A Brief Overview of the Strategies of the Animal Rights Movement
Barbro Nordling, Oscar Horta and Andres Cameselle.
The struggle for animal rights has been waged by means of different strategies, based on various analyses of the context and their possibilities for success. Those who have defended each of these different strategies have worked hard to help nonhuman animals, and we can only applaud their wholehearted efforts and sacrifices for the cause. This must not, however, lead us to overlook the importance of continued analysis of what have been the advantages and disadvantages of the different ways of working to accomplish the aims we all should share. Reflection and constructive debate are among our most powerful weapons.
1. Regulationism. From bigger cages to empty cages?
The “animal welfare” movement started at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Its objective was, and continues to be, to ensure that the use of animals entails the least possible suffering for them. Another movement appeared in the 70s, whose aim was not to ameliorate the conditions in which animals are used, but to end animal use altogether. This was called the animal rights movement, as its aim was to grant nonhuman animals the legal status of right holders (which would imply the end of their status as chattels and their subsequent use as resources). Thus they are two movements with altogether different objectives. Welfarism (the animal welfare philosophy) accepts what animal rights defenders challenge: the use of animals as commodities.
However, given the difficulties in accomplishing the objectives of the animal rights movement, there have been a number of organisations and activists within it who have chosen to adopt a regulationist strategy. This consists of engaging in different campaigning and lobbying tactics to achieve regulation of the ways in which animals are used, in order to alleviate the suffering of those animals that humans use as resources. (These regulations are generally legal ones, but can also consist of a private initiative by a company that uses animals, in respect of how this use may take place.)
The most common arguments in favour of this regulationist strategy are:
i) It will achieve concrete improvements and do it now,
ii) It will bring about changes in the law, as these allegedly have real significance, amounting to more than what can be achieved by changes in public opinion.
iii) Welfarist campaigns will eventually lead to the abolition of the use of animals due to the progressive raising of awareness on the issue.
These arguments can be criticised on several counts:
1. Regulationism defends only some interests of animals. Many of them, sometimes their most fundamental interests, would still be thwarted even if so-called “welfare” regulations were implemented. This happens, for instance, when killing animals is accepted and only the infliction of what is considered “unnecessary pain” on them is objected.
2. Significant changes are those that take place in people’s attitudes, at the level of public opinion: changes in law being a mere reflection of these. We can see this if we analyse the way in which speciesist discrimination of nonhuman animals is articulated today.
Current status of nonhuman animals:
Level Moral Socio-economic Legal
Reasons for nonhuman animals status assignment Human moral agent’s socialisation in a speciesist context
Discrimination against their interests
Discrimination against their interests and use for human purposes
Status of nonhuman animals Beings not fully significant in a moral sense. Resources for human purposes Chattels/Property objects
Consequences that status brings Discrimination against their interests Use for human purposes Lack of legal rights
We can see in this diagram how it is actually the attitudes that people hold that cause animals to be used, and this determines what consideration animals will be given in law. The general consequence to derive from this is that it is at the level of public attitudes where the struggle for the end of discrimination against nonhumans has to take place. The struggle at the economic and legal level must depend on that.
3. There is no relation between incremental reforms and abolition: reducing animals’ suffering does not bring any nearer the end of their use. As a result of regulationist campaigns, rather than being drawn towards a close, animal use is legitimised and reinforced with such regulation. Indeed, those who utilise animals also defend “animal welfare”: One just needs to look at the fact that many companies or bodies interested in the use of animals themselves have launched their own animal welfare initiatives (see, for instance, the National Animal Interest Alliance in the USA, or in the UK the Research Defence Society commitments to animal welfare –with its annual animal welfare prize). Hence, there is a paradox, as animal utilisation advocates and regulationists generate the same thinking in the minds of the public: we can exploit animals, as long as their suffering is minimised.
It is true that this conclusion need not follow from regulationism. Just as opposition to the use of animals is independent of any facts of how animals are used in practice, inversely improving animal conditions need not logically contradict the argument against speciesism. However, things are not that simple. The fact is that for many people abandoning some of their habits that involve using animals requires much of an effort. For this reason, welfarist arguments often serve as an easy excuse not to fully consider the arguments against animal use. That is why, at the end of the day, regulationism presents an obstacle for the understanding and acceptance of the antispeciesist case.
Moreover, welfarist campaigns, aimed at bringing about legal changes, are enormously costly in terms of resources. These are, then, wasted, as they could have a much greater impact if they were directly dedicated to campaigns aimed at arousing public concern. It is, in fact, the public who can really decide whether animals are used or not, basically through their choices as consumers.
2. Rescues and attacks on centres where animals are used
This strategy entails means such as rescuing animals from premises where they are kept, or damaging the facilities employed for animal use. This usually involves a breach of the law.
The different objectives that motivate this kind of action are the following:
1) Rescuing those animals taken from centres of exploitation. The interests of those individual animals are considered to be what matters, independently of any other repercussions the action may have.
2) Causing the collapse of animal abusive businesses through economic sabotage. Those actions that destroy property are supposed to bring animal exploitation to the point where it is no longer profitable.
3) Creating a public debate about the animal rights issue by making use of the publicity created by these actions.
At first glance, this strategy might seem not only a logical but also quite an effective way of achieving these goals. Nevertheless, there are several reasons to doubt such an assumption:
1) The statement that those who matter are the individuals, as they are the ones who possess interests, seems indeed accurate. Accordingly, it appears that we should develop those activities which can save the highest number of individuals. Carrying out actions that rescue a few of them, instead of engaging in activities that raise awareness about the issue (thus saving many more animals) is losing the point that drove someone to carry out the action in the first place. If by running stalls, giving conferences, organising informative demonstrations and other actions aimed at raising public awareness we save a very significant number of animals by reducing their use (which appears to be the case), going to a farm or lab to save just a small number of them makes little sense.
This criticism is deepened by the fact that the vast majority of the animals rescued are replaced, meaning that, in terms of numbers, no animals are really saved. Rescuing some of them implies condemning those that will occupy their places.
Besides, rescued animals need appropriate care and attention, which means employing a substantial amount of the time of many activists who could be working in other, more effective ways, as well as a great deal of money –needed for sanctuaries, food, vets, and the like–.
2) The idea of making animal exploitation unprofitable by means of economic sabotage seems attractive at first, but cannot be maintained in light of the actual situation we face. As has been argued before, animals are used not because there is a small number of individuals who have an interest in exploiting them, but because the whole of society demands their use. In our current situation, when most human beings use animals as slaves and this is rarely questioned, trying to bring down all animal abusive practices by destroying property seems to be doomed to failure. It amounts to starting a war against virtually the whole of humanity and believing it can be won.
3) Actions involving destruction of property, such as burning down a meat truck or smashing the windows of a fur shop, are regarded by most of society as outrageous (even by many of those who otherwise would be prepared to support the animal rights cause). This does bring the animal rights issue into the public arena, but in what way? A number of actions receive coverage by the media just to be severely condemned, portraying animal advocates as “terrorists” or “thugs”, and hardly ever explaining anything about the rationale behind their actions. As a result, the debate these actions provoke has nothing to do with the arguments for and against speciesism, being diverted, instead, to the morality of the means used.
Thus, resorting to those actions to promote the case for animals seems actually to be particularly counterproductive. It does not help to create a debate about how fair it is to undervalue the interests of animals, and it alienates many from the animal rights discourse without even getting to know it.
These objections do not entail taking any moral stance against this course of action for being illegal or coercive. One does not need to morally disapprove damaging animal use-devised facilities to oppose it on strategic grounds. What is claimed here is that given the current social context, these tactics are counterproductive in furthering the case for animals.
There are, however, other kinds of actions which deserve a separate evaluation. These are the ones in which the purpose is getting images (through photo or video footage) of the animals kept for human use, so that public awareness about their fate can be raised. There is of course the possibility that our message will be misunderstood, and that the public believes that it is the conditions in which animals are used, rather than their actual use that we oppose. Nonetheless, the problems we have highlighted above regarding destruction of property no longer apply, here, as trespassing in order to publicise facts does not generate the strong opposition that causing damage does.
3. Closing down business where animals are utilised
In recent years, a new course of action has emerged within the animal defence movement. Its objective is the gradual elimination of centres where animals are utilised, such as vivisection laboratories, or farms supplying animals for experimentation.
The reasons for adopting this course of action are various. It is regarded as forceful because a chain effect is expected – by closing some places down it is thought that the industry as a whole will be less economically profitable and it will be made more difficult to carry on. Therefore, many businesses would, allegedly, give up (or not start up in the first place).
Sometimes this approach seems to stem from frustration at seeing how slowly progress has been made. Moreover, the question has been raised as to whether changes in public opinion regarding animal use are possible at all. For this reason, the image created of the movement is considered to be secondary or even of no significance. The only repercussions considered are those that have to do with the supposed victory/failure (closing down a business, or failing to do so).
Bearing in mind the strategic objective, the tactics can be more properly assessed. As the aim is to close down particular, specific places, all means that can bring this about are considered effective. This is clearly illustrated by the wide spectrum of tactics employed, ranging from intimidating workers, demonstrations at the site of the exploitation centre and economic sabotage, to leafleting and street stalls. The material, however, is generally not focussed on the issue of animal rights. Instead, it is aimed to draw attention to the single place which is the target of the campaign. Thus, we see a plethora of welfarist propaganda, information on illegal matters or breaches of regulations and, in the case of vivisection laboratories, descriptions of badly-conducted science.
Without an analysis of the causes for and background to animal use, the true advantages of a strategy cannot be evaluated. Let it therefore be said that if it were the case that exploitation were restricted to certain businesses and establishments, few in number, the strategy makes perfect sense. With public support for and full understanding of animal rights, all means that can close down the places in question are effective.
But this is hardly an accurate analysis of the way things are. Such a scenario has little to do with what is actually happening around us. As we have said before, in the world today, animals are not used because some evil people, a cruel or greedy minority of society, ruthlessly want to inflict harm on them. Those who farm, kill, or harm animals in any way do so simply because of public demand. It is the people (or most of the people, at any rate), who want to use animals; not because they want to harm them, but because they want to obtain certain animal products and other advantages from their use. Today, virtually everyone agrees with the idea that nonhuman animals can be utilised by humans. Exploitation does not exist in isolation, but rather is the norm. So we cannot expect to end it by confronting some of the very particular places in which, among many others, it takes place.
The main problem implicit in this strategy, however, is not that it misses the point when selecting its target, but that it brings serious counter-productive effects:
1. As it selects one specific centre of utilisation of animals as its target, it conveys the idea that the problem is not animal utilisation as such, but the way in which it is taking place in that particular place. This is reinforced by all the arguments that intend to discredit the place(s) rather than animal utilisation and speciesism as such.
2. The use of such “non-anti-speciesist” arguments also gives the idea that human interests are still, after all, most important, as even those who claim to defend animals mainly use arguments that are not questioning this.
3. Finally, the use of tactics that a large part of the public sees as unacceptable (such as intimidating workers employed in the places targeted) alienates many people. This is a result of not taking into account the fact that the general idea society has of animal rights defenders may, by extension, apply to the animal rights arguments
4. Gradual prohibitions
One of the strategies used nowadays by animal rights advocates is focussed on achieving gradual prohibitions of certain practices, as a means to achieve the total abolition of the use of animals. Unlike the case of regulationism, the prohibitions this strategy intends to achieve are not reforms in the ways animals are treated when used. On the contrary, it aims to ban altogether certain practices in which animals are used. In this manner, a different way of campaigning for legal advances for animals can be followed, not condoning the practice itself, as welfarist campaigns do.
The practices towards which the campaigns for bans are directed tend to be the ones that are easier to tackle. The expectation is that they will set a precedent for new, more ambitious prohibitions to take place. An underlying idea in all this is also that changes in law are something permanent, so that, once we have succeeded in introducing a ban, this will mean the end of a specific use of animals, though the number of these will be relatively small, as the prohibited practices will surely not be the major ones involving animals.
By following these campaigns we can certainly spare certain animals from being used and killed. However, it is crucial to carefully analyse their utility. We must not assume that demanding a practice to be ruled out will be effective in itself, regardless of the consequences the campaign will produce.
If the discourse of a pro-ban campaign is fundamentally centred on the issue of speciesism, and makes clear that the targeted practice is not less justified than others, it may (in some cases, depending of the practice that is disputed) prove to be a fruitful campaign. It may be productive if it leads the public to question discrimination against nonhuman animals. But there is reason to be cautious, as there is the indubitable risk of our message being misunderstood. We can give the impression of considering the targeted practice as particularly unacceptable, while others are not. For example, demanding a ban on fur or blood sports can create the impression that fur is somehow “worse” than leather, or that hunting is bad just because it is “for fun” (while meat eating could be seen as more justified, as it is not done for “entertainment”).
In addition to this, further problems frequently arise in relation to this kind of campaign, because the arguments against speciesism are often neglected. More common are arguments referring to the “cruelty” of the practices criticised. While this makes putting an end to the practice easier in the short term, in the long run it can be just as pernicious as regulationist campaigns: the use of animals (or the way they are used) is only seen as unjust if it is “excessive” or “cruel”. By trying to outlaw those practices that many think should disappear, we could unwittingly justify those that are still widely unchallenged, when our aim is to communicate to the general public that all uses of animals are “excessive”.
