Why Progressives Should Care About Animal Rights

The following is an excerpt from The Animal Activist's Handbook by Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich, published by Lantern Books.

How Will We Focus Our Energy?

If we agree that the meaning of life is to make the world a better place by exposing and eliminating as much suffering as possible, then the most critical question of our lives is this: How do we do the most possible good in a world where suffering is so widespread?

Again, a basic understanding of human nature can show us potential prejudices and blind spots that might impede us from being optimally effective. Each of us has a bias of concern toward self-interest, the known and the immediate. This applies to activists just as much as to the general population.

Most people working for a better world concentrate on others who are most like them or who are closest to them, geographically and/or biologically. It's almost too obvious to warrant mention, but most people working on gay rights issues are gay, on women's rights issues are women, on civil rights are African American, on anti-Semitism are Jewish, etc.

These causes are important, but they're also issues of self-interest for many. Even with causes such as child abuse, cancer, domestic violence, and so on, leaders are often individuals with personal experience (e.g., when celebrities experience a disease, either personally or through a loved one, they often become spokespeople). Charities working within the U.S. get much more funding than those that do work overseas. Work on behalf of exploited or suffering human beings receives exponentially more funding and attention than work on behalf of nonhuman animals, and demonstrations for human rights attract more people and more moral outrage than demonstrations on behalf of animals.

Some people point to dogs and cats as an exception. In 2007, when investigators pulled 60 abused animals, dozens of animals' corpses and truckloads of dog-fighting paraphernalia from Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick's property, there were loud and vigorous demonstrations denouncing his cruelty to animals.

At the same time, though, there were demonstrations supporting Vick, both on the football field and in the community. Many commentators argued that the issue was not worthy of the concern and attention it was getting; others argued he shouldn't be suspended from playing football.

Obviously, no one would have been pro-Vick if dead and battered human beings had been found on his property, or if the rape racks had been for humans, rather than dogs.

Of course, the numbers protesting his actions were still a tiny fraction of the numbers that turn out for an anti-abortion or anti-war rally. Some have expressed surprise or even envy at PETA's multimillion-dollar annual budget. This, too, shows the degree of our species bias -- if we're surprised an animal-protection organization could take in such a "lofty" sum.

Think about it: The largest animal-rights organization in the world has a budget of some tens of millions of dollars per year to work against all of the combined injustices against the more than 10 billion land animals that are killed annually in the United States. Planned Parenthood took in 30 times more for work on women's health; Catholic Charities took well over 100 times more to work on poverty issues. One human disease – cancer -- gets thousands and thousands of times more money devoted to it than is contributed to every single issue related to animal rights. (For a ranking from 2001, see csmonitor.com/2001/1126/csmimg/charitychart.pdf; see GuideStar.org for current budgets of other non-profit organizations.) Indeed, our entire government is focused on human needs, and spends billions each year subsidizing animal agriculture (see ucsusa.org/news/press_release/cafo-costs-report-0113.html).

Guiding Principles

An understanding of human nature, along with the recognition of the primacy of suffering, leads to two guiding principles that we've found useful in freeing our advocacy from prejudice:

First, to maximize the amount of good we can accomplish, we should strive to set aside personal biases as much as possible. We should challenge ourselves to approach advocacy through a straightforward analysis of the world as it is, motivated solely by a desire to alleviate suffering to the greatest extent possible.

If the amount of suffering in the world weren't so vast, other considerations would be warranted (e.g., maximizing pleasure). But as long as so many are suffering so horribly, eliminating as much suffering as possible must be our primary motivating factor.

Second, it's vital we recognize that we all have limited resources and time. It's a simple fact that when we choose to do one thing, we're choosing to not do another -- there's no way around it. Instead of choosing to "do something, do anything," we must challenge ourselves to pursue actions that will likely lead to the greatest reduction in suffering.

There are a myriad of worthy pursuits, and of course we appreciate anyone working to make the world a kinder place. However, given the above principles, we challenge everyone -- including ourselves -- to constantly strive to maximize the efficacy of our actions.

Striking at the Root

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root. -- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Perhaps you've heard the story of the person who finds babies floating down the river a few times per day, day after day after day -- saving some, missing most of them. Every day, she waits by the river, knowing there'll be babies to save. Sure enough, every day she pulls some of the drowning babies out of the river, and she feels good about her efforts -- saving lives, every day -- even as she mourns the many who drown.

Finally, one day she thinks, "Who on earth keeps tossing these babies into the river?" She walks upstream, finds the person doing it, and stops him. In that moment, she's saved all of the babies who would have been tossed into the river in the future, and becomes free to dedicate herself to something else that would be helpful in the world.

