Is the invisibility of animal cruelty the problem?

Those who promote welfare reform frequently argue that raising awareness about cruelty to animals is a necessary step toward better treatment. They avoid or soft-shoe veganism because, they claim, the public is not ready because they aren’t even aware of animal cruelty. Leave aside, momentarily, that people realize that when they eat animals, they’re eating animals. Leave aside that, even if this were the problem, promoting regulations of animal use would not end animal use. Let's take this question seriously.

Is cruelty really invisible?

To be clear, I am not dismissing the fact that many people do not know all of the details involved with factory farming or animal cruelty. I am asking whether this is 'the problem' or a symptom of another larger and deeper problem.

I have blogged about this in the past, but some additional thoughts. Let’s leave aside the obvious the fact that killing another person unjustifiably is wrong in and of itself. Let’s assume that this question is a serious one. Let’s assume that, regardless of all the obvious social facts in front of us, that there’s a process involved with using animals for food, entertainment and other purposes entirely hidden from the public.

Let's assume that there is no wide social understanding that other animals (like dogs and cats among others) suffer and are harmed when we hurt them. Let's assume that the problem is just a lack of facts about animal suffering and not a lack of moral knowledge about why animal suffering is morally relevant in light of the moral personhood of nonhuman animals.

Finally, let’s forget that there is probably a humane society of some sort dotted in almost every region of North America. Let’s also forget that humane societies (at least in Britain, Canada, and the United States) started humane education in the 1820s (give or take) about 200 hundred years ago.

Let's set aside that animal cruelty has been a continuous moral question since at least Pythagoras if not other ancient Greek thinkers. Let's set aside the laws in the Bible, Koran and Talmud (and in the canonical laws of various expressions of Christianity) that address the moral question of animal cruelty during slaughter, and so on. Let's set aside that there are pre-WWII generations still among us who remember life before factory farming, and that there remain places in North America, Europe, Oceania, etc., where other animals are still killed in highly visible ways.

Of course, even if people are aware that they use animals, and that there is cruelty involved in that use, it does not follow that they are not still caught in the grips of some imaginative reality in which the facts, although they are known to them, do not always provide an adequate motivation to change their behaviour.

I never deny the power of wishful thinking about the world or a resistance to change. What advocates should be providing is information, emotional and economic support (e.g., community groups, youth groups, buying co-ops), practical education (about nutrition, cooking, and so on), as well as encouragement to do what's right: and that's to take other animals seriously as rights holders and to go and stay vegan (as a minimum).

But let's return to our question: is the invisibility of animal cruelty the real problem?

Google says it’s not invisible.

First, a search on Google for “humane” returns 16,900,000 returns. That’s almost seventeen million Web pages that mention the word humane in some meaningful way (so, humane societies, The Humane Society of the United States, humane treatment, raise humane, and so on, would all come up). But animal cruelty in particular draws up 3,810,000. There are 13,900,000 returns for the phrase “cage-free.” There are 3,130,000 returns for the keywords “humane raised”. I realize not everyone in North American uses Google, but still, that’s a lot of Web pages for an invisible problem.

SCOTUS and the mainstream media say it’s not invisible.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) just issued a landmark decision that protects acts of cruelty toward nonhuman animals that are filmed as a type of speech.[i] [ii] [iii] Regardless of what I make think of the decision, if animal cruelty were a great mystery up until yesterday, it is now front page news. If that were not enough, Michael Vick’s dog fighting saga in the US[iv], as well as Pink’s comments on and to Prince William (and the ensuing controversy) about hunting[v], debates about whether to legalize fox-hunting the UK, etc., have been all over the new for the last couple of years.

And this coverage is literally all over. We’re not talking about obscure blogs, Coast to Coast or just the Wall Street Journal. We’re talking about coverage from ESPN, MTV, ABC, MSNBC, CNET and more. Can we really talk about an invisible problem when the problem is being discussed just about everywhere, even by celebrities? It’s true that not everyone reads or watches the news, but it seems unusual to suggest that Pink and Samuel Alito are both aware of an otherwise invisible social issue that the rest of North America is not.

Primetime TV, daytime TV and mainstream documentaries say it’s not invisible.

But let’s say no one pays any attention to gossip magazines, current events or the Supreme Court. It’s still all over mainstream TV. Ellen has self-identified as vegan (on a show that pulls in several million viewers [vi]). Oprah, often ranked as one of the most powerful people in the world[vii], went on a public “vegan cleanse”, on yet another show that pulls in about 7.3 million viewers[viii]).

The problem of these promotions aside, clearly, the public is aware on some level of the problem that our relationship with other animals poses and of veganism. It was on Oprah. Questions of animal cruelty have also appeared prominently on primetime TV shows on FOX: on Family Guy, the OC, Bones and other high profile shows. Family Guy has, on average, somewhere between 7.5 – 8 million viewers depending on the specific show and the specific season.[ix] Bones has about 9 – 10 million[x] and the OC had about 4-5 million viewers depending on the specific seasons.[xi]

In the six or so years since its release, Super Size Me, a film all about how unhealthy fast food has grossed $29.5 million (with several mentions of veganism).[xii] Food Inc., a relatively new film that addresses questions of animal cruelty, has grossed $4.4 million in the United States alone.[xiii] We’re not talking about C-SPAN. These are primetime and daytime shows with millions and millions of viewers (each!), and films now grossing in the tens of millions of dollars.

