Basic Rights [2] in describing a right as basic if “any attempt to enjoy any other right by sacrificing the basic right would be quite literally self-defeating, cutting the ground from beneath itself.” Shue also states that “non-basic rights may be sacrificed, if necessary, in order to secure the basic right. But the protection of a basic right may not be sacrificed in order to secure the enjoyment of a non-basic right” because a basic right “cannot be sacrificed successfully. If the right sacrificed is indeed basic, then no right for which it might be sacrificed can actually be enjoyed in the absence of the basic right. The sacrifice would have proven self-defeating.” [2]

The most important basic right Shue identifies is the “basic right to physical security – a right that is basic not to be subjected to murder, torture, mayhem, rape, or assault.” [2] As Francione says on page 95, “If a person does not enjoy the basic right to security, and may be murdered at will by any other person, then it is senseless to consider what other “rights” she might have.” [1] Of course, another basic right which is essential to a basic right to physical security is the right not to be the property of another; however, the basic right not to be property is beyond the scope of this essay. I will discuss the property status of nonhuman beings and their right not to be property in a future essay.

Sentience Defined

Sentience, narrowly defined, is the ability to experience, or to be conscious of, sensations. Sensations include pain, pleasure, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. More broadly defined, sentience includes the experience of a self. The experience of self which defines sentience is emotion- or sense-based and non-cognitive. In this essay, I mean sentience in the broad sense which includes a non-cognitive sense of self.

Sentience often varies in degree. If we are on pain killers or a substance which makes us less alert to our surroundings, our sentience is not as acute as when in a drug-free state. Also, some species have greater degrees of sentience with respect to specific senses than other species do. For example, dogs, pigs, and bears have a heightened sense of smell compared to most other species, and many birds have a comparative heightened sense of sight.

People often ask if insects are sentient. I don’t know to what extent they are. The question of where to draw the line on sentience, particularly its degree, is a difficult and lengthy topic to cover, and I will not address it in this essay. What we do know for certain is that birds and mammals are sentient in a way and to a degree highly similar to humans; so much so that any differences in sentience are morally immaterial. We have good reason to believe that other vertebrates, such as fishes, reptiles, and amphibians are also sentient to a high degree; although as we get further from biological similarities to humans, such as in the case of insects, it gets more difficult for us know what a being’s sentience or experience is like, in kind or degree.

An Interest in Physical Security [3]

Very closely related to sentience is a being’s interest in physical security. In fact, the only way we can determine whether an organism has an interest in physical security is to ask whether and to what degree the organism is normally sentient (or potentially sentient). A tree is alive, but because a tree has no sense organs or any other apparatus which might lead us to believe that it is sentient, nor does a tree behave outwardly in any way indicating sentience, we think it quite obvious that the tree cannot have any conscious interest in its physical security (since it cannot experience its physical security). On the other hand, chickens, pigs, cows, deer, sheep, goats, and many other nonhuman beings do have sense organs and well-developed central nervous systems, which, along with the outward behavior of fight or flight when facing perceived danger, cause us to know, to the same degree that we know with respect to humans, that they all have a strong conscious interest in their physical security.

So there is an obvious and strong connection between sentience and a conscious interest in physical security such that, to whatever degree there is sentience, there is a conscious interest in physical security; and to whatever degree there is a conscious interest in physical security, there is sentience.

Back to Rights

We said that a rights claim can be expressed as follows: A has a right to X against B by virtue of Y. Let’s fill in the terms: Sentient nonhuman beings (A) have a right to physical security (X) against human beings (B) by virtue of their sentience (which is virtually interchangeable with a conscious interest in physical security) (Y). We should note, and will explore more in the next section, that sentience is the same reason and the only reason why humans have a right to physical security.

Irrelevant Substitutes for Y

Self-interested animal exploitation advocates often attempt to suggest characteristics other than sentience for Y. As I stated in Understanding the Anti-Animal Rights Viewpoint”, animal exploitation advocates work backward from the conclusion that they want to exploit nonhuman beings and look for “premises” to “support” their preconceived, self-interested conclusion. So animal exploitation advocates think up characteristics that only humans possess to substitute for Y and insist that their selected (irrelevant) Y is the “justification” for humans possessing the basic right to physical security, but since nonhumans don’t have that Y, nonhumans don’t possess that basic right.

The objections to animal exploitation advocates are obvious in two ways, both of which we’ll explore in more detail below. First, the suggestions that animal exploitation advocates come up with for Y are irrelevant to a conscious interest in physical security. Second, animal exploitation advocates’ suggestions for Y, with only one exception, are not characteristics which all and only humans have, and therefore exclude millions of humans from the moral community. The one exception is human DNA, or species, per se; which is as irrelevant to an interest in a basic right to physical security as race or sex, for example, are to an intelligent and curious human’s interest in education.

