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In Defense of Animal Rights Extremism

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In Defense of Animal Rights Extremism

By Patrick Battuello, In Behalf of Animals
March 2013

Just as either all ethnic cleansing is wrong or none of it, just as either all human slavery is wrong or none of it, just as either all gender subjugation is wrong or none of it, so too is animal exploitation an all or nothing proposition. The Ringling elephant and Smithfield pig will not be liberated with half measures; they need extremism. Like Dr. King before us, we should wear this badge with pride.

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

The Collins English Dictionary defines an extremist as “a person who favours or resorts to immoderate, uncompromising, or fanatical methods or behaviour.” At the least, not very flattering, but to some, the lunatic fringe. Usually, extremists of any persuasion are marginalized, garnering attention only when deemed dangerous.

And so it goes with animal rights activists, or more specifically, those calling for the end of all animal exploitation. Here, the history of another great movement is instructive. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (August 1963), Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed civil rights extremism:

Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized. But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. …Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — 'This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.' Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?

The animal rights position holds the following to be incontrovertible facts:

First, virtually all the ways that humans use other species – for entertainment, for fashion, for pets, for food, for service, for research – involve sentient beings, or those capable of suffering.

Second, suffering of some kind, be it physical or psychological, is practically inherent in the exploitation.

And third, none of these uses are necessary for human survival. On this, the first three – a day at the circus, an ostentatious flash of fur, surrogate companionship – need not be argued, and veganism has existed long enough to dispel the notion that animal protein is essential to good health. As to service, while enlisting German Shepherds as cops and soldiers may save some human life, mankind’s existence is hardly at stake.

It is the sixth use, experimentation, that because of the gravity involved, proves the most challenging for advocates. Government and some in the scientific community have long declared that animal testing is a sort of Darwinian necessary evil in the war on human disease and to ensure product safety. Accordingly, hundreds of millions of animals are annually sacrificed, many after suffering painfully invasive procedures, in experiments that are often replaceable, redundant, sadistic, shocking, and unforgivable. When pressed as to why only animals are still used as non-consenting subjects, the sad and decidedly unenlightened response is because they are not us, which is exactly how human-on-human laboratory atrocities once were justified.

So, with science (and common sense) having established that the animals we routinely exploit are sentient and suffer in some way, and that these various uses do nothing to promote human progress (in fact, just the opposite), how can the animal rights core principle, that all exploitation is morally wrong, not be reached? Uncompromising, sure, but moderation here is untenable; there can be no middle ground where only some beings are spared or only certain forms of abuse are prohibited. Just as either all ethnic cleansing is wrong or none of it, just as either all human slavery is wrong or none of it, just as either all gender subjugation is wrong or none of it, so too is animal exploitation an all or nothing proposition. The Ringling elephant and Smithfield pig will not be liberated with half measures; they need extremism. Like Dr. King before us, we should wear this badge with pride.