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What, if any, kinds of actions done to try to improve the treatment of animals (including, perhaps, trying to eliminate various uses of animals) are morally permissible? Which, if any, are morally obligatory? Changing our diets? Educating others? Working for larger cages and more humane treatment, or for the abolishment of (some) animal use industries, or both? Trying to change the laws to better protect animals? Illegal actions (done covertly or openly)? Undercover investigations to reveal animal abuse? Rescuing or releasing animals from animal use industries? Exposing people and businesses who support harmful animal use? Violence of any kind, ever? Threats of violence? Terrorism? We will explore a range of tactics and attempt to evaluate them morally.
A current heated controversy among animal advocates is whether they should be – as some describe it – either advocates of “animal welfare” and “welfare reforms,” or advocates for “animal rights” and the “abolition” of harmful animal use, or both. These terms are often ill-defined and not carefully thought through. This can lead to needless conflict among animal advocates and an inability to understand what kind of information might help resolve these debates. Thinking about “ends” or “goals” and “means” or “strategies” can help us understand these distinctions and better assess (and perhaps overcome) this debate amongst activists.
First, ends: what would be a morally acceptable end goal for the treatment of animals? What kind of world would we have if all animals were treated in morally permissible ways, where we could say, “We have achieved the moral goal for how animals ought to be treated, since none are treated wrongly anymore?”
Regan’s cat case presents two broad options – among many – for such a goal:
Anyone who claims (C) is an acceptable goal or end we can call a “welfarist”: they believe that once certain kinds of harms to animals are minimized or eliminated, it is still usually morally permissible to seriously harm animals, e.g., by killing them.
Their view might vary depending on the purposes behind these harms, of course. And there are important details, e.g., about which harms are permissible to cause and which aren’t, that they would need to explain so we fully understand the view. And, most importantly, whether any arguments in favor of welfarism are sound and withstand objections is something we would want to think about very carefully.
Anyone who believes that (C) is deficient for an ideal goal and that (D) is that ideal we might call a “genuine” animal rights advocate. Or, so that we say what we really mean, we could just say they believe that seriously harming animals is typically morally wrong, even if they are housed in comfortable cages, treated gently and killed painlessly. We would want to understand their reasons for why they think that, and whether any arguments in favor of this kind of view are sound and withstand critical scrutiny is something we would also want to think about very carefully.
Beyond the question of acceptable or ideal final goals or ends for animals is the question of “means”: what sort of actions, policies, strategies, campaigns, and other activist activities will be the most effective means toward the desired end goal for animals? In particular, if the goal is (D), the “animal rights” end, what should be done now to best achieve this, or get us closest to it, as soon as possible?
Here is where the debate begins. Should we now campaign for larger cages, and, once successful with that, then campaign for “no cages” – i.e., argue that animals shouldn’t be used in the first place? (Or should some activists do the former and other activists the latter?) The former might lead to some small improvements now (or it might not), but it also might forestall or prevent greater improvements that might have occurred had the focus been on “empty cages.” On the other hand, campaigns for “empty cages” might fall on too many deaf ears and yield no short term improvements. But perhaps enough ears eventually will hear the message and this will result in widespread abolition of animal use, perhaps incrementally, one industry or sub-industry after another. Or maybe not.
These debates are often divisive, but it’s not clear that they should be. For one, they often involve matters that are largely speculative, such as the long-term effects of some campaign strategy (as compared to another). Here we are dealing with little knowledge and hard data; we are often left with guesswork, hopes and under-informed estimations. This ignorance should result in greater humility and less dogmatism on this topic, and a call for formal training in areas that might bring in some useful information to help us answer these questions about means, such as economics, marketing, consumer psychology, statistics and so forth. We should agree that we don’t know what we need to know to bring about our desired end, and turn our focus towards gaining that knowledge.
A second reason why these debates shouldn’t be divisive is that it is not clear that they are philosophical ones. As suggested above, they are largely empirical and scientific. Our ends do not obviously dictate our means. Suppose we lived a few hundred years ago, came to believe that slavery was wrong and should be abolished, not merely made more “humane.” We have set our ends, but what means should we use to achieve that end ASAP? Back then, there was no obvious answer, for reasons comparable to those mentioned about. These issues were debated then (and are still debated now, since human slavery still exists) and animal advocates can surely learn from studying that debate.
As a concrete example of the issue above, some animal advocacy organizations have recently begun giving a “platform” for animal-use industries, especially those who practice so-called “humane” farming. Whether this is an effective (or dismal) strategic means to help bring about an “animal rights” end, or whether this should be seen as a statement that the morally acceptable end really is “welfarism” is something that many activists have begun debating.
Let us now turn to some more controversial forms of activism. Consider “open rescues” of animals from farms: these typically involve trespass, breaking and entering, and theft of animals that are somebody’s property. All these actions are illegal. Some people argue that such rescues are morally wrong because they are illegal. They might argue similarly against any form of activism that involves illegal activity.
These are unsound arguments and nearly everyone agrees with that because nearly everyone believes that this unstated premise, which is essential to the argument, is false:
Necessarily, if an action is illegal, then it is morally impermissible.
Hiding Jews from Nazi’s was illegal, yet morally permissible; helping slaves escape to freedom was illegal, yet morally permissible. Many more examples make the same point. Contrary to a common reaction, these examples do not make any “comparisons” whatsoever between animal issues and slavery or human holocausts; they are simply used to show that any (or just about any) argument against some kind of activism based on the premise that it is illegal is unsound (or, at least, just about everyone’s beliefs entail that it is unsound, since they think the above premise is false: just because something is illegal does not necessarily entail that it is morally wrong).
Animal advocates are advised to read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” They will find much to resonate with Dr. King’s discussion.
More controversial forms of activism involve violence or threats of violence of different kinds. Violence comes in many different forms, as our authors observe.
Some animal advocates, e.g., some members of the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), engage in property destruction (e.g., of animal cages, computers with experimental data, etc.) and even sometimes even arson. Although they claim that their actions are “non-violent,” this strains the concept of violence. They argue that since they are not violent to anyone, i.e., they do not inflict bodily harm on anyone, they thereby act non-violently.
This inference does not follow: one can act violently yet do no violence to anyone. For example, it seems to make perfect sense to say that someone could violently smash carton of fruits and vegetables with a sledgehammer, especially if the person was in a heated frenzy. One might not want young children to see such a spectacle because, well, it’s too violent! So the ALF’s insistence that they are always non-violent strains the meaning of the term.
Perhaps they (and animal use industries) want to insist that they are non-violent because they think this principle is true:
All acts of violence are morally impermissible.
If this were true, and they acted violently (in performing arson, or in how they treat animals, for example), that would imply that they were acting wrongly.
But the above principle is false, according to most people: violence can be, and often is, morally justified. If violence (or threats of violence) are needed for self-defense, then it’s permissible. If it’s needed to defend an innocent third party, then it’s justified. Perhaps some wars can be justified. So the above principle is false, according to most people.
Most people might even think that it’s false regarding some animals too: if someone tried to attack your dog or cat, might you be morally justified in responding with violence, or threats of violence, to defend your companion animal, if needed? What if the animal was a stray? What if the animal was in a farm, slaughterhouse or lab? If they knew the details of the case, perhaps many people might think that violence, if needed for defending animals, would be morally permissible in at least some of these cases.
So perhaps violence could be justified in cases of rescue. Whether violence can ever be justified for any other purposes, e.g., in an attempt to change society’s general views about our obligations to animals, seems extremely doubtful. In fact, given all the relevant considerations, it is likely that any such violence, including possible genuine “terrorism,” would be deeply morally wrong, for reasons that Regan, Singer and Rowlands articulate.
 Some might observe that, in practice, those who call themselves “welfarists” or “advocates of animal welfare” typically accept just about any use of animals, i.e., they deem just about all harmful uses of animals as “necessary” and/or respecting “animal welfare.” This may be true, but it doesn’t show that welfarism is false. This may, however, suggest that there really is no clearly defined view “welfarism”: it’s just some words that people use but the view really has no implications for animal use because we can’t pin it down in any rigorous way. See Gary Francione’s writings for discussion (Google).
 Widely reposted online; http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf