Beyond Morality: Developing a New Rhetorical Strategy for the Animal Rights Movement

First published in the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Animal Ethics by the University of Illinois Press in partnership with the Ferrater Mora Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. You can read a response by Per-Anders Svärd in the same issue of the journal (accessible through JSTOR). Scroll to the bottom of the page to leave a comment or to share this article.

Posted on Nov. 29, 2011. Last updated on March 31, 2012.

This article offers a critique of the central role afforded to the rights/sentience-based moral argument in the rhetorical strategy of the animal rights movement since the 1970s. Though important for articulating the movement’s philosophy and recruiting new activists, this argument has limited persuasive appeal, as suggested by the common failure of liberation movements to achieve their goals through moral advocacy. A two-prong approach addressing human health and environmental effects of animal agriculture is offered both as a supplemental strategy for reaching audiences unaffected by the moral argument and as a critical means of strengthening that argument.


Peter Singer ended the last chapter of the 2002 edition of Animal Liberation, the seminal volume first published in 1975 and widely credited with starting the modern animal rights movement, by asking his readers to reflect on the future of the movement’s main project:

Will our tyranny continue, proving that morality counts for nothing when it clashes with self-interest, as the most cynical of poets and philosophers have always said? Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending our ruthless exploitation of the species in our power, not because we are forced to do so by rebels or terrorists, but because we recognize that our position is morally indefensible? (p. 248)

In this article, I attempt to answer these questions by examining recent successes and failures of the movement, limitations inherent in the movement’s reliance on emotional appeals and rights/sentience-based moral arguments as the key elements of its rhetorical strategy, and alternative rhetorical strategies that address some of those weaknesses. (The fact that Singer had to ask the previously quoted questions in 2002, a quarter century after the first edition of Animal Liberation was published, suggests that the moral arguments employed by the movement do, indeed, have limitations.)


First, a brief note on terminology is in order. The movement commonly referenced as “the animal rights movement” is unified neither in its theoretical foundations nor in terminology. Terminological differences often mark important philosophical disagreements on such fundamental questions as whether the concept of rights is applicable to nonhuman animals or whether preference utilitarianism provides an acceptable framework for our moral decision-making. However, for the purposes of the present analysis, the very real and substantive differences among the main philosophical streams of the movement are not as important as the central point of consensus, which effectively unites all factions: At least 99% of all uses of animals are morally indefensible and should be abolished.[1] Thus, in this article, I use such terms as animal rightsanimal liberation, and abolition as applicable to the larger movement that seeks, at a minimum, to eliminate the vast majority of uses of nonhuman animals.[2]

Successes and Failures of the Animal Liberation Movement: What Recent Trends Tell Us About the Movement’s Likely Future

Whatever we wish to call the movement to end the use of nonhuman animals, we have to admit that most of its goals remain unrealized. In the United States alone, billions of animals continue to meet gruesome deaths in slaughterhouses, stockyards, and labs every year after lifetimes (some shorter than others) of pain and suffering.[3] There is no evidence that the number of animals raised on industrial farms or killed in slaughterhouses and laboratories is declining. In fact, the overall per capita consumption of animal products is increasing slowly in developed countries and rapidly in developing countries, where per capita consumption of meat doubled between 1980 and 2002, with much of the increase attributable to the growing affluence of India, China, and other developing economies, which are all too keen to emulate the buying and eating habits of industrialized nations (Steinfeld et al., 2006, pp. 6-15). Between 2.7 and 270 species go extinct every day, largely as a result of human activity, and Harvard biologist Edward Wilson predicts that half of all animal and plant species will be extinct by the year 2100 – a prediction viewed as credible by many researchers working in the field (Whitty, 2007, p. 4).

And yet there are some bright spots in this largely bleak picture, and one cannot fail to acknowledge that the international animal rights movement has some reasons for optimism. The uses of nonhuman animals by humans and their effects seem to have been discussed publicly in 2008 and 2009 than ever before, with major mainstream newspapers in the United States publishing reports and editorials on the subject, with Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals capturing the attention of the general public in unprecedented ways, and with Martha Stewart devoting a show to the horrors of animal farming and stating unapologetically that she will have a vegetarian Thanksgiving. We have come to expect regular press releases from animal advocacy organizations announcing that yet another chain of clothing stores or major designer has agreed to stop carrying fur products or using fur in their designs. J. Crew, Polo Ralph Lauren, Topshop, RedEnvelope, Ann Taylor, and the Bombay Company are among the companies that jumped on the bandwagon in recent years (PETA, 2006). The European Parliament has voted to ban importation into the European Union of all seal products, dealing a serious blow to Canadian fishermen who have, for years, supplemented their incomes by killing hundreds of thousands of seals. In the United States, relentless lobbying by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, New England Anti-Vivisection Society, and other antivivisection groups has been successful in convincing an ever-increasing number of medical schools and hospitals to switch from live animals to non-animal models in medical training programs.[4] In November 2008, 56% of voters in Massachusetts supported a measure that banned greyhound racing in that state, and finally, California voters passed a measure that requires a number of improvements in the conditions in which certain animals are kept in farms. Similar measures have been passed in several other U.S. states (most recently in Michigan), and even more far-reaching improvements have been mandated for all countries of the European Union.

As positive as these achievements are, they demonstrate a trend that does not bode well for the ultimate goal of the animal liberation movement – that is, elimination of all animal exploitation or, at the very least, the end of all uses of animals where the only justification is, ultimately, “we do this because we like it.” (Consumption of animal food products is by far the largest category of such uses.)

The first warning sign is that all of the major successes achieved by the movement have been in areas where voters or other decision-makers did not have to make any significant behavioral changes or give up anything of importance to them. This is problematic because the largest number of systemic abuses of animals is found in animal agriculture, and ending these abuses, rather than making them a little less horrific, will require dramatic behavioral changes on the part of the overwhelming majority of the human population who currently consume animal products when they have a chance.[5]

Medical training programs can easily switch from using live animals to using non-animal models such as the high-tech Trauma Man®, because the high-tech devices are at least as effective as, if not more effective than, live animals for teaching medical procedures, so adopting non-animal models allows medical schools to avoid possible public relations complications at negligible cost. (In contrast, biomedical research organizations and individuals that make vast sums of money on animal experiments have been far less receptive to the animal rights message.[6])

In the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe, public education efforts of animal liberation groups have produced a perceptible shift in public opinion about the use of animal fur, although worldwide figures of animals killed for their fur have not declined: Increasingly affluent Russian and Chinese consumers more than make up for the decreased demand in the United States and Europe, and the global fur trade still pulls in $13.5 billion a year in retail sales, with the United States accounting for $1.8 billion of that amount (Coster, 2007). Even if the success of the animal rights movement in turning American and European consumers against fur can be replicated elsewhere, the industry represents a relatively small proportion of all uses of animals by humans, and it can be reasonably expected that the task of convincing consumers that fur is a cruel indulgence would be easy relative to the challenge of persuading them to forgo animal food products.

