Monday, August 20, 2012

Anti-Cruelty Laws and Non-Violent Approximation

Readers have seen a principle I coined in my recent writings. It is called non-violent approximation. One could see it in action in my recent blog entry on the definition of veganism. Does this principle also relate to the incrementalist question, that is, whether animal rightists should support anti-cruelty laws? You can be sure of it. First, let us review. On the ethic I defend, if non-violence is possible then it should be practised absolutely. Nobody should be a bully, for example. Yet what if it is not quietly preventable? In a case in which violence seems inevitable, it can be said to approximate non-violence as much as possible to choose the option with the least violence. That might mean the forceful defence of the innocent.

Okay. Now let's apply this principle to our case of anti-cruelty laws. In the legislative near-term, we cannot have absolute non-violence. That would mean laws, for example, against eating animals, and in favour of the remaining creatures being given a suitable home in sanctuaries. The most we can have is some imperfect state of affairs compared to absolute non-violence. We should ask ourselves how this might apply to gas-stunning for birds as opposed to an electrocution system that lets the animals often be scalded alive and have their throats cut while fully conscious. (For more detailed discussion bringing in Ingrid Newkirk and Peter Singer, see relevant blog entries from January and February 2010.) Being scalded alive is one kind of violation. And having one’s throat cut while conscious is another. Non-violence is about the negation of violations. Now tell me, which approximates absolute non-violence more, a world where there are these two violations, or a world where they are no longer permitted to exist? The answer is obvious. It is like: which is better, surgery without anesthetics or with? If you have to put up with surgery, as you have to put up with animal exploitation for some time to come, the humane solution beckons quite clearly, thank you very much.

[Please note: in the original blog entry here I wondered aloud if "Francione as a theorist may well have followed me in terms of starting to rely on non-violence theory as a central emphasis. (He never did before, and then suddenly after I did so, I heard about him doing so. History has shown that he is well aware of my writings.)" In a comment on my September 10, 2012 blog post, an unidentified "kaufman" left a comment proving clearly that there are some cases in which Francione articulated non-violence as a central principle. So I have issued a partial retraction of my speculative question, although the bulk of Francione's articulations have not at all thus far featured non-violence as a central principle: not at all in his books, nor the journal articles of his that I have read, not in the web material that I recall, nor in the many talks of his I heard.]

Francione cannot claim his non-violence stance is either more faithful to absolute non-violence, which is not possible in the legislative near-term, nor indeed greater approximation of non-violence. As a non-violence theory proponent he has failed. As miserably as the animals he would have suffer these unnecessary miseries.

He has succeeded though in echoing what he has learned about animal rights from others: not to accept animals as property, to give them rights, combat speciesism, and the rest of the conventional animal rights talk that is to be found in his writings. I will not say that Francionism has fallen though. Apart from the successful aspects that just parrots other animal rights ideas, his own distinctive right not to be property and opposition to anti-cruelty laws (and more) never got off the ground in the first place … except in the imaginations of those animal rights sign-ons who remain hardened to legally preventable cruelties or violations.

These obstructers of relief from utter cruelty think they "know better". They assure us that after all it is "best" not to legally oppose the cruelties in question with every resource we can spare. Yet in all their supposed years of "knowing better", they have mounted arguments that have been burst like balloons (which they continue to wave around as though full), oily-tongued objections that fail to stick, and sheer evasion of honest concerns such as: how can we most approximate non-violence? They know "better" and yet they have no answers. Their continued evasion will all be a part of success always eluding that camp, and people in droves avoiding its invitations to participate in the active furtherance and entrenchment of cruelties on an unimaginable scale. Common-sense has known better than this camp all along, and theory can practically prove what is closer to absolute non-violence: less cruelty rather than more.


