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When it Comes to Animal Rights, Who is an Abolitionist?

An abolitionist is a person who has the sincere intent to abolish something, who has no intention to perpetuate whatever it is they intend to abolish, and who acts, in good faith, consistently according to their beliefs. A person must satisfy all three of these conditions in order to be an abolitionist.

    To have the sincere intent to abolish something means to have an honest purpose to bring about the end of something (or some practice).

    To have no intention to perpetuate something means to be free of any purpose or plan to encourage or continue something.

    To act in good faith consistently according to one�s beliefs means to do, upon reflection and as best as one can, only those things one honestly considers being in keeping with one�s sincerely held beliefs.

Let us look at two examples.

The Vegan Educator

Suppose a person, who is vegan herself, is also an advocate for other animals as well as for anti-speciesism and veganism. Suppose that the method of her advocacy consists only in making a clear, consistent and compelling moral argument for the positions she holds. We can assume that she meets the three criteria above and is an abolitionist. That is, she herself has the intention to end the exploitation of other animals (she is an advocate), she has no intention to perpetuate exploitation (she is vegan) and she acts in good faith consistently with her beliefs (she engages in vegan education).

Notice, whether her actions in this case bring about her desired goals has no bearing on her fitting the definition of an abolitionist. Outcomes determine whether abolition occurs. Outcomes, before they are even achieved, cannot possible determine who is an abolitionist. Let me explain.

Suppose that, as our vegan abolitionist goes about her business of vegan education, in some cases there are people who not only reject her arguments completely, but who, after hearing her arguments, are more strengthened in their resolve to continue using other animals in the same ways they always have. This is a possible outcome, and, in fact, research has shown that many people will have a firmer grip on their preconceived ideas after someone presents them with clear and convincing evidence that they ought to abandon those ideas. Human beings are curious creatures indeed.

In this case, our advocate could (and should) know in advance that the actions she undertakes in her advocacy are likely, at least in some cases, if not many cases, to have the opposite effect of what she intends. That is, rather than motivating or convincing others to adopt an anti-speciesist mindset and a vegan ethic, her actions would prevent some or many people from doing so. This hypothetical activist then, would actually, in some cases, achieve exactly the opposite of what she intends.

Should we then say that this person is not an abolitionist? No, we should not, although we could say, that through no fault of her own, because she fails to achieve her goals, things did not turn out well. But, we would not be right to say that just because things did not turn out well that she was not an abolitionist. Many of the good faith efforts of abolitionists are bound not to have their desired effects, or worse, actually to have the opposite of their desired effects. This does not mean that sincere people must then no longer claim to be abolitionists.

In any case, the successful outcome of abolitionist efforts will eventually be the abolition of all exploitation of other animals. Although I hope it would turn out otherwise, I suppose that abolition will not be achieved any time soon � probably not in my lifetime. If being an abolitionist depended on the outcome, then no one could call himself or herself an abolitionist before abolition is realized. Clearly, we can call ourselves abolitionists, and therefore being an abolitionist cannot be dependent upon outcomes.

The Reformer

Suppose a second person, who is also vegan and an advocate for other animals as well as for anti-speciesism and veganism. Suppose that the method of his advocacy consists in campaigning against the horrors of �factory farming� as well as encouraging people to reduce or eliminate all uses of other animals. He does this using graphic video footage of slaughterhouse operations, explaining in simple terms the suffering of other animals and talking about the health benefits to humans of a plant based diet. He also supports changes in the law and in the ways other animals are exploited in �factory farms�, advocating, for example, for an end to gestation crates for sows and battery cages for chickens. Can we assume that he meets the three criteria above and is an abolitionist? That is, does he have the intention to end the exploitation of other animals; is he an advocate? Does he have no intention to perpetuate exploitation; is he vegan? Does he act in good faith consistently with his beliefs; does he engage in actions he sincerely believes will bring about the abolition of the use and killing of other animals? The answer to all three questions is, Yes, and, therefore, he is an abolitionist.

Notice, as in the first example, whether his actions in this case bring about the desired goals also has no bearing on his fitting the definition of an abolitionist. Remember, outcomes only determine whether abolition occurs. Outcomes, before they are even achieved, cannot possible determine who is an abolitionist.

Would an advocate encouraging people to reduce their use of other animals necessarily be incompatible with also encouraging people to eliminate their use of other animals? Would campaigning to make the conditions within �factory farms� somewhat less bad necessarily be inconsistent with the goal of shutting down those facilities altogether? Would pointing out the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet necessarily mean that people would ignore or reject an ethical argument against the use of other animals? In none of these three cases can I see any compelling reason to answer Yes. In fact, given what we know about human psychology and the processes of social change, it is entirely plausible that these methods would be just as effective, if not more so, than the so-called �vegan education� of the first example (so-called, because whatever induces a person to consider becoming vegan is necessarily part of vegan education).

