Monday, September 7, 2009

The case for animal liberation - by Justin George

This contribution by radical activist and writer Justin George challenges readers with a passionate defence of animal rights. Not all readers will agree, but George’s article will give readers pause for thought.

Animal Liberation and Participatory Theory

By Justin George
It's funny to note that while largely ignored or played down by the Left in general, Animal Liberation can be seen as a nexus for many progressive struggles. Meat and dairy industries, and others that rely on animals for profit, imprison and slaughter literally tens of billions animals each year[i]. The industry itself relies on low paid, often migrant labour, to work in stressful and often dangerous conditions[ii]. The creation of meat and animal based products in know to be environmentally devastating[iii], ruining water systems. Tanneries, which are often located in developing countries with reduced environmental and worker protections, rely on dangerous and toxic chemicals[iv]; land clearing for cattle grazing threatens indigenous communities and ruins land and threatens rainforests[v]. This is just from meat production.

Cheap and abundant meat and dairy products, with externalities of production shouldered by the public and environment, allow companies such as McDonald's, KFC and Burger King, along with chain supermarkets and food companies to keep costs low, with a mostly teenage, casualized workforce, ensuring profits remain high.

Like many facets of life in a globalized, neoliberal world, many if not most of the issues that concern the Left can be found within the meat and animal product industries. Importantly, on top of these concerns is the unnecessary enslavement and industrialized killing of sentient and feeling beings. Like previous explicitly oppressive systems the same arguments are used by many on the Left and Right as to why such oppressions are of little concern or must remain in place. Like human slavery, misogyny and other forms of oppressive thought, those suffering as considered non-human, undeserving of acknowledgment of their agency and inherent worth. They are seen as commodities for those in power. That animals truly are non-human does not mean that they do not suffer from such systems and paradigms that humans have fought throughout history-the creation and justification of hierarchies based on artificial or biological distinctions.

Adding insult to injury is that animals rarely have the means to truly voice or rebel against these systems. That billions of animals die to meet our eating desires and little else is all the more horrific due to the scale of the senselessness. Profit and power triumph are the real motivators behind such industries who seek to create, sustain and expand our voracious desire for animal flesh.

Animal Liberation should not be a side issue to our other concerns. Meat and animal industries are industrialized creators of unhappiness, a nexus of the overlapping oppressions and exploitations that theories such as Complimentary Holism seek to address. The Left must recognize that fighting for Animal Liberation is not just about the animals but confronting the wider systems at work that the animals die in their billions for. We must work beyond our own prejudices and habits to see that the long term picture for workers, for the environment, for social justice, so to step closer to ending all human made suffering.

Think for a moment about the impact of a greatly reduced or nonexistent mass animal based industry. Like previous moments when the connections between war, race, sexism, and class emerged, we need to see how addressing these issues along with animal liberation efforts is not only strategically necessary but morally necessary too.

By working for better conditions or the abolition of slaughterhouses then that's one less industry

profiting from relying on illegal and migrant workers who have limited ability to push for better working conditions and rights. By seeking mass change or abolition of slaughterhouses, dairy farms and tanneries then huge steps are taken in reducing our carbon footprint on the Earth[vi]. Efficiency is enhanced, land use more sustainable, rainforests less threatened. The impacts of these damaging industries would also cease to be felt by the poorest peoples of the world and the more isolated towns in the developed world[vii]. Water sources would be free from toxins[viii]. Oceans replenished from overfishing.

Government subsidies and externalities would not be placed upon the public, reducing the numbers of those in power who profit from neoliberal legislation.

The fast food industry would be severely affected, along with eating habits. The epidemics of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol that plague Western nations would be addressed from efforts at reducing meat consumption and changing eating practices[ix]. To have such an understanding comes from learning about the real impact that our diets have, of seeing the damage and pain that's created by meat and animal products. The development of such knowledge can often be revelatory enough to recognize the excesses and abuses present in throughout society.

Our vision and theory, such as participatory economics, has much to offer Animal Liberation efforts. Theories such as Complimentary Holism can make calls for animal liberation retain greater relevancy to those not immediate concerned with such issues. Participatory organizing and economics offers new means for animal liberation groups to organize.

To work towards such institutional arrangements within the industries they critique, as means to enhance worker conditions and industry standards. Rather than seeking the bottom line, a participatory work place has the ability to greatly alter the practices of modern slaughter houses merely by removing the logic that has led to killing (dis)assembly lines.

