Who's for Animal Rights?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) staff member Bruce Friedrich has recently caused a stir with his guest blog entry on ANIMALBLAWG [1]. The debate that followed the publication of the article raised the question as to whether PeTA is – or remains – an animal rights organisation. I doubt that they are. Being a human rights or animal rights advocate [2] surely means something much more than simply stating that one is?

Bruce Friedrich is an interesting case in this respect because he has a history of working for human rights groups, running a shelter for homeless families and a soup kitchen in Washington DC. Yes, a soup kitchen in the richest nation on the planet. In the exchanges that followed his article, Bruce cited the human rights organisation Amnesty International. Groups such as Amnesty tend to demand the immediate end to human rights violations. Their main campaigning stress – consistently – is the demand for the curtailment of violations of human rights.

So, if human rights organisations demand an immediate stop to rights violations, animal rights groups will do the same, right? Wrong. Many organisations, including PeTA, while insisting on the name ‘animal rights’ do not use consistent rights-based language. Animal rights philosophers and writers such as Gary Francione, Tom Regan and Joan Dunayer [3] do, and base their positions on opposing rights violations. Not, however, the major groups in the ‘animal rights movement’. While animal rights philosophy is built on rights violation claims as fundamental principles for judging right and wrong, the modern-day animal movement uses rights-talk rhetorically, merely using the word ‘rights’ in article headings, subheadings and group names. Mention of nonhuman animal rights violations is extremely rare.

Since social movements are claims-making enterprises, we can evaluate their philosophical stance based on their claims. For example, it is clear that Amnesty International is a human rights mobilisation – all their campaigning begins and ends with open and honest claims that human rights are being violated and they want it stopped forthwith. Does PeTA’s campaigning material share the same rights-based abolitionist focus? It does not. PeTA’s main web page [www.peta-online.org] includes a box marked, “Why Animal Rights?” What should one expect to follow from such a heading: maybe something about the importance of rights-based philosophy? Something about sentient nonhuman animals being rights bearers? Something challenging the gross rights violations that routinely take place against nonhuman animal interests perhaps? No such claim follows PeTA’s “Why Animal Rights?”

So, let us assume that there is some school kid, as there often is, busy putting together her ‘animal rights project’. Hey, great, she discovers a prominent www site promising to tell her the answer to, “Why Animal Rights?” Surely an important document for her project, she thinks. She clicks on the ‘learn more’ tag [leading to www.peta-online/about/WhyAnimalRights.asp] and she learns that this page refers to a book called Animal Liberation written by a philosopher called Peter Singer. If she reads to the end, she is encouraged to click again to know more about the philosopher Singer [www.peta-online/about/animallib-singer.asp]. This page is entitled, “What is Animal Liberation? Excerpts from Philosopher Peter Singer’s Groundbreaking Work”.

What excerpts? The first is one in which Singer discusses the parody of Mary Woolstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women which is called The Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. At this point our poor student is being led up a sticky path because this extract does indeed imply that Animal Liberation seems to be about rights. We cannot be confident that when she reads subsequent paragraphs referencing Jeremy Bentham that she will realise that this marks the philosophical position of the author – utilitarian animal welfarism.

All hopes of philosophical clarity is lost when she decides that this text sounds perfect for her project and she’ll purchase a copy from PeTA’s online catalogue. What does that say about Singer’s groundbreaking text from the 1970s? Our student clicks on ‘shop’ and before you have time to gas thirty chickens she finds her way via the heading “general animal rights” to a page advertising Animal Liberation. It reads: “Referred to as the animal rights ‘bible’, this book includes in-depth examinations of factory farming, animal experimentation, vegetarianism, and animal rights philosophy. If you read only one animal rights book, it has to be this one”.

Unaware that this book does not actually include an in-depth analysis of animal rights philosophy, our student has been utterly misled by PeTA. However, we get fresh hope when our student remembers her teacher recommends a critical approach and tells her not to rely on a single source. Is all resolved, then, when our (wealthy) student also decides to purchase books by the animal rights thinkers mentioned above from the PeTA bookstore. Clickety-click-click, that’s odd. No Francione. No Regan. No Dunayer. Not under the heading “general animal rights”. Not anywhere. There’s some more books by Peter Singer, to be sure, but none by animal rights theorists. With such a cavalier attitude to animal rights thought, can we take a claim that PeTA is an animal rights organisation seriously?

Does it matter?

Yes, and it matters because social movements are claims-making enterprises. Animal rights advocacy, following animal rights philosophy, is about making claims that sentient nonhuman animals are rightholders who have their rights violated by human use. Animal welfarism is about opposing the infliction of cruelty and ‘unnecessary’ suffering while regulating ‘humane’ standards in animal use – ensuring ‘ethical treatment’ one could say. It matters, primarily, because animal rights thinking provides a robust theory to guide consistent action and claims against the violation of rights. When the stress is on cruelty, what happens when people are convinced that the cruelty has been eliminated? What happens when they think standards of use are ‘humane’ or ‘ethical’ enough? There is growing evidence that the consumer turns to cage-free eggs and vegetarians return to meat-eating: of the ‘cruelty-free’ sort, that is.

Finally what do PeTA, ‘the largest animal rights group in the world’, suggest to animal advocates faced with a question about campaigning priorities? Some people, as we all know most likely, will persist in asking animal advocates why they care about nonhuman animals in a world full of human suffering. What do PeTA suggest as a response to such questions. Assert that nonhuman animals, like human ones, are rights bearers and it is wrong to violate the rights of all rightholders without very, very good reason? Forget it. Not a chance. Bruce Friedrich, instead, recommends a welfarist approach and one which implies that humans are the only animals who have rights. He says, advocates may say: “I see what you are saying, and I do support groups like Amnesty International and Oxfam that fight for human rights as well. But don’t you agree that cruelty to animals should be opposed?”[4] In another response, Bruce suggests that talk should be directed toward the notion of ‘animal lovers’ [5]. Oh dear. I rest my case.

[1] www.animalblawg.com/wordpress/?=139

[2] I argue that basic human rights are our animal rights.

[3] Joan Dunayer’s Speciesism has proved to be a controversial text, and quite apart from the thesis in it that insects are rights bearers. However, as a sociologist influenced over the years by feminist challenges to patriarchal language, I feel that her first book, Animal Equality, is an important and valuable text since it emphasises the maintenance of power relations through speciesist language. For the debate about Speciesism, see http://www.abolitionist-online.com/article-issue05_jeff.perz_anti-speciesism.shtml; http://www.animallaw.info/journals/jo_pdf/jouranimallawDunayer2007.pdf. For the importance of power and language in general, Norman Fairclough, Language and Power (London: Longman, 1989).

[4] http://www.goveg.com/effectiveAdvocacy_answering.asp

[5] This response ignores the words of Peter Singer, who writes in Animal Liberation: ‘Soon after I began work on this book my wife and I were invited to tea - we were living in England at the time - by a lady who had heard that I was planning to write a book about animals. She herself was very interested in animals, she said, and she had a friend who had already written a book about animals and would be so keen to meet us. When we arrived our hostess’s friend was already there, and she certainly was keen to talk about animals. ‘I do love animals’, she began, ‘I have a dog and two cats, and do you know they get on together wonderfully well. Do you know Mrs. Scott? She runs a little hospital for sick pets...’ and she was off. She paused while refreshments were served, took a ham sandwich, and asked us what pets we had. We told her we didn’t own any pets. She looked a little surprised, and took a bite of her sandwich. Our hostess, who had now finished serving the sandwiches, joined us and took up the conversation: ‘But you are interested in animals, aren’t you, Mr. Singer?’ We tried to explain that we were interested in the prevention of suffering and misery; that we were opposed to arbitrary discrimination; that we thought it wrong to inflict needless suffering on another being, even if that being were not a member of our own species; and that we believed animals were ruthlessly and cruelly exploited by humans, and we wanted this changed. Otherwise, we said, we were not especially ‘interested in’ animals. Neither of us had ever been inordinately fond of dogs, cats, or horses in the way that many people are. We didn’t ‘love’ animals. We simply wanted them treated as the independent sentient beings that they are, and not as a means to human ends - as the pig whose flesh was now in our hostess’s sandwich had been treated.


  1. Professor Yates,

    I am composing (or cutting and pasting) a pamphlet/leaflet that will define animal rights as it should be defined (abolition). Gary Francione will be participating in the process in some way (not writing the content, though I may use some of his material). In your opinion, is it important that any of the following words be in the title? Animal Rights. Abolition. Vegan/Veganism.

    I thank you in advance for your valuable input.

    Mary Martin

  2. Hi Mary - I'd say that the content is more important than the title but, naturally, the former is generally flagged by the latter.

    Indeed, one of my main criticisms of those Gary dubbed "new welfarists" is that they use the term 'animal rights' rhetorically in titles and group names. When one looks, then, at the content of web sites/leaflets/reports etc., one generally finds some version of animal welfarism with the word 'rights' dropped into it every now and then.

    It is no mystery, it seems to me, that you could survey the population of Europe and North America and find most people claiming to have heard of animal rights without actually knowing at all what it means as articulated by animal rights philosophy.

    So - in the title where appropriate - but throughout the content, that is where it is most important to talk about these key concepts.


  3. Thanks, Roger.

    I was actually thinking of the simple (yet not) What is Animal Rights? (also as a play on Peta's Why Animal Rights?). That'll bring me squarely to differentiating between welfare and rights, and to defining and discussing new welfare and abolition. Because I write books for a living, I see the impact of a great title (and vice versa), I'm particularly concerned with choosing/crafting a good one.

  4. Mary - your linguistics background is very important in your project obviously - but also within the context of social movement advocacy. As I keep saying, sociologists see social movements as claims-makers and, furthermore, the modern view of rights is that they are social constructs [see the programme archive on Philosophy Talk: http://www.philosophytalk.org/index.htm. Their programme on where morality comes from is interesting]. This means that rights are open to modification and alteration (which obviously fits well into the 'extensionist' agenda of animal rights advocates) and that depends on effective claims-making.

    However, on a 'practical note', and having looked at your impressive blog, I feel you are on to something extremely important in suggesting the need for abolitionist literature. If such material could be made available as leaflets-flyers we may start to see it on grassroots activist information stalls and at their events - now they are rather reliant on the welfarist corporations or others who do not often frame their claims based on the rights view of human-nonhuman relations.

    Know any rich people who would sponsor the birth of the abolitionist animal rights movement?!!


  5. Thanks, Roger.

    I've just purchased a new desktop publishing program for my material, and though it might not have "Abolition" in the title, it certainly will be in the content and the spirit. The pdf will be available to anyone who wants it. (And may I contact you for a quote--maybe a paragraph from the sociologist's point of view?)

    Though I happen to know lots of rich people, I think it's safe to say they're not interested in funding a movement like this (although I recently converted one from meat-eater to a raw food vegan, so you never know).


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  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.