Examining Animal Activism

29 November 2021
By Katharina Braun

Who are animal activists?[1] Animal ethics is a thriving field of research, which results in increasing knowledge about the goals and methods of animal activists. But how do animal activists promote their goals? And how do their strategies relate to the law and democracy? In this blog post I highlight possible criteria that may assist in discussing the strategies of animal activists as well as their moral, legal and societal implications.

Shedding light on animal activism is not just of academic interest. Animal activists constantly debate which goals and strategies to pursue. Should they start a campaign against all animal farming or focus on live exports? Is it morally defensible to break into a laboratory and engage in animal rescue? Or should activists rather raise awareness about animal testing? Should they insist on veganism or just encourage others to eat less meat? And which reasons should they give for this? The moral status of animals – or, if people are more receptive to this – the health benefits of reducing meat?

Defining activism here is difficult as the strategies and goals of animal activists are far from harmonious. Adopting a vegan diet or simply signing an online petition might be considered an instance of activism, but so might the destruction of research laboratories and animal rescue. A 2018 article published by the pro-animal nonprofit media organisation Sentient Media defined animal activists as follows:

Animal rights activists are people living all over the world who spend some or most of their time protesting or otherwise working against factory farming, animal testing and other abuses of the animal kingdom. An animal activist believes that animals deserve to live happy, cruelty-free lives, and in addition they do something to help create a world where that is possible.[2]

This definition is a useful starting point, as most animal activists will likely find it comprehensive. Yet, it glosses over a number of problems. Any all-encompassing definition of animal activists understates divisions within the animal activist movement. For some, ‘happy, cruelty-free lives’ requires the abolition of all animal use. For others, it may be achieved by enhanced animal welfare measures. But, more importantly, an all-encompassing definition glosses over the question of strategy. This question is vitally important, as it concerns the perception, effectiveness, lawfulness and moral permissibility of animal activism.

The strategies of animal activists are intertwined with their goals. As such, the question of strategy features prominently in the long-standing debate between so-called welfarists and abolitionists.[3] Those who advocate for animal welfare will likely support campaigns that promise to reduce animal suffering while using animals, such as through stricter animal welfare laws.[4] Those who advocate for the abolition of all use of animals argue that this strategy allows for the continuance of animal exploitation.[5] They will instead focus on advocating veganism.[6]

Further, existing research suggests that the goals of animal activists correspond to the particular activities that activists engage in to achieve their goals. The sociologist Lyle Munro associates the ‘moderate’ animal welfare movement with conventional, legal tactics within the political process; animal rights with more disruptive, militant (albeit non-violent) tactics operating within civil society; and radical animal liberation with coerced changes through violent, illegal action, and even terrorism.[7] These categories are just an approximation and should be treated with caution. Strategies may change over time, and they are highly dependent on the region that activists operate in.

In order to appraise the different strategies of animal activists, we need conceptual and normative criteria to distinguish them.

Some discuss animal activism in terms of effectiveness.[8] The consequentialist idea behind this is to identify strategies that can help the most animals with the fewest resources. While certainly important, the question of effectiveness does not pay due regard to other implications of animal activism. For example, it does not allow us to draw conclusions as to the legal permissibility of those acts that may help animals but, for example, interfere with the law and the rights of other humans.

Given this objection to effectiveness, the lawfulness of a given act comes to mind as a distinguishing criterion. However, a categorisation along the lines of the law comes with certain pitfalls. Lawfulness may depend on the jurisdiction in question or a mere administrative act. Some forms of protest might be legal in one jurisdiction and illegal in another. The category becomes even more indeterminate when newly emerging forms of protests (eg in the online sphere) are concerned, and when activists operate transnationally or on the high seas (eg, as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society does[9]).

Another criterion to categorise the strategies of animal activists is violence. Approaches focusing on violence to distinguish between different categories of animal activism also face some challenges. Violence can have a very particular meaning in law and depending on the area of law concerned. It can be reinterpreted to include acts that a common-sense account of violence would not capture.[10]

At the same time, some activists may refrain from violence but engage in, for example, severe intimidation and threats, muddying the distinction. This could concern activists who, for example, harass employees of animal testing laboratories in front of their workplace. Perhaps we could instead consider whether a given strategy is coercive.