In short, the proposal from the animal welfare advocacy movement is that millions and millions of people in North America are contributing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars every year to solve a problem that has been covered by primetime and daytime TV, by news media outlets, by feature length documentaries and by even the Supreme Court of the United States that is nevertheless invisible. Even more people are spending even more money to continue to try "to solve" this moral dilemma by buying "humane" products. Spoiler alert: the problem’s not invisibility. Did I mention it was on Oprah?

So, the question is, why the pretence?

The public understands that it uses animals and that there is almost certainly cruelty involved in that use. Advocates can't rely on "what their nonvegan coworkers said that one time when they were totally surprised to learn how horrible the conditions in which their lunches were raised!!" One-off, self-report data is not very reliable. Of course, people may be in the dark about the worst excesses, but that’s not the same thing.

What the public doesn’t understand is why animal use is wrong. If there is consciousness to be raised (and I believe that there certainly is), it’s about this fact: that nonhuman animals are moral persons who don’t want to be hurt or used, who have a right to be used as our property, and without whose use we can live very happy and fulfilling lives. Moreover, they are increasingly aware of veganism as an alternative way to solve this moral problem, and they seem more receptive now than ever before.[xiv]

Why are animal advocacy groups either misunderstanding the problem in such an obvious way or why are they pretending that the problem is one of invisibility, when clearly, that is not the case?

Almost certainly, there are a number of factors. I’m sure some people do sincerely want to educate the public about cruelty, believing cruelty to be the moral problem. But this elides the question of whether we should use animals at all without justification (we shouldn't), and why cruelty to other animals is morally wrong (a hint: it’s because they’re sentient!), as well as what else we might owe them in light of their sentience.

While I don’t believe that we should use other animals, I accept as a statement that describes reality that there are many people who believe that cruelty, environmental impact, human health concerns, etc., are “the real problem” to animal use. But it doesn’t follow from this, however, that there isn’t also a lot of money to be made by advocacy groups in telling the public what they want to hear: “it’s not your fault; you didn’t know any better; you can keep using other animals so long as you make better choices [and buy from our certified vendors].”

Furthermore, raising awareness about cruelty encourages the publicly (intentionally or not) to keep using animals just in more “humane” ways. "Humane" labels and certification schemes from their partners in 'animal advocacy' help agribusinesses to differentiate their products 1) in a crowded marketplace, 2) under a great deal of price pressure to find higher-margin offerings, 3) with a public concerned about the moral problem that animal use poses. That is the purpose of "humane" labelling schemes:

Certified humane animals are gaining popularity among food service purchasers. (Restaurant Business, September 2006). [...] “Humane” was consistently the top-ranked choice among respondents when asked to choose products that were identical except for the standards, according to a survey of 1,000 households and five focus groups by the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California. Over 30% of survey respondents chose “humane” in every comparison among five standards. (Center Research Brief #5, Winter 2005).

In short, "humane" products are profitable to some businesses within the larger industry. Welfare advocacy groups are often helping industry get that message ou (sometimes, quite intentionally)t. Even when they are not the inadvertant propaganda tools of the industry, they unintentionally condition the public to see "humane" products as a positive step for other animals with singular focus on cruelty rather than use.

Humane certification, a lucrative industry all by itself.

For large scale animal welfare organizations, there’s a tremendous amount of money on the table. The Humane Society of the United States has generated half a billion in revenues over the last several years[xv], but humane certification is itself a growing industry. There are potentially hundreds of millions to be made just certifying a product to be “humane”.

For example, to be “Certified Humane” by Humane Farm Animal Care (who partners with the ASPCA, the HSUS and others), it will cost an agribusiness between $1.00 and $0.0009/animal (paid on a monthly basis), depending on the species and the number of animals certified.[xvi] The more animals certified, the lower the cost/animal. The species is also a factor. Chickens cost substantially less than cows. A dollar an animal may not seem like a lot of money, but there are about 10 billion nonhuman land animals raised on land in the United States every year for food alone who could potentially be certified. [xvii]

Businesses that just do the certification will not have to buy and feed the animals involved or need to address fluctuations in production costs or prices in the market much. Whether we imagine that the industry is only worth a few hundred million dollars or a couple of billion dollars, it’s likely to be high-margin (the cost to provide the service and the cost they can charge for the service is larger). High margin businesses tend to be fairly profitable.

Regardless of exactly how much money is at stake, it raises serious questions about why organizations like the ASPCA and the HSUS are partnering with other agribusinesses to develop label schemes that help market animal products to consumers when, if only nominally, they are concerned with animal cruelty.

Certification schemes, industry regulation and other expressions of red tape.

As important, in addition to the profit involved, certification schemes draw attention to other animal cruelty issues and to animal cruelty more broadly as a moral issue. That is, they do what animal welfare advocacy groups claim they are supposed to do: raise awareness with public about animal cruelty (and their profitable solution to this problem).

What is important to understand is that this, by itself, doesn’t lay the ground work for meaningful systemic or personal change to our relationship with nonhuman animals. Instead, it just further convinces the public of what they already believe: that cruelty is wrong, and that we can use other animals without being cruel to them.

By telling the public to buy humane, to donate, etc., animal welfare businesses like the HSUS and the ASPCA (among others) avoid doing the one thing that actually does help nonhuman animals, that actually does help the public solve its moral problem and that’s to promote abolition and veganism unequivocally and clearly.

Moreover, they also advance a general overall sense that the problems that animal use (whether they are moral, environmental or personal in terms of human health) can be managed and regulated without the need for immediate abolition. That agenda and strategy expresses itself through a number of tactics: certification schemes, piecemeal legislation and other ways of regulating animal use rather than abolishing it. That regulationist groups exist at all is testimony to the fact that the public understands that it has a problem that regulation is necessary to solve (that means those problems are not invisible).

Is the problem invisibility or obfuscation and a lack of a serious commitment to vegan education? These are different things.

It seems clear that raises a couple of questions, but I think we would be justified concluding that people do know that there is cruelty involved in our relationship to nonhuman animals. Further, even if we imagine that the millions and millions of North Americans aware of animal cruelty are the exact same across Oprah, Ellen, ESPN, CNet, etc., just raising their awareness about animal cruelty obviously isn’t resulting in meaningful social transformation for nonhuman animals.

That is, even if cruelty were a secret, which it is not, just raising awareness about it is obviously not resulting in wide-spread systematic or personal change. The question this raises is: why not? What the public doesn’t understand is why they should care about animal use and why they should take action in light of it. They don’t understand that other animals are moral persons or what they should go vegan in light of that personhood.

This reflects not the invisibility of cruelty, but one part apathy, one part confusion, one part economic difficult in some cases (e.g,. with food deserts) but also one substantial part active obfuscation on the part of organizations that stand to make or lose hundreds of millions to billions of dollars every year if the public decides to go vegan.

Intentionally or not, animal advocacy that promotes regulates use and treatment rather than abolishing use in light of nonhuman animal personhood, is actively obscuring and delaying the progress we might make on behalf of nonhuman animals by miseducating the public. Even if all of this were untrue, welfare reform would not provide a practical solution to end the slavery of nonhuman animals and all of the cruelty that stems from their status as property.[xviii]

Going vegan is easier than it ever has been. If you’re not vegan yet, you should go today. If you are not an abolitionist, but what to learn more about the approach, you can read through my other articles or visit to learn more.

[xvii] This figure doesn’t include counting animals raised for fashion, entertainment, experimentation or other uses, or those animals like fish, whales, deer, etc., taken
from the wild for food uses, or other animals used or killed for other unnecessary purposes).

Is activism an obligation? Some thoughts

This question is circulating both the vegan blogosphere with interesting pieces from Stephanie Ernst and a response from Mylène Ouellet, as well as other social media. Since I hate to be left out of the conversation, some thoughts follow.

ETA: I have changed this blog based on some feedback from a colleague, which I thought was quite helpful and useful. No need for anyone to panic. I often change my mind when I hear a better rational account for something, and I think differentiating between wide and narrow duties provides a simpler and better way of thinking about what we owe other animals than differentiating between ought and obligation does.

Duty, obligation and ought: What's the difference? (or, rather, what's the difference between wide and narrow duties?)
The question seems to be whether we should think of activism (beyond going vegan) as a duty or just as something we ought to do. Since I am not a philosopher (caveat lector!), I often use philosophical terms incorrectly and interchangeably (e.g., "I ought to do X", "I am obligated to do X", "I have a duty to do X"). Some philosophers differentiate between ought and obligation in relation to duties, while others see 'having a decisive reason to do X' means we ought to do X and that that is basically the same as saying that we have an obligation to do X.

In the original version of this essay, I differentiated them, but based on some comments from a colleague, I think this was a mistake on my part. Instead, we might say that we have wide duties, and narrow duties. For example, let's say you invite me to your house for dinner. I might have a narrow duty not to pee on your couch as a guest. I am obligated not to do so. I ought not to do so (in the sense that I have decisive reasons not to do so). In light of modern Western hospitality customs, if you and I are friends, I might want to bring something delicious.

But I do not have a narrow duty to bring cookies (or anything for that matter). I am not obligated to bring cookies (or anything else) specifically, the same way I am obligated not to pee on your couch, specifically. I do not necessarily have similarly decisive reasons to bring cookies (although I may) in the way that I do typically have decisive reasons not to pee on your couch (although some hosts may be more open minded about this). In short, some duties (narrow duties) are fulfilled in very specific ways. Some duties (wide duties) may be fulfilled with a wider range of actions.