Greyhound racing had long been a niche activity before voters in Massachusetts agreed to ban it (there is a decidedly downmarket air about it compared to, say, horse racing), so for Massachusetts voters, most of whom were likely to have no personal connection to the activity, supporting the ban was an easy way to “help the poor animals” without incurring any personal cost. Seal skins and seal meat, now banned in the European Union, fall into the same category of exotic products few people ever buy, so banning them affects relatively few voters. (When was the last time you saw a seal sandwich on a restaurant menu?)

California’s Proposition 2 may seem different, for it deals with animal farms producing meat and eggs and thus has the potential to affect voters more directly than the other changes mentioned so far. The level of support it generated too seems impressive: The proposition passed with 63.5% of the vote, which means that close to 16% more Californians voiced their support for improving the welfare of farmed animals than for preserving the right of gay couples to marry.[7] However, when we look at the language of this proposition and the fairly limited changes it requires, we realize that our optimism about what its passage may mean for the future of the animal liberation movement is unwarranted. Here is what it said:

[Proposition 2] requires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. Exceptions made for transportation, rodeos, fairs, 4-H programs, lawful slaughter, research and veterinary purposes. Provides misdemeanor penalties, including a fine not to exceed $1,000 and/or imprisonment in jail for up to 180 days. (“Proposition 2,” 2008)

Revelations that animals would routinely, as a matter of normal practice, be forced to live in conditions where they cannot lie down, extend their limbs or turn around must have been both shocking and repugnant to many consumers, yet the effects of the moral shock are limited: All the changes mandated by the proposition will have to be made by farmers, not consumers, who not only will still get to eat all their favorite animal products but also will be able to feel good about their food choices when the new rules go into effect in 2015. In this light, the passage of the proposition, which has been described as a major victory by leading animal protection organizations, including Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the United States, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, seems less revolutionary than it may appear at first glance. It certainly does not suggest the kind of “capacity for genuine altruism” that Singer wrote about in Animal Liberation. Rather, it simply confirms that humans are not averse to legislating moral behavior of others, as long as those doing the legislating do not have to give up anything of value to them.

Although it offers little (if any) relief to the vast majority of animals used by humans, the moralizing impulse underlying the movement’s achievements does portend good prospects for abolishing most of the animal experimentation carried out by biomedical research companies, schools, universities, and other outfits – if the movement is able to convince the voting public that the society at large does not derive any benefit from the experiments, that it possibly suffers harm as a result of invalid research findings, and that superior non-animal models are available.

This is not to say that all consumers of animal products are totally averse to paying a personal price to improve the lot of animals. As Thorstein Veblen pointed out over a hundred years ago in The Theory of the Leisure Class, conspicuous consumption is a powerful factor in the economic behavior of humans (enter Whole Foods Market), and when we can make consumption both conspicuous and honorific, its appeal is increased even further. So it comes as no surprise that “humanely raised meat” and “free-range” milk and eggs, which come with noticeably higher price tags than products made from “conventional” (inhumanely raised?) animals are becoming increasingly popular among those who can afford to pay extra money for the belief that they are consuming ethically. We are all for improving conditions in which animals are raised, as long as we still get to eat them in the end.

And here lies the second problem with Proposition 2 and similar measures. The efficacy of animal welfare regulations that have a negative impact on the bottom line of industrial farms has been uneven at best (at least in the United States), so it remains to be seen whether Proposition 2, which is not scheduled to go into effect until 2015, will make the lives of animals better even in the very limited way its language envisions. (There are documented instances of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors being fired from their jobs for overzealous enforcement of welfare laws – for example, for not looking the other way when animals are skinned while still alive and fully conscious; Cox, 2002.) Even when implemented as intended, modest welfare improvements do nothing about the fact that pigs who can turn around while pregnant still have their short, miserable lives ended at slaughterhouses once they are “spent” and can no longer reproduce, as do all other farm animals.

Covert footage form a UK egg farm that has replaced battery cages with supposedly more humane “enriched” cages.  The Ecologist  Gary L. Francione

What is certain, though, is that the marginally improved conditions (or illusion thereof) in which animals are raised on farms and killed, created by the passage of Proposition 2 and similar measures, make consumption of animal products more palatable to the public’s moral sensibilities – a result that runs counter to the stated goal of the measure’s major supporters. (All three of the previously listed organizational supporters of Proposition 2 advocate veganism.)

Gary Francione (2008), one of the most consistent and eloquent critics of welfarism in the animal rights movement, and who went as far as advocating against Proposition 2, has argued that the reformist approach “reinforces the prevailing view that animal use is morally acceptable if treatment is ‘humane,’ and it makes veganism appear as a radical or extreme response to animal exploitation, which is counterproductive to the goal of abolishing animal use” (p. 17). Lee Hall (2006) has advanced similar arguments against welfarism (pp. 97-103, 105-114). Steadily rising levels of consumption of animal products in the United States and around the world suggest that they are right.

It is also true that the few people who fully embrace the philosophy of animal liberation and become vegans do so on the basis of abolitionist, not welfarist arguments. (The latter lead in a different direction: to meat, fish, and dairy counters at Whole Foods Markets and other purveyors of goods for bourgeois bohemians.) But can this effect be brought to scale? Would significantly more people embrace the ideology of animal liberation and turn to veganism if the movement concentrated on the message of liberation/abolition and spent less time advocating for (slightly) better conditions in which farm animals live and die, which gives non-vegans an excuse not to change their eating habits? The short answer is probably no. The more extended answer is still no, but with a cautiously optimistic qualification: The movement may not be able to increase significantly the number of people who embrace its core ideology, but it may be able to persuade more people to make behavioral changes consistent with its end goals. This will, however, require that the movement make changes in its rhetorical strategy, including widening its rhetorical focus beyond animal rights/sentience advocacy and employing arguments that have been, so far, largely neglected or regarded with a certain amount of apprehension.

Centrality of the Moral Argument in the Rhetoric of the Animal Liberation Movement

To the converted, the project to abolish animal exploitation has a lot going for it. Consider the basic moral argument against consumption of animal food products: Even if one insists that animals do not, cannot, and should not have rights (a common point of contention between the movement’s activists and their detractors) and that the suffering of nonhuman animals does not matter as much as human suffering (e.g. because animals are not moral beings, because they cannot reason or have extended plans for the future or enter into moral contracts, etc.), it is impossible to deny that they do experience pain. Animals may not be able to blog or post on Twitter about their pain, but we know that chickens suffer when the tips of their beaks are seared off with a hot knife or when they are forced to spend their entire lives in noxious darkness, in cages just big enough to hold their bodies; we know that cows suffer when their horns are cut off, when they are forced to produce several times as much milk as they would naturally, or when their calves are taken away from them to be turned into veal. We know that animals suffer when they are castrated without anesthesia or when they are forced to spend their lives standing on concrete floors or metal grates (all standard procedures in animal agriculture). We also know that animals suffer when they are brought to slaughterhouses to be “processed” or when they die in transit from heat, dehydration, injuries, and disease. These are not aberrations perpetrated by a few “bad apples,” but common practices in the secretive world of animal farming. In fact, the suffering experienced by animals who are raised and killed by humans to be turned into food and for other uses is so extensive that describing it in any detail would require many pages. Those pages have already been written: Most books penned by philosophers and activists involved in the animal rights movement include large sections that inform readers about the cringe-inducing conditions in which animals exploited by humans live and die. There is also plenty of video footage online to convince any doubter that animals do, indeed, suffer at the hands of humans.

It is equally impossible to deny at this point that consumption of animal food products (99% of animals killed by humans are raised for this purpose) is unnecessary for optimal human health at any stage of life (Craig & Mangels, 2009). After we set aside myths and misinformation – “you have to drink milk to have strong bones,” “you won’t get enough protein/iron/B12/calcium/iron if you do not eat meat/dairy/eggs” – most people living in economically developed countries where most of the animal products are consumed are left with only one non-fallacious justification for eating those products: “We like how they taste.”[8] Shipwreck survivors stranded on a deserted island with nothing to eat but animals may have a stronger case, but few people fall into that category.

If we combine these two facts with the major premise that underlies the animal liberation project and that should not be objectionable to most people – to wit, that it is morally wrong to engage in practices that cause unnecessary suffering to those who are capable of experiencing pain – the conclusion seems to follow inescapably: It is impossible to come up with a coherent moral justification for consuming animal food products, unless we are willing to accept “we like it” as a sufficient justification for human behaviors that cause pain and suffering to others.

It is probably not by accident that Carl Cohen (Cohen and Regan, 2001) chose to focus exclusively on animal experimentation when making a case against animal rights in The Animal Rights Debate (with Tom Regan presenting an argument on the opposite side of the issue), even though animal experimentation constitutes a tiny proportion of animal uses, compared to animal agriculture.[9] In 2001, when the book was published, it was still possible to argue that at least some animal experimentation was essential for creating lifesaving treatments for humans (I believe it had been quite clear for some time by then that a large percentage of experiments brought no benefit to anyone except for the individuals and organizations conducting them[10]), but the argument about the necessity of animal food products for human health had already been settled: Researchers had known for years that vegans could be at least as healthy as those who consumed animal products. Perhaps this is why Cohen makes mocking references to vegans’ refusal to eat animal products only in passing, without explaining what makes causing pain to animals morally justifiable when the only argument for causing the pain is that one likes the taste of animal flesh, eggs, or milk. (In the third section of the book, in which he offers a reply to Tom Regan’s argument for animal rights, Cohen does attempt to address the question of human consumption of animal food products, raised by Regan, by offering examples of people who would not be able to survive without animal products, such as the Inuit peoples of the Arctic and the people living in parts of Africa where plant agriculture is not feasible. However, he fails to explain these examples’ relevance to the eating habits of people inhabiting the developed world, where most animal products are consumed; pp. 230-232.)

When Singer (2002) asserts that the case for animal liberation cannot be refuted (p. 244), he is not being presumptuous: As long as one accepts the fairly modest moral baseline that the suffering of animals matters (regardless of whether they have “rights,” whether they have designs for their future, or whether their lives are less important than the lives of humans) and that “we like it” is not a sufficient justification for doing anything that causes others to suffer, it is logically impossible to defend animal farming in a consistent manner.

Variations on this general argument have been made, eloquently and in great detail, in many books, essays, and speeches over the past 30 years. The steadily growing body of movement literature is focused primarily (almost exclusively) on the ethical issues raised by the various uses of nonhuman animals by humans.[11] Today, the moral argument remains central to the advocacy of the animal liberation movement, with the more popular moniker (the “animal rights movement”) highlighting the argument’s importance. Often, it is the only argument advanced. It is not that no other arguments exist: Most people who pay any attention to the animal rights debate can be safely assumed to have heard about likely health benefits of switching to a vegan diet and about the major contribution of animal farming to the ever-accelerating destruction of Earth’s ecosystem.

“Deforestation, a critical contributor to climate change, effectively accounts for 20 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and 70 percent of the emissions in Brazil,” reports the New York Times (Rosenthal, 2009). The article caused hardly a stir upon publication, for the revelation was not groundbreaking: “Halting new deforestation, experts say, is as powerful a way to combat warming as closing the world’s coal plants.” And what causes deforestation, one might ask? “The forests are felled to help feed the world’s growing population and meet its growing appetite for meat. Much of Brazil’s soy is bought by American-based companies like Cargill or Archer Daniels Midland and used to feed cows as far away as Europe and China” (Rosenthal, 2009).

Considering that it takes as much as 6 to 17 times more land to produce a pound of animal protein than a pound of soy protein (Reijnders & Soret, 2003), the destruction of rainforests to sustain our dietary preferences seems like an evil more extravagantly unnecessary than any other human activity decried by environmentalists. And deforestation is only one aspect of the environmental degradation caused by animal farming. Livestock’s Long Shadow, the 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is a 400-page indictment of the industry’s impact on climate change, air and water quality, biodiversity, and soil erosion.

Yet, there seems to exist some reluctance on the part of leading animal rights advocates to make prominent use of these arguments. Vegan Outreach, which produces popular booklets distributed by its own volunteers as well as a variety of other animal rights organizations, including PETA and Farm Sanctuary, explicitly downplays the utility of environmental and human health arguments (Ball, 2009). PETA’s website includes information on health benefits of a vegan diet and the environmental impact of animal farming, but its public outreach campaigns are centered on the ethics of using animals (perhaps, not surprisingly, given PETA’s name). Friends of Animals includes a short section on the environmental aspect on its website, and its Vegan Starter Guide, available for purchase in hard copy or as a free download, includes an informative discussion of human health benefits of the vegan diet, but the organization’s abolitionist outreach work is clearly driven by the ideology of animal rights. Farm Sanctuary’s site allows visitors to order brochures dealing with environmental and human health issues; however, until recently its campaigns have not made any use of these lines of argument.[12] Similarly, the Humane Society of the United States, the largest animal protection organization in the country, includes information about human health and environmental effects in its brochures and handbooks and on its website but relies exclusively on animal welfare arguments in its high-visibility public campaigns.

There are several likely reasons for the dominance of the moral argument in the rhetoric of animal rights advocates. Most people involved in the movement became vegans on ethical grounds, after being exposed to a variation of the moral argument they then use in their own outreach. It is not surprising, then, that they would use the kind of logical appeal they personally have found to be irrefutable. Some vegan advocates seem to doubt that the evidence of a plant-based diet’s superiority is conclusive enough to warrant including the health argument in pro-vegan advocacy. Citing a 1998 meta-analysis, which compared data from five studies that examined morbidity and mortality of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, Matt Ball (2009), a co-founder of Vegan Outreach and a certified dietitian, suggests that there is no scientific basis for making claims about the supposed superiority of vegan diet: “While one can argue that eating less meat (to a point) can improve health, one cannot honestly argue that an animal-free diet is inherently healthier than a well-planned omnivorous diet.” He then encourages would-be activists to focus on the moral argument instead, but not before offering the following explanation for the persistent belief of many vegans that their diet is healthier that that of meat-eaters:

Given the relatively isolated nature of vegetarians, it is somewhat understandable that some want to believe only the best about their beliefs. It is common that minorities, in creating their unifying mythology, selectively read supporting ideas, exaggerate some results while ignoring others, and misrepresent some facts.

There is also some fear that human health and environmental arguments take away from the importance of the movement’s core claim: animals are sentient beings and are not ours to use as we please, just as black people were not created to be used as slaves by white people and women were not created to serve men. And what if some new advance in medicine made it possible to reconcile consumption of animal products with good human health, or if scientists found a way to lessen the impact of animal farming on the environment? From this perspective, the moral argument is not only the strongest: It is the only one that animal rights advocates should use.

The reasons certain arguments are selected over others may not be connected to their proven ability to persuade the intended audience. Jasper (1997) notes, “Protestors deploy the tactics they value, enjoy, feel are appropriate, and have some skill at. Their investment in selected tactics encourages them to believe that these are also the most effective ones” (p. 248). We must also remember that “intended audience” means not only one’s opponents or the general public but also supporters, who, Jasper reminds us, “for purposes of organizational maintenance, are perhaps the most influential audience for the leaders of a protest group” (p. 297).

The need to deal with “pressures from the external system,” to “adapt [the message] to several audiences simultaneously,” to “attract membership support from persons with dissimilar views” and to address a long list of other rhetorical problems that must be confronted by the leaders of the animal rights movement – or any other movement, for that matter (Simons, 1970) – may offer additional explanations for the choice of rights/sentience-based moral arguments as the centerpiece of the movement’s rhetorical strategy. Whatever the causes of this overreliance on moral arguments may be, the approach is fundamentally flawed because it is built on overly optimistic assumptions about the relationship between moral principles and human behavior. It also disregards relevant historical precedents. An in-depth discussion of the first problem could not be included in this article without at least doubling its length. It shall be addressed at a different time. However, the latter objection to the strategy centered on the rights/sentience-based moral argument offers sufficient grounds to rethink the argument’s centrality in the rhetoric of animal liberation.

Slaveholders All: What Past Liberation Movements Teach Us About the Limits of Moral Arguments

To study the rhetoric of liberation movements can be a disheartening experience. When read decades or centuries after decisive battles have been won, speeches by past movements’ leaders still stir strong emotions. It is difficult not to be moved  by “What to the Slave Is Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass, the prominent 19th century abolitionist; or “The Fundamental Principle of a Republic” by Anna Howard Shaw, the tireless campaigner for women’s rights; or many other orations that made appeals for the improvement of the human condition with the kind of utmost eloquence and clarity we rarely find in today’s public discourse. What makes studying these artifacts disheartening is the knowledge that despite their eloquence, despite the seemingly irrefutable logic of their proofs, the speeches did not have much effect on those whose beliefs, attitudes, and, ultimately, behavior needed to change for the advocated social reforms to occur.

As Peter Singer acknowledges in Animal Liberation, moral arguments did not change the minds of many slaveholders in antebellum America (p. xxiv). Even the vast majority of Northern whites, who benefited from the institution of slavery only indirectly, were not moved by antislavery agitators and continued to view blacks as an inferior race as they went to fight the Confederacy “to keep slavery in the Union,” while the South fought to keep it out of the Union, as Frederick Douglas famously observed (Morone, 2003, p. 211).

In the end, it was the economic and political self-interest of Northern whites, not the moral arguments of abolitionists, that proved decisive in the antislavery movement’s ultimate success. Whereas the moralizing exhortations by abolitionists failed to impress most white Americans, the argument that slavery had to be outlawed to allow poor whites who were moving into new Western territories to reap the economic benefits of westward expansion got everyone’s attention. As a result, new Western states promptly voted themselves “free” to avoid “unfair competition” from slaves whose very physical constitution was believed to allow them to endure harder labor on less food and sleep than was required by members of the “master race.” In the process, Illinois, Indiana, and Oregon also barred entry to all black people, free or slave (Morone, 2003, p. 203).

As for Anna Howard Shaw, who devoted the last 15 years of her life to the cause of women’s suffrage – she went to her grave without seeing the day when American women could cast their ballots. Compared to the challenge of persuading slaveholders that they should free their slaves and thus lose the major source of their economic prosperity, the suffragettes’ task must have seemed relatively easy, and yet decade after decade, male politicians and voters heard the arguments we now regard as self-evident and irrefutable – and rejected them. Suffragettes’ persistence did pay off in the end; it did not hurt, either, that women had been able to build strong alliances with reformers who sought moral uplift of degenerate masses through prohibition of alcohol and who came to see women as political allies (Morone, 2003, pp. 289-290).

These are not unique examples. Students of rhetoric are inclined to view their favorite art as a powerful tool capable of shaping human history in profound ways, but we have to acknowledge that the art has its limits, especially when rhetors attempt to use moral appeals to change entrenched behaviors that enjoy wide social acceptance. Social change takes time, and moral arguments alone are rarely, if ever, capable of ushering it in when they have to compete with the audience’s self-interest, even when the self-interest is not of pecuniary or tangible nature.

Abolitionists’ moral appeals did win some converts, but they were relatively few. It took a civil war to end slavery in the United States in the 19th century and a bold action by federal courts to desegregate the American South in the 1960s. In the 1970s, race riots lasted for 3 years after an attempt to integrate Boston public schools through busing was made, with whites and blacks throwing stones at each other (and, in some cases, killing each other), not unlike the mobs of well-dressed Boston gentlemen who threw bricks through the windows of meeting halls where abolitionists held their “immoral” and “dangerous” gatherings in the 1800s.

Metropolitan District Police take an unidentified youth into custody following stoning of school buses after they had left South Boston High School the second day of court-ordered busing in Boston on Sept. 14, 1974. Nine persons were arrested in the incident. (AP Photo)  WBUR

As people are forced into new patterns of behavior, they slowly adjust their attitudes to reflect a new social reality; where behavioral changes are not imposed from without, old attitudes persist, no matter how strong moral arguments against the old beliefs and attitudes may seem to outside observers. In 2000, thirty-seven years after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shared with the nation his dream of little black boys and black girls in Alabama one day being able “to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” in what is believed to be one of the most important speeches in the history of American rhetoric, Alabama voters were asked to cast ballots to remove an old state law that barred interracial marriage – a relic of the Old South that had been rendered unenforceable by a 1967 Supreme Court decision but that still remained in statute books. A stunning 40% of voters opposed the repeal. Two years earlier, a referendum on the same question in South Carolina produced similar results.

These examples are not exhaustive, but they are representative. Throughout the history of movements that sought liberation of oppressed groups, we find many instances of logically sound, eloquent moral arguments falling on deaf ears. When liberation movements do succeed, changes are brought about through a variety of means with many contributing factors present: Armed struggle or nonviolent resistance undertaken by large numbers of people forces reforms by making “business as usual” impossible; external pressures combine with changing economic conditions to make the status quo unfeasible; political elites find themselves unable to continue governance under the old system, recognize that major changes are inevitable and facilitate the transition to a new system of social relations through executive, legislative, or judicial action. Far less common are examples of major social changes achieved solely through appeals to the moral sensibilities of people who believe they derive significant benefits from the status quo. Even prima facie examples of moral arguments triumphing over human self-interest come with qualifications. In Britain, the 1807 Act for the Abolition of Slave Trade received its second reading in the House of Lords by a vote of 100 to 34 (respectable but far from unanimous support), “despite the resistance of the Duke of Clarence (the future king William IV) and other peers with West Indian interests” (“Parliament and the British Slave Trade 1600-1807,” 2007), and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which made slavery illegal in most British colonies, authorized the British government to raise 20 million pound sterling (a staggering amount of money at the time) to compensate slave owners for the loss of their property. It seems that without the hefty monetary inducement for those who stood to lose the most from the abolition, moral arguments against slavery were not persuasive enough. The decades-long campaign to end apartheid in South Africa and the anticolonial movements in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East provide many more examples of the same dynamic: moral arguments play an important and even necessary role in energizing emergent liberation movements, recruiting activists, and (sometimes) even winning a few allies among those who derive significant benefit from the status quo, but those arguments are rarely (if ever) sufficient to achieve the movements’ goals.

The animal rights movement is often compared by its theorists and activists to past efforts to abolish human slavery, as well as to the civil rights struggles of women and racial minorities. The continuing mass breeding and killing of animals has also been compared to the Holocaust of Jews, Roma, Slavs, and other “non-Aryans” in World War II.[13] Although such comparisons may seem shocking to movement outsiders who subscribe to the speciesist worldview and thus see the drawing of parallels between human and animal victims of violence as demeaning to humans, many arguments against animal liberation do have striking parallels with justifications for human slavery, subjugation of women, denial of equal rights to minorities, and the killing of large numbers of people for ideological or pragmatic reasons. However, in one important respect the animal rights movement stands alone: No other movement has had to face opposition so united, so widespread, and literally addicted to the status quo. (One often hears that people living in the developed world are “addicted to food.” The fact that animal products routinely ingested in large quantities by humans, including cow’s milk and its concentrated forms, contain naturally occurring opiates makes the use of the term “addiction” more than a hyperbole [Barnard, 2010, pp. 49-52].)

Francione is right to point out that there is no historical support for the expectation that a reformist approach will lead to the abolition of animal slavery. However, historical evidence supporting the thesis that ethics-based advocacy for more radical changes – the approach favored by Francione, Hall, and other critics of welfarism – is likely to be effective in achieving the abolitionist goal is equally scant. If moral arguments advanced by the 19-century abolitionists agitating against human slavery in the United States failed to win many converts among slaveholders, is it realistic to hope that the animal rights movement would be more successful using the same rhetorical approach? After all, in relation to animals, we are slaveholders all. Between 96 and 98% of Americans (and similarly vast numbers of people living in other wealthy countries) consume animal flesh, milk, and egg products on a regular basis – a number far larger than the number of people who derived a perceived direct benefit from slavery or from any other institution ever targeted by a social movement.

Thus, we have to conclude that there is little historical basis for the hope of convincing large numbers of people to break their addiction to animal products using nothing but emotional appeals and arguments built on the notions of animal rights, sentience, personhood, or some other characteristic unrelated to the narrowly defined welfare of the target audience. Fortunately for the movement’s intended beneficiaries, the moral argument can be supplemented by other, potentially more effective, rational appeals.

Moving Beyond Morality

The fact that history offers few precedents of liberation movements achieving their goals solely through the use of moral arguments and emotional appeals does not mean that moral arguments focused on animal rights or sentience should have no place in the rhetorical toolbox of advocates for animal liberation. Such arguments represent core beliefs of the movement and will continue to attract new activists. They will also continue to be effective in generating voter support for initiatives to put an end to activities that cause harm to animals without providing any perceived benefit to large numbers of humans. Bans on dog racing and other forms of commercial entertainment involving animals, on transport and sale of rare “exotic” animals, and on biomedical experimentation on animals producing results that are useless or can be achieved through non-animal models are areas where the moral argument has great potential. (Individuals and organizations involved in biomedical research who can convince the public that the use of animals is essential for developing medicines that will help cure human diseases will not, in all likelihood, be affected by such bans.) However, when it comes to the consumption of animal food products, which accounts for the vast majority of animal uses, the reach of the moral argument is likely to remain at least as limited as (and likely more limited than) the moral appeals of other liberation movements have been.

When Singer asks whether “morality counts for nothing when it clashes with self-interest,” he poses an empirical question, and the correct answer has little to do with one’s cynicism, moral optimism, or some other personality trait. The exceedingly poor track record of moral advocacy strongly suggests that the majority of people maintain only tentative commitments to moral principles they purport to accept as valid and that such commitments are contingent, among other factors, on the degree to which the moral principles can be reconciled with the individuals’ behavioral preferences.

Although most members of the movement’s target audience are not likely to be reached by moral arguments for animal liberation (at least as long as it remains socially acceptable to use animal products), many may respond favorably to other arguments for the elimination of most animal uses. Our key task, then, is to identify values and principles that carry more weight than people’s desire to maintain their preferred diet of animal flesh, milk, and eggs. The presumed need to be true to such abstract values as not causing unnecessary harm to sentient beings or respecting animals’ natural right to lead independent lives free from human interference has proven to be a poor candidate for this role. However, if the issue of animal use can be framed using a value or principle that will, indeed, be viewed as more important by the target audience than its preference for animal foods, rational persuasion will become possible.

Two obvious angles to consider are the impact of animal farming on the environment and the effects of animal food products on human health. Objections to the use of these two lines of argument within the animal rights movement (particularly the arguments focused on human health) have already been noted. In short, the objections are grounded in the concern that such appeals undermine the moral argument by implying that if new research were to show that the harm to the environment and human health from raising, killing, and consuming billions of animals each year could be mitigated through advances in science – involving, perhaps, animal experimentation – the case for animal liberation would collapse. Granted, scientific advances that could significantly lessen the environmental impact of animal farming are exceedingly unlikely. Thus, it is the human health argument that tends to be downplayed more, perhaps because it appears less certain from the start and because it seems more likely to suffer setbacks from future research than the environmental argument. Yet it is the human health argument that has the most potential.

Tapping into the Audience’s Self-Interest: The Human Health Argument

Of all possible arguments for animal liberation, the human health argument is more likely than any other to be perceived as relevant by the movement’s target audience (the general population addicted to animal food products and not interested in philosophical debates about animals’ rights, sentience, or other ethical considerations mandating that humans give up their favorite foods). We know, of course, that humans do not always act in ways that are optimal for their well-being: Health effects of our diet are neither immediate, nor even certain (two conditions that must be present for consequences to be highly effective, as we know from research on behavioral psychology) so many people continue to eat unhealthy food even when they are informed about their diets’ likely effects. After all, a quarter of American adults still smoke, despite several decades of large-scale public education campaigns and dire warnings printed on every pack of cigarettes. However, the less-than-perfect effectiveness of the health argument is a reason for establishing realistic expectations of success, not rejecting the argument outright. And the argument does work in some cases: Over the past few years I have met more people who switched to a plant-based diet after reading books that recommend such a diet as a means of achieving optimal health than those who made the switch because of ethical considerations.[14] These health-conscious vegetarians have heard the moral argument too, but it is the health argument that persuaded them to change their diet.