The arguments presented by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel regarding the reduction of environmental damage in a Participatory Economy due to goods reflecting their real social and environmental value is also true for animal based goods and meat. The costs outlined above along with the suffering inflicted upon the billions of animals would alter the valuation of meat and animal goods, reducing and perhaps stopping its use all together due to actual costs to society and nature. Complimentary Holism and feminist perspectives can provide critical voices to curb and question some of the larger animal liberation organizations tendency to rely on sex and celebrity to sell their message.

In the hands of animal liberation movements such ideas have the potential to become further disseminated to new audiences, put into practice and passionately advocated for. But to do so we need to acknowledge the relevancy and legitimacy in each other's analysis by placing them at the core of our existing efforts and creating closer ties.

At the moment the two movements seem to exist in relative separation. Many animal liberation/rights organizations while having great activist and advocacy networks and fundraising ability fail to relate their work to wider progressive efforts and analysis in meaningful ways. More conscious and concerted interactions by both the Left and Animal Liberation would be beneficial to both.

By ignoring the interconnections existing around issues of animal liberation, we do ourselves a disservice strategically while deliberately marginalizing the suffering of tens of billions of beings.

After all our experiences of struggle, we should have the vision and courage to engage with new struggles for liberation, for in the end we all share common aims. There are many issues here that we can start discussing, to develop participatory means and analysis further in addressing animal liberation.

We on the Left generally, have recognized other forms of oppressions even when misunderstood, unpopular or denied by those in power. Now its time to recognize the rest.[x]


  1. It is pleasing to see this issue addressed and especially in a manner that combines economic and moral reasoning.

    From the latter at least if one cannot fathom a deontological basis for supporting at least a degree of animal liberation then surely one does so on the basis of reciprocal utility. As Benthem argued well ".. the question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"

  2. This is a well written and thoughtful piece but I have to disagree with the sentiment. Although I believe in animal rights and am against animal abuse I believe that eating animals is warranted. I would greatly like to debate this with Mr. George if he would be willing to indulge me.

    -Wes Bishop

  3. Hi Wes,

    I'm more than happy to discuss some of the issues around humanity's use of animals.
    Considering it's a broad topic though, is there anything within the essay regarding animal liberation/rights that you have concerns with?



  4. My main concern is that we are omnivores by nature so we have evolved to eat a wide range of foods including meat. Of course the arguement could be made that we need to get past this stage in our evolution but what do we do about the many people who will go without food because of removing meat from diets?

    -Wes Bishop

  5. Hi Wes,

    Thanks for your questions.
    Regarding human evolution and meat eating, most of the evidence points to the fact that a human diet over most of history has been largely, if not solely plant based.

    Some aspects of human physiology point to this- we have no truly canine teeth for example, like a cat or a dog, designed to shred and tear meat from the bone. Human teeth are flat, designed to grind up plant matter for consumption. The same is true of our finger nails, we don't have sharp claws, but appendages designed to dig roots etc.

    The human digestive system is another- a vegetarian diet is one almost completely free of cholestrol. Most cases of high cholestrol are due to taking it into our system through meat consumption. Vegetables are cholestrol free. Another is the long period of time meat stays within the human stomach, which accounts for higher cases of bowel and colon cancer in meat eaters. So in evolutionary terms the human body evolved around a plant based diet. It is only relatively recent that meat has become a main part of human diets.
    Obviously there is a range of opinion on these issues, but I think the evidence points to the limited benefits of meat just from a dietary perspective.

    Along with this, a vegetarian diet is very easy to sustain in the industrialized world and should be so in the developing world. A vegetarian/vegan diet is much more efficient in its energy use than raising crops to then feed to livestock which are then consumed. Raising animals for meat is a matter of diminishing returns. In this sense a vegetarian diet is of mroe value to developing/famine ridden nations than seeking to raise livestock.
    In a world looking for sustainable solutions, greater self-sufficiency, and water usuage then a vegetarian diet may prove to be a solution to food security, water scarcity and climate change issues.

    It should though also be clear that there is a large difference (moral and practical) between the industrialized meat slaughtering practices that supply most of the meat in the Western world, and those subsistence farmers in developing countries who may use livestock. From my knowledge, meat is not a central aspect of diets in those circumstances anyway. Usually livestock are used to aid farming preparation, or as sources of milk or materials. Again I don't necessary support these practices, but there are fundamental differences in capability.

    This relates back to my essay's argument, that animal right issues will only be meaningfully addressed when largely systmatic inequalities are addressed also. Hence the need for a complementary and holistic perspective on behalf on respective movements.

