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How to Prolong Injustice

(Posted by permission of Tom Regan)


As an Animal Rights Advocate, I look forward to the day when all the cages are empty. Still, every ARA knows that that day will not dawn anytime soon. All of us understand that it will take the dedicated efforts of ARAs, working collaboratively over time--the dedicated efforts of many hands, on many oars--to make our ideal a reality.

In the particular case of farmed animal agriculture, ARAs want to see it ended. Our ideal world is a vegan world. The challenge we face is how to get there from where we are today.

This question has no easy answer; in fact, some answers divide more than they unite.

One divisive answer (I'll call it U) goes like this. The best way to realize our ideal is to work for reforms in farmed animal agricultural practices based on animal interests. For example, if decreasing density in battery cages is implicitly to count the hens' interest in having more space, this is a reform we should support.

The same is true of reforms in transportation and slaughter techniques. Any time we can increase the number of farmed animal interests that are taken into account, and any time we can have their interests counted equitably, U calls upon us to press for these reforms.

Suppose these reforms, each and every one of them, are implemented. What would be the result?

Well, arguably, things would have changed quite a lot. In place of the factory farms that scar the rural countryside today, we can imagine a plethora of farms modeled after Old McDonald's. In this gentle new word, it is true, there are many fewer farmed animals than there are today, but the quality of their life is much better. Who can be dissatisfied with so idyllic a world?

Well, Animal Rights Advocates, for one. Thousands of Old McDonald's farms inhabited by millions of happy animals is not the end we seek. The end we seek is the end of raising animals for their flesh and other products--a vegan world. Why, then, should ARAs work for the sorts of reforms I have described?

Considered superficially, the answer seems obvious. Since the animals are much better off because of the reforms, and since ARAs genuinely care about how animals are treated, surely ARAs should support and help implement the reforms.

Things are not this simple. From an ARA's perspective, farmed animal agriculture violates the rights of farmed animals; it treats them as our resources--indeed, as our renewable resources. The injustice of this practice cannot be eliminated by giving farmed animals a better quality of life while still continuing to treat them as our (renewable) resources. And this is how they will be treated if the system of their exploitation has been reformed in the ways we have imagined. No, to reform injustice is to prolong injustice.

Proponents of U might reply by saying that, over time, as first one, then another reform is implemented, the quality of farmed animal life is improved and people begin to change how they think about these animals. Once the general public understands that these animals have interests, and once they have supported the call to have their interests counted fairly, people will move away from their meat-eating ways. On this view, a day will dawn when, because of the reforms made, as well as the general public's support of making them, we awake to a vegan world.

This is a lovely story, but hardly credible. Why would human beings forego a leg of lamb or a brisket of beef if all the relevant reforms have been implemented? After all, with the reforms implemented, farmed animals could not have a better quality of life than the one they enjoy. In fact, this is precisely why (we are assuming) the public has supported implementing the reforms in the first place: to afford farmed animals with the best quality of life.

Why, then, having achieved the very purpose the reforms have sought, would these same people now turn around and say, "We were mistaken. Affording farmed animals the best quality of life is not enough." Proponents of U may think what they will but the real world in which we live is not a place where abracadabra rules.

Moreover (and this is hardly unimportant) surely the general public, accustomed to and supportive of the reforms, will be well disposed to making this same high quality life available to the next generation of cows and pigs, chickens and ducks. And the next generation after that one, a demand that, in the nature of the case, can only be met if the members of one generation are "humanely" slaughtered, to be replaced by another of their kind, and so on. Happy farmed animals. Happy consumers. Happiness all around.

The hard truth is, it is wishful thinking to believe that the successful implementation of reforms will give birth to a vegan world. It is far more likely that great numbers of people will continue to eat animal flesh, even after supporting reforms, only now with a clear conscience, a gift, paradoxically, given to them by well-intentioned reformers.

So let us ask again: Should ARAs work for all the reforms favored by U, given that the world U would bring into existence, wishful thinking aside, is not a vegan world? Why work to bring a world into existence that we don't want? Why, indeed?

Of course, ARAs who agree with me are not obliged to spend their time viscously attacking those who are working for reforms. Our more important work lies in crafting strategies and campaigns that move our culture towards acceptance of animal rights.

We take an important step down this path when we voice the ideal that even now many of us dare not speak: veganism. And though there are many ways to awaken the conscience of the general public, the three most important are now, always have been, and always will be: Educate. Educate. Educate.

Educate about nutrition. Educate about the moral rights of animals. Educate about the injustice of farmed animal agriculture. Educate. Educate. Educate.

Granted, this is not the end-all of animal rights activism, but it most certainly can be the begin-all.

Tom Regan is emeritus professor of philosophy, North Carolina State University. He serves as president of the Culture and Animals Foundation. Among his books are The Case for Animal Rights, Defending Animal Rights, and Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights. For additional information, visit

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