BY JIM MASON
Like a great ship at sea, the animal protection movement is going through another change in the weather. Strong, favorably directed gusts of new ideas are kicking up controversies, problems, and confusion. To try to keep on course, we should grapple with these as they arise. There is some confusion, for example, over the meaning of animal welfare, animal rights, and animal liberation, and their respective goals. Beyond that, there is the problem of the relationship of the animal movement to the rest of the fleet of human progress. Is our issue merely an academic one? Under our evolving philosophy, where do we stand on other social issues? Since one of the movement’s main problems all along has been a perceived irrelevance and, in some instances, antagonism to human concerns, this problem needs attention.
The publications of essays by Brigid Brophy, Richard Ryder, and others (S. and R. Godlovitch and J. Harris, Eds., Animals, Men, and Morals, 1971) in the early 1970s in England and Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in the United States in 1975, is reviving a perspective on our treatment of other animals that appears quite radical to most people: that other animals have rights, too.
The established animal welfare perspective had never really questioned basic uses of other animals in the human economy; advocates of animal rights and liberation were now saying that animals ought to be free from exploitation by humans. The welfarist accepted age-old uses of animals, but tried to insure that animals were treated humanely; i.e., not subjected to pain, suffering, and other forms of “cruelty.”
Major welfarist legislation, for example, included the Animal Welfare Act which reduced suffering of experimental animals in shipment and in housing (though not on the experimental table) and the Humane Slaughter Act (since renamed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act) reduced suffering of farmed animals at the slaughterhouse.
Because of the built-in limitations of the welfarist approach, concerned people are leaning toward the kind of thinking set down by Brophy, et al, and popularized in the United States by Peter Singer’s book which would liberate animals from exploitation by humans just as society liberated humans from the slave system. Not all of the recent subscribers to this thinking lean quite as far, nor do they lean with the consistency and intensity of the authors. For many, it is sufficient to talk of various specific animal “rights” rather than full-blown, all-out “liberation.”
What is the difference between the two approaches? Merely one of degree? It should have been, but it has come to be something more. In just a few short years, the difference has, because of semantics, grown into two ways of conceptualizing the elimination of animal exploitation and suffering. liberationists say that human society need no longer use other animals as it once did because we are morally, intellectually, and technologically developed enough now to make ways to replace animals as resources, food sources, tools for research, and the like.
Rights advocates say that other animals have or possess rights in the same sense that humans do—rights to health, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as their species knows it—and that humans cannot continue to use animals as we have been doing without violating these rights. The two approaches are not entirely divergent, though, for they both challenge the attitude known as “speciesism” which holds that animals are inferior to humans and are legitimate subjects for human exploitation.
Although the liberation approach is more straightforward and more in touch with reality, most of the talk going around now is animal rights and the string of doctrines, theories, and other abstractions that devolve on those who indulge in discussions of “rights.” Now you may think I’m hairsplitting or putting forth a bone for contention when none is needed, or that I’m disparaging the rights approach. Both approaches have validity, you say. Well, to that I say not really, but the rights approach may be useful and convenient in some situations. Oh, my god, you say!
You see, my main purpose in going into all of this is to point out how much obfuscation and distraction can result when we carelessly use “rights” and when we mean “liberation.” At its deeper levels, the rights approach tends to degenerate into a morass of jargon and academic nitpicking over the nature and source of “rights.” Whereas the liberation approach speaks of the real world at all levels—of the uses of animals, of alternatives, of how to get from here to there. Liberation recognizes our cultural and technological dependence on exploitation of animals and urges cultural and technological progress away from it.
On a more superficial level, however, I’ll admit that the rights approach may be easier and simpler to get across than the other. But be careful, because the is precisely where the trouble starts—using “rights” when “liberation” is meant. Because of such repeated usage, liberation tends to play understudy to rights; if we continue to rely on rights, we multiply the risk of further splits in the movement as well as the risk of confusing or misleading an increasingly sympathetic and receptive public.
Because of the rapid ascent of the rights approach and the media coverage being given to it, I think it’s time to stress the difference between the two approaches and of keeping them in proper perspective. How, then, did the rights approach get star billing while the liberation approach waits in the wings? Two factors, I believe, contribute to the word (and perhaps conceptual) preference.
First, many of the people recently attracted to the animal welfare/rights/liberation movement—philosophers, lawyers, and academics—are more disposed toward the intellectualism of the rights approach. They have more familiar footing on theories, doctrines, logical principles, and notions of “rights” than they do on the scientific (and perhaps political) stepping stones of the liberation approach. This should not be interpreted as disparagement, for I realize the importance of working from established thought.
Second, the emotional associations with the word “rights” are more positive and familiar to us than those with the word “liberation.” We talk freely and proudly of the Bill of Rights, human rights, children’s rights, and so on. We are amply and favorably programmed for talk of rights. Liberation, on the other hand, sounds negative and shocking because it conjures up images of revolutions (“wars of liberation”) and fringe groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army of the Patty Hearst kidnapping case.
Because of the second factor, I agree that it is probably better “PR” (public relations) to talk of “rights” than of “liberation” in some situations. And I believe a great many liberationists do use the word “rights” when they really mean “liberation.” For public relations reasons of another kind, you’ll probably hear animal welfarists try to get on the bandwagon by using the buzzword “rights” when they really mean “conservation” or “welfare.” The latters’ misuse of terminology probably isn’t all that bad because it does aid in getting the words and the concepts out to the public which attracts attention to our movement and stimulates thought and discussion—all of which leads to progress toward animal liberation.
I think we do have to be on guard, though, against the possibility that old welfarist wine will be poured from animal rights bottles to legislators, scientists, and others who are in a position to protect animals. But, to get back to the choice of rights over liberation for the time being, I would just hope that all this talk of “rights” does not deteriorate into a lot of squabbling among ourselves over how much space a factory chicken has a “right” to, or what kind of killing instrument a pig or a steer has a “right” to. Let’s be on guard against going in circles in our question to establish rights for animals. What do we want? The anesthetic comfort of knowing that animals have rights written down in books, somewhere, or the genuine peace and security of an aware society that no longer need brutalize itself under the myth that it is “necessary” to use animals?
One last point in favor of the liberation: I think it offers more to humans as we go through the process of untangling our attitudes and neuroses about other animals and the natural world. Conveying abstract “rights” to animals may seem noble, but we are still the drafters of those rights, we are still in command. The thing is to alter the relationship and the attitudes and the culture that goes with it; liberation goes more deeply at this than does rights. Liberation touches on human problems, specifically on the age-old problem of understanding human nature. As Mary Midgley, Barry Lopez, Rene DuBos, and others have explained so well: We need to learn to love and respect the beast within, the animality of human nature. To do that, we’ll have to change our whole way of thinking about, and relating to, other animals. We can liberate ourselves in that process.
Originally published in ‘AGENDA,’ Number 6, May 1981