27.12.08

Three Years Young.


We are about to enter the third full year since the birth of the animal rights movement.

With that statement I am referring to the distinct rights-based social movement that has developed and grown since the emergence in late 2006 of philosopher Gary Francione’s Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach blog site. This recently-born rights-based movement is currently developing a range of leaflets, postcards, posters and other texts (many multilingual) which are easily available for animal advocates to download.

If we are to speak of the birth of a rights-based movement for nonhuman animals, it may be argued that the publication in 1983 of Tom Regan’s book, The Case for Animal Rights, marked its beginning. Indeed, there was a time in the 1980s and perhaps into the early 1990s when it was thought probable that Regan’s animal rights theory would gain prominence above Peter Singer’s utilitarian animal welfarism which appeared in the 1970s. The potential at this time for a rights-based social movement for nonhumans, informed by Regan’s philosophy, may explain ambiguities in sociologists Jasper and Nelkin’s (1992) book, The Animal Rights Crusade: The growth of a moral protest. For example, while Jasper and Nelkin (1992: 51) note that Professor Regan states that animal rightists want empty cages rather than bigger ones, and add that, “This unwillingness to compromise distinguishes the fundamentalist fringe of animal rightists from the rest of the animal protection community, for whom improved conditions represents a clear victory”, they assert (1992: 96) that, “it is Regan’s rights argument – not Singer’s utilitarianism – that has come to dominate the rhetoric of the animal rights agenda, often pushing it beyond reformism and pragmatism”.

Let’s try to understand this knotty little issue from the vantage point of the 21st century. Jasper and Nelkin seem to be on solid ground in the notion that there is, relatively speaking, a ‘fringe’ of animal rightists – then and now. They say this fringe can be distinguished from the general ‘animal protection community’. I would also agree with that – then and now. However, we need to also take on board that this general ‘animal protection community’ – large parts of it anyway – insist on being called ‘animal rights advocates’ or ‘the animal rights movement’ despite not being rightists.

Jasper and Nelkin, in a chapter entitled ‘Philosophers as midwives’ [of social movements], report (1992: 96) that most animal advocates they interviewed had read Singer’s Animal Liberation but very few were familiar with Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights. Saying that Regan’s position on human-nonhuman relations is “more extreme” than Singer’s, they state that Regan develops an absolutist position that “breaks free from utilitarianism” and “explicitly attacks the utilitarian position” (1992: 94, 95).

How should we try to understand this notion that an animal protection community, with a membership, many of which have read Singer but not Regan, and is therefore unlikely aware of the latter’s attacks on the former’s philosophical position, comprises a movement which, nevertheless, adopts Regan’s rights-based arguments? Ah – but this is not quite the claim that Jasper and Nelkin make. They said: “it is Regan’s rights argument – not Singer’s utilitarianism – that has come to dominate the rhetoric of the animal rights agenda, often pushing it beyond reformism and pragmatism”.

Here, we see the ambiguity – the error perhaps - in Jasper and Nelkin’s account, and the problem may lie with the word ‘rhetoric’. What do they mean by this term? Immediately after the quote above we get a clue, for they cite philosopher Mary Midgley who, just like Peter Singer, sees the term ‘rights’ as a convenient political slogan rather than a substantive foundation of an ethical position (1992: 96-97). This may go some way to explain our puzzle, then, because the general ‘animal protection community’, as distinct from the animal rightists within it or associated with it, have never needed Regan’s substantive argument in their rhetoric: how could they employ what they had never read? What they used ~ all they wanted, as it becomes clearer ~ is not the argument at all but merely the word ‘rights’.

As I have mentioned in previous blog entries (here & here), we have been left with a philosophical muddle at the heart of the ‘animal rights movement’. This is a movement, as it turns out, that wants and even coverts the name ‘rights’ while not giving a damn about animal rights theory. A bizarre situation to be sure.

In the very beginning of Andrew Clapham’s introductory book on human rights, the author notes this: “For some, invoking human rights is a heartfelt, morally justified demand to rectify all sorts of injustice; for others, it is no more than a slogan to be treated with suspicion, or even hostility” (2007: 1). To employ a little ethnomethodological analysis to Clapham’s words, I think we can assume, on reading this sentence, that we hear the ‘some’ to be members and supporters of the human rights movement, and the ‘others’ as not members or supporters. We hear that those suspicious and even hostile to human rights invocations are unlikely to be the first to self-identify as ‘human rights advocate’ or think of themselves as members of the human rights movement.