A Selection of Related Articles

Sztybel, David. "Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism". Journal for Critical Animal Studies 5 (1) (2007): 1-37.

go there

Short version of "Animal Rights Law".

go there

Sztybel, David. "Incrementalist Animal Law: Welcome to the Real World".

go there

Sztybel, David. "Sztybelian Pragmatism versus Francionist Pseudo-Pragmatism".

go there

A Selection of Related Blog Entries

Anti-Cruelty Laws and Non-Violent Approximation

Use Not Treatment: Francione’s Cracked Nutshell

Francione Flees Debate with Me Again, Runs into the “Animal Jury”

The False Dilemma: Veganizing versus Legalizing

Veganism as a Baseline for Animal Rights: Two Different Senses

Francione's Three Feeble Critiques of My Views

Startling Decline in Meat Consumption Proves Francionists Are Wrong Once Again!

The Greatness of the Great Ape Project under Attack!

Francione Totally Misinterprets Singer

Francione's Animal Rights Theory

Francione on Unnecessary Suffering

My Appearance on AR Zone

D-Day for Francionists

Sztybel versus Francione on Animals' Property Status

The Red Carpet

Playing into the Hands of Animal Exploiters

The Abolitionist ApproachES

Francione's Mighty Boomerang

Dr. David Sztybel Home Page

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Commentary on My Holocaust Comparisons

Note to the Reader: I am pleased and honoured that my friend, Dena Pezet, is allowing me to highlight a comment she made on the Holocaust Remembrance Day blog article. Dena is a lawyer, researcher, and a published fiction writer. Here is her statement:

I am a Vegan. I am a Jew. And I am no shrinking violet: my work in law and fiction has exposed me to the depths of human depravity and its concomitant suffering. Yet I have historically avoided the dreaded comparison of the Holocaust and the oppression of animals. My reaction to it has always been visceral and unpleasant and so it was when I read David Sztybel’s article “Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to The Holocaust?” in short bouts, keen minutes of intense focus punctuated with sips of very cold water. Alone and in silence.

I should preface this: David Sztybel is a highly intelligent, sensitive, well-read and effective communicator. An expert in Animal Ethics: the guy knows his shit, right. Which is why I trusted to his words.

Sztybel utilizes the front foot with his opening gambit “Although nothing occurring in the realm of oppression is ever quite the same as anything else, I hold that, in certain relevant respects, both broad and detailed comparisons can be made between the Holocaust and what I refer to as the oppression of animals.” In the same proactive style he clearly addresses what for me anyway, were my key concerns apropos the comparison: making the comparison in question is a moral offence against Holocaust victims; it trivializes the Holocaust and all of the immeasurable suffering that its victims lived through and died from. Sztybel addresses other concerns just as effectively, but for me, the former were the deal breakers.

As he says, the real question is not whether the comparison can be made. He does it; it is done. The real question is whether we should dare to make the comparison. I am not going to pick through the article point by point, suffice to say that its reading was an emotional and intellectual watershed for me which finally convinced me that we should. You should read it for yourself: take your own journey. There will be those who focus on pitting the value of an animal life against the life of a human. Don’t. Start with the tangible and less abstract truths here: Sztybel also has a photo essay to accompany the above article: start with this. Like the written text piece it focuses more on the methodology, discourse and apparatus of both oppressions, the comparable modus operandi and bloody corporeal results of these two evils. All too evident in his words, the truth, in pictures, is even more easily assimilated.

Potter Stewart was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He is famously quoted from his opinion in the obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). He wrote that "hard-core pornography" is hard to define, but that "I know it when I see it."

So too with comparable oppressions.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Non-Violence and the Doubtful Meaning of "Vegan"

A lot of people might think that the standard definition of a "vegan" in the animal rights movement, as someone who avoids all animal products, is perfectly acceptable, transparent, straightforward, and coherent. Those people are wrong. Coming up with an appropriate sense for what a "vegan" is can be difficult, and is a challenge for thinking persons. This short paper will try to shed light on this territory as I have neither seen nor heard of any satisfactory resolution of this debate. The skeptics seem to have the upper hand, presently, and I do not think that is a rightful state of affairs, even if it is right to say that it presently exists.

