Monday, 23 February 2009

Doesn 't Every Little Help?

I would like to make a few points with regard to the claim that animal welfare is a "step in the right direction" because it convinces people to go vegan.

First, the sentimental "every little helps" approach is the expression of a model of animal advocacy whose central idea is that we should support any welfarist measure that will reduce animal suffering. But it would be difficult if not impossible to make incremental progress toward abolition using this blunt (utilitarian) instrument. After all, if we subscribed to this model of animal advocacy, all industry would need to do to stymie the progress of the animal rights movement indefinitely would be to intermittently offer excruciatingly modest concessions which we would be obliged to support because of our uselessly reductive conception of how to effect social change.

Second, people do not go vegan because of campaigns that merely call for the regulation of animal slavery: they go vegan in spite of them.

Third, let's assume for the sake of the argument that welfarism is conducive to veganism. Now imagine this scenario: every day I stand on my head and recite the alphabet backwards. One day a lunatic walks past and, as a result of my strange behavior, decides to go vegan. Prejudiced by the Singerian notion that, with respect to the problem of animal exploitation, "every little helps," many activists now claim that, on pain of not caring about the animals, we are obliged to support any person or group of people who stand on their heads while reciting the alphabet backwards, as doing so may be conducive to getting lunatics to go vegan.

Now, I do not think that the attitude expressed by the activists in this hypothetical is too far removed from the attitude of many activists to PeTA. I often hear people say things like, "I cannot but support PeTA's 'I'd-rather-go-naked-and-play-suggestively-with-vegetables-than-wear-fur/eat animal products' campaigns as they have convinced some people to go vegan." But just as we obviously should not infer, from the fact that standing on one's head while reciting the alphabet backwards might be conducive to getting lunatics to go vegan, that we should encourage people actually to do this, so we also should not infer, from the fact that some people may go vegan as a result of seeing PeTA activists undressing while playing suggestively with vegetables, that we are obliged to support PeTA. Why not? Among other things, it is because undressing while playing suggestively with vegetables - or standing on one's head while reciting the alphabet backwards - does not (it goes without saying) represent a maximally effective use of time and resources. Indeed, the point can - and should - be put more strongly: how many people have PeTA, with its fethishization of sexist campaigns, and also with its attempt to rebrand KFC as "humane," prevented from going vegan?

Accordingly, the claim that we should support PeTA because it has convinced some people to go vegan is really nothing but a veiled rationalization for a less than maximally effective strategy. More strongly, I offer my scenario with the "activist" who convinces someone to go vegan by standing on his head while reciting the alphabet backwards as a reduction to absurdity of the claim that we should support everything that is claimed to be "conducive to veganism," an idea which is an expression of the "every little helps" approach to animal advocacy, which in its turn is one of the main (ideological) causes of the modern "animal protection" movement's profligate wastefulness. Following Gary Francione and other abolitionists, I suggest that we should support (financially and ideologically) only that form of advocacy which is maximally conducive to veganism, by which I mean clear, unequivocal, and creative vegan advocacy.

One counterargument to the claim that vegan advocacy is maximally conducive to veganism goes something like this: granted, welfarism cannot lead to abolition; but how do you know that vegan advocacy can? But this is like asking: why should we promote a clear, coherent, and unequivocal (vegan) message as opposed to an unclear, incoherent, and equivocal (welfarist) message? Furthermore, imagine all of the animal movement's institutional resources had been spent not on welfarist reform and "happy" meat campaigns, but instead on clear and unequivocal vegan education. Does anyone seriously think that had the animal movement done this there would be fewer vegans today?

Someone who is undeterred by my rhetorical questions, who thinks, that is, that it may be preferable to present an unclear and incoherent welfarist message as opposed to a clear and coherent vegan message, will probably fall back on some version of the "if you ask for 100%, then you get nothing" defence. But as Gary Francione points out, what reason do we have to believe that if we promote veganism we will get nothing? For if people are concerned about the animal issue, then, even if they don't go vegan, they will do something; and if they are so unconcerned about this issue that they would do nothing when presented with a vegan message, then what reason is there to believe that they would do something (89%?) if presented with a "happy" meat message? Moreover, as Francione points out, if we present people with a vegan message, then, even if they don't feel ready to go vegan straightaway, we will at least give them something to which they can aspire. But if we tell them that they can be "conscientious omnivores", that they can discharge their moral obligations to animals by eating "happy" meat and "cage-free" eggs, then that is all they will do.

Thus, in opposition to the vacuous mantra: "If you ask for 100%, then you get nothing", I would say: "If you do nothing, then you get nothing". In other words, if we do not campaign for abolition - if we do not clearly, lucidly, and uncompromisingly advocate it to the public - we will never get abolition.