“The question is not: “Can they reason?” Nor: “Can they talk?” But: “Can they suffer?” – Jeremy Bentham
When I started to university – for what felt like the first time ever – I was around people with absolutely polar values to my own. I remember being astounded that there were people that I really liked and respected, who wanted to vote in a far-right conservative Prime Minister! Initially I was offended and deeply saddened to learn that there were people in this world who did not share my vision of investment in health and education in Australia, of improving social and financial equality for women and for increasing foreign aid and committing lower carbon emissions targets and other green initiatives. There is a level of maturity and wisdom required to not just listen to, but to try to understand views which oppose you own – something that took me a long time to acquire. Obviously, given the almost 30 previous posts regarding the health benefits, significantly lower environmental footprint and elimination of animal exploitation – veganism is the best ethical approach for me to live a life most aligned with my values.
“The most ethical diet just so happens to be the most environmentally sound diet and just so happens to be the healthiest” ― Dr. Michael Greger
However, I have been questioned about how true Cowspiracy could be and told that its propaganda – though these are fun to discuss at the end of the day, the discussion is with people who don’t understand the relationship between animal agriculture and climate change. The simple fact is: the science is in, so now we turn to philosophy.
Ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that guides people about the basic human conduct, or social guidelines based on principles. Ethics differ from law in that laws are rules and regulations that have specific penalties when violated. As veganism is purely a foundation of ethical guidelines, it is only natural that there are a few different approaches to ethical veganism.
The Utilitarian Approach
Peter Singer is often referred to as the Father of the Animal Rights movement having published his bestselling book Animal Liberation (sometimes referred to as the Bible of the Animal Rights Movement and often cited by animal studies scholars) in 1975. Peter Singer is a contemporary utilitarian philosopher and considered one of the most influential living philosophers. Classical utilitarianism is a philosophical theory that suggests an action is morally right if it benefits the largest number of beings with the greatest good. Jeremy Bentham’s is considered the founder of modern utilitarian philosophy (you may have recognised his quote above). In Animal Liberation Peter Signer argues that everyone is equal (at least from the reference point of the Universe), regardless of age, sex, race or species. He therefore goes on to argue that we ought to consider the needs and interests of others, which is equally inclusive of animals – who in fact have just as much capacity to experience pain and suffering as well as enjoyment and happiness as humans do. Peter is a negative utilitarian so his arguments are usually based on not so much wanting to maximise the pleasure or happiness of animals, so much as minimising their pain and suffering. Peter doesn’t eat or wear animal products, but has said that he may if he is travelling or eating at someone else’s house. He has apparently sat in a cage to draw attention to the plight of battery hens and he has been arrested for attempting to photograph confined sows on a pig farm partly owned by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, he has also stood as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate. Peter Signer and has been physically assaulted and condemned by disabled rights protesters angered by his comparisons between the capacities of intellectually disabled humans and nonhuman animals and received hate mail for his advocacy of voluntary euthanasia and infanticide. Criticisms of Peter’s work and the utilitarian approach to animal rights includes Peter’s notion that being a “conscientious omnivore” is a “defensible ethical position” as not everyone will want to go vegan but they can reduce the harms their food choices inflict. Singer equates the abolitionist approach (discussed shortly) as “purist” or “fanatical” because abolitionists maintain that we cannot justify any animal use. Gary Francione has particularly criticised Peter Singer about his notion that one can be justified eating animal products which would otherwise be wasted (from products found dumpster diving to eating cheese if the pasta you order without the cheese comes out with it sprinkled on it) as this can be observed by others as veganism not being a moral issue.
“If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering – insofar as rough comparisons can be made – of any other being” ― Peter Singer, Animal Liberation
The Reformist/Welfarist/Protectionist Approach
As far as I can tell, there is a school of thought which is called various names including reformist, welfarist and protectionist approach. These people seek incremental reform in how animals are treated, with a mission to ending animal use entirely, or almost entirely. Peter Singer could be included in this school of thought, based on his underlying philosophical standpoint on various other issues. Some vegan groups also advocate for incremental change to both farming practices but also for people to make incremental changes to diet in the transition to veganism. The RSPCA, PETA and Vegan Outreach all have a missions to serve the interests of animals, primary the interest not be in pain or suffering, with different ideas about how this can be achieved. The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme, Meat-free Monday, Veganuary (going vegan in January) are all animal welfare campaigns which raise awareness of the plight of animals and encourage a reduction in the harms and/or consumption of animals. There are various single-issue campaigns also, perhaps the most notorious being the anti-fur campaign. Are these effective? I have a pretty unique perspective on this given than my day job involves drug and alcohol rehabilitation. As most people know, this sector is underpinned by two schools of thought: harm reduction, which involves needle and syringe programs etc and abstinence-based programs such as Alcoholic or Narcotics Anonymous. The Day Program I facilitate groups within is funded as an abstinence-based program, however we understand that people just won’t go from heavy, chronic use to abstinence overnight just because we tell them too, so we embed harm reduction strategies throughout the six week program. I believe that our culture is quite literally addicted to animal products in the same way that some of the people with the culture are addicted to drugs. If you tell someone to abstain from drugs or animal products, even if you tell them all the reason why they ought to, more often than not – you lose them. Encouraging them to reduce their use in the early stages, then to try new things whether that be an art group for an addict or an alternative cheese product for an aspiring vegan – people respond. If someone abstained from drugs or animal products for the month of January and realised how amazing they felt, you have albeit facilitated the change which that person has made in their own life, which they own. It is for this reason that I personally feel there is room in the vegan movement for reformist, welfarist, protectionist, whatever you wanna call it, approaches – which may just be the entry point into lifelong veganism for some people. And ultimately, people don’t realise how good veganism is until they are vegan.
The Abolitionist Approach
The term abolitionist is a relatively knew one for me, but there are concepts from it that I have believed to be true since I first started learning about the issues for animals but also others which I never considered. The main man behind the movement is Professor Gary J Francione, who believes veganism is a moral imperative. Gary has outlined six principles of the abolitionist approach to animal rights:
- Abolitionists maintain that all sentient beings, human or nonhuman, have one right – the basic right not to be treated as the property of others.
- Abolitionists maintain that our recognition of this one basic right means that we must abolish, and not merely regulate, institutionalised animal exploitation, and that abolitionists should not support welfare reform campaigns or single-issue campaigns
- Abolitionists maintain that veganism is a moral baseline and that creative, nonviolent vegan education must be the cornerstone of rational animal rights advocacy.
- The Abolitionist Approach links the moral status of nonhumans with sentience alone and not with any other cognitive characteristic; all sentient beings are equal for the purpose of not being used exclusively as a resource.
- Abolitionists reject all forms of human discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and classism—just as they reject speciesism, it uses a morally irrelevant criterion (species) to discount and devalue the interests of sentient beings.
- Abolitionists recognize the principle of nonviolence as a core principle of the animal rights movement.
The criticisms of Gary Fracione and the abolitionist approach is the “pie in the sky thinking” and creating divisiveness within people within the animal rights movement whom are not “vegan enough”. I am a fan of Gary Francione’s Facebook videos on various “Thoughts of the Day” but several times he has discussed issues that make me fearful I am not vegan enough, such as eating chips that aren’t cooked in lard but are liekly to have have been cooked in oil animals products have been cooked in – ek. Though animal exploitation is currently the status quo, the evolution to animal rights is the primary interest of everyone in the animal rights community and abolishing the use of all animals for human’s means should remain the utopian goal in the revolution against speciesism. During this process, in the words of Martin Luther King, our means must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have the upmost respect for the careers of both Peter Singer and Gary Francione.
Thanks for reading,
References and Resources
Animal Liberation – Peter Singer
Eat Like You Care – Gary Francione
For all things related to the abolitionist approach: http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/
Interesting article about a reformed abolitionist: http://veganstrategist.org/2015/10/03/confessions-of-an-abolitionist/