To motivate this discussion, and to get a sense of where the very real problems start to creep in, please consider the following. My friend, Prad Basu, brought to my attention the "Nobody Is A Vegan" Argument. Let us call it NIAVA for short. Prior to that I only heard the "nobody is a perfect vegan" claim, which is much more modest and not particularly problematic, I suppose. After all, who is perfect? The more radical, and challenging NIAVA proposition is discussed in the article that Prad referred to me.

As I would reconstruct it, the NIAVA argument, rendered in standard form for philosophy discussions, seems to consist in the following:

  1. A vegan is someone who consumes no animal products.
  2. But even self-styled "vegans" are implicated in stearate in the consumption of tires, the glue on fruit-stickers, or in fixatives underneath computer keys.
  3. Therefore self-styled "vegans" consume animal products.
  4. Therefore self-styled "vegans" are not really vegan.
  5. Everybody consists of self-styled "vegans" and everybody else.
  6. Everybody else is not vegan either.
  7. That leaves us with: Nobody is a vegan.
This is a powerful argument. Someone might say that one could be a perfect dietary vegan. I have met activists who have declared themselves to be dietary vegans. But this is naive. Many small animals are killed in the growing of crops, and not just insects. Rodents and rabbits too. And birds on the ground. In any case, a lot of people would agree that the premises of the above argument are true, but that the conclusion could not possibly be right. It could be demonstrated that the deduction of the conclusions from the premises (the earlier statements in the argument, or the basis of the conclusion being argued) is valid. That means that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true or we end up with a self-contradiction. For example, we cannot assert both that a vegan consumes no animal products, but that the actual vegan lifestyle involves the consumption of animal products. That would be patently incoherent because self-contradictory. No, it is not the logical validity of the conclusions flowing from the premises that is the problem. Rather, it is the truth of the "common-sense" definition in the very first line, as it turns out. But I need to defend this position.

Consider the article in question by Jon Fergus, as retrieved on August 6, 2012. He may change or abolish it later, but in any case, I will use information retrieved presently as part of my discussion here, for illustrative purposes. The author in question argues that there should be a minimum threshold for veganism. Just as light and dark does not involve absolute light and absolute dark, he skillfully argues, so we can say the same thing for veganism. But although I admire his thoughtful approach, there are still two key problems with his counter-argument to NIAVA (in effect, since he does not spell out a NIAVA in his short essay). First, would it not be arbitrary to set a threshold? What is the criterion for the threshold? Veganism? But that is just our original problem. (Actually, his threshhold is "the minimum requirement", discussed below; but I argue below that this amounts to veganism). The other problem is that this counter-argument undermines the idea of veganism as an absolute thing. So one can drink some milk and still be a vegan? After all, one does not need to be perfect on this argument. But that seems wrong.

Furthermore, according to Mr. Fergus (whom I do not know), the minimum requirement for being vegan is, and I quote his article here:

The minimum requirement to be vegan is to no longer directly, actively, knowingly participating in the exploitation and imposed-suffering of sentient beings.

Unfortunately, though, one could contend that someone who rides on tires, buys bananas with animal-glue stickers, and uses computer keyboards is not vegan, because using these things is active and direct enough, and knowing (if one knows). Mr. Fergus suggests that veganism is an unreachable ideal, and that we need to pursue it, but the implication is that we can only succeed by degrees. And if it is not a reachable ideal, then it sounds like no one will reach the status of being vegan, and therefore no one will be a vegan, again reducing to NIAVA. And the argument pro the minimum requirement he gave in the passage quoted above might rule out dairy (because of its implication in exploitation and imposed suffering), but at the price of seemingly ruling out veganism in general. I say this because as I just showed, he would have to rule out keyboard-glue and the rest of it too. And in that case, there goes veganism, because there would be no vegans in that case. Unless someone is ultra-fanatical and abstains from associating with absolutely all animal products everywhere. They might not be able to enter a lot of buildings though! And who knows what else.

