09 August 2007

One Mind at a Time

A reader sent a link to this column, which raises the perennial question of how best to change society. Resorting to violence against person or property is not in the long-term best interests of animals, as Peter Singer has argued. Those who break duly enacted laws should be punished. If they believe the law they've broken is unjust, they should take their punishment as a way of (1) demonstrating their sincerity and (2) opening a dialogue with those who disagree with them. This is what Martin Luther King Jr taught. It's called nonviolent civil disobedience. All of us are entitled to work within the political system to enact laws we believe just and to repeal or amend laws we believe unjust. All of us are entitled to spend our money in animal-friendly ways. (If you want, you can think of this as "punishing" those who use animals as resources.) I've been a proponent of animal rights for more than a quarter of a century. I am convinced that the best means of change, in the long run, is rational persuasion. Not force. Not coercion. Not manipulation. If you care about animals, as I do, you will work within the system to improve their lives. Yes, this will take time, for it means addressing individuals one by one, respectfully, showing that their own beliefs and values commit them (logically) to changing the way they treat animals. (See here for an example of this approach.) Nothing worth doing is quick, cheap, or easy. Think long-term. Do what's best for the animals, not what makes you feel good.

Addendum: In case you're wondering how a conservative such as me can support animal rights, I have just explained how. Conservatives are not opposed to change; that's a vicious progressive stereotype. They're opposed to exogenous change. Change that comes from within the system, practice, or institution, in response to the felt needs and desires of individuals, is perfectly acceptable to a conservative. Progressives, by contrast, seek to impose change from without. They are impatient with endogenous change. Another difference is that conservatives want change to be gradual, so that mistakes can be identified and corrected before they become disastrous. Progressives, by contrast, advocate abrupt change, which, while satisfying to those with an engineering mentality, is dangerous. It's interesting that when it comes to the environment, it's progressives who insist that, given the complexity and fragility of ecosystems, we should intervene cautiously, if at all. Society is every bit as complex and fragile as an ecosystem. Why should the same caution not apply there? In short, conservatives can and should work to change the way people treat animals. They should work within the political system to elect people who take animals seriously. They should work within the legal system to see that laws against abuse and neglect are enforced. They should spend their money in animal-friendly ways. Most importantly, they should engage in rational persuasion. I believe that rational persuasion is the most secure basis for change. You might say, cynically, that I believe this because I'm a philosopher. No. I'm a philosopher because I believe this.

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