Skepticism could save the animal rights moment, but will it? I’m sceptical.

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Skepticism could save the animal rights moment, but will it? I’m sceptical.

Skeptical thinking is the asset within scientific and rational progress which has achieved more than any other. It’s that ability to objectively analyse evidence, no matter how compelling, and ask whether it’s reliable, whether it works or even just whether it’s completely made up. In animal rights, it’s that nagging doubt that presents itself when the applauded, well known advocates rally their supporters.

Skepticism is the one tool that could save the animal rights movement: all corners of the movement – from mainstream animal charities to cult hero academics – are filled with dogma to the point of gross ineffectiveness. It’s not hard to explain why.

Animal charities garner support and “success” through campaigns which are almost entirely devoid of value on behalf of animals. Some of the most famous examples of animal rights “successes”, and also the most easy to debunk, are welfare campaigns. Examples of such campaigns are free range eggs or humane meat, and they miss the point by ignoring all skepticism in favour of singular, quasi-measurable progress in regards to the well-being of these animals. This is not done in an entirely scientifically vacant manner. Indeed, the individuals involved in these campaigns often source, fund or quote research which they believe backs up their points: either to show that animal wellbeing is improved in some way, or that these campaigns are effective at garnering support from the mass public.

My position is anti-dogmatic, so I will not assume that these campaigns are ineffective. Instead I will simply posit that too many sources of skepticism have to be ignored, without the evidence to do so, in order to argue that the campaigns are successful. If we take the example of free range eggs alone, the critical analysis missing is shocking, despite the campaigns calling themselves a “success”. These campaigns have improved the amount of space and some very basic conditions for chickens in a number of countries, however the following are all ignored skeptical concerns:

  • How reliable are the sources on the improvement in animal well being, given that we can not rationally measure the suffering of other animals?
  • Does increasing the amount of space chickens have actually make them psychologically suffer less, given the other moral problems with free range farming?
  • Given that no individual hens will actually go from a smaller enclosure to a bigger one (the changes in welfare standards take years, and happen in between one population of chickens being shipped to the slaughterhouse and the next lot being incarcerated) then is the chicken’s life actually enriched at all, given that it is still denied many natural and pleasant instincts? Does the extra space increase the quality of life for chickens who don’t know what slightly less space feels like? Confinement, slaughter and everything else still occurs.
  • Has the campaigning made people more comfortable with eating eggs, and thus gotten people back into supporting an industry that is morally problematic in many other ways, when they could have been removed from supporting it? Given that industry felt the need to adopt the welfare labels, they clearly felt it was profitable, so profits must be increased else losses minimised somewhere by doing it, otherwise companies would not have taken it up.
  • Would such hundreds of millions of pounds, and billions of hours of campaigning, have been better spent on educating people not to eat eggs at all than to support a slightly less barbaric system (if less barbaric at all)?
  • Had the activist resources gone on advocating an opposition of eggs or animal products altogether, would the companies have been forced into welfare reform anyway as a matter of fighting declining sales? Ie, have we missed the opportunity for removing people from causing animal suffering and inadvertently marketed the industry on the behalf of those who cause the suffering? Remember that industry actively pursues marketing itself, and one of the primary roles of marketing is in upholding sales against competition/opposition.

These are very serious concerns, and it would be odd that all of them were vacant of content given that the ‘measurable’ success of free range farming is so questionable in the first place. Indeed, are the campaigns measurably successful for animals, or do they simply make cosmetic changes regarding space and cleanliness that appease consumer guilt? The latter point is what the companies intend them to do – cosmetic changes that increase sales – so the entire premise of ‘free range’ welfare campaigns is on very shaky ground.

It’s not difficult to come up with similarly skeptical lists of questions for almost any other welfare campaign you care to imagine. It isn’t just welfare campaigns either. Many of these kinds of concerns – especially regarding the effect campaigns have on normalising ‘less extreme’ forms of animal use (as free range campaigns do for free range eggs over battery eggs) – are equally relevant to campaigns that single out any single instance of animal use. Take the fur campaign, for example, which has the potential for normalising other less ‘extreme’ forms of animal use by picking out this one, rare use as more worthy of attention than others. It surely helps people to feel better about more normal uses of animals, right? Of course, we can’t prove it either way, but if skepticism teaches us anything it is not to side with people making claims they can’t back up. There is no evidence to suggest that welfare campaigns are successful for animals, which should raise suspicion about the intentions (else the lack of interest in the actual animals) of the groups partaking in them.

It’s not just welfare groups

It would be unfair to single out the welfare orientated groups alone. In animal rights, everyone’s at it. One of the harshest critics of welfare campaigning – indeed an academic who has admirably made some of the same points that I make above – is Professor Gary L Francione. Francione is the author of numerous books and articles on animal rights, advocating his ‘abolitionist approach’ in which welfare campaigns are shunned (along with single issue campaigns) in favour of ‘creative and non-violent vegan education’.

