Animal rights activism is a sort of triage. The state of affairs for animals today is so horrid that it’s similar to a war or an environmental catastrophe. In order to save any lives at all, we must organize and prioritize. Animal advocates are saving lives in various different ways. But which methods should you support? What should your animal activism look like?
Patrice Jones offers some insight into how to be an effective animal advocate while recognizing and appreciating the rights versus welfare discourse. Specifically, she argues that animal welfare is a component of animal liberation.
That is, we can work towards ending animal suffering while working towards ending use. Welfare reforms are often incremental abolition. When the two conflict, we ought to prefer ending actual animal use (rights) to ending actual animal suffering (welfare). However, we ought to prefer ending actual animal suffering (welfare) to ending theoretical animal use (rights). But often, the two do not conflict.
As Jones puts it:
“If harm might be caused to actually existing animals, then probabilities must be assessed and ethical decisions made. We may not refuse to relieve suffering of actually existing animals — and certainly may not interfere with others who are doing so — for the sake of possible future animals for whom the existing animals have not consented to be sacrificed.”
(By the way, “relieve suffering” does not necessarily mean kill. Euthanasia is only acceptable as a last resort when there are not adequate alternatives.)
Jones suggests these basic principles to guide our actions. Her principles (or axioms) are listed here with my explanations (interpretations – may not be exactly the same as Jones’ meanings):
- Animals exist – There are real lives at stake, not simply theoretical classes of individuals. Moreover, there are individuals suffering right now. They should not be sacrificed for future animals who don’t even exist yet.
- Nothing happens in a vacuum – Our actions have consequences and we have a responsibility to try to foresee those consequences. Both the intended consequences and the actual consequences matter.
- Animals are the subjects of animal liberation – Animal advocates are the allies of animals. We must recognize animals’ agency.
- Liberation includes self-determination and freedom - Would most animals want larger crates before being killed to become meat or would they prefer small crates so that future beings might not suffer the same fate? Would most humans gladly give up their current freedoms so that future generations may enjoy more? Would most animals really rather be “put to sleep” than be “warehoused”? Would most humans rather be sentenced to death or life in prison? (Our personal choices are not necessarily the same choices others would make.)
- Animals may want more than liberation – “[M]any animals are more troubled by water pollution and depletion by people than they are by their lack of rights within our legal system.”
- Animals have voices – We are not their voice. We are their advocates, their allies, their support.
- Animal advocates ought to listen to animals
- Actions taken on behalf of animals ought to be taken for the sake of animals – “the decisions of animal advocates must be guided by what is best for animals rather than by their own desire for cognitive consistency, emotional ease, or feelings of moral purity.” Moreover, as advocates, we ought not value our careers, our reputations, or other trivial things more than animals’ lives.
- Animals are different from one another
- Different animals may want different right
- The interests of different animals may be contradictory
- Animals value their own lives and the lives of some known others – Animals want to live.
- Animals do not sacrifice their lives or welfare for unknown others – It’s absurd to think the majority of animals would choose to endure more suffering today so that future animals might live without suffering tomorrow. And they certainly would not give their lives in order to feed or clothe humans.
- Animals are not objects – Each individual matters.
- Harm happens – “It’s simply not possible to do everything that ought to be done.” We must prioritize and carefully determine our actions.
- Animal welfare is a component of animal liberation – Animal welfare reforms ought to be judged case-by-case.
Ultimately, today’s suffering is more important than tomorrow’s. Though we ought to work strategically and effectively for the future, we cannot ignore animals’ cries for help in the present. We simply must do something.