Unfortunately, information on nutrition given to the general public is inconsistent and often contradictory. In the United States, “official” dietary guidelines, referenced by both laypersons and their physicians, are produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – the agency whose main responsibility is to support American farmers and promote their products. Not surprisingly, USDA guidelines describe “a healthy diet” as one that includes lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and low-fat or fat-free milk and milk products, among other foods – implying, in effect, that a vegan diet is less than optimal (USDA, 2009). The American Dietetic Association (ADA), while acknowledging that a plant-based diet can provide all the nutrients needed for optimal health, finds it appropriate to include on its site materials purporting to debunk “myths about dairy food” (brought to consumers by the National Dairy Council) and extolling the virtues of lamb meat (courtesy of the Tri-Lamb Group). Given the sponsorship of these “fact sheets,” it is not surprising to find such assertions as this one: “While some dairy farmers use a supplemental hormone for their cows, the safety of this use has been affirmed and reaffirmed by leading national and international health and agricultural organizations over the past 15 years” (Bhatia, 2007).[15] Predictably, no mention is made of the fact that the use of synthetic bovine growth hormones (known as rBST or rBGH) has been banned for years in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the 27 countries of the European Union because of human health concerns.

Potential risks of rBGH are among the less problematic aspects of animal food products overlooked by the USDA, ADA, FDA and other bodies called on to offer nutritional guidance to Americans. The 1998 meta-analysis cited by Matt Ball on the Vegan Outreach site as supposedly not showing any clear benefits of eliminating animal food products from one’s diet looked at studies with low numbers of vegans, which made drawing conclusions about plant-based diets difficult (a fact acknowledged by the authors of the meta-analysis). Still, its findings for vegetarians were significant: Those who did not consume meat had a 24% lower mortality from ischemicheart disease than those who did. Since 1998, enough new evidence has emerged to prompt the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research panel to recommend that people eat mostly foods of plant origin, limit intake of read meat to “no more than 500 g (18 oz) a week”  for those individuals who eat meat (with the public health goal for population average consumption of red meat set at no more than 300 g, or 11 oz, a week) and avoid processed meat completely (World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research, 2007). Dozens of peer-reviewed studies reporting ill effects of animal food products on human health are published in medical journals around the world each year. The 2009 position paper of the American Dietetic Association states, “The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates” (“Position of the American Dietetic Association,” 2009).

Yet, not many medical practitioners can be expected to share these findings with their patients: Fewer than a quarter of U.S. medical schools offer at least one course on nutrition and fewer than 6% of physicians receive nutrition training as part of their medical education (Greger, 2007). Even health care professionals and researchers who are well informed seem reluctant to make recommendations that would undermine the dominance of animal products in the standard American diet. The following comment by Dr. Eric Rimm is revealing; Rimm is an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a coauthor of a major report on macronutrients published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies that set the safe level of trans fatty acid consumption at zero (Institute of Medicine, 2005, p. 423) but stopped short of recommending a vegan diet:

We can’t tell people to stop eating all meat and dairy products. Well, we could tell people to become vegetarians . . . If we were truly basing this on science we would, but it is a bit extreme. (Greger, 2007)

It is difficult to predict how effective the health argument could be in convincing people to give up animal products, but we will not know until we give it a chance. Today, the vast majority of people remain profoundly misinformed about human nutrition. Among the most common questions vegans hear from friends, colleagues, and even curious strangers is “where do you get your protein, iron, calcium, etc.?” The earnestness with which such questions are asked suggests that the ignorance is not affected. Even though accurate information on the subject is available to those who seek and know where to find it, sound nutritional knowledge has to compete with erroneous official guidelines, which are designed with the pecuniary interests of the animal farming industry in mind. It is also put into question by totally unsubstantiated but dire-sounding warnings coming from the medical establishment. For example, the previously mentioned Institute of Medicine report on macronutrients mentioned above not only fails to follow research findings on trans fatty acids to their logical conclusion, but also implies that eliminating animal products may be detrimental to one’s health:

Because trans fatty acids are unavoidable in ordinary, nonvegan diets, consuming 0 percent of energy [sic] would require significant changes in patterns of dietary intake. As with saturated fatty acids, such adjustments may introduce undesirable effects (e.g., elimination of commercially prepared foods, dairy products, and meats that contain trans fatty acids may result in inadequate intakes of protein and certain micronutrients) and unknown and unquantifiable health risks. (Institute of Medicine, 2005, pp. 423-424)

The reference to “commercially prepared foods” is telling: The idea that dairy and meat products are essential for human health, though demonstrably false, is at least a priori plausible; however, the suggestion that avoiding commercially prepared foods (i.e. following a whole food diet) may result in nutritional deficiency fails even the minimal plausibility test.

To facilitate the process of getting accurate information to the masses, animal liberation organizations should invest a significant share of their resources into publicizing research findings about the effects of animal- and plant-based diets on human health, targeting both medical professionals and the general public. For reaching the younger lay audience that may find traditional volumes on animal ethics or human health less than enticing, Skinny Bitch books offer a compelling example of a promising new approach that successfully blends moral arguments with appeals to readers’ vanity and concerns about health.[16] However, it is professional advocacy organizations led by physicians and researchers, such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, that have a particularly important role to play in ensuring that the medical profession serves the public interest without regard for extraneous considerations, including possible effects of a large-scale change in the dietary preferences of consumers on the profits of the animal farming industry and other commercial food producers.

Connecting Moral and Health Arguments

Besides the great (and largely untapped) potential of the health argument as a persuasive tool in its own right, there is another, perhaps even more compelling reason for the animal rights movement to pay more serious attention to the human health factor: Whether we like it or not, this factor is an integral part of the moral argument for animal liberation. The proposition that consuming animal food products is an unnecessary evil rests on the claim that humans can be perfectly healthy on a vegan diet. Should new research contradict this proposition, the moral argument will be seriously compromised: animal farming may still be an evil, but it will no longer be an unnecessary evil. Such a development seems exceedingly unlikely, though. There is already an overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence demonstrating the adequacy and even outright superiority of plant-based diets, and new research findings are likely to lend further support to the claim that animal foods are at the very least unnecessary for optimal human health. Even the possibility of parity between vegan and non-vegan diets is hard to imagine, for it would suggest that what humans eat has little or no effect on their morbidity and mortality – a rather dubious scenario indeed.

Thus, regardless of whether we believe that the health argument on its own is capable of persuading people to give up animal food products, those who advocate for animal liberation on moral grounds need to be well versed in the latest research on human nutrition in order to make the moral argument as authoritative and convincing as possible. As long as the general public continues to believe, as it does now, that consumption of animal products is beneficial to human health and that giving up animal foods is a purely altruistic undertaking, the appeal of the moral argument will remain limited.