His premise seems much sturdier than that of welfare groups. Francione has taken on board much of the criticism of welfare groups, a good deal of which he was a pioneer in writing about, and come up with a better option for furthering animal rights. Vegan education is likely to avoid the problems that welfarism causes, likewise making it non-violent helps avoid the problem of dogmatic ‘direct-action’ groups who advocate an almost biblical revenge against animal industry. Though, Francione’s advocacy of non-violence is not based on a scientific understanding of determinism and thus rejection of revenge as productive, but rather a spiritual principle of ahimsa*.

Francione (and the many grassroots groups he influences through his outreach) tend to take almost a guru-like role in the movement. His facebook and twitter posts take the form of spiritual teachings rather than invitations to think critically about a subject:

Remember, the animals we love are no different from the ones we eat. Go vegan.*

You love one another. You eat another. That makes no sense. Go Vegan. You know that’s the right thing to do.*

There is no distinction between meat and other animal foods. All involve suffering. All involve death. All, involve exploitation. All involve injustice. If you believe that animals matter morally, you don’t consume any animal foods.*

At the base of Francione’s philosophy, even after rejecting welfarism on rational grounds, is a solid adherence to dogmatic and fixed principles which seem inflexible to approaching genuine animal suffering: hence the almost demand-like posts rather than any significant thought provocation. Francione doesn’t admit that if welfarism works it would be worth doing as, in his opinion, veganism is a rejection of violence, and promoting smaller amounts of violence is still violence. This is where Francione’s approach, like many others in the animal rights movement, is at odds with reality. If welfarism does work, it should not be opposed, as animal rights is not about dogmatic principles it is about the interests of others. We shouldn’t oppose interests in order to stick to principles.

Due to this kind of analysis, it is possible to view Francione’s spiritual view of animal rights as tantamount to a blind squirrel finding a nut. Denigrating the role of reason in the formation of your views doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t end up supporting a rational method of action, just as removing the sight from a squirrel won’t mean it can never find a nut. Vision, like reason, is still vitally important.

Am I simply doing the equivalent of criticising the moral priest, though? I mean, the best example of the worst kind of thinking is not the most deserving target – shouldn’t I be aiming at those who use bad thinking and then advocate bad results?

This is not really the case. Francione doesn’t just advocate some of the ‘right’ answers, he also actively promotes non-violence as the base principle, as well as promoting an explicitly anti-rationalist position. Ignoring reason like this is problematic for the same reasons as when ‘welfarists’ do it. His aggressive pursuance of groups that don’t adhere strictly to every little aspect of his own views, as noted in my recent article on the Abolitionist, should make us aware that the approach of the non-rational is not harmless just because it happened upon the right result originally.

Skepticism is key

Given these kinds of problems, it’s hard not to arrive at the conclusion that skepticism is desperately important. Critically analysing the arguments of welfarists and abolitionists doesn’t just lead to a rejection of many of the types of principles and campaigns I have already mentioned, it’s also important in effectively spreading truth.

Dogmatic ideas are no longer attractive to society as a whole. Even the most ingrained ones – those forming the basis of our most prevalent religions, and offering spiritual rewards such as comforting ideas of an afterlife – are in freefall the further through the 21st century we go (shown by declining church attendances in countries like the UK, and an increasing number of societies identifying as secular). So to think that dogmatic principles are the best way to push new causes into mass moral conscience is the stuff of fantasy. Do people want to be preached at? Do people want to jump on board with inconsistent or irrational sets of beliefs? Does this motivate people better than being honest with them, or letting them make their own choices? More importantly, don’t people want to feel the power of making their own decisions based on their own critical thinking, rather than someone else’s demands? I can’t make that decision for you, these are the concerns and it’s up to you to decide which are valid.

Will skepticism save animal rights?

The clue to my opinion is in the title, I’m sceptical. The two rough types of factions I mention above – the welfarists and the abolitionists – are the two main recruiters for animal rights. Thus the small amount of people coming into the movement would appear to be predisposed to fall for the dogmatic arguments or else the badly thought out campaigns. These factions don’t appeal to particularly large groups of people, hence my opinion that despite the rational nature of animal rights arguments, most people never get to hear them and thus remain unaffected. Those small numbers that get on board are unlikely to embrace scepticism head on – after all, the two largest types of factions are promoters of critical thinking only in the areas where it suits them to be.

This makes it sound overly pessimistic – a little like a vicious circle that can never be broken. Yet in recent years we have started to see discussion about animal rights in skeptic areas, which means there is hope for those who do value skepticism to discover animal rights and form a critically thinking movement. Whether or not it will be useful to label this movement ‘animal rights’, and hence tie it in with all the baggage and poorly thought out rhetoric that comes along with the term is another matter. Skepticism will undoubtedly further ‘animal ethics’ at some point - arguably it’s already started to - it just might leave the current movement behind. If the likes of Francione’s actions are anything to go by, a skeptic movement for animal rights would in actual fact be vehemently opposed by the mainstays of the current status quo.

Rob Johnson is a British ethicist, editor of The Abolitionist and author of the book Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong.

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