Thursday, January 03, 2008

Activism as Integrity

by Joel Marks

A review of Lee Hall’s Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror (Darien, Connecticut: Nectar Bat Press, 2006)

Published in Philosophy Now, no. 67, pp. 44-5, May/June 2008.

Capers in the Churchyard is not a book of philosophy, but it ought to be. Ostensibly about tactics in the animal rights movement, the book is in fact a manifesto for thinking about nonhuman animals in a wholly different way from what we have become accustomed to. The author, Lee Hall, is legal director of the America-based Friends of Animals, an animal advocacy group whose approach to the issue of animal rights is novel even by animal advocacy standards.

The churchyard capers of the title refer to a particularly gross episode of animal activism that took place in England in 2004: somebody absconded with the remains of the mother-in-law of a farmer who bred guinea pigs for a testing lab. Letters were subsequently delivered to the family demanding that the breeding stop if they wanted mother-in-law returned to her final resting place; and eventually it did -- a supposed success of the extreme tactic. However, a number of protestors were eventually implicated and hauled into court on the charge of blackmail, where they faced long prison terms, and a new anti-terror bill was introduced by the government. Meanwhile, the local populace was outraged by the grave desecration, as was the whole country when informed by the media; and presumably the testing lab found an alternative supplier. So, on balance, was this a victory for animal liberation? Hall wants to impress upon the reader that the answer is most likely “No.” As she puts it: “if the actions of the militants appear to work on some level, it’s neither the level of changing minds nor laws. Indeed, on both counts, they’ve triggered a fierce backlash” (p. 121).

When I had first heard about new so-called anti-terror legislation aimed at animal rights activists in both the U.S. and England, I could only roll my eyes in knowing cynicism that Bush and Blair’s new universal pretext was being exposed for the fraud it is. If you don’t like something, label its advocacy “terror.” For example, the Fur Commission USA’s Website applauded the prospect that “[this] major improvement over current law … could provide prosecutors with a substantially greater incentive to prosecute animal rights terrorists …” -- meaning those who oppose the fur industry? But Hall makes clear that even a dedicated activist such as herself can have more than qualms about certain tactics being used, endorsed, or tacitly accepted by some in the movement. For one thing, they play right into the hands of the terror-labelers.

Her objection runs far deeper than that, however; and this is where the book becomes not only tactical advice for activists but also an exploration of ethics. When Hall writes that “There is no victory in changing someone’s conduct because a grave has been desecrated” (p. 118), she does not mean only that the costs to the movement may in fact outweigh the benefits, but, more essentially, that coercion as a tactic is a betrayal of the proper end of an animal rights movement. That end is one that would encompass all animals, which is to say, humans included; and it is nothing less than the elimination of domination and hierarchy from the relations of humans to humans as well as of humans to other beings. This would be a regime of peace, Hall argues, because violence or the threat of violence is only a tool of domination, no matter how apparently benign the overt goal.

A big surprise of Hall’s treatment of activist terrorism is her linking it to the animal reform movement. It turns out that the rubric of “animal rights” in fact masks a deep schism in the movement, and in this case not over (only) tactics but also goals. On the one hand there are those who espouse incremental improvement of the lot of nonhuman animals, even including alliances with the major corporations that use animals for the production or provision of food, clothing, entertainment, health, etc., for human beings, but do not necessarily oppose the use of animals as such. On the other hand there are those, like Lee’s group, Friends of Animals, who oppose any use whatever of other animals for human purposes, and hence their treatment as property or commodities, and seek nothing less than their total liberation from human control or even oversight.

The former are called reformists, since they advocate bettering the conditions of animal use by humans but seem to accept that use in the main; while the latter are abolitionists because they would altogether sever the ties that bind other animals to human dominion and the denial of their natural freedom in a kind of enslavement. Thus, for example, reformists typically push for anti-cruelty legislation and bring pressure to bear on corporations to institute more “humane” treatment of animals on farms, in labs, and the like; while abolitionists call for the outright banning of animals from circuses, in experimental research, etc., and advocate a vegan diet.