There's much triage work to be done in our society -- there are many drowning babies, as it were. And obviously the work of saving them is good. But we're convinced that if we can stop people from tossing babies into the water in the first place, we'll be more effective.

In concrete terms, we choose not to focus our incredibly limited time and resources on individual animals, however valuable and rewarding that work is. Rather, we seek to challenge the very structures of oppression against animals and to work to dismantle the system that says animals are commodities we can eat.

To do this as effectively as possible, we must set priorities and, given our limited resources, make some difficult, rational choices.

Setting Priorities

Peter Singer asks us in "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" to consider the case of a man who just bought a new car. He paid $50,000 for the car and doesn't have it insured yet. His car stalls on a set of railroad tracks, and, before he can push the car off, he sees a small girl also on the tracks, oblivious to an oncoming train. He has to choose between moving his car or saving the girl.

Obviously, if he chose the car, all of us would hold him in moral contempt. Singer asks: What is the real difference between this scenario and buying the car in the first place, when you could buy a perfectly acceptable car for $20,000 or less, leaving $30,000 to dedicate to poverty relief, which would save far more than one child.

Similarly, consider the example of someone who has just bought an extra pair of $200 shoes. She sees a child drowning in the river. If the person chooses not to jump in for fear of destroying her shoes, again, all of us would find her morally reprehensible.

Yet the same moral conclusion can be drawn when it comes to buying a pair of expensive shoes that aren't needed in the first place, rather than giving the money to charity. When applying this to animals, the comparison becomes even more stark, since, for just a few coins, you can put an illustrated, detailed, documented booklet in someone's hands, show someone "Meet Your Meat" (meat.org) through online advertising, or show them a 30-second vegetarian commercial. It takes so little to be the animals' voice, yet few of us even consider utilizing the power we have.

Even though U.S. society is composed mainly of professed Christians, most ignore Christ's words to the rich man: "Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor" (Matthew 19:21). In an attempt to update the principal for our often selfish society, Singer makes the case that a reasonable standard for most of us would be to give away 20 percent of our income.

Will that hurt, given that we've grown accustomed to our current level of income? For most of us, it will. At the very least, it will require an adjustment. But can we do it without actual physical harm coming to us? For most of us, yes, we can. Organizations dedicated to reducing as much suffering as possible can use that money to make the world better -- far more so than whatever we might otherwise spend it on. Singer sums up this concept in "How Are We To Live?":

In a society in which the narrow pursuit of material self-interest is the norm, the shift to an ethical stance is more radical than many people realize. In comparison with the needs of people starving in Somalia, the desire to sample the wines of the leading French vineyards pales into insignificance. Judged against the suffering of immobilized rabbits having shampoos dripped into their eyes, a better shampoo becomes an unworthy goal.

An ethical approach to life does not forbid having fun or enjoying food and wine, but it changes our sense of priorities. The effort and expense put into buying fashionable clothes, the endless search for more and more refined gastronomic pleasures, the astonishing additional expense that marks out the prestige car market in cars from the market in cars for people who just want a reliable means to getting from A to B, all these become disproportionate to people who can shift perspective long enough to take themselves, at least for a time, out of the spotlight. If a higher ethical consciousness spreads, it will utterly change the society in which we live.

We Can Do It

Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. -- Elie Wiesel

Consider this: The people we admire are not those who went along with the crowd, who did whatever was allowed by the norms of their times. Rather, the people we rightly respect are those who stood up to the prejudices of their society. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, and so many other individuals changed their world. We are all called to do no less.

In the face of so much suffering, it can become easy to become despondent and to think that we can't change the world. But if we break our work into chunks, celebrate the "small" victories for what they really mean (e.g., turning one person vegetarian changes their entire life forever and makes a massive, positive impact in the world), and keep ourselves focused on our goals, we can realize what significant progress we're making.

After decades of experience as activists, we're deeply and profoundly optimistic. Every day, we take inspiration in a review of the progress that has been won for social justice and animal protection (as we discuss at greater length in Chapter Five).

There are, of course, many potential targets for our activism: 2 billion people live without access to clean water; 800 million don't have enough calories to sustain themselves; women in many parts of the world suffer unjust treatment and violence; our fellow creatures are abused and slaughtered.

These are a few of our society's current practices that, we're convinced, future generations will look back on with the same sense of incredulity we reserve for past atrocities, like slavery and witch burnings. We are called to be like those we admire for standing up against the prejudices of their day.


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