Of course, that does not mean that bans of this kind are not desirable. The eventual abolition of the use of animals as resources is, of course, an objective of anti-speciesist campaigns. But the question here should be whether to campaign directly to achieve them or rather to generate a social debate about animal use itself. By raising awareness about equality among human and nonhuman animals not only will many animal lives be spared as people cease to consume them: the use of nonhumans as resources will end up receiving enough opposition by the public as for being prohibited due to social pressure. Surely, as defenders of the strategy in question rightly argue, not all practices will be outlawed at once, but gradual bans will take place as society changes. Prohibitions will be a subsequent consequence of our campaigns, directed not against specific practices but towards discrimination against nonhuman animals in general. Therefore, questioning speciesism seems to be the safest and fastest way to achieve a total abolition of all animal use (if that is ever to happen).
Besides this, since our goal is to save as many animals as possible, it can also be argued that reducing the demand for animal use would be preferable to banning certain specific practices in which fewer animals are involved. In this manner, campaigning, for instance, for an animal-free diet would be more appropriate than advocating the abolition of, say, rodeos, greyhound racing or fur farming. An argument against this statement is that prohibitions are something permanent, that will remain once achieved, whereas changes in public opinion are changeable, unstable: just as the public can stop using animals, they can resume consuming them. Nevertheless, this objection, although sound, is not categorical. Socially significant changes regarding moral aspects which are relevant to everyone’s life are not likely to be straightforwardly drawn back. Once the public dismisses one practice as unacceptable, it is not easy for it to become publicly accepted again, if the arguments are properly understood (the issue of fur “coming back” is to be expected, as no anti-speciesist arguments were employed during the anti-fur campaigns). You do not need a law to persuade you to take a moral view. To give an example of this: in some countries, it is legal to shoot people who enter your land. However, there are many who oppose this, and they would not shoot anyone who walked onto their property, even if they had the right to do so. There is no reason to think people will change their view and start shooting trespassers, just because there is no law against it. On the other hand, laws can be revoked at some point, and can also be disobeyed.
5. Challenging speciesism
Considering what we have discussed so far, it should be apparent that we are in need of a strategy which really addresses the relevant issues at stake. To achieve this, we firstly have to distinguish clearly what the objective of our campaigns should be.
Animals are used simply because people get some advantage from doing so, as they can obtain certain goods or services. Why are animals bred or captured for food? Because people want to eat them. Why are animals bred or captured for their leather, fur, or down…? Because people want these products to wear. Why are animals bred or captured to be sold in shops as companions, exhibited in zoos or circuses, or to be used for sport…? Because people want to use animals in such ways. It is not that people are callous or that they want to express their dominion over animals. It is, rather, that people simply want to enjoy the advantages that using animals gives them (tasting or wearing animal products, or enjoying animal performances, for example). Most people have never reflected on the consequences for the other party involved, namely nonhuman animals. They have been taught since childhood that that is the way things are. They learn that humans are entitled to use other animals. They live in a speciesist society and act accordingly, as they never come across any other point of view on the issue. They never hear the reasons that refute the various arguments in defence of speciesism and which explain why nonhuman animals should be considered from a moral perspective.
It could be said that animal experimentation is a case apart, as it is not always the public who demands it, but instead companies, institutions and governmental bodies. However, this case is not really very different from the others. If animal experimentation thrives it is only due to the kind of mentality now prevalent in society. Companies are run in order to make profits from their customers, that is, the public, and governments always have to restrict – to some extent – their policies in order to maintain some legitimacy. So if they now promote the use of experimental procedures involving animals, it can only be due to the lack of public opposition to this practice (mainly to animal experiments for medical purposes).
Hence, we find again that it is challenging speciesist attitudes that will eventually lead to an end to animal experimentation.
As a consequence of what was argued above, it seems clear that if we want to follow a strategy that truly aims to help animals we should focus on eliminating the demand for animal use by consumers. Of course, this could be done by presenting reasons not necessarily linked to animals’ interests. This is something that actually happens when, for example, vegetarianism is defended on environmental or health grounds. But like this we would be repeating an error that we have already touched upon when discussing other strategies: trivialising the case for animal rights. Besides, the efficacy in the long run of such a course of action will be minimal. If we campaign for vegetarianism for health or environmental reasons, then when it comes to opposing animal experiments what we have been saying in the case of vegetarianism will not help our cause at all. We will have to start from scratch again. And, the same way, if we base our arguments on, say, medical concerns against vivisection, when it comes to wearing animals we will once more have to use a different argument that has not been presented before.
If, instead, we argue against speciesism, we will be exposing the whole issue, regardless of the kind of exploitation we are facing at any particular moment. All uses of animals have a common root, the reasons to oppose them are quite simple and should be addressed as such: nonhuman animals’ interests should be taken into account just as human interests are. The criteria that are usually appealed to in order to determine what is morally relevant when defending a speciesist view (such as the possession of certain intellectual capacities) have no significance, as they do not determine a subject’s capacity for being benefited or harmed. The only factor that can be relevant when it comes to being respected is the ability to feel suffering and joy.
As a result, we can see how this strategy meets the following requirements:
1. Far from being a utopian approach, as has been claimed by some critics, it is indeed a highly realistic strategy. It initiates a progressive reduction of the demand for animal products. This way, it is saving lives right now, as the public stops consuming them.
2. Unlike the case of regulationism, the reduction of the demand for animal products means that basic and not only secondary interests are defended. The animals spared because they will not be used for human purposes are not just spared some harm when being used, but all kind of harm inflicted by humans.
3. By following this strategy, many people will find our position unacceptable –from a speciesist point of view. But it cannot be otherwise: the message we promote collides abruptly with the present common view that people have of animals. However, the more people get used to our argument, the less shocking they will find it. If the AR movement starts focusing on challenging speciesism now, a real change in people’s mentality may occur relatively soon. This will not happen if we don’t address the problem as what it is (for example, referring to cruelty or compassion instead of injustice or arbitrary discrimination). Nevertheless, while our argument will sound very new to many today, it will seem less strange once the debate about the issue is widespread due to anti-speciesist campaigns. While it is harder to change someone’s mind if they have never questioned their views on something, the change of mentality is much easier for someone who has heard certain arguments while growing up. New generations will be brought up within a context of debate about animal equality, which will allow them to understand and accept the idea much more easily. This is far from what is happening nowadays, as almost the whole of the movement is neglecting the promotion of the very argument on which it is based: speciesism is unjust.
Still, there is a clear difference between the kind of rejection that the challenging of speciesism often receives and the one caused due to the use of tactics that people consider unacceptable. The first one is unavoidable if we want to create a debate on the ethics of using animals. On the other hand, the second one is unnecessary for accomplishing that task. It generates a debate not about speciesism itself, but on the acceptability of using certain methods, which is obviously not what we should aim for.
4. It is sometimes claimed that, even if one strategy may be very effective while others are not, following several strategies will take our struggle further. As we have seen here, this does not seem to be the case. Following fundamentally flawed approaches to activism can severely impair our case, and seems illogical when we have other ways which will better address our tasks to accomplish the objectives we all share. However, of course, campaigning by challenging speciesism can be done in many different ways. Campaign methods as described above are many and various. There is a wide spectrum of possibilities for effective activism challenging speciesism: information stalls on city streets, conferences, street actions aimed at attracting media attention, demonstrations, letters to newspapers, articles and publications, info-spreading through the internet, the use of art as a way to promote our message… Each of these should be considered and put into action according to what seems appropriate at the time.
It can be said that the rest of the strategies (regulationism, focusing on closing down a particular business, gradual prohibitions, rescuing animals or attacking the different kinds of places where animals are used) can also question speciesism, even without overtly addressing the arguments against it, by implicitly showing it as unjustified. But that seems rather implausible. Public debate about species discrimination is practically inexistent today, so it is virtually impossible that people can understand that those who carry out these actions do so to question speciesism. Surely the public will be aware that there are people opposing certain uses of animals. But that does not mean that they will get the idea that those activists oppose all animal use. Most importantly, neither does it entail that the reasons behind such opposition will be understood.
Besides, there can also be other motives why one can use or support those strategies. One could just consider unjustified the actual way in which animals are treated. One can be a speciesist who finds acceptable the use of nonhuman animals as long as this implies the least possible suffering for them. Therefore, one would support the rescuing of animals to stop their use in particularly harsh conditions, the introduction of regulations to ameliorate their situation, the closure of those centres in which they are worst treated or the prohibition of those practices that are considered more “cruel” and “unnecessary”. This shows how all these strategies can also be perfectly consistent from a speciesist point of view. Therefore, it is quite dubious whether they can serve to spread antispeciesism. The best proof for this is that today, although animal rights campaigns appear repeatedly in the media, public understanding of why speciesism is unacceptable is virtually nonexistent.
It is important to remark that the analysis made here is a strategic, not an ideological one. The goal that all the strategies we have examined aim to accomplish is the same: the end of animal use. The differences that we can find among them have to do with their efficiency to achieve their goals. They are not right or wrong in themselves, but can be so in relation to the setting in which they are put to practice, and the results they hence obtain. We do not support or oppose any of the strategies described for any moral or ideological reason, but because of strategic considerations.
The question is not only what are we entitled to do to end animal use, but also what will help better to accomplish that task.