If you have taken even little steps into the world of activism for animal rights, you might have experienced, and likely will if you persevere, the opponent who challenges your actions on the grounds that you should be fighting for a different cause. I suspect that argument only arises when the activist’s cause is not focused on humans. Do anti- abortion activists encounter foes who, rather than asserting that the fetus is a sui generis dependent on another individual and that the woman has the right to her own body, clamor that the abortion protester should be taking on the lack of prayer in school, or the protection of confederate monuments, or the right to carry semi-automatic weapons into Whole Foods. Likewise, do the “black lives matter” activists fend off challenges that they should be supporting the LGBT community protest on the other side of town rather than gathering to protest police brutality? I doubt it. The “there are more important things to protest” argument is unique to opponents of animal rights protests because the argument comes from the speciesism that gives rise to the protests in the first place. (Speciesism is the view that humans and human affairs are all that matter because our species is the best and the only one to which morality applies). Thus, for example, in response to my sidewalk protest against the production of foie gras, naysayers (including the restaurateurs selling the stuff) did not challenge my protest on the merits by claiming, hum . . . let’s say, that force feeding birds until their livers nearly burst isn’t really isn’t so bad, or that the birds have no feelings, or that torture is okay as long as the human with gets his “delicacy,” but rather by asserting that I should be concerned with something else. For heaven’s sake!! There were black people in the community!! and therefore the only valid protest was “black lives matter.” (For the record, that was certainly not the view of the great majority of the people whom I encountered in that community that I had “infiltrated”). This sideways argument is really one of the most satisfying for the animal activist’s opponent because it skirts the real issue and veers into the impossibility of justifying a moral act objectively, given that in reality all morality is subjective. All notions or right and wrong begin with personal emotion: a person will determine that something is “right” or “wrong” because of an emotional response. From there, the thinking human will develop a system, either rule based (deontological) or utilitarian, for determining his moral code that all should follow because we like to have people around us whose actions comport with our ideas of right and wrong (for our safety and comfort). Activism is the product of morality of course because the activist has determined within his or her system of morality whether a practice is wrong and immoral and should change. Therefore, one protest cannot be defended as more worthwhile because that assumes they have objective value, which they don’t.
If proving that morality is subjective is too much for the sidewalk confrontation, here are some points to counter the argument that there are more important things to protest. First, advocating for one cause does not mean a lack of concern for another; there is no relationship between causes such that one is diminished because I have raised my protest sign for the other. Hypothetically, there could be two protests going one in one place at the same time, such that the one I choose would actually benefit from the addition of my voice to the detriment of the other; however, hypothetical is the operative word—no such situation is going to occur. Even if that fictional construct were to occur, the person who joins one protest rather than the other is doing more than the person who doesn’t show up for either (that is assuming one believes that activism makes a difference—a different and troubling question beyond the current discussion). Second, putting causes in order of intrinsic importance is like creating a triage of horribles. Elie Wiesel, whom I heard speak many years ago, when asked if the plight of certain peoples was not as bad as what happened to the Jews, simply responded that you can’t compare horribles. Similarly, if you campaign to raise money for research to defeat breast cancer what does that say about your lack of concern for prostate cancer, lung cancer, Alzheimer’s, or leukemia, or . . . I could keep going. Can you say breast cancer is more horrible than those afflictions and more deserving of your efforts? Would anyone try to attempt the justification that breast cancer is “worse” objectively? Of course, not. Probably the answer to “why breast cancer” would be that so and so whom you loved had it or you fear getting it—pure emotion.
Third, always putting human concerns first in the list of things to protest is a species bias, just as racism and sexism is a bias that advances the interests of one more powerful group over those of a less powerful group, making the maxim “might makes right” a valid moral code, something I am not comfortable with for my own safety and welfare. Also, Suffering and death are as close to being objectively horrible as anything could be. Such suffering and death, inflicted to an unimaginable extent on nonhumans, are unnecessary in every way and the willingness to inflict such torment and deprivation clings to us as a vestige of an unquestioned barbarity in our culture. Last, the victims are among the most defenseless and helpless because they cannot speak; if I were defenseless and mute, I would want help—I am just doing what I would want done for me.
