Establishing the Rights of Animals in Law and Human Consciousness

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Establishing the Rights of Animals in Law and Human Consciousness

Comments by David Cantor - 18 Jun 2006

Dear Frank & Mary,

If there is a way to get animal welfare people to promote animal rights, I very much want to know what it is. I addition to being a "recovering new welfarist" myself -- and so having seen countless people promoting welfarism while claiming to be working for animal rights (some confusing "believing in" animal rights and "helping animals" with advancing animal rights, others not giving it much thought at all or not knowing what rights are in the first place as applied to humans) -- I urge people every day to work for the animals in ways that can possibly lead to rights rather than in ways that cannot, some of which take the animals further from having rights.

I'm not the only serious rights advocate who increasingly looks to people not directly involved in animal work instead of to animal welfarists. Just as I've been speaking to civic, health-professional, law-student, and other groups not organized to help nonhuman animals, one friend has spoken to one of the state Green Parties and others. The May 23rd Albany event where I met you mostly drew people not already working for nonhuman animals.

Looking at the situation from years of experience and from trying many different approaches, I see a few built-in problems at work. (1) Anti-intellectualism: Very large numbers of animal welfarists are proud of acting entirely on their feelings of horror and caring and think "intellectualizing" by developing a coherent rights strategy is beneath them and would mean they didn't "care." Many are not oriented toward learning, don't know how the system works, don't want to know, also don't want to learn the depth and breadth of the human-nonhuman animal relationship over thousands of years, and don't want to be responsible for knowing the full range of information useful for promoting rights that isn't necessary for "helping animals." Many say in so many words that it doesn't even matter whether or not they know what animal rights is -- animals need help and that's all that matters. Not bothering to learn the history of animal protection endeavors, many are not aware that animal welfare is the problem animal rights aims to solve. So they're doing what has proven not to work and don't want to know that. Defining "the animals" as the very few they "help" and not as the 950,000 slaughtered every hour in the U.S. and the countless more we've discussed makes victories seem more encouraging than they would taking reality into account.

(2) Anger / us-vs.-them / superiority. By drawing a fictitious ethical line between themselves and the "animal abuser" majority of the human population, many animal welfarists convince themselves they are not part of human practices that harm nonhuman animals. This creates an "us," a social group to identify with, defined as being against "them," the bad animal-abusing people, providing both a social network as needed by members of all social species and a feeling of superiority. Easy animal-welfare victories reinforce those feelings, whereas persistently and coherently working for animal rights based on the full reality doesn't help animals in the short term, produces no easy concrete victories, and holds promise for the unseen vast majority for the long term rather than for a very tiny minority of observable animals for the short term.

I'm more than open to working with welfarists -- it's counterintuitive to think people who care about animals would not be the ones to work for animal rights. But I've worked for years to get some of them to work for animal rights. Some of them feel they'd be "turning their backs on the animals" -- again, because they define "the animals" as very, very few of those in need -- if they worked for animal rights. Some animal rights advocates think I'm wrong to keep trying, as by taking part in some inherently animal welfarist activities in order to communicate with other participants. But I keep trying while reaching out to others, and the others are far more open to animal rights. In addition, without having mixed-up notions of what animal rights is as obstacles to understanding, many non-animal people are more capable of comprehending what animal rights is.

Showing them how animal rights promises to help people is a big part of removing intelligent, community- and politically-involved, influential people as possible obstacles to animal rights. In the event that animal rights makes significant progress, as it has not done so far, that will be very important. Many animal welfarists who now are obstacles to animal rights due to confusion they harbor and spread and welfarist measures they support not realizing they are setbacks to the rights cause would not deliberately stand in the way of animal rights should the option arise, whereas many non-animal people engaged in humans-only endeavors and actively perpetuating animal exploitation, human supremacy and speciesism would deliberately obstruct if not informed.

That is not to say non-animal people are "signing up" in droves, but neither are animal welfarists, and as I think I mentioned before, it is unrealistic to think a truly new and radical paradigm will gain popularity quickly. Raising awareness of the animals' plight is a popular activity precisely because it does not promote a new paradigm. The conclusion most people draw is that better rules are needed -- more animal welfare. Explain animal rights in the same breath as you expose the plight, and the potential support vanishes -- if you truly explain animal rights, not if you just call it ending factory farming or other worst cruelties, which is not the goal of the animal rights movement.

Well, as we all see, it is a conundrum. I just think it's important to vote for what we want even if it will take a long time and a lot of struggle -- and maybe a lack of popularity -- to get it, and not to vote for what we don't want just because we might fairly easily get it.


David Cantor

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