I would prefer a different approach to answering NIAVA, lest veganism wash over a cliff into oblivion as we see with the mighty waters continuously heaving over NIAGARA Falls. Let's not go over the NIAVA Falls. My wife has a relative who tried going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. That person made it, but will our own counter-argument?

Okay. First, we need to distinguish between vegans as persons and veganism as an idea. Some thing that is vegan is devoid of animal products. Fair enough? If I buy buns with cheese in them, they are not vegan. But veganism meaning no animal products and vegan things containing no animal products are different from ethical vegans. If I define an ethical vegan as I did in the NIAVA argument, I do indeed run into logical troubles as the argument shows. So I cannot define a "vegan" as "someone who consumes no animal products".

But the definition I will use is common-sensical enough, and avoids the following problems:

  1. arbitrary thresholds
  2. conceding that ethical veganism is not absolute, and instead some kind of "fuzzy" relative notion
  3. making veganism a matter of degrees; it is then debatable whether whether it can really be achieved
  4. allowing really non-vegan products in through the back door, such as a bit of dairy in that muffin because no one is perfect, and no vegan has to be. One might try to confine the imperfection to odd bits as in our three examples, but so far that seems to be completely arbitrary, and so we might as well allow one if we allow the other, for all that has been really argued
How do we avoid these problems?

I will address this definitional problem by arguing that a vegan is someone who is seeking to avoid animal products as much as is possible for anyone in life who uses the principle of non-violent approximation. I will need to explain. Notice that this is different from Mr. Fergus' definition of someone who "no longer directly, actively, knowingly participates in the exploitation and imposed-suffering of sentient beings". Because I admit that the keyboard I am typing on may involve glue from animals. And I could conceivably never type on a keyboard again. Note that I defend ethical veganism on the basis of non-violence ethics in my essay, "Veganism versus Violence".

In that essay, I coin a principle called "the principle of non-violent approximation". The way it runs is something like this. Whenever it is possible for us simply to avoid all violence in a situation, we should go ahead and do that. That means no more meat, dairy, honey, and so on. However, in a situation in which violence is inevitable, that is, choosing in ways that conduce towards the violation of sentient beings, then we should choose the option with the lesser violence. That literally approximates non-violence as much as possible. Hence the name of my principle. The example I gave in the essay is defence. Violence will happen either way if someone is intent on attacking. And the least violence may well be defence, especially given that the attacker may want to be violent.

Okay, well, let's revisit our examples in this new light. I could stop buying fruit with labels using animal glue. But then I might not be healthy in some situations in which that is the only kind of fruit available without taking the car a long distance and thus contributing to environmental effects that violate sentient beings. Or without paying exorbitant amounts of cash that (a) I do not possess; and (b) could go towards saving sentient beings from violation, including monies payable to Oxfam, or animal rights causes, or what-have-you. But this is not a black-and-white issue. It WOULD be highly appropriate of me to be mindful of this issue and perhaps avoid produce with sticky-labels, at least some of the time. And clearly, since absolute non-violence is to be practised where possible, society SHOULD ban the use of all animal glue eventually. Indeed, ASAP.

I could stop typing right now and leave off computers for the rest of my life, as a sort of crude non-violence. That is, washing my hands of anything connected with violence. But the harm of my not contributing as an activist author would be far greater than anything I could accomplish by personally and permanently boycotting keyboard glues. Similar arguments apply to my not banning car, plane and other sorts of travel. I'm sure planes, trains, and automobiles all have animal products in them. But they also feature me as an animal product occasionally too, an animal rights sort of animal. (I am, in part anyway, an animal product in the sense that my parents got my genetic stuff together, and I also benefited from their animalian ministrations.)