There might be decisive reasons that we should be excused, or we might be released from fulfilling the duty, or other justification, and so on, but the onus falls on us to justify. For example, if I don't pay my taxes, I am typically required to explain in a clear, well-reasoned way (i.e., that I provide some justification) why I should be excused from paying them or why it is wrong to expect me to pay them.

If I don't shower for a day, for example, I do not necessarily required to provide a clear and well-reasoned explanation (or justification) or even an unclear, mumbled and incoherent one for why I did not shower that day, although if I don't shower for months, people might start to legitimately wonder if I am not neglecting a wide duty to properly care for myself, and I may actually have to account for my actions.

So, we might say, for example, that we ought to go vegan, and, indeed, we might also say that we are obligated to go vegan in light of the sentience of nonhuman animals, their interests, and their basic right not to be used as property. We might also say that we ought and are obligated to engage in activism beyond going vegan, but that to go vegan is a narrow duty, and the activism we might engage in beyond veganism is a relatively wide one.

Veganism as a moral baseline (of animal advocacy activism)
Having written the foregoing, ought we engage in activism (beyond going vegan) with respect to nonviolence, including veganism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and so on? Of course, I think the answer is yes. But I do not think it follows that it is required that anyone do so.

I think people misunderstand veganism as a moral baseline in two ways: first, in the sense that it means "going vegan is all that we owe other animals" and second, in the sense that it means "veganism is not itself a form of activism." I think the notion of "activism" is somewhat sociologically problematic, but if I stopped drinking Coca Cola during the 1980s (which I did) because of their investment in South African apartheid, not many people would say: "that's not activism!"

Oddly (although veganism is not a boycott), I think people would be more inclined to see that as a type of activism than if I went vegan, but I can't account for strange inferences. What "veganism is a moral baseline" means is that: if you only can do one thing in relation to nonhuman animals, then you should at least go vegan; but second, that if you can do more, you should do more. That is, a baseline is exactly that: a minimum. The minimum is required. More than the minimum is good, but very specific actions beyond that minimum are not necessarily required.

For example, one might engage in rescue work, abolitionist vegan education, prepare a plant based dish for a work function and explain veganism, etc. These all fulfill a wide duty to help other animals beyond simply going vegan ourselves.

From an abolitionist standpoint, there is no narrow duty to engage in specific types of activism other than going vegan (although any additional activism should meet abolitionist criteria). However, taking the rights of nonhuman animals seriously and going vegan is itself a form of activism. It often models just and virtuous behaviour, and it has clear economic consequences. Most important, it ends our unjust behaviour.

Finally, veganism (and nonviolence more generally) is a kind of activism. If everyone in the world simply stopped actively harming everyone else unjustifiably (and started the active process of avoiding harm), the world would be definitely improved. It seems unintuitive to think of the social transformation toward wide-scale and systemic harmlessness as something other than a kind of active behaviour. In that sense, our narrow duty is to go and stay vegan, even if we ought to do more at times if we can. Both are active behaviors, even if we are cannot be more active in all circumstances.

Why is activism as a moral requirement problematic?
If we say that activism involves a set of narrow duties (akin to not using nonhuman animals in the first place), that poses the problem that, as my colleague suggested, it would create an endless string of demands upon us to be activists at every turn (although it it not clear to me that that is what Ouellet was claiming -- I am not staking a claim, simply confirming my ignorance). However, as a general matter, I think I agree with his concerns as I understand them. Moreover, it poses the practical problem of having to continuously assess each demand in relation to every other demand placed upon is. This might be morally and intellectually overwhelming.

Intuitively, activism beyond veganism as a set of narrow duties (e.g., you must rescue a cat, you must attend this protest or a protest for that matter) also seems to suggest that not using animals and being an activist that opposes animal use are morally equivalent, and that we could reasonably exchange them. Let's say I have a narrow duty to run 50 miles and I have a narrow duty to swim 20 miles in any given week. Let's say I only have time to do one of them on a particular day this week through no fault of my own. Would it be reasonably excusable for me to do one and not the other? Most people would say yes, that failing in my obligation to do one was wrong, but understandable (depending on the specific reasoning).

If any kind of animal advocacy and veganism itself are duties on a par, it might follow that I could be excused from grabbing a big Mac if I am legitimately late through no fault of my own to my local AR book club meeting. This would be problematic from an animal rights standpoint. It does not necessarily follow from this that we should never be excused from unavoidable animal use (e.g., walking on sidewalks made with animal products) in order to conduct educational work. I am only saying that it is good to think as clearly as possible about the relationship between activism and avoiding harm. It seems reasonable that we should have decisive reasons for the actions we take with respect to other animals.

It doesn't necessarily follow from this that all duties are absolutely equal or that we could not reconcile differing duties, etc., or that some duties are equivocal and some note. Duties are unequivocal; how we might fulfill wide duties, however, is simply more open-ended. I am simply saying that, in addition to being impractical, posing activism beyond veganism as a narrow set of required duties may be very confusing and may lead people to draw very misguided inferences about what they should do, what they may be excused from, etc.

Do we owe other animals restitution for our time as nonvegans?
I think that as a typical matter, when we violate the rights of others, that it is normal to have a desire to make restitution and that we may owe them something beyond simply not using them in the future. For example, if I step on your toe, I probably owe you an apology as a kind of restitution. Restitution for murder, rape, torture, etc., is typically very substantial in the West but this has not always been the case.

Moreover, the nature and degree of restitution varies substantially. Sometimes, it is symbolic. Sometimes it involves money. Sometimes it involves reciprocal harm (e.g., an eye for an eye). It is difficult to asses whether and when to provide restitution with regard to wider systemic harms (e.g., systemic racism), and they often involve a great deal of debate. Suffice it to say, restitution (even when it just involves human beings arguing over a property boundary on the People's Court) is a complicated moral and legal matter.

With respect to our violations of the rights of nonhuman animals, the idea that we can make restitution is more problematic. Most of the rights-holders we would have violated as nonvegans are dead or persons to whom we cannot make any kind of proper restitution. We cannot make restitution to their families. Further, it seems misguided to suggest that we can make restitution to random rights-holder X for what we did to random rights-holder Y.

In fact, this way of thinking about the problem could be potentially very confusing (and unhelpful) to understanding what we owe other animals as individual rights-holders. This way of thinking about restitution seems to suggest that if we are kind to cow X then we can be forgiven for killing and eating dog Y. That is obviously misguided. I am not suggesting that we should not engage in virtuous work with other animals (e.g., adoption). I am simply saying that we cannot buy our way to redemption, and we certainly should not think of ourselves as being in a position to buy an indulgence to cause harm with good works.

Since we should treat similar cases similarly, because of the complexities of restitution, because of the open-ended nature of restitution, and so on, I think it may be problematic to suggest very specific activism as a kind of restitution. However, I think a desire to act well in light of previous wrong actions is usually very normal, and that we should act well when it is reasonable for us to do so.

It's always better to do the right thing for the right reasons
Finally, we should also be concerned about privilege and activism. Going beyond veganism, many people simply do not know how to be more active, some people (quite legitimately) cannot be more active because of their particular (class, race, sex, ability, etc.) circumstances, some people focus on human rights issues or other kinds of activism, and so on. I believe that is all certainly understandable.

Solidarity work on behalf of nonhuman animals should not be conflated with veganism (either by vegans or nonvegans) and it should not be a pathetic subcultural bicep-flexing contest about who does more for the animals, as it often is in animal welfare advocacy circles. In short, I can understand why some people can't or don't get more active, even if I hope everyone will.

It's also worth noting that not all activism is helpful. In fact, I'm sure a great deal of PeTA's work is harmful to the interests of other animals. I think it's terrific if people want to jump in and get to work. But learning how to do activism correctly (from an operational, "how do I respond to someone's question" standpoint) and learning what kinds of activism are morally and practically correct (from an ideological, "how do I lay the ground work for social change” standpoint) are also very important types of work. Between doing the wrong thing for the right reasons and doing the right for the right reasons, I am in favor of the latter.

But the most important thing any of us can do to help nonhuman animals is to go vegan. If you are not vegan, please go vegan today. If you are not an abolitionist, you can learn more about the approach at

Adoption vs. single issue regulationism: What’s the moral difference?

This has been a topic of conversation for a couple of months on Twitter. I do not consider single-issue regulationism to be significantly similar to adoption campaigns except in mostly superficial ways. AnimalEmancipation (hi, Jo!) does not advocate single-issue campaigning for a number of reasons, although we do advocate adoption, rescue and sanctuary work.

In fact, I am deeply troubled by the disparagement implied by a comparison between the direct saving of a nonhuman animal's life through rescue work and an opportunistic campaign like HSUS' call to boycott Canadian seafood until Canada bans the commercial seal hunt. I find this kind of opportunistic and misguided rhetoric to be damaging to an understanding of nonhumans as moral persons who call us to be honest, humble and diligent as their advocates, not to scene posturing.

There are, of course, moral complexities to adoption, rescue and sanctuary work and reasonable questions about its nature. However, we consider this work to be defensible. In fact, we consider it to be morally necessary, on the basis that nonhuman animals are rights-holders and that there are no morally acceptable alternatives to conducting rescue work with the present nonhuman animal population (even if some kinds of rescue work are preferable to others).

Further, we consider the vast majority of single-issue campaigns to be much closer to promoting vegetarianism, which we also consider to be morally and practically problematic. That is, in short, because it's possible to imagine a single-issue campaign that may be defensible from an abolitionist standpoint, it does not follow that all, many or most single-issue campaigns are either abolitionist or helpful to nonhuman animals generally or helpful to the species they purport to help. Adopting and restoring the personhood of another animal (another person) as best we can in a private home or shelter (and encouraging others to do the same) are qualitatively different actions.