If laboratory employees can no longer tolerate daily harassment on the way to work, they may pursue different career options, although they believe that the laboratory’s animal testing is morally permissible. In this case, coercion would be salient. Whether the use of coercion or violence by animal activists must be condemned is subject on an ongoing debate in moral philosophy.[11]

Another promising attempt at appraising different strategies of animal activists draws from deliberative democracy. The deliberative ideal calls for citizens to engage in ‘polite, emotionally detached, and persuasive dialogue oriented toward the common good.’[12] These requirements conflict with strategies of animal activists who employ emotive language and e.g. accuse those working at slaughterhouses of ‘murdering’ animals. It conflicts even more with activists who use coercive or violent strategies. In existing literature, disagreement exists as to whether deliberative democracy accommodates for non-deliberative methods, including by animal activists.[13] In any case, a distinction between deliberative and non-deliberative methods can provide guidance when categorising the strategies of animal activists.

Finally, one can draw distinctions based on the target of an act of animal activism. Stephen D’Arcy contrasted non-deliberative methods against deliberative methods largely based on who is being targeted: the general public, who can be convinced with reason-based arguments, or direct opponents of animal activists, such as operators of factory farms or animal testing laboratories, who are arguably not receptive to those arguments.[14] While a consumer choosing between chicken and a vegan alternative for dinner may be convinced when presented with good reasons, the owner of a factory farm is unlikely to change their mind. Actions targeting opponents, therefore, tend to be non-deliberative.[15]

In the end, none of the criteria discussed above is sufficient to map and evaluate the strategies of animal activists. Yet, together, they may shed some light on the moral, legal and societal implications of different strategies of animal activists, as well as their permissibility. As such, they provide further food for thought.

[1] In the following I am going to use the term ‘animal activists’ as a shorthand to include activists who seek a better life for animals regardless of whether they subscribe to animal rights, welfare or liberation.

[2] Grant Lingel, ‘Animal Rights Activists: Who They Are & What They Do’ Sentient Media 22 October 2018, available at https://sentientmedia.org/animal-rights-activists/.

[3] Gary L. Francione and Robert Garner, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? (Columbia University Press, 2010).

[4] Gary L. Francione and Robert Garner, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? 122 (Columbia University Press, 2010).

[5] Gary L. Francione and Robert Garner, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? 25 (Columbia University Press, 2010)

[6] See, eg Gary L. Francione and Anna Charlton, Advocate for Animals (Exempla Press, 2017).

[7] Lyle Munro, ‘The Animal Rights Movement in Theory and Practice: A Review of the Sociological Literature’ 6:2 Sociology Compass 166, 169 et seq. (2012).

[8] Jeff Sebo, Peter Singer, ‘Activism’ in: Lori Gruen (ed.), Critical Terms for Animal Studies 33 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[9] On the problem of transnational animal activism see Siobhan O’Sullivan, Clare McCausland, Scott Brenton, Animal Activists, ‘Civil Disobedience and Global Responses to transnational Injustice’ 23:3 Res Publica 261 (2017).

[10] Literature on civil disobedience sheds some light on this issue. See, eg Robin Celikates, ‘Rethinking Civil Disobedience as a Practice of Contestation – Beyond the Liberal Paradigm’ 23 Constellations 37, 41 et seq. (2016).

[11] Blake Hereth, ‘Animal Rights Pacifism’ Philosophical Studies (forthcoming 2021); Ivar Hardman, ‘In Defense of Direct Action’ 1:1 Journal of Controversial Ideas 1, 4 (2021).

[12] Donatella della Porta, Nicole Doer, ‘Deliberation in Protests and Social Movements’ in: Andre Bächtiger et al. (eds.) Oxford Handbook on Deliberative Democracy 392, 394 (Oxford University Press 2018).

[13] Mathew Humphrey, Marc Stears, ‘Animal rights protests and the challenge to deliberative democracy’ 35:3 Economy and Society 400 (2006); Lucy J. Parry, ‘Don’t put all your speech-acts in one basket: situating animal activism in the deliberative system’ 26 Environmental Values 437 (2017); Robert Garner, ‘Animal Rights and the deliberative turn in democratic theory’ 18:3 European Journal of Political Theory, 309 (2019); Stephen D’Arcy, ‘Deliberative Democracy, Direct Action and Animal Advocacy’ 5:2 Journal for Critical Animal Studies 1 (2007).

[14] Stephen D’Arcy, ‘Deliberative Democracy, Direct Action and Animal Advocacy’ 5:2 Journal for Critical Animal Studies 1, 2, 3 (2007).

[15] Stephen D’Arcy, ‘Deliberative Democracy, Direct Action and Animal Advocacy’ 5:2 Journal for Critical Animal Studies 1, 2,3 (2007).