There’s been another well-intentioned discussion over at Salon TableTalk about animal rights, as Soybean, the originator and moderator of the discussion, attempted to persuade other progressives that “Using animals for food and clothing causes suffering, is bad for human health, is bad for the environment and is a huge public safety risk.” When the discussion, as in past similar threads, degenerated into name-calling, Soybean asked me to diagnose what had gone wrong. My answer was that discussion forums are not a particularly good vehicle for persuasion at the best of times (they’re more useful for debating, and for gathering ideas and collaborating with others), and also that there is a tendency for those of us who are idealists on the subject of animal rights (or any progressive subject for that matter) to tick off pragmatists by not offering a practical, achievable process to achieve our stated objective.

That got me thinking about a pragmatic approach to animal rights, one which could unite all progressives in common cause, and become an integral part of all progressive organizations’ agendas.

The end-game on animal rights for us radical idealists — a large part of the planet set aside as wilderness with minimal human intervention allowed; an end to factory farming (and perhaps even all animal agriculture) as a means of providing human food and clothing, and acceptance of a vegan lifestyle — is just too big a jump for many progressives to accept in a single leap. Some progressives even see such an agenda as anti-humanist, at a time when the people of many countries are desperately striving to achieve self-sufficiency and an end to poverty, through the raising of farmed animals. To them, more wilderness means less land for the struggling poor, and they have a point.

What I have been chatting with Soybean on is a two-stage approach with both a short-term and long-term vision. The short-term vision, the first stage, is to enact laws that punish people who needlessly abuse domesticated animals or subject farmed, laboratory, or wild animals to extreme or protracted cruelty or suffering. This is, I think, an acceptable goal to the vast majority of people on the planet: It is consistent with almost every human moral code and its acceptance does not impose significant economic hardship on anyone. Even this first stage, however, will require both sides on the sometimes rancorous debate over animal rights to hold their nose when they agree: For many of us, the word ‘needlessly’ is a weasel word that could be used to excuse otherwise inexcusable behaviour. It is, for those with more advanced animal rights agendas, a pitifully small step in the right direction. At the same time, even this will be troublesome to farmers and laboratories who will be concerned about how the courts could interpret ‘needlessly’, ‘abuse’, and ‘extreme or protracted cruelty or suffering’. They will see it as threatening to their livelihood by opening them up to ‘frivolous’ prosecution by animal rights ‘extremists’, and as the thin edge of the wedge to further incursions and eventual shut-down of their operations.

I believe the courts would be able to establish precedents fairly quickly and easily on the definition of these terms, and we would then finally have laws with teeth that could reduce the extraordinary number of heinous and deplorable cases of unprosecuted and unprosecutable animal abuse and neglect that occur every day. At the same time, we need to start working to develop genuine innovations that would replace much of the need for the most morally repugnant factory farm and laboratory practices, and so allow the broadening of the term ‘needlessly’ in these first-stage laws. Such innovations could include:

  1. Procedures for testing on tissue cultures instead of live animals (already in use in much of Europe, and in Japan);
  2. Processes to make free-range organic farming economically competitive with factory farming (these could be greatly enabled by eliminating the agricultural subsidies that today go almost entirely to big agribusiness, or at least by making such subsidies available equally to organic and small family farms, so that there is a level playing field); and
  3. Invention of new organic, vegetable-based proteins with flavours, colours and consistency and nutritional value indistinguishable from animal foods (without genetic manufacturing or the use of petrochemicals, please), to ultimately render raising animals for food unnecessary.

As these new innovations occur, we could remove the economic objections to the ending of factory farming, laboratory and medical testing and other inhumane treatment of animals as part of commercial activities, by providing viable alternatives. These alternatives would also remove some of the moral objections to the ending of the use of animals in medical research, by rendering the use of live animals in such research unnecessary.

I’m not saying this will be easy. It will take a concerted effort by a lot of creative and motivated entrepreneurial businesses. But what better goal for a young entrepreneur with a scientific bent than to invent something that will enormously reduce the suffering of animals without adversely affecting the achievement of human ends that currently require such suffering?

Let’s be clear about one implication of what we’re talking about here: Ultimately, we will be reducing suffering to farmed animals by substantially eliminating these creatures, which are utterly dependent on humans for their well-being (or lack of it), from the planet. With very few exceptions (like foxes and mink) farmed animals could not and would not survive in the wild. The 70% of the arable land mass of Earth currently used to graze such animals would then go to other uses: either human uses (mostly urban sprawl) or semi-wilderness (increasing the planet’s biodiversity).

In Soybean’s discussion thread, there was absolutely no disagreement over the objective of reducing unnecessary animal suffering. We all seem to ‘get’ this as being a worthwhile end. It’s that word ‘rights’ that gets people up in arms, and that’s what the second stage, and achievement of the longer-term goal, is all about.

The second stage of this pragmatic approach to animal rights is to provide just two ‘rights’ for all sentient creatures on the planet: the right to self-determination (i.e. not to be treated as ‘property’ of humans) and the right to live in a healthy and sustainable ecosystem.

Animals are, under the law, either property (in which case they have no rights) or not (in which case they can have some rights). Until relatively recently in civilization’s history both women and slaves were considered ‘property’. As society became enlightened, laws were enacted in most countries under which both these human groups ceased to be property, and were given some or all of the same rights as other humans. The two basic rights, what might be called the Core Inalienable Rights, are the rights of self-determination and healthy survival that I describe above. They are consistent with both the laws of nature and the fundamental expressions of rights in many human charters (they even equate, roughly, with the right to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”.

