26 May 2004

Thinking Philosophically About PETA

It’s undeniable that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is controversial. Sometimes I think controversy is its objective. By why would that be, unless it were clear that controversy advanced PETA’s goals? Is it clear? Let’s think about it.

There are four categories of people (logically):
1. Those who treat animals respectfully no matter what PETA does.

2. Those who treat animals disrespectfully no matter what PETA does.

3. Those who treat animals respectfully as a result of what PETA does.

4. Those who treat animals disrespectfully as a result of what PETA does.
Let’s call those in categories 3 and 4, respectively, converts and perverts. Both converts and perverts, by definition, have been affected (influenced) by PETA’s actions, but in different ways. Converts are those who, but for PETA, would continue to eat meat, wear leather, &c. Perverts are those who, but for PETA, would become vegetarians, or at least take seriously arguments for vegetarianism.

Whenever I talk like this in front of PETA members or sympathizers, I’m told that category 4 is not important. Only category 3 is important. But why isn’t category 4 important? If you care about animals, shouldn’t you care that you’re turning people away from your cause? Maybe the point is that category 4 has few or no members. But that’s an empirical question concerning which, qua philosopher, I have no expertise. My own experience over the past few years suggests that category 4 has many members, not few.

Let’s think about this. Imagine a thoughtful, sensitive person who grew up in an omnivorous family and who enjoys eating meat and other animal products. I think this describes most people. The person in question has a vague sense that we wrong animals by eating them, using them in experiments, and so forth, but hasn’t integrated this intuition into his or her value system or web of belief. This person is ripe for the picking, philosophically. He or she will be receptive to fair-minded, clear-headed argumentation about how we should treat animals.

Along comes PETA with its bucket-of-blood campaign, paint-throwing, name-calling, woman-degrading, celebrity-mongering, publicity-whoring behavior. The person in question may have children and not appreciate the in-your-face tactics used by PETA. What does PETA say about this person? Does PETA care about this person? I assure you that PETA’s tactics turn this person away, perhaps forever, from the cause of animal liberation. This person was, but no longer is, persuadable. Is this good for animals?

PETA might reply, first, that the person’s behavior is irrational. Perhaps so, but that doesn’t save any animals. PETA might reply, second, that this cost (alienation) is outweighed by the benefits of in-your-face campaigns. Is there any evidence of that? In other words, are there more converts than perverts? My sense is that there are more perverts than converts: More otherwise receptive people are turned off by PETA than are taken in by it. This is why I say that PETA has been a net detriment to animals. Its ends may be laudable, but its means are lousy and self-defeating. Unfortunately, PETA seems unwilling to even address this issue.

With friends like PETA, animals don’t need enemies.

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