Some additional thoughts follow:

First, it’s certainly possible that some adoption campaigns and virtually all single issue campaigns do reinforce societal prejudices about whether some animals are more valuable than others (even if that is not the intent of the authors). For example of the first, most people do already believe that cats and dogs are more morally important than other animals. Although not all rescue campaigns focus on dogs or cats for that matter, many do, and those may tend to reinforce a public perception that dogs and cats are more important than other animals, but it's not necessarily clear that this is the case. Adoption campaigns often focus on individual animals rather than on species, and that would tend to position them as individual persons who need saving rather than as species. For an example of the second, campaigns like HSUS’ which position seals as more important than other marine animals almost certainly further convince the public that seals are more important than other marine animals.

Second, it’s also certainly possible that at least some adoption campaigns and very likely that many single issue campaigns, depending on how they are designed, may reinforce the notion that animals are our property or our resources. For example of the first, an adoption campaign with a headline like: “Need a new guard dog? Adopt today!” should be criticized because, obviously it unnecessarily reinforces the view that other animals exist for human use. For an example of the second, a single issue campaign that regulates the property status of nonhuman animals (the vast majority of single issue campaigns) by banning a particular use or treatment or by trying to improve treatment should also be criticized.

Third, and however, because people are left with the wrong impressions by some of our work, it does not necessarily follow that we should not fulfill our moral duties. For example, if I stop a pimp from beating a prostitute because I take nonviolence seriously, it may leave someone (Glenn Beck perhaps) with the impression that I support human trafficking. People often draw poor inferences. Of course, it would be best never to leave the public with the wrong impression, even if this is not always possible. Because it may be impossible to avoid confusing some people some of the time, however, it does not follow that we have a free pass to miseducate the public in any and all instances. There will be times when fulfilling our moral duties to other rights-holders outweighs the consequences of the public take-away. In our view, adoption, rescue and sanctuary work is often one of those exceptions.

Fourth, it does not follow from any of this that a campaign that addresses adoption or a campaign that addresses a particular species must (or should) reinforce either a sense that animals are our resources or that some animals are more important than others. It is simple enough to add language to any campaign to explain that animals are moral persons who have a right not to be used as property and that veganism is the moral baseline to taking that right seriously. That is, it is always possible to educate the public about abolitionist veganism and about particular actions with respect to nonhuman animals within context. In fact, it is likely that changes to the status of nonhuman animals generally and as individuals will be very up-hill until there are sufficient numbers of people who take animals seriously as moral persons.

That is, should we ever wish to make progress for nonhuman animals, the way to do so is to educate the public about rights and veganism as the practice of taking those rights seriously. Looking at the statistical evidence over the last 30 years in North America, animal use is growing faster than human population size in spite of intensive single-issue and welfare campaigning. Whether abolitionist outreach will be successful, regulationist approaches clearly aren't working in substantial ways to help nonhuman animals.

Fifth, single issue campaigns are frequently proposed as a way to get people into the movement. This is morally and practically problematic. It is misguided to think that we can, should or must "lure" or “trick” people into veganism. Moreover, this kind of activism promotes a view that because X attended an anti-fur demo once or just made a donation, X is an animal rights advocate. Unmistakably, this harms and muddies both the notion of animals rights and who is an animal rights proponent.

Further, single issue campaigning consumes resources that could be better utilized in a number of ways: SICs systematically miseducate the public only to have to re-educate them about what they owe other animals down the road, and it applies the same amount of effort to a single issue often for a single species rather than addressing all use at once and up front. Moreover, there is no meaningful moral difference between promoting a single issue campaign without promoting veganism and and promoting vegetarianism as "stepping stones". Neither is morally sound; neither is strategically or tactically sound. Adoption, however, is not a way to bring people into the movement either way; it is a way to save lives directly. An adoption campaign premised on "luring" people into the movement would be equally misguided.

Sixth, it seems clear that many animal organizations do not use the funds they receive for single issue campaigns for animal care. That is, SICs typically function as fundraising tools that do not help nonhuman animals directly. HSUS’ campaigns are probably the poster child example. However, that is not often the case with rescue work to my knowledge. There are, of course, examples of elephant sanctuaries that sell elephant paintings or farm sanctuaries that sell eggs or pony rides. These actions should be criticized insofar as they reaffirm nonhuman animals as property. It doesn't follow from this that all SICs or all rescues are undertaken for economic opportunism. However, this kind of opportunism is less the case with animal rescues and adoption centers; when it is the case, this should be criticized.

In short, while it’s possible that some shelters or sanctuaries do use nonhuman animals for profit, it is certainly not to the breadth or depth that an organization like HSUS focuses on single issues campaigns for profit. This kind of corruption is undoubtedly damaging to public perceptions of advocacy generally. Further, the proposal that animal advocates should be untruthful by omission as to the rights of all animals in their work in order to suit a given organization is misguided.

Seventh, ideological problems aside, it’s always possible to campaign poorly (for any cause, including for veganism). For example, just because a campaign is well-intended, it does not follow that it is not unintentionally harmful. For example, advocates often promote veganism in ways that are probably more harmful than helpful (e.g., as a way to ‘reduce suffering’ of other animals rather than as a daily practice of what we owe other animals). Any campaign can inadvertently confuse the public, and this is why they should all be subject to critical scrutiny and improvement.