So the best sense or definition of "vegan" seems to be:


Someone who practices a non-violent lifestyle in terms of products and services consumed and therefore:

  1. avoids animal products as much as possible by practising non-violence absolutely where possible (e.g., no flesh foods or dairy)
  2. approximating non-violence as much as possible in all other cases by choosing the lesser harm (e.g., not boycotting computers, a campaign that would have very little positive effect - we'll get there when someone makes a vegan computer - and instead using computers as part of high-powered activism); and
  3. calling for a vegan society - simply - in the long run.

Or a vegan avoids animal products in general as a short definition. The exceptions to the rule can be left to more detailed analysis such as I have started here.

Vegan animal rights activists are sometimes dismissive of theory. But I do not honestly see how we can make a sound definition of "vegan" without a refined non-violence theory that goes beyond simply avoiding anything to do with violence - which is impossible anyway as I in effect pointed out. As existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, argued, it is not valid for someone to claim to choose not to choose, for that too is a choice. Whatever life we will generally choose in this age has violent consequences to some degree, and in various ways.

So this theory of veganism as a sophisticated non-violent lifestyle avoids definitions or senses of "vegan" that simply do not work:

  1. Someone who avoids all animal products - that leads to NIAVA
  2. Kicking all theory aside and saying one is "practical" in one's sense of "vegan". Well, guess what? You cannot just practice the definition of "vegan" that is current, or rather, no one seems to wish to - and rightly so.
  3. Or Jon Fergus' definition of a vegan as someone who at minimum "no longer [sic - actually, some vegans from birth are an exception to his language here] directly, actively, knowingly participating in the exploitation and imposed-suffering of sentient beings", which also leads to NIAVA, or so I have argued; and other definitions such as
  4. Someone who avoids all violence in their dietary and other consumption habits
  5. Someone whose consumption habits respect animal rights (such as the right to life, liberty, and well-being); this too is vulnerable to NIAVA
  6. Someone who has a "reasonable" restriction of animal products, which is an example of a non-criterion criterion just because it is so uselessly vague
  7. Definitions of vegan that provide lists of truly vegan animal uses and lists of non-vegan animal uses, which seems incoherent and also does not provide a criterion (like the last definition)
  8. Defining a vegan as someone who aims in all ways to use no animal products. This would seem to need no perfection. However, people make mistakes in what they aim for. Some ignoramuses do not know honey is nonvegan, for example. Or are ignorant of bees and thus discount them. It follows that it could never be enough in serious activism simply to aim to be vegan. One must successfully aim to be vegan. Then it becomes a question: What is it successfully to try to be vegan? The usual answer is avoiding all animal products, including honey. But this leads directly to NIAVA. Aiming to be vegan could also mean truly avoiding all contact with animal products, as in the case of our fanatic, or doing as our non-violent approximater does. This last "definition" does not resolve anything but only raises questions.
My sense of "vegan", based in somewhat advanced non-violence theory (although there is so very much more to articulate), has many advantages:
  • it allows clear criteria for practice
  • there is no problematic arbitrariness in indicating what is vegan and what is not
  • the list of vegan and non-vegan practices accords with common-sense in animal rights discourse
  • there is no self-contradiction like other definitions considered
  • it allows the long-term goal of individuals and societies that are entirely lifted out of the immoral morass of animal products
  • there is healthy room for debate over whether certain items are vegan, inquiring along the lines as to what is the greater or lesser harm

Someone might insightfully object (as a pundit-friend did who was helpfully trying to test my case) that although my definition has the advantages just outlined, it is itself arbitrary. That might be true if I were an intuitionist who just asserts or stipulates whatever seems convenient. However, I am not an intuitionist. I will defend my non-violence theory I think more thoroughly than anyone has ever defended any ethical theory before. (I could be wrong about that, of course. But I leave it to everyone to decide for himself/herself.) Anyway, if I can successfully defend my non-violence theory (a tall order, I know), then patterns of consumption would have to conform to the theory, which would mean that this sense or definition of veganism - far from being "arbitrary" - would actually be logically entailed by the theory itself.

You see? Sometimes theory really can help us to be practical!