The Environmental Argument

The environmental-effects argument is likely to have a more narrow appeal (environmental degradation caused by animal farming affects most people even less immediately and less directly than ingesting animal foods affects their health), but it still has several advantages over the rights/sentience-based moral argument. Unlike such abstract philosophical questions as whether animals possess (or should possess) “rights” or have “interest” in their lives, the effects of animal farming on the environment are matters of scientific fact, not opinions, and scientific research on the environmental effects of this industry provides strong evidence against it. It is impossible to dispute that raising animals for food is an incredibly resource-intensive enterprise that also creates significantly greater amounts of air and water pollution and makes a larger contribution to global warming than plant agriculture. This makes it much harder to say, “I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree about this.” One can ignore the inconvenient truth about the effects of animal farming on the environment, as most environmental protection groups and individual campaigners have done to date, but as information about the impact of animal farming on Earth’s biosphere becomes more widely disseminated, those who have made public commitments to the cause of saving life on Earth will be forced to answer charges of hypocrisy. There is something too ridiculous to ignore about the idea of trying to save a few gallons of water by using wipes instead of washing one’s face or shaving one’s face or legs less frequently[17] once we stop to consider that billions of gallons of water are spent every year to accommodate our stubbornly self-indulgent insistence on eating animal products. One pound of processed animal protein requires 4.4 to 26 times as much water and 6 to 20 times as much fossil fuel as one pound of processed soy protein (Reijnders & Soret, 2003). The animal agriculture industry may try to reduce waste through conservation measures (at red meat abattoirs, water usage rates presently range from 6 to 15 liters per kilo of carcass, and poultry plants tend to use more water still; Steinfeld et al., 2006, p. 132). However, no amount of conservation will change the basic equation that makes a typical Western diet, with its heavy reliance on animal products, hopelessly inefficient compared to plant-based diets: Depending on the species, it takes at least 3-12 pounds of feed crop protein to produce 1 pound of animal protein (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, 1999). Given the extent to which animal agriculture wastes precious resources and the fact that all human nutrition needs can be fully met through a plant-based diet, the average animal-based diet is no more defensible than the use of a tractor-trailer for running errands around town.

Yet the environmental movement has managed to ignore this major source of water and air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, in the familiar pattern of shifting responsibility for behavioral changes to others, the public is encouraged to tell politicians and corporations that they must act to save the planet: to quote Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature, “the U.S. and China and governments and corporations change when pressure is applied to them. There is only one place that pressure can come from, which is a movement of people” (Kingston, 2009). And so, October 24, 2009 was designated as a day of global protest, with 5,248 events taking place in 181 countries ( Most Widespread Day of Political Action in History, 2009). Activities planned for the day were varied, but most made some use of the number 350 – the level of CO2 emissions believed to be the maximum the planet’s biosphere can tolerate without going into a tailspin. Here is a short list of planned events reported in AlterNet on October 20, 2009:

Australia will see more than 160 actions, including 350 tall ships that will glide by the Sydney Opera House, St. Mary’s Cathedral bell will toll 350 times and 350 wind turbines will be on display in Wagga Wagga. 

            Three hundred fifty people will bungee jumping [sic] off old power station towers in Soweto, South Africa. A huge outdoor concert and aerial photo shoot in Mexico City is planned. An expedition is under way to Chacaltaya in Bolivia, site of the first Andean glacier to disappear forever. When the expedition arrives, the indigenous Aymara will conduct a blessing ceremony to try to protect the glaciers that are left. (Kingston, 2009)

One item conspicuously missing from this list or from the list of action ideas on, the site of McKibben’s organization that coordinated the events, is a call for eliminating animal food products from the activists’ own diets (perhaps a public pledge to abstain from animal food products for 350 days a year?). To be fair, a separate page does include the following paragraph on livestock:

Factory farms require huge carbon inputs and produce huge carbon outputs in the form of methane. It takes more than a calorie of fuel to produce every calorie we eat and, in industrial meat production, the ratio of calories-in to calories-out can be as high as 58:1. Eating livestock from your local community lessens this problem, but it still has a higher carbon output than a vegetarian diet. (, n.d.)

How much higher we are not told, which is unfortunate: Looking at only two main non-CO2  greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by animal agriculture – methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) – University of Chicago researchers concluded that each year, production of livestock in the U.S. generates at least 800 kg of CO2-equivalent per capita in excess of the emissions associated with a vegan diet (Eshel & Martin, 2006, p. 9). Importantly, this number does not depend on whether animal products are produced locally or have to be shipped to the point of consumption. Add all the green house emissions produced by animal farming, and we arrive at the conclusion that consuming a mixed diet results, on average, in 1485 kg CO2 equivalent “above the emissions associated with consuming the same number of calories, but from plant sources. . . . Nationally this difference amounts to over 6% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions” (p. 15).

In contrast to most other non-conservation-based ways of reducing greenhouse gases, the elimination (or at least a drastic reduction in size) of the animal farming sector and the corresponding reduction of GHG emissions by up to 6% (which is described by the study’s authors as a conservative estimate) would not require large investments of capital, creation of massive new infrastructure, or development of new technologies that may not be ready for years. In both the short and long run, the economic costs of the transition would be minimal, compared to the likely costs of trying to achieve comparable savings through other means:

At mean U.S. caloric efficiency . . . it only requires a dietary intake from animal products of 20%, well below the national average, 27.7%, to increase ones GHG footprint by an amount similar to the difference between an ultraefficient hybrid (Prius [1.19 ton of CO2]) and an average sedan (Camry [2.24 tons of CO2]). For a person consuming a red meat diet at 35% of calories from animal sources, the added GHG burden above that of a plant eater equals the difference between driving a Camry and an SUV [2.24 vs. 4.76 tons of CO2]. (Eshel & Martin, 2006, p. 12)

Even more important than the immediate reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the elimination or scaling down of the animal agriculture sector in Western countries is the public health and environmental message it would send to the developing world. The West may no longer be the workshop of the world, with most consumer goods now manufactured elsewhere, but it still has the power to define lifestyle aspirations of people around the world. As bad as the environmental impact of animal farming has been already, it will be multiplied many times if the billions of people in Asia and Africa who are eager to emulate the West’s lifestyle choices become prosperous enough to adopt its diet. Our insistence on continued consumption of animal products fails the basic test of Kant’s categorical imperative, which directs one to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Johnson, 2009): The world in which everyone adopts Western eating habits is not only undesirable but also inconceivable. Even if we disregard the climate change implications of developing nations adopting the Western diet, there are simply not enough land and fresh water resources to sustain such a lifestyle on the global scale.

Ironically, on the website of the suggestion of a vegetarian cook-off as an idea for the global day of action is followed by this: “Herd your livestock to spell out 350” (, Food and Farm). One is left to wonder why arranging a fleet of SUVs to spell 350 is not on the list.

Sample photographs of events organized by in 2008 and 2009. Click on the image to open's photo album.

Sample photographs of events organized by in 2008 and 2009. Click on the image to open’s photo album.

