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.