The reason I said that Hall’s book ought to be a book of philosophy is that the above distinction cries out for more analysis and argument than she provides. The reader needs to understand what is really at issue; specifically, is the argument intended to move beyond a discussion of tactics, or does it remain that? For example, there are reformists who claim that their goal is the same as the abolitionists’; but they believe that the great mass of humanity can only be brought along stepwise, and in the meantime animal suffering can and should be alleviated. Then the abolitionists could be seen as arguing that their strategy will be more effective in the long run, since advocating only stepwise reforms is likely to have the unintended effect of lulling the public into self-satisfied acceptance of their main habits of animal use and consumption. Thus there is not necessarily any fundamental disagreement between the reformists and the abolitionists, but only one about how best to proceed.

Hall’s book does not portray it this way, however; or rather, the book is divided. For while Hall does, as with terror tactics, offer many examples of the simple ineffectiveness, even counterproductivity, of reformist methods, her brief in both types of cases goes further to question goals, and, indeed, motives. Some reformists are even characterized as selling out to well-heeled corporate sponsors, or at least as being their dupes; and Hall is surely right about the prominence in the advocacy field of strong appeals to potential donors’ sympathies for the plight of abused cuddly creatures, as well as of self-serving claims of victory with each new deal with a major animal user to use animals more humanely. These tactics no doubt bring in a lot of money to certain animal advocacy organizations; but do they hasten the eventual end of animal exploitation or only create another vested interest in their long-term subjugation?

Meanwhile, the connection drawn by Hall between reformism and terrorism is based in the first instance on cases of one and the same person or group espousing both methods in their animal advocacy. What sense is to be made of that? Hall discovers the root cause in “a steely utilitarian philosophy that supports ends-justified manipulation of others” (p. 118). In a word, Machiavellianism: do whatever works to achieve your end. But some of these means, as we have seen Hall argues, subvert the end by failing to appreciate the proper end of animal advocacy.

I find Hall’s vision compelling, but much theoretical work remains to be done. The issue here is as deep as ethics itself, for there is nothing so enduring as the tension between means and ends (except for the tension between self, or “us,” and others, which surely also plays out in the province of animal ethics). If what is truly at issue are means, then the question is an empirical one; and much more is needed than an ad hominem questioning of motives, or the adducing of what might appear to be outré and exceptional cases, such as the titular capers, to clinch the argument. The world is painfully aware of this very kind of issue being fought in Iraq (among many other places): what kind of tactics will win the day there and for whom? It is a very ancient question, and it is not even clear who decides the answer or when it can be decided. (Remember the banner on the aircraft carrier announcing “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”?) Furthermore, it is equally open to the opponents of Hall’s kind of advocacy to level a charge of wishful thinking or even its own brand of self-serving or deluded motives.

If what is at issue are ends, then the vision of a world where humans leave (or enable) other animals to live “on their own terms” (a frequent refrain in this book) needs to be spelled out in much greater detail and defended as practicable and indeed, desirable. As regards the latter, Hall does offer us intriguing glimpses of what her ideal would be like; but would humans like it, or even the other animals? For example, Hall argues that “risk is part of living in a vibrant ecology” (p. 113). Apparently she means that if the cost of properly respecting other animals is that the occasional human will be mauled by a wild animal in the neighborhood, so be it (p. 98). But it is also the other animals who will suffer, for “Coming to respect the interests of conscious beings in living on their terms does not mean seeking to erase all the suffering and risk that life involves” (p. 135). Thus, instead of coddled pets there will be animals fending for themselves in the wild. Hall surely believes that in some fundamental sense this will be better for the animals, in the sense of restoring their dignity if not their freedom from pain (p. 71).

It is a noble vision, to be sure, but one that needs to be argued. Otherwise one could honestly question it as yet another human imposition on the lives of other animals: a romantic conception in lieu of an utilitarian one. After all, do not ethologists tell us that hierarchies are also to be found in the natural world, which should come as no surprise if we have evolved from common ancestors? And who is to say that the average animal in the wild might not prefer “a dog’s life” if given the choice (which indeed the modern dog’s ancestor may have had)?

