- The central argument of Gary L. Francione's new book, although in many ways a laudable and important contribution to the debate over the extent of our ethical obligations toward other animals, is deeply flawed by black-and-white thinking. But flawed or not, it is an argument that deserves careful attention.
- Francione begins with the observation that despite several centuries of concern for animal welfare, our treatment of animals has actually worsened. In the second half of the twentieth century, intensive farming practices and the increased use of animal experimentation in biomedical research have significantly altered the scope and nature of our interference in the lives of animals.
- The worsened condition of animals, Francione argues, is due in no small part to an animal rights movement that is divided and confused. One aspect of the movement focuses primarily on animal welfare; its adherents endeavor to work alongside the research and agribusiness industries to ensure that the ongoing practices of both are carried out as humanely as possible. The other aspect of the movement focuses more directly on animal rights and, most important, on the basic right of animals to not have their lives interfered with by humans.
- The mainstream of the animal rights movement has concerned itself with animal welfare, rather than with animal rights, and has moderated itself to work with industry to effect whatever short-term changes it can. The problem, according to Francione, is that these efforts are easily co-opted by the more powerful interests of the industries involved, frustrating both the short- and long-term goals of the animal rights movement. The results of such efforts are typically regulations without real teeth and, worse, added legitimacy to the industries themselves, stemming from their involvement in establishing the regulations.
- The solution, according to Francione, is to return to the ideological dispute and to the more robust notion of animal rights: Animals have a basic right not to be used in purely instrumental ways to further human interests. In short, the cleansing rain of our morally appropriate treatment of animals cannot arrive without the preceding thunder of a truly revolutionary way of thinking about the interests of animals relative to those of humans.
- This argument is interesting and important. Unfortunately, as it is stated, it is compromised by black-and-white thinking at three interrelated levels.
- At the level of ideology, Francione assumes that if humans are not to treat animals in an entirely instrumental way, then we must treat them in an entirely non-instrumental way. This assumption leaves a lot of ground uncovered: Why not treat animals in any of a wide variety of partially instrumental ways?
- The basic right of persons to be treated in entirely non-instrumental ways – that is, the right not to be interfered with – is anchored in the fact that we have lives of which we are subjectively aware, the content and duration of which matter greatly to us given the extent of our awareness of them. Nonhuman animals have varying degrees of a similarly subjective awareness of their lives but the question is, how similar is similar, and how varied is varied? Without more argument than Francione provides, it simply does not follow that because all animals have some degree of subjective awareness, they all have the same basic right as persons to non-interference.
- The same problem of black-and-white thinking recurs at the level of legal reform. According to Francione, US law recognizes two categories of beings: persons and property. Because we can do whatever we want with our property1, then so long as animals remain property we will be able to do whatever we want with them. The only way to better our treatment of animals, says Francione, is to move them from the category of property into the category of persons.
- But the real problem may be the way that the law divides us into persons and our property. In large measure, the current social morality of the United States is based on a self-interested calculus of property rights: If you are disallowed any morally legitimate claims against my property, I am equally disallowed any similar claims against yours, whether or not one of us is sleeping under a bridge. Why expect that humans will behave any better toward animals without at the same time behaving better toward one another? Given the high level of human inequality in the United States and the world, how can one make headway on behalf of animals without tackling the root cause of both problems: the narrowing of moral concern that comes with any society that chooses as its central moral ideal the exclusively individual ownership of the material means necessary to pursue meaningful human lives?
- Not surprisingly, the earlier problems of black-and-white thinking percolate down to the level of practical action. Rather than working for the more humane treatment of animals in their current uses, we ought once again to move to an opposite extreme, according to Francione, and take whatever incremental steps we can toward an exclusively non-instrumental use of animals. This position again assumes, with insufficient argument, that we need not concern ourselves with balancing human and animal interests because, according to Francione, animals have the same basic right as humans to non-interference in their lives.
- But there is an additional practical problem with ignoring the ways in which human and animal interests might intersect. Current feminist theory recognizes that because different kinds of social inequality are mutually reinforcing, feminist movement for change must work to eradicate all of them at once. In fact, focusing attention on only one form of social inequality might actually deepen other forms of inequality, creating a situation in which it is impossible for grassroots organizations to build a coalition to work against their common sources of exploitation.
- Incrementally ending certain agribusiness practices will certainly not upset the world food economy in any significant way because whether or not relatively wealthy first-worlders eat meat, we will eat something. The types of business concerns that are easiest to eradicate are those that are protected by the least powerful human interests in the world of agribusiness. Thus, the humans most likely to be affected by incremental changes are those who are most exploited by the current world food economy. If it is not to be divisive, the fight for greater social justice will have to pay attention to the interests of all individuals who are currently exploited, whether they be animals or humans.
- Including animals in the fight for greater social justice will thus require us to be much more careful than Francione suggests in finding the appropriate balance between animal and human interests. Until then, most of us are still at work on Maggie's Farm2, folding our hands and praying for rain.
Review of Gary Francione - "Rain Without Thunder"
Footnote 1: Well, this isn’t true in the UK – with listed buildings, for instance.
Footnote 2: This is a reference to a Bob Dylan song – see Link.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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