    But just as we would welcome radical economic and social change here that may not have an immediate effect on those suffering under worse conditions, I think we can change our practices and approaches regarding meat in our society while retaining a long term vision and strategy that continues to work towards more comprehesive solutions regarding equality for humans and nonhumans at home and abroad.



  6. I would have to disagree with your conclusion that humans evolved around a solely plant based diet. The very fact that we can process meat, and benefit from the substances we get from that, shows that we have evolved to be not only vegetable centered in our diet but also meat.

    The issue of our health with meat does not have so much to do with eating meat but instead eating the kinds of food that we do and in the large quantities that we do. Cholestrol is actually a substance that we benefit from but taken in large amounts it is dangerous. The same is true of potassium, if too much is consumed it can even be posionous, this does not mean however that humans were designed not to bannanas.

    Wes Bishop

  7. I disagree that animals are all equally sentient (unless you're using an unorthodox interpretation of the word). Thus I refuse to eat chimpanzee, but will happily chow down on chicken. I also eat free-range chicken whenever it's available, because unnecessary cruelty to the less sentient is a Bad Thing.

    Also, you're somewhat misinformed about the link between meat and cholesterol. For example, sea mammal meat is incredibly good for you, cholesterol-wise, which is why the increased consumption of 'modern' highly processed foods by Arctic Circle communities has meant an increase in heart disease.

    It's when imbalances in the quantity and type of meat that's consumed in developed countries that health problems arise. We're 'evolved' to eat meat rarely, not every day as most do.

    Moving to activism priorities, I'm glad some people are standing up for animals, but I fervently hope that most concerned individuals focus on alleviating the dreadful plight of the billions of their fellow humans first.

    I wish you well in promoting vegetarianism, as the ecological benefits are self-evident. As long as such a conversion is voluntary, not coerced by government, I see no problems with that facet of your project. Good luck.

  8. I think most of the evolution/sentience arguments distract from the more pressing and important points that I raise in the essay and are presented by animal liberation groups.

    The fact is that people in the Developed world can source all their nutrients from non-animal sources. Meat eating is a choice, one based solely on taste and social convention.
    What this covers or hides is the industrialized industry that converts living beings into commodities/products.
    The environmental damage alone should convince that there is a need to stop or drastically reduce the animal-product industry. It's an unsustainable practice, especially as its tied to profit margins and the booming food industry.

    Perhaps more important is the need for all of us to question how we view or consider animals and nature. Jarrah discusses sentience but its not a matter of intelligence, its a matter of agency. Most of us here in Australia would be revolted by the notion of eating a cat or dog, especially if it was a family pet. More recently the film 'The Cove' raised media attention and outrage about dolphin culling practices in Japan, yet we barely blink or think about the treatment of the millions of cows, pigs and chickens who are killed across the country. This is because we only grant some animals agency, we respect their right to live. This is shown in RSPCA and animal cruelty laws. Animal cruelty has been recognized as something we should prevent or limit in our society. When it perpetrated by an individual then they are subject to prosecution, but when committed on a harmful industrialized scale its acceptable. Hence arguments about evolution, of human need, of sentience emerge as means to push discussion into less challenging territory, or even as justification of such practices while allowing for admonition of animal cruelty.
    As I argue in the essay, just as our movements had to be pushed (and still need to) to recognize and incorporate gender and cultural understandings, the distinction between human and animal is largely arbitrary also.
    The logic that drives the destruction of the environment, that it is external to us, the same logic that saw women's issues as secondary to economic or other political factors, that discriminated based on skin colour, is the same logic driving human use of animals.
    A consistent progressive position is one in favour of animal liberation. The problem is that the choice is often a hard and personal one.

    But even if you don't agree with such moral arguments, the pressing issues of environmental damage and health concerns should provide enough evidence to support animal liberation issues and a change in consumption practices.

  9. "the distinction between human and animal is largely arbitrary also"

    I understand this is your position, but I'm still waiting for the evidence to support it.

    I believe sentience is the key concept, not the less challenging topic. Why, after all, do you think humans deserve rights? My justification is that they are sentient, which is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe, and therefore humans have inherent worth (and thus I would give sentient aliens human rights as well). Some animals approach this level, and should be treated appropriately, but some do not.

    You say this is a problem - "we only grant some animals agency" - so I have to ask, do you consider the killing of lifeforms 'lower' than dogs, chickens, cows, etc, to be wrong? Do you oppose killing worms? Insects? Oysters? Single-celled animals? Or is it only the cute and cuddly you are defending here? Where do you draw the line?

    I put it to you that you have an intuitive classification, as I and most do, that makes some animals 'worthy' of (some) rights and others not, and that we simply disagree about the dividing line. Which is fine, divisions are important and merit debate. However, it seems to me that you are not admitting this to yourself.

    On a side note, a thought experiment. If it could be found that plants suffer when farmed and processed, what will you do then?

    Lastly, I'm all for a change in consumption practices. As long as it's achieved through convincing people to change, not forcing them.

  10. Sentience is not the issue. Yes there is important differences between humans and animals in regards to our self awareness but our rights are based on more than just our ability to think.
    Many of these issues have been debated by philosophers, Peter Singer in particular, which would give you a better framing of the arguments. To put it simply, its not sentience that matters but whether an animal suffers (cute or ugly- many draw the line of the need for a nervous system or pain response features). If unnecessary pain, suffering and harm are inflicted. Unnecessary as I point out that in the Western world our dietary needs can be met completely from vegetable sources. Its the imposition of force and violence that is the moral crux for many.
    Regarding the rather false distiniction between humans and animals, I'm referrring to the cartesian dualistic logic that led to the separation of(hu)man from nature, men from women, white from black and so on. It relies on the creation of an inferior 'other' that embodies the traits put upon by the dominant/preferred group. Often there are intersections of the 'other'- women are often animalized, "she's a bitch" or seen as various body part for male consumption- breasts, thighs etc. Same with ehtnic and cultural 'othering' 'native savages', barbarians, 'animal-like' natives etc.
    Hence my reference to agency. While distinctions exist between humans and other species, we have placed ourselves in a privileged group and denied agency to all other animals. Even though we're animals ourselves. We've denigrated it, we hide their agency (hence we use terms such as 'meat' rather than dead flesh, beef instead of 'cow'etc.), we disconnect and ignore it. We justify our shocking treatment and actions by placing animals as 'the other' not worthy of consideration due to some distinction we've chosen to privilege to our benefit. Just as over history this has been done to people of colour, women, times of imperialism and so on. If we consider ourselves progressive we must reject the logic itself that led to such distinctions, not just accept what we find comfortable, or that has become normalized.
    So the issue of agency raises questions about how we view animals, how we see them, and how do we create new paradigms for the world around us. It's not just a matter of rights. That can perhaps be seen as a starting point. You place an emphasis on sentience, so shouldn't our ability to be aware of our actions allow us to choose a more sustainable, ethical path?
    I'll ignore your thought-experiment as its not based in reality and seeks to side step the issue. We know animals suffer, have fear, have nuturing instincts, have notions of family, of kinship and so on. So its best to discuss the known.
    I will note however, that the discussion here keeps avoiding my other points that the notions of ecological collapse and food and water scarcity will require at least a vegetarian diet. My point is not that we need to force people to change, my point is that the Left needs to consider and be prepared for these issues, to create a vision, to be informed and lead efforts, as change will be forced upon us in the end due to economic and environmental factors. So rather than dragging our feet, we need to really reassess our practices, our logic, to create a more just and equitable world for all of its inhabitants.

    Some sites- Earthlings looks at the extent and damage of human uses of animals- Google Video 'Earthlings'

    Peter Singer's 'Animal Liberation' uses a utilitarian perspective regarding animal uses. He has numerous works on the topic

    Carol J. Adams- is the site for an ecofeminist who has written extensively about the intersections regarding what she calls a 'logic of domination'

    The references in my essay also are worth exploring regarding some of the questions and issues you may have



  11. Good to have such a strong debate here...

    Just on the issue of Dualism re: the 'mind-body' problem... I still believe there is a strong case for distinction between mind and body... Without a mind in itself enjoying qualities that go beyond a pure 'material chain of causality' - how do we explain free will, sentience etc?...

    Is 'artificial intelligence' simply a matter of complexity - or is mind of an entirely different QUALITY?

    That said - this is not to say animals are without minds, consciousness, self-awareness - or ensoulment...

    Biologically I believe we are omnivores... But this does not mean that needless suffering of animals is not important... Given the choice, for instance, I would only choose free range eggs... I have a mixed diet - including beef and chicken - but where there is unusual cruelty - eg: the export of livestock (primarily lambs) under appalling conditions to the Middle East... I don't think export dollars are a good enough excuse for this kind of cruelty...

  12. "our rights are based on more than just our ability to think."

    Really? I'm not so sure. The law, for example, takes away rights from those who cannot think rationally - the insane are locked away, children have fewer rights than adults.

    "(hence we use terms such as 'meat' rather than dead flesh, beef instead of 'cow'etc.)"

    I thought that was an accident of history. When the Normans invaded, they had separate words for cow and beef (ie the French 'boeuf'), but the Britons didn't.

    "I'll ignore your thought-experiment as its not based in reality"

    That's the point of thought experiments - to see where your reasoning leads you when moving beyond the immediate. But I'll admit it was mischievous, because your only 'ethical' answer would be to refuse to eat plant products too, an obvious impossibility.

    "the notions of ecological collapse and food and water scarcity will require at least a vegetarian diet."

    Maybe. It's not certain, though.

    Also, increasing scarcity means increasing costs, so people will eat less meat just because of market forces. No need for grand reform of rights paradigms.

  13. Jarrah,

    Putting aside your generalization regarding 'insanity' for a moment I'll respond to your points using the example you provide.

    Our rights aren't based on whether someone is sentient or not, to think or not to think. Your examples don't address the point raised- we don't kill children or the insane because their mental faculities are limited or not fully developed. This actually demonstrates that other factors are considered or privileged. An important one is that there is an unspoken recognition that by membership of the human species, children or the insane aren't experimented on them, or killed, or made to work in our fields etc.
    Historical practices that did allow this have been condemned, fought against, with attitudes and understandings expanded. This directly relates to my argument that progressive efforts need to expand conceptions and connections.

    So while some may have reduced 'rights' (for self protection) they aren't denied fundamental rights such as life, dignity, comfort, care and so on.

    On a side note you seem to have a tendency to generalize, such as your term 'insane' which is broad and undefined. In reality there is a range of mental illness and a range of approaches to care, of which I assume very few involve patients merely being 'locked away'. This generalizing seems to relate to your overall approach which seems to find it hard to acknowledge and accommodate difference.

    In regards to terminology of animal products, while there is a historical legacy, there is a power underlying language and conceptions. The ability to name, or to unname is very powerful. Such terminology as 'meat' hides a range of power interactions that might be uncomfortable to people if brought to the surface, they facilitate certain dominant behaviours and ways of thinking. Perhaps a more common example is corporate speak- where people are now 'clients' for example, implicitly creating a market based, consumer/service focused mentality. Where other names might challenge such mentality and relationships.

    Regarding thought experiments, they are only useful for challenging lines of thinking if they are based in some form of reality, otherwise according to your understanding of them- any type of scenario is acceptable for example- "what would we do about eating animals if the sky was red and we walked on our hands and only had one tooth in our skulls?" This doesn't add anything to the discussion because its not based around any meaningful understanding of the situation or reality....

  14. ....continued from above

    Your last response challenges my claims of scarcity and then moves on to say that with increasing scarcity means increasing prices, ie. market mechanisms will sort it out, no need for other efforts.
    I'm unclear as to whether you're unsure about scarcity or whether it will force a vegetarian diet? I would have to assume that its the former as your response to the later effectively reiterates my points that true costings are needed, which I see as emerging in a participatory economy.
    If it is the former then you would need to expand to demonstrate why you think scarcity isn't a pressing and likely occurance.
    If you actually meant the later what this fails to include is not only that market prices are easily distorted and kept artificially low- especially when it comes to the agricultural industry in Australia- but the actual position of my article rejects markets and animal exploitation. Its seeking to connect progressive economic efforts with progressive social and cultural efforts as the two are interelated. It doesn't need to rely on changing the dominant 'rights paradigm'(hence my advocacy of participatory economics as an economic model that takes the various issues surrounding animal exploitation-worker rights, environmental destruction, health costs, into account via its structures and processes which would dramatically reduce if not eliminate meat production due to true valuing among other processes). My arguments suggest that if we do expand the existing understanding that oppressions interact and interlock, then we would strategically and morally improve our movements and efforts in combatting the concentrations of power and inequality that currently manifest in society.

    If markets respond to environmental pressures (which unlikey or limited, but if they do this would be a positive step for progressive efforts including animal liberation), this shouldn't limit radical or progressive efforts and discussion, whether on animal rights, worker emancipation or global warming, as such efforts are more likely to provide long term solutions to such problems than the intrinsicly flawed mechanisms that are in place in our current society.

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