Great post, I have encountered this argument many times and it annoys me very much, for the reasons you wrote in your first paragraph.. And I still struggle with what the best response is. The problem with the first and the second suggestion, that advocating for one cause does not mean lack of concern for other causes and that you can’t rank horribles, is that it gives people a very easy way to dismiss your advocacy: to each their own, you care about animals, I care about poor people/war/racism, that’s just your “thing” (sometimes adding that it is just being overly “emotional” or “sensitive” which is meant to dismiss it). I think the third point is strongest, actually, but it also has its own problems: when I do say something in that vein, that animals suffering is (in some objective sense) the worst thing, because of both the severity of the suffering and the sheer numbers of individuals, combined with the fact they are the most helpless, a common response it “but they’re not humans/but they’re animals so it’s not the same/they don’t suffer as much” which leads to the discussion about differences between humans and other animals, and that is a discussion I generally try to avoid as I think it can create unnecessary antagonism and actually diverts from the central fact that even if you are a speciesist, it is still indefensible to harm animals for your trivial pleasure, since it isn’t a choice between harming humans or harming animals, but between harming animals or not harming animals. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and how you would respond to the counterpoints I brought up (from experience).
In discussing your experience and how you have not hit upon the best argument, you expose the reality that there is no way to prove your position is “right.” Maybe the best response to opponents is not to engage and dismiss such comments as “irrelevant” — which they are. As activists, the most productive and promising goal is to raise awareness -—get to people who haven’t given the issue a thought, who really have no idea, so that they are at least in a position to have an emotional reaction. Once someone knows and simply doesn’t care, there is nothing that can be done through argumentation. Last, the most productive argument for veganism might have nothing to do with morality. Whether something is right or wrong, good or cruel, essential or unnecessary, if people see that thing as making them fat, ill, unattractive, more likely to die, or simply not cool, then they will open their minds and emotions and oppose it.
There are people who truly don’t care and I don’t bother with them, but I think there are a lot of people who do care but whose defenses/dissociation are so strong that it may seem as if they don’t care. With them, people who I believe largely share my values (nonviolence and justice, and more specifically being opposed to unnecessary animal cruelty) I try to break through those defenses and creative cognitive dissonance, showing how we share the same values but they don’t live according to them. I agree that often, the moral argument may not be the most productive argument. A common (and very frustrating) thing is having gone through all the arguments and refuted them all successfully, just for them to repeat an earlier point we’ve been over, “I still think that…”, as well as circular arguments, and I think that this indeed does show that just the rational/moral argument is not going to make someone vegan. I don’t, however, use health as a reason, since you can eat some animal products and still be healthy (I do of course refute myths about veganism being unhealthy), so it’s not a strong argument. It can even be counterproductive I think, because it runs the risk of viewing veganism as yet another “diet fad” and discrediting it that way.
I think that in the end, in 99% of the cases, it boils down to an unwillingness to “give up” something, mainly tasty foods, but also other aspects of who you are, your traditions, your whole outlook on life, and that that is ultimately the reason that even when people are out of arguments, they still often don’t become vegan. Not because they think you’re wrong and they’re right (although they may try to convince themselves and you) but because they are not ready to make the step. This is not to say veganism is right and non-veganism is wrong in an objective sense, but to say that I believe many people share our morals and values and deep in their hearts (underneath all the defenses) believe that what we do to the animals is wrong. If this is true, then telling them from my own experience how veganism is that much easier than I thought it would be and that I, former lover of buttery cakes and indulgent cheeses, am still thorougly enjoying delicious foods, may be an effective way of helping opening people’s minds to it. What do you think?
Another point I remembered actually having replied to this “there are more important causes” argument, and I find it to be a strong one: different from causes/problems such as racism, poverty, violence, oppression, diseases or whatever else that we could try to do something about, the animal suffering is something that we (rather, anyone who isn’t vegan yet) are directly supporting, in fact perpetrating, by funding it, by paying the companies who make the animal products. So the very least you should do is not actively participate in it, the way you wouldn’t actively be racist or commit violence to another human being. Animal activism is the next step, and if you’re going to compare, it’s animal activism that should be compared to other sorts of activism, not veganism itself.
I certainly agree that some people just need time to break through habit and culture and that showing them examples of happy and healthy vegans helps.Of course that’s true because who was born a vegan? We are all convinced in one way or the other. I like the second argument, but I have had people claim that I was not a worthy activist because I might buy clothes or wear shoes (non leather) made in sweatshops in Asia, so that I support the exploitation of those people. So, there is no end to that line of argument; I opt to shut it down. To me, it isn’t relevant, and the opposition cannot really tell me how it is relevant. The goal is to keep the conversation on the enormous suffering right in front of us that we have the power to effect every day if we just will.
Thought you would find this interesting……
The “new study” is an amalgam of non-vegan views promoted by the meat industry and other financially interested parties. What would happen if the US went vegan? A brave and gentle new world would ensue that would no longer have violence and suffering underlying every moment of the day and night. Better health and a decrease in green house gasses would be the wonderful by products.