BOOKS: On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2010:
(published October 5, 2010)

On Their Own Terms:
Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth
by Lee Hall
Nectar Bat Press (777 Post Road, Suite 205, Darien, CT 06820),
2010. 330 pages, paperback. $17.95.

Friends of Animals vice president for legal affairs Lee Hall
argues in On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down
to Earth for a vegan world, in which all animals roam free. Her
perception of the central problem in animal/human relations is that
humans exercise dominion over animals. Her strategic approach is
“abolitionist,” meaning that she believes every campaign activity
should work toward the ultimate goal.

Theories of human and animal rights typically proceed from
either of two mutually exclusive starting points.
The traditional legal view is that rights proceed from
participation in an organized society, with structured and
consistent rules. Membership in organized society need not be
voluntary, and usually is not. Individuals, human or animal,
obtain rights only to the extent that rights are recognized by the
rulemakers, whether the rulemakers are kings, priests, or a
democratic system of government. This perspective is the historical
basis of civilization, and of most jurisprudence.
Increasingly influencing the traditional legal view of
rights, over the past several centuries, is the concept of “natural
rights,” intrinsic to individuals from birth–even conception, in
some arguments. What exists as a “right” in the legal view is often
just an obligation of a power holder in the “natural rights” view.
The purpose of law, from the “natural rights” perspective, is to
protect the inherent rights of individuals. These rights are often
collectively called “The right of autonomy,” centering on a right to
not be involuntarily exploited by others.
Animal rights theorists tend to proceed from exercises of
moral philosophy which presume the existence of “natural rights.”
The utilitarian argument advanced by Peter Singer in Animal
Liberation (1976), The Case for Animal Rights presented by Tom Regan
in 1983, and the “abolitionist” critiques of Singer and Regan
offered more recently by Gary Francione and now Lee Hall have in
common that they start with ideas about “natural rights.” Their
cases diverge in their interpretations of what those rights and human
obligations are, where they begin, and how they might be applied in
animal advocacy.
Yet legal rights remain rooted in jurisprudence, evolving
verdict by verdict from the traditional notion that rights are
conferred by society, not by nature. This leads to an inherent
contradiction: regardless of which version of animal rights
philosophy an advocate accepts, actually advancing the well-being of
animals in almost any meaningful way requires working within a system
which in most nations does not yet recognize universal rights of
autonomy for humans.
Most political jurisdictions do recognize some limited legal
rights for animals, similar to some of the “rights of prisoners”
advocated by Amnesty International, such as the right to be fed if
held captive. However, these are not “rights” but obligations from
a “natural rights” perspective. In the case of animals, they
presuppose that animals may be kept in captivity without having
committed any sort of crime. In the traditional legal view, it is
reasonable and necessary to regulate animal captivity. Whether
animals should be kept captive, from an ethical perspective, is
usually not a subject of law, though for reasons of ecology and
public safety laws increasingly often prohibit individuals from
keeping wildlife.
In Hall’s view, animal captivity should only be regulated in
a manner that proceeds toward ending it. Though many animal
advocates might agree, reality is that this seriously constrains and
perhaps entirely precludes pursuing many reforms that might
significantly reduce animal suffering.
Hall is not insensitive to this conflict. Much of On Their
Own Terms considers it, often explaining why her employer, Friends
of Animals, frequently opposes the campaigns and views of the
majority of animal protection societies.
For example, Hall writes, “Contraception might involve
less physical pain than another form of animal control, but does
involvement in the manipulation and control of animals mean
unintentionally accepting the human agreement that animals simply
must be kept in check if not used as food, clothing, entertainment,
or objects of curiosity? All animals would be free-living animals in
a society that accepts animal rights, so there is every reason for
the advocate to appreciate their autonomy rather than remove it.”
Hall accepts–and advocates–surgically sterilizing pets and
feral cats. But, though advocating morally based veganism as
central to resolving most social, economic, and environmental
problems, she questions both pursuit of personal purity at the
expense of larger goals, and the whole notion of keeping pets.
“Today, we can find ‘vegan horse riding boots’ advertised,” Hall
writes. “Is the material the big question here? We’ll ask about the
customs that put the bodies of horses under our behinds. Similarly,
the idea of vegan cat food only looks at the surface issue: the
components of the product. Is it our role to press cats into
becoming herbivores? Our real concern is whether the very concept of
pet cats makes ethical sense. If we can’t bring these matters up
with other vegans, then maybe we are singularly focused on
ingredients at the expense of the overall picture of our interactions
with animals.”
Hall does not reject caregiving as a part of animal advocacy,
at least in the here and now. “Animal autonomy does need defending,
and dependent animals do need caregiving,” Hall accepts. “Yet it’s
worth noting that a vegan, by being vegan, spares more animals in a
year than most any sanctuary in the world can take in.”
This is Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth. So
is Hall’s approach to protecting wild horses: “If we want to spare
free-roaming horses from being rounded up and auctioned off, the
answer cannot be limited to closing horse slaughtering plants.
Confronting slaughter makes sense, but as part of a broader
perspective. In the U.S., campaigners have allowed the public to
become outraged over the idea that horses are the wrong animals to
eat,” Hall writes. “If Italians do think eating horse meat is
proper, and U.S. residents continue to eat the flesh of pigs and
cows, the argument becomes on some level one of cultural
superiority. Only if the demand for the closure of horse slaughter
operations comes as part of a whole vegetarian view is it consistent,
respectful, and sensible.”
Hall succeeds as well in Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy
Down to Earth in her discussion of campaign tactics. “Attempting to
design a campaign or community around a regular diet of blood and
every imaginable suffering,” she writes, “probably won’t attract
most healthy people to our cause. That reality is often forgotten
when groups excuse sensationalism, sexism or any kind of
insensitivity to human experiences by insisting such advertising
brings a lot of attention, and thus supporters. We have no way of
measuring how many people that insensitivity chases away from the
same cause.”
However, Hall’s most admired role model for animal advocacy
appears to be Donald Watson, who coined the word “vegan” and formed
the Vegan Society in Cumbria, England, in 1944. At Watson’s death
in November 2005, at age 95, 61 years later, the Vegan Society had
attracted just 5,000 members. Only four tenths of 1% of British
people had become vegan. Achieving reasonably universal recognition
that animals should possess certain inalienable natural rights may
take many generations of Watsons, if indeed this is ever achieved.
Conferring incremental extensions of the present limited legal
protection of animals has meanwhile already gained political momentum
in much of the world. This process, often compromised though it is
by the need to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” in law and
practice if not moral philosophy, is also a form of bringing animal
rights philosophy down to earth.
Probably the conflict in approaches will never be resolved to
Lee Hall’s satisfaction. Probably many strong animal advocates will
continue to ride horses, and even eat meat, though–one
hopes–increasingly troubled by the habit. Probably animal advocacy
will never be entirely consistent, not least because the starting
points for considering what animal rights ought to be will remain
widely diverse.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.