Let’s unpack the first objection that the suggestions for Y are irrelevant. A very common suggestion is cognitive ability (sometimes referred to as “rationality” or “intellect”). How or why cognitive ability connects to a conscious interest in physical security is far enough beyond me to seem silly, but I’ll play along by acknowledging a couple of facts which may make it clear to the self-interested exploiter that cognitive ability is a dead-end possibility for Y in this case.

The first fact to acknowledge about cognitive ability is that it varies widely from human to human. Some humans are mathematical, linguistic, and logical geniuses, while other humans are functionally lower than dogs, pigs, and turkeys in cognitive ability, while the rest of us fall somewhere in between the two. Does this mean that the mathematical geniuses have a more significant conscious interest in physical security than the less cognitively endowed humans? No, it doesn’t. A high level of cognitive ability may cause us to dread the future or realize that the future will be fine, but a lack of such cognitive ability may cause similar dread or comfort, depending on the situation. For example, a human may dread the possibility, during wartime, of being captured and tortured by an enemy army or political faction which never actually happens; and a rescued, formerly tortured farmed animal or canine may dread her sanctuary or shelter rescuers for several weeks or months not knowing that the rescuers will show nothing but sympathy and kindness toward her. It is the emotional and sentient activity that we have in common with nonhumans, not the abstract reasoning activity, from which our interest in physical security comes.

The second fact to acknowledge is that today’s computers have mind-boggling mathematical and logical ability, but absolutely no conscious interest in their physical security. If exploiters want to assert intelligence for Y, then insentient and unconscious, but highly intelligent computers get a right to physical security (even though they cannot experience physical security); and the much less intelligent, but sentient humans go without such a right.

Other suggestions for Y are the ability to assert or defend rights and the related ability to reciprocate morally; but again, that leaves millions of humans without rights. The ability to defend rights also possibly grants rights to anyone who asserts or defends their “right” to commit genocide, rule as the world’s tyrant, or any number of other such absurdities, to which the sane among us agree that no such rights exist. The ability to reciprocate the observance of a basic right to physical security only becomes relevant if our own physical security is immediately and actually threatened; and if such security is threatened in this way, the capacity of our attacker for moral agency becomes irrelevant anyway. We are at least excused, if not justified, in defending ourselves from anyone, moral agent or moral patient, who immediately threatens our physical security using the minimum force necessary, and such a defense at times can include killing. [4]

The second objection against animal exploitation advocates is that there are no characteristics which all and only humans have which differentiate us from other species in any morally relevant way to a conscious interest in physical security. In fact, there is an overlapping continuum of all characteristics, except DNA (which is irrelevant for reasons already stated), such that for any given characteristic, there are nonhuman beings who hold that given characteristic (e.g. intelligence, emotion, sensitivity to pleasure and pain, etc) more than some humans.

It should be clear by now to any coherent and reasonably intelligent reader that sentience is the morally relevant characteristic for the right to physical security. When we are in a position of power over others, the choice of whether or not to act morally, as in all cases of morality, is our choice to make. But the question of what is moral and what is not moral is not our choice in such clear cases; and it is a matter of moral fact that sentient nonhumans have a basic right against humans to their physical security in virtue of their sentience, regardless of how we happen to feel about that fact. Survival situations may excuse us in overriding the rights of others, but in our exploitation of nonhuman beings in our modern era, nothing even remotely similar to survival is at stake.

This inevitable conclusion, combined with our modern knowledge of vegan nutrition and alternatives, entails a moral obligation of ours to go and stay vegan. Fortunately, being vegan is much easier and far more delightful than most people imagine it to be. We just need to learn the ropes and develop the habits. We’re on autopilot after that.


[1] Gary Francione, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog (Temple University Press, 2000), pages 94 and 95

[2] Henry Shue, Basic Rights, 2d Ed. (Princeton University Press, 1996)

[3] Although sentient beings have an interest in absolute physical security, some violation of physical security is unavoidable, inevitable, and therefore “necessary” for all of us (e.g. car accidents and disease). It does not make sense to talk about a right or interest in physical security if the breach of physical security is really unavoidable. I have therefore limited the discussion to an interest in physical security where it is protectable, but it should be clear that I mean “protectable” in the strong sense as protectable even at a very high cost, actual or perceived. Given this definition of protectable, it should be clear that somewhere around 99.999999% of our society’s intentional uses of nonhuman beings violates their protectable interest in physical security, and are therefore violations of their right.

[4] Upon re-reading this paragraph the day after it was posted, I decided it wasn’t written as clearly as it could have been. It is clarified below by changing/adding language as follows (changes are in bold):

“The ability to reciprocate the observance of a basic right to physical security only becomes an issue if our own physical security is immediately and actually threatened, since if our security is not immediately threatened, our right to security is not being violated; and if such security is threatened in this way, the capacity of our attacker for moral agency becomes irrelevant to our response anyway. This is because we are at least excused, if not justified, in defending ourselves from anyone, moral agent or moral patient, who immediately threatens our physical security using the minimum force necessary, and such a defense at times can include killing.”

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