Do we know that these methods would be more effective than vegan education approach? No, we do not know that. However, we also do not know that they would not be. We simply do not know what it is that �flips the switch� for most people, lighting the way to a new kind of thinking about other animals. It is tempting to think that the best way � the only way � to help people re-evaluate their obligations to other animals is by presenting them with the ethical argument. We may think that by suggesting to people that there are incremental steps along the path to abolition that people will stop along the way and never get moving again. Nevertheless, we simply do not know that that is the case.

What should we do?

Within the community of people most concerned with abolishing the use of other animals for food, clothing, medical testing, entertainment, etc., it may be that most advocates and activists do see regulatory reforms as prolonging the problems of exploitation. However, it is the vast majority of people not within that community whose opinions, feelings and beliefs and, most perhaps importantly, actions that matter.

As advocates, what should we do? We should find out what works. We should base our advocacy for other animals on what will achieve the most meaningful changes for them in the shortest possible time. Whatever we do, we should not base our advocacy on what makes us feel good, or on what satisfies our needs. This is not about us.

If a campaign to eliminate battery cages can be shown to have the effect of opening the hearts and minds of a huge number of people to what matters in the lives of chickens, then that campaign would be a good thing. If an ethical argument can be shown to persuade large numbers of people to become vegan then advocates ought to present that argument. Both are consistent with the goals of abolition and there is no reason why both cannot be done, if both can be shown to be effective. It would be great for someone or some organization to fund a study designed specifically to help advocates know what works, relying on our intuition makes no sense at all when the stakes are so high for so many.

The objection occurs that we have not generally tried to reform most types of exploitation of other humans and so any attempt to reform the exploitation of nonhumans would necessarily be speciesist and contrary to the goals of abolition. This is patently incorrect.

Throughout history, with respect to the treatment of other human beings, humans have indeed changed laws, customs and practices in ways that stopped short of abolition in order to improve the lives of those who they nevertheless continued to exploit. For example, in certain American states prior to US Civil War, there were laws against the murder or rape, by their owners, of humans held as slaves. The �slave trade� (the importation from Africa of human slaves) was abolished more than 50 years before the institution of slavery was. Even the Emancipation Proclamation, which we now say abolished slavery, applied only to those slaves who were under the control of the Confederated States of America. All slaves in any state, territory or region under the control of the Union forces remained enslaved until the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was adopted in December 1865. Even the abolition of human slavery involved regulatory reform.

�New-Welfarists�

Of the abolitionists who do choose to support regulatory reforms, there are people who will say that those abolitionists are not abolitionists and are instead �new-welfarists�. This is unfortunate. To paint with too broad a brush, generally a person who is a welfarist has no objection to exploitation per se, provided such exploitation is not excessively cruel or inhumane. Leaving aside what �cruel or inhumane� means, the fundamental difference between welfarists and abolitionists is that welfarists do not seek to abolish all exploitation while abolitionists obviously do. In the parlance of the animal advocacy movement, a welfarist is person who is concerned only with how we treat other animals before we kill them. No abolitionist is a welfarist.

Understanding this distinction then, there are, in fact, no abolitionists who should be called �new-welfarists�. Either a person supports and works toward the end of all exploitation, or they do not. A person is either an abolitionist or they are not. Those who insist on using the term �new-welfarist� do so based on a misunderstanding of what it means to be an abolitionist, or they do so in an attempt to delegitimize others. Either way, they ought to stop. If becoming vegan means anything it means respecting others.

An abolitionist can approach the task of ending all exploitation of other animals in many different ways. Some people who are abolitionists may choose to protest medical facilities and some may not. Some may choose to support legislative and regulatory reforms of certain practices and some may not. Some may choose to conduct open rescues, liberating other animals from their cages and some may not.

As long as a person has the sincere intent to abolish all exploitation of other animals, as long as that person has no intention to perpetuate exploitation and as long as that person, in good faith, acts in ways they sincerely believe will lead to abolition, then that person is an abolitionist.

Tim Gier, Contributor One Green PlanetTim Gier blogs about animal rights, anti-speciesism and becoming vegan at timgier.com. Semi-retired and a full-time student of philosophy, Tim is an administrator at ARZone.ning.com, an online social justice network where site members participate in interviews with leading thinkers, activists & advocates in the animal movement. A resident of Gainesville, Florida, he volunteers at a local primate sanctuary, JungleFriends.org, and helps organize for change with local vegans through vegansforever.org.


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