Eighth, there may be times when defending our personal companions requires exceptions to all of the above. But these are atypical cases. For example, I would definitely save my cats from a burning building. Further, if one of the cats were to somehow to escape and get lost after this rescue from the burning building, and was then being held at the local Humane Society, I would definitely pay the shelter’s fee to release the cat to me.

It doesn't follow from this that I believe cats as a species are more important than other animals, just that my cats are very important to me as moral persons for whom I have taken responsibility. Further, my moral duties to my companions would outweigh consequences in terms of public perceptions. Finally, it is worth noting that there is a substantial difference between an advocate engaging in work to defend persons for whom they have agreed to care and a large animal ‘advocacy’ organization creating a campaign to drive fundraising dollars around a single issue.

Ninth, because specific expressions of one type of activism may be problematic, it does not follow that we should never engage in it. Adoption/rescue/sanctuary work, for example, is a moral necessity. There are a number of moral complexities involved with adoption, rescue and sanctuary work. However, there is no morally acceptable alternative if we consider the nonhuman refugees we have either enslaved from the wild or bred for different purposes who are now dependent on us. We are not in any moral position to say: don’t adopt! Close the sanctuary! We also should not promote the “euthanasia” of healthy animals who could be housed in sanctuaries, and so on.

Finally, there is always a morally acceptable alternative to single issues campaigns, and that’s abolitionist vegan education. The notion that we should engage in the harm of reinforcing social prejudices against some animals to benefit the movement is exactly the kind of speciesism and anthropocentrism animal advocates are supposed to oppose. There may be cases when our options are limited, but single issue campaigning is rarely ever one of them. Many animals are dying unnecessarily because of human fancy. Some in factory farms. Some in shelters. Some in family farms. Some in the wild. Some on vivisectors’ tables. Regardless of their species, if they are sentient, they are all equal in their right not to be used as property. All of this violence is morally wrong.

In that light, it would not only be perfectly morally acceptable, it would be morally preferable, to never engage in single-issue work and to promote abolitionist veganism exclusively as an end to all of this violence. There may be rare exceptions to this, but it doesn’t follow from this that we should base our typical activism around exceptional cases. That we may act in a particular way in exceptional circumstances, it does not follow that we are justified or excused in typical circumstances. Someone who eats a fellow castaway on a lifeboat with no hope of rescue would probably be excused. Someone who kills and eats a fellow shopper at Walmart because “they’re hongry!” would not be.

In contrast to single issue campaigns, however, it is incompatible to propose that we take nonhuman animals as rights-holders seriously on one-hand, but to treat those we have created or enslaved as moral burdens we can cast off and allow to starve or freeze to death. In short, proposing that we abandon rescue and sanctuary work would be morally derelict in terms of our obligations to nonhuman animals. To propose that we should abandon single issue campaigning does not cause similar moral or practical problems (in fact, it would eliminate many of the unnecessary moral and practical problems that surround single issue campaigns).

But the most important thing any of us can do to help other animals is to go vegan. If you’re not vegan, please go vegan today. If you are not an abolitionist, but want to learn more about the approach, please read through my other articles or visit

Of oysters and education: why a rights-based approach to vegan education makes sense

I've been working on a series of blog articles about vegan education and the very serious need to change our advocacy models when a truly fascinating piece appeared in Slate. Myléne Ouellet at My Face is on Fire shared it, and she'll probably blog about it. I'm scooping her, though!

In the Slate piece, Christopher Cox treats us a lengthy argument as to why eating oysters is not a moral problem if we only take animal suffering and the environment into moral consideration as our reasons to be vegan.
Because I eat oysters, I shouldn't call myself a vegan. I'm not even a vegetarian. I am a pescetarian, or a flexitarian, or maybe there's an even more awkward word to describe my diet. At first I despaired over losing the vegan badge of honor—I do everything else vegans do—but I got over it. Oysters may be animals, but even the strictest ethicist should feel comfortable eating them by the boatload. There are dozens of reasons to become a vegan, but just two should suffice: Raising animals for food 1) destroys the planet and 2) causes those animals to suffer.

I could go on about the problems here, but what's even stranger in light of these kinds of stories is the continual harangue from many advocates that we need to "raise awareness about animal suffering". It reflects a serious divorce from social reality.

To be clear, I am not defending Christopher Cox. He strikes me as a very misguided person who obviously enjoys pleasuring himself with oysters more than he concerns himself with moral questions. But what is he doing rhetorically? He is using the claims that most of the animal advocacy community uses (that animal suffering is wrong, that people should go vegan for environmental reasons) to stage a rhetorical claim that vegans should not object to oysters because they do not suffer meaningfully and their cultivation is not bad for the environment. The bigger picture is that these are claims that animal advocates should either avoid or put them more clearly into the context of rights-based advocacy.

What I'm saying is that, as a community, we need to start interrogating the received wisdom of our figureheads when they tell us that dressing up in a chicken suit to encourage people to cut back on chicken until KFC starts gassing them using CAK puts the revolution on the horizon. We need to stop advancing any old reason to go vegan and focus on animals as moral persons who have rights and veganism as the appropriate practice in light of those rights. We need to stop thinking in terms of eliciting an emotional response that can be solved by a donation for national organizations and their figureheads and instead start thinking about how we'll radicalize and organize vegans to change society as we know it.

In the modern West, animal suffering, liberation and other aspects of "the animal question" have been publicized by the animal welfare community for about 200 hundred years (give or take). In the last several years, animal use has figured prominently on The OC, Family Guy, Oprah, Ellen, in the Guardian, in the New York Times, (not including a few documentaries, as well as recent books by Jonathan Safran Foer, Mark Bittman -- now even Moby is getting in on the act), as well as countless, countless, countless other TV shows, and publications. I'm not pulling anyone's leg: the public is ready to hear about these issues and about rights-based veganism.

More important, HSUS has raked in half a billion dollars in the last several years. The 'humane' meat industry rakes in even more. Why do animal advocacy groups continue to insist that the North American public is unaware of animal suffering as a moral problem?

Of course, the public is confused about what that suffering means to them in moral terms, its causes and what they ought to do in light of it. They may also be in the dark about highly specific methods of torture, but the general secrets are out: we use animals; they suffer because we do; it is typically very bad for the environment when we do. The advocacy problem is that, historically, most people have not really cared enough to change their lives and go vegan in light of these reasons.

It is not because the public are sociopathic monsters who have no empathy; it's because large animal advocacy groups do not unequivocally promote an end to animal use and have told the public: don't worry about it, just donate or just phone your congressperson or just cut back, or just buy 'humane'.

The public is sent conflicting and unclear messages and the public often takes the easiest path afforded to them. Advocacy groups have not historically focused on educating the public as to why it is critical for them to take the rights of other animals seriously and go vegan as a result. They have not focused on veganism largely because it is not in their financial interests to do so.

This is also why rights-based, abolitionist vegan education is both critical and completely ideologically distinct from animal welfare-focused, 'happy meat', 'reduced-use' and other forms of education. When we say: "we should treat animals better!" the public will demand and suppliers will respond with (at best) better (and more economically efficient) treatment, or vat grown meat, or animal species that cannot feel pain or any of the other complicated schemes intended to keep people buying and consuming animal products.

When we say: "Using animals is bad for the environment!" The public will demand and suppliers will respond with (at best) more environmentally (and economically) efficient methods. When we say: "Fur is wrong! Let's ban it!" the public may or may not agree, but suppliers (at best) will look for loopholes and/or repurpose the minks, foxes, or the other animals involved for some other use. When we say: "Foie gras is terrible!", again, the public may or may not agree, but suppliers (at best) figure out ways to either make foie gras 'nicer' or they figure out how to start repurposing the birds for down and other uses.

More important, however, no one in the public will have been educated about veganism and the rights of nonhuman animals. They will not take the rights of animals seriously (except by accident). They will not go vegan (except by accident). Most important, they will not lay the personally-driven but community organized foundation required to change the fundamental nature of the social relationship between human and nonhuman animals. We need to educate them to do so, and not just as individuals, but as a community.

Rights-based vegan education and community organization

What is critical to nonhuman animals is veganism based on the view that animals have (at least) one basic right: the right not to be used as property because they are moral persons. I didn't come up with this last idea. Gary L. Francione did. But I believe it. It is not just about educating people that animals suffer or that animal use is bad for the environment (although these are both often true). Those secrets are (increasingly) out.

Instead, animal advocates should focus on educating people about why causing other animals to suffer and exploiting them is morally wrong and why veganism is the most important thing (even if it is a basline) they can do in light of the rights of other animals. As important, advocates need to start building a community.

Handing out fliers is very important, but we need to shift our work from an ‘individual to individual’ approach, and instead, start building a lasting community with different institutions (e.g., youth groups, cooking classes) that emphasize different social relations (equality, feminism, anti-classism, anti-speciesism, etc.). We need to catalyze both personal and systemic change. Advocates need to undertake the work of organizing a community to build that change, since certainly, political communities do not build themselves.

We need to do the work to eliminate food deserts. We need to educate people about nutrition. We need to create shelters and rescues for nonhuman animals. We need to bring other human beings out of slavery (and you'd be surprised how many human beings still live in slavery or very close to it). That's the basis for change, and we can only do it as a community. That means doing outreach, but also creating youth groups, breakfast programs, co-op buying programs, businesses that create plant-based alternatives for food, clothing, entertainment and other animal uses today, teaching cooking classes and more.

In short, we need to create the alternative set of social relations right now today that will help turn personally-driven change into community-organized and organizing change. We need to start creating lasting social institutions in our community so that they will feel at home, want to stay and want to build with us. It's not a small task, but if we want to see social change, they we have to create it.

If you are not vegan, you should go vegan today. If you are not an abolitionist, but want to learn more about the approach, feel free to read my earlier articles or visit to learn more.
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