I pose these questions as devil’s advocate. What I would really love to see is another book by Lee Hall, this time focused not on questions of strategy but instead on the proper goal of animal advocacy. The reader needs to have Hall’s vision delineated in much greater detail. As she herself notes, “Advocates might know what they oppose, but they are less sure about a positive vision to replace it” (p. 96). Indeed, she asserts that the whole point of a social movement is “to cultivate an alternative viewpoint, one that takes hold, gains energy, and becomes plausible to enough people to effect a paradigm shift” (p. 73). Hall’s book is filled with succinct, striking, stirring statements, such as, “The likelihood of individuals or cultures asking fundamental ethical questions about vivisection is not strong where those same people routinely interact with other animals by eating them” (p. 60); but these cannot substitute for a sustained, i.e., booklength, development of the alternative vision.

For one thing, the vision needs to be made consistent. There is potentially a deep tension or at least an ambiguity in what Hall’s vision actually is. On the new hand what she says in this book suggests forging a wholly non-dominating relationship between humans and other animals; but on the other hand Hall appears to be advocating an utter separation of human lives from theirs. The latter is instanced when she writes, “It’s simply not plausible that humanity can renounce our privileged position over them, yet live in situations where we could exert our will” (p. 53); thus, she speaks of their “right to be left alone” (p. 52). Then Hall makes this comparison: “Feminists have observed the ways in which society’s extension of protection to women is a bargain that ends up with the women still under [men’s] control” (p. 74). Is an implication therefore that the “solution” for the domination of women by men would be the complete segregation of the sexes? By the way, it becomes clear in the course of this book that Hall also considers the “dominance” that is the root cause of animals’ plight to be a (human) male phenomenon (e.g., p. 90). Presumably Hall does not mean to ship the men off to Mars; but then, how are her various statements about the ideal (or morally necessary) relation between humans and nonhuman animals to be understood in concrete terms?

What is more, any extended treatment of Hall’s vision needs to be theoretical. As I have already indicated, Hall herself can seem unclear on this score. Interestingly, Hall lodges a similar complaint against the terrorists and reformists for failing to understand their own theory (e.g., p. 80). It is nonetheless crucial to resolve, as Hall herself suggests when she writes, “Social justice movements everywhere find guidance in the idea that another world is possible, and that once an idea can be conceived, it can be achieved. Theories can indeed be put into practice overnight …” (p. 137).

In particular: does Hall really offer an alternative to the utilitarianism of her antagonists? Perhaps in dismissing a “steely utilitarianism” Hall does not mean to dismiss utilitarianism outright. So much of this book, as we have seen, inveighs against the bad “effects” of terrorist and reformist tactics. But suppose it turned out that a reformist or even terrorist strategy would in fact be more effective in bringing about a world free from domination (including terrorism); and, Hall’s arguments and evidence notwithstanding, I see no intrinsic paradox in such a possibility. I strongly suspect even so that Hall would insist reformism and terrorism should be rejected. In other words, I don’t believe Hall wants to cast the fate of her vision to the contingencies of existence. The reason to reject terrorism and reformism is not that they might be ineffective, but that they are inconsistent with her vision of a world without coercion, manipulation, and domination.

It may therefore be necessary to transcend tactics and goals altogether. This manifests the deep distinction in ethical theory between consequentialism and nonconsequentialism, the latter being precisely the view that the ends do not justify the means. If one opts for the latter, one has thereby put aside questions of ends and means, and replaced them with a way of living. Note that this approach encompasses both questions of strategy in the animal rights movement and the more fundamental question of how human beings ought to relate to other animals. I gather that is what Hall intends with the phrase “activism as integrity” (p. 19).

One last problem then remains. In classic nonconsequentialist theory (in particular, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative), it is not use as such that is proscribed but only “mere” use, that is, abuse. For example, it is wrong to cheat someone but perfectly fine to obtain something from them in a fair exchange. But it seems pretty clear from her book that Hall does not think it is possible in the real world for human beings to use other animals without abusing them. So, once again, the implication seems to be that humans should live and let (other animals) live. But the explanation for this disparity between human-human and human-animal relations needs to be elaborated. Let the title of Hall’s next book therefore be: On Their Own Terms.