Granted, it is easier to get people to arrange themselves in giant formations spelling “350” for an aerial photo shoot or to organize outdoor concerts, group bungee jumps, and tall ship events than to persuade them to change their diets, even if the latter change would have a positive impact on the planet’s health whereas the former most likely will not.[18] Also, most leaders of mainstream environmental groups are not known to be vegans, so it is not surprising that they find it convenient to overlook the long shadow cast on Earth’s biosphere by humanity’s addiction to animal products.

And so it falls to the animal liberation movement to confront both the general public and self-described environmentalists with information about the effects of humanity’s eating habits on Earth’s biosphere. As with moral appeals for animal liberation, the environmental argument has to be combined with the human health argument for maximum effect: As long as the public continues to believe that animal foods offer human health benefits that cannot be obtained at a much lower environmental and financial cost through a sustainable plant-based diet, raising and killing animals for food will be perceived as a necessity – unfortunate, perhaps, but a necessity nonetheless.


The history of social movements strongly suggests that the effectiveness of emotional appeals and moral arguments focused on the suffering of the downtrodden is quite limited when the audience believes that it benefits from the status quo. Even the environmental and human health arguments cannot guarantee success when the objective is to persuade large numbers of people to undergo a behavioral change as significant as eliminating animal products from their diet.

Furthermore, as the movement adopts universalistic arguments against all uses of animals, and not just the worst abuses perpetrated by the animal-industrial complex against animals viewed as most deserving of human sympathy, its rate of success is likely to go down. Persuading state governments or voters to support initiatives mandating that farmers abandon the industry’s most egregious practices is difficult enough; it is a challenge of a different order to persuade people to make profound changes in their own behaviors.[19] Still, reasoned argument remains the best tool available to the animal liberation movement, and, based on lessons learned from other social movements, for large numbers of people the environmental and health arguments are likely to provide a more certain path to persuasion and behavioral change than animal rights/sentience-based moral arguments. The health argument in particular needs to gain more prominence in the outreach efforts of animal liberation groups, for it not only has the potential to act as a powerful persuasive tool on its own but also serves as a foundation for both moral and environmental arguments.

The hope that people will discover altruism and turn to veganism in large numbers because this is “the right thing to do” morally is likely to go unfulfilled, but this does not mean that people cannot be convinced that a vegan diet is the right choice for their own well-being and, ultimately, survival. To accomplish this goal, activists have to tap into their audience’s self-interest, the ultimate first principle that requires no justification. Luckily for the prospect of ending the suffering of the billions of animals who live and die in pain at our hands every year, that self-interest is, ultimately, on their side.


[1] There is a fair degree of disagreement within the movement over the extent of permissible uses of nonhuman animals by humans when human interests cannot be met without some use of animals. Some argue that using animals as a means to an end is immoral under any circumstances. Gary Francione and Tom Regan have been consistent proponents of this view. Others, including Peter Singer, would allow limited use of animals under certain circumstances. However, there is broad agreement within the movement that the use of animals for food – by far the largest segment of the animal industry (roughly 99%) – is unnecessary and therefore indefensible.

[2] Organizations and individual activists who seek, as their terminal goal, not to abolish most uses of nonhuman animals but to improve the conditions in which animals are raised and killed can at times be allied with animal rights groups, but their aims and philosophical underpinnings put them outside any movement to which such terms as “animal rights,” “liberation” or “abolition” can be applied.

[3] According to the calculations of Noam Mohr (personal correspondence, November 12, 2009), a physicist who has worked on global warming campaigns for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, more than 8.5 billion land animals and 71 billion sea animals were killed in the United States in 2008.

[4] According to PCRM, 95% of advanced trauma training programs now use non-animal models (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 2010).

[5] It is not clear what percentage of the human population consumes animal products worldwide. In the United States, a national poll of adults over 18 years old conducted by Harris Interactive in 2006 found that 1.6% eat a vegan diet, with the possible exception of honey, and another 2.3% do not eat flesh of any kind but do consume animal milk and eggs (Stahler, 2006).

[6] In The Art of Moral Protest, James Jasper (1997) compares the examples of two protests against animal experimenters – a successful one at Cornell University in 1987 and one that failed at New York University in 1988-1990 (pp. 309-315). The failure of protestors to stop drug-addiction experiments on monkeys at NYU (or animal experiments at any commercial biomedical research facility since 1988, for that matter) demonstrates the limits of the moral argument in cases where the audience believes it derives important benefits from protested activities.

[7] Proposition 8, which was on the same ballot as Proposition 2 in 2008, asked Californians to add a section to the state constitution, restricting the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples and effectively denying gay couples the right to marry. It passed by a 4% margin.

[8] We can disregard fallacious arguments, such as argument from tradition (“humans have always eaten animals,” “eating animal products is part of our culture”) or argument from authority (“Bible says that God gave us animals to use as we see fit”). Though commonly invoked by individuals intent on keeping their behavioral preferences intact, such arguments cannot be seriously accepted as valid in a dialectical discourse unless we are also willing to accept as valid similarly constructed arguments in defense of other practices now commonly viewed as indefensible, including human slavery and subjugation of women by men.

[9] Cohen notes that animals subjected to experiments in laboratories constitute around 1% of all animals raised and killed by humans – an estimate consistent with figures cited by liberationists (Cohen and Regan, 2001).

[10] Peter Singer (2002) makes a strong argument in support of this assessment in chapter 2 of Animal Liberation, as does the 2006 report published by the Medical Research Modernization Committee, A Critical Look at Animal Experimentation (Anderegg et al, 2006).

[11] See, for example, Dunayer (2001, 2004), Francione (1995, 1996, 2000, 2008), Franklin (2005), Hall (2006), Kemmerer (2006), Linzey (1976, 1995, 2000, 2007, 2009), Linzey and Yamamoto (1998), Patterson (2002), Regan (1982, 1983, 1986, 2001, 2003, 2004), Regan and Singer (1976), Rollin (2006), Singer (2002), Spiegel (1989), Sunstein and Nussbaum (2004), and Wise (2000, 2002).

[12] Farm Sanctuary’s Green Foods Resolution campaign, launched in 2009, is a pioneering example of a campaign promoted by an animal protection organization that is not focused on the sentience/rights-based moral argument.

[13] See, for example, Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (New York: Lantern Books, 2002).

[14] Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s 2003 Eat to Live and 2008 Eat for Health are popular examples of such books.

[15] The “fact sheet” does include a disclaimer that it represents the views of the author and that those views “do not necessarily reflect the official positions or policies of the American Dietetic Association.”

[16] See Freedman and Barnouin (2005, 2007, 2008).

[17] Both are suggestions from the website of Athens-Clarke County in Georgia, Other suggestions include the following: “Reduce the number of showers you take in a day to no more than one. Plan activities in a way that avoids multiple or even single showers on some days” and “Don’t wash your hair every time you shower if it doesn’t need it. You can use talcum powder to dry-wash your hair and then brush it out.”

[18] The history of social movements does not give us any ground to expect that popular action of the kind organized by will result in any substantive behavioral or policy changes.

[19] See Jaspers (1997