14 May 2004


People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is both loved and hated, both celebrated and excoriated, both supported and opposed. It might be said that those who love PETA do so because they accept its ends, while those who hate it do so because they reject its ends. PETA has a stake in promoting this view, for it diverts attention from the organization’s strategies and tactics.

I think the view being promoted is mistaken. There are many people who accept PETA’s ends but reject its means. There are many people who genuinely care about animals and would gladly throw their support behind a reputable organization, but who believe that PETA adopts reprehensible and counterproductive tactics. How do I know this? I teach. I receive letters. I read newspapers. I watch television. I’ve had over twenty years of experience with this issue. I know whereof I speak.

Can we agree that it’s wrong to degrade women (or any other group) in order to promote a goal? If so, then we can ask whether PETA’s campaigns degrade women. I believe they do. Can we agree that rational persuasion is superior to manipulation? If so, then we can ask whether PETA prefers the latter to the former. I believe it does. Can we agree that commercialization is bad? If so, then we can ask whether PETA is commercialized. I believe it is. Can we agree that a serious organization, devoted to long-lasting social change, should not rely on celebrity? If so, then we can ask whether PETA relies on celebrity. I believe it does.

I’m trying to reach agreement on moral principles so that we can discuss facts. Sometimes I get the feeling that, to PETA, the end justifies the means. If manipulation works better than rational persuasion, then by all means manipulate! If tactic A gets more attention than tactic B, thus getting PETA into the news, then tactic A is preferable to B. If degrading women or cozying up to powerful commercial interests helps animals, then it must be done.

I despise this sort of result-oriented thinking. It appalls me. Animals do not benefit, in the long run, from anything but rational persuasion. It particularly galls me to find philosophers supporting PETA. No self-respecting philosopher would manipulate an audience, however important the end. Philosophers are concerned with knowledge, not mere belief. Their objective isn’t to change people’s beliefs but to provide good grounds for belief. This rules out appeals to emotion, for example. It rules out buckets of blood, paint-throwing, rudeness, and other vile, self-defeating tactics. PETA turns off more people than it recruits. I’m convinced of it. Is this good for animals? With friends like PETA, animals don’t need enemies.

Philosophers must remain independent. They must avoid affiliation, association, and membership. Philosophers (think Socrates) are devoted single-mindedly to the acquisition of knowledge, which means, among other things, having rational grounds for belief. Nothing must interfere with this objective. The philosopher, as such, would rather not change beliefs at all than change them through disreputable means. Philosophers are deontologists, not consequentialists. Philosophical argumentation is constrained, not free.

I call upon my philosophical friends (they know who they are) to sever ties with PETA. Immediately. Regain your lost independence and self-respect. Come home to philosophy. Come back to what attracted you to philosophy in the first place: its integrity, its honesty, and its methodological purity. You can’t be both a philosopher and a shill. You can try to be both, but you can’t succeed at it.

No comments: