12 July 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 14

Every social movement has both moderates and extremists. The difference is what they are willing to do—or, more precisely, not willing to do—in pursuit of their objective(s). They share ends, but not means. Some extremists are willing to harm others to achieve their goals, thinking, perhaps, that nothing will ever change if one works within the system. This was the agonizing choice Dr Martin Luther King Jr faced. Given his goal of a colorblind society, which means were best calculated to bring it about? He could have worked within the system, but he believed that that would never change anything, since the system was rigged against people of color. So he decided to disobey the law. But this disobedience, he insisted, had to be nonviolent. It was a form of communication, an initiation of dialogue with those who stood in the way of a just society.

Moderates face a dilemma. Either they repudiate their extreme colleagues or they do not. If they repudiate them, they risk alienating them and losing their energy and resources. If they do not repudiate them, they risk alienating their audience. Many people favor social change but are not willing to endorse or accept just any means to that change. They are, in philosophical terms, deontologists. They believe that evil may not be done that good may come. They believe that the end does not justify the means.

Many people, such as my Ethics of War co-blogger Len Carrier, sincerely believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake. They may believe that some good has come from the war, but not enough to justify the costs. Others take it to absurd extremes, propounding conspiracy theories about why the United States went to war, making personal attacks on those who waged it, and doing everything possible to undermine the war effort. When presidential candidate Wesley Clark was asked to repudiate some of the wild assertions made by one of his supporters, Michael Moore, he refused to do so. This was unfortunate (and telling), for it made it seem as though he were just as irrational as Moore, and nobody wants an irrational president. I know I don’t.

You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about war in Iraq in a post ostensibly about animals. It’s because there’s a parallel. Many people believe that factory farming and other horrific practices must be abolished. But by what means? Some people advocate working within the system, trying to muster support for enactment, amendment, or repeal of laws. Others are impatient with this, thinking, as King did, that nothing will ever change by working within the system. Some of the impatient ones take extreme measures, such as destroying property or injuring or killing persons. This is a serious problem for the animal-liberation movement. If the aim is to change minds, resorting to violence may be counterproductive.

I’m a moderate when it comes to animal liberation. I believe that in the long run, the most effective means to social change is rational persuasion. Not force, not coercion, not manipulation. The people I persuade will manifest their changed attitudes and beliefs both in their personal lives (by changing their diets, for example) and in their political behavior. We live in a democracy. Each of us is entitled to vote our consciences. My goal is to work on consciences. I believe this is also the goal of Peter Singer. Perhaps we philosophers are naïve, but we are committed to reason. We would rather not persuade at all than persuade by nonrational means.

Some people are frustrated by the slowness of this process. But look how much progress has been made in the past hundred years. The moral and legal status of nonhuman animals has improved considerably. No, it hasn’t changed nearly enough. There is a great deal of work yet to be done. It breaks my heart to see how animals are abused and neglected day in and day out. But I’m convinced that resorting to violence against person or property in the name of animals is not the way to go. It may be personally satisfying, but it doesn’t ultimately help the animals we profess to care about.

I hereby repudiate organizations such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth First! to the extent that they advocate, endorse, tolerate, or engage in violent actions. Everyone who cares about animals should do the same. This is not a betrayal of the cause. It is fidelity to the cause. The betrayers are those who, looking only at the short run or their own satisfaction, undermine public support for the goal of protecting animals.

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