Granting these two rights to all sentient species will be a much longer-term proposition, because to do so strikes at some fundamental economic and moral tenets of civilized man, tenets that have been around for thirty millennia, as long as civilization itself.

As I’ve described in an earlier post, books like Richard Manning’s Against the Grain explain the history of agriculture and how and why animals went from being free creatures (with essentially the same implicit rights as humans, in gatherer-hunter cultures) to being human ‘property’. These books also explain the evolution of land as ‘private property’ as human population soared with the advent of agriculture to the point that, for the first time, it became scarce. The only way we can extend the right to live in a healthy and sustainable ecosystem (in a broad sense, the right to life itself) to animals would be to do one or more of the following: (a) abolish the concept of private property entirely, (b) reduce it to apply only to small parts of the Earth’s surface, and allow the rest of the planet to return to near-wilderness state, or (c) so massively reduce human population that land ceases to be scarce and the whole need for private property goes away. My personal belief is that (a) and (b) are non-starters: The only way we will be able to give the rest of the creatures on this planet ‘the right to life’ would be if, as a result of a sharp drop in our own numbers, we no longer needed all the land that currently precludes us leaving it to other species. I’m not holding my breath. The current Sierra Club debate over immigration, which pits one set of progressive values (including animals’ right to life) against another (including our responsibility to look after all our fellow humans on the planet), shows how intractable this problem is.

And even if we could miraculously solve the economic challenges that preclude us giving animals a fair share of the planet’s resources in a reasonably livable state, we would still have to overcome the moral challenges. Even among progressives, there are many who challenge whether animals are sentient beings, capable of self-awareness, self-management, intelligent thought and deep emotion — as When Elephants Weep and other scholarly works have patiently and thoroughly demonstrated. But such science can take centuries to overcome religious and other moral dogma, which is why the term ‘animal rights’ stirs up such a stink while ‘animal welfare’ does not. It’s also the reason why farmers and labs so vehemently and irrationally deny that animals have self-awareness and feelings — how could they live with themselves if they acknowledged it? The comparison to slavery is entirely fair — abolitionists threatened not only the economic foundations but the moral foundations of America, which is why they fought a bloody civil war over it. The comparison to women’s rights is also entirely fair — equality for women is deeply troubling in many third world countries where they have always treated women as property. Imagine yourself as someone who had bought a slave or a wife, trying to reconcile your actions with a dawning realization that what you have done, and what you have been brought up to believe, is actually morally repugnant, ghastly, horribly wrong. This same illumination about animals will be a slow, agonizing process.

So I think, pragmatically, animal rights advocates should start by getting all progressive organizations to adopt, as a key plank in their platforms, the need for laws against the needless abuse of domesticated animals and against the subjecting of any sentient creature to extreme or sustained cruelty or suffering, and the desirability of finding innovative, economically viable alternatives to factory farming and the use of live animals in laboratory testing and medical research.

Giving animals ‘rights’ is a great ideal, but one our civilization has neither the economic capacity nor the moral will to grant, so there is no point yet in pushing this as part of the progressive agenda. And while a vegan lifestyle is a healthy and worthy personal life choice, it will not become a mainstream choice until it becomes an easy, affordable, and aesthetically preferable one. Innovation, not moral suasion, is the key to making it so in our lifetime.

The use of the wolf image is a reference to the decision last year of the government of Alaska to allow the resumption of the despicable practice of shooting wolves from airplanes, a practice that causes enormous suffering, and whose sole economic purpose is to increase the size of caribou and elk herds so hunters can pay for the privilege of killing the artificially-created excess.

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  1. Derek says:

    I think one area that science can help is in creating ways of generating animal tissue for consumption, without requiring the animal. Vat grown “meat” represents another way to provide high protean food, without any type of animal abuse, and in fact would allow for more variety and perhaps engineered versions that are more healthy for us.What is curious is that when mentioned, this idea is generally horrifying to meat eaters and vegetarians alike.

  2. “..laws that punish people who needlessly abuse domesticated animals or subject farmed, laboratory, or wild animals to extreme or protracted cruelty or suffering..”Such a law has been in place and acted upon for 400 years in Sweden. Doesn

  3. otterhound says:

    Perhaps education and boycotts, rather than more criminalization, is the answer. I think that many people, after being confronted with graphic film footage of the abuses of factory farms, would be willing to be boycott their products.

  4. Aleah says:

    Thanks for this cohesive analysis of how animal rights can progressively take root in our world. A few points I would like to see you address:* Tradition (such as in areas where subsistence hunting is still in effect) vs. the rights of animals* Religion – You refer to it loosely, such as in the case of morals – but a major shift in the world’s religions would have to occur in order to accept other life forms as “equal,” since most established religions were established to promote a hierarchical civilization* The problems with welfare – We have been using a gradual approach for many decades now with little impact. Perhaps a more radical approach to change is needed. I believe nature is doing it for us, in essence, with the outbreak of new diseases – like SARs, BSE, and Avian Flu.Wonderful post, Dave. I will check out the book you mentioned. Gary Francione does a fine job of discussing the problems with welfare vs rights – and he is incredibly sensitive to the rights of other subjugated groups (humans).

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