We could have understandably pitied Andrew Clapham, then, if the poor guy had ever been given the task of writing an introductory text on animal rights (as it happens, David DeGrazia got the job), for he would be writing, “For some, invoking animal rights is a heartfelt, morally justified demand to rectify all sorts of injustice; for others, it is no more than a slogan to be treated with suspicion, or even hostility”. The difference is that, this time, he would have to realise that the ‘others’ regard themselves not only as members of the animal rights movement but the leaders of it! That virtually anything – as hostile to rights-based thought as you want – counts as ‘animal rights’. This is the crazy reality of the animal protection movement: its ‘leadership’ and many members are ‘suspicious and even hostile’ to rights-based philosophy BUT insist, regardless of their subsequent substantial claims, on ownership of the rhetorical label in the face of all those who dearly wish to invoke animal rights as 'a heartfelt, morally justified demand to rectify all sorts of injustice'. In the meantime, of course, they describe the rightists as ‘divisive’.

It appears that these people either do not care that some people want to advocate the rights of nonhuman animals consistent with animal rights philosophy, or they believe that most things done ‘for the an animals’ is ‘animal rights’, or else actively want to harm rights-based constructions. Peter Singer, the non-rights philosopher of the ‘largest animal rights organisation in the world’ (I know, you really could not make this stuff up), seems to fit into the latter camp – at the same time wanting to use rights rhetorically. Due to responses to the publication of Animal Liberation, Singer wrote this in the book’s second edition.

Although Bentham speaks of “rights” in the passage I have quoted,[1] the argument is really about equality rather than about rights. Indeed, in a different passage, Bentham famously described “natural rights” as “nonsense” and “natural and imprescriptable rights” as “nonsense upon stilts”. He talked of moral rights as a shorthand way of referring to protections that people and animals morally ought to have; but the real weight of the moral argument does not rest on the assertion of the existence of the right, for this in turn has to be justified on the basis of the possibility for suffering and happiness. In this way we can argue for equality for animals without getting embroiled in philosophical controversies about the ultimate nature of rights.

In misguided attempts to refute the arguments of this book, some philosophers have gone to much trouble developing arguments to show that animals do not have rights. They have claimed that to have a right a being must by autonomous, or must be a member of a community, or must have the ability to respect the rights of others, or must possess a sense of justice. These claims are irrelevant to the case for Animal Liberation. The language of rights is a convenient political shorthand. It is even more valuable in the era of thirty-second TV news clips than it was in Bentham’s day; but in the argument for a radical change in our attitudes to animals, it is in no way necessary (Singer 1995: 8).

Here we have it spelt out for us. Singer at least – undoubtedly hostile to rights – nevertheless wants to employ the ‘convenience’ of the rhetorical use of ‘rights’ and to hell with those who wish to use rights as the very foundation of their claims-making about human-nonhuman relations.

Of course, Peter Singer is just one man – although no-one will doubt his influence on modern-day animal advocacy. As I reported in a recent post, representatives of PeTA still insist in calling the use of rights-based language ‘a convenience’. PeTA closely follow Singer in caring little about rights or rightists. Under the title, ‘Why animal rights’, a feature of their main US website, they link to an extract from Animal Liberation in what can only be regarded as an act of deliberate ideological distortion.

As we move into the third year of our rights-based movement, we must stay concentrated on how animal rightists not ‘suspicious or even hostile’ to rights-based thinking and claims are to liberate ourselves from those in the ‘animal rights movement’ who remain opponents of animal rights.


[1] Singer has quoted Bentham from the latter’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.


Bibliography.

Chapham, A. (2007) Human Rights: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jasper, J.M. & Nelkin, D. (1992) The Animal Rights Crusade: The growth of a moral protest. New York: The Free Press.

Singer, P. (1995) Animal Liberation. (2nd ed.) London: Pimlico.

Regan, T. (1983) The Case for Animal Rights. Berkley: University of California Press.

3 comments:

  1. Roger. Thanks for this excellent essay.

    it is Regan’s rights argument – not Singer’s utilitarianism – that has come to dominate the rhetoric of the animal rights agenda, often pushing it beyond reformism and pragmatism. (Jasper & Nelkin)

    Corporate welfarists caricature rights as utopian while framing welfare as pragmatic. Yet rightists do not reject incremental change; they simply support it in the form of vegan outreach. Furthermore, welfare isn't pragmatic. On the contrary, it has the effect, not of making rights "practical", but rather of assimilating radical, dissenting voices into the established order.

    As we move into the third year of our rights-based movement, we must stay concentrated on how animal rightists not ‘suspicious or even hostile’ to rights-based thinking and claims are to liberate ourselves from those in the ‘animal rights movement’ who remain opponents of animal rights.

    I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. We must (1) resist the appalling integrative power of the mainstream animal movement and (2) concentrate on fostering a grass roots movement of animal rightists.

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  2. Roger, I forgot to thank you for this bit of perspective.

    I am excited and hopeful about the movement for nonhuman rights — in 2009 and beyond.

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  3. Quite an insightful essay. I agree totally that our rights-based movement is in it's infancy. And this should give us much to be hopeful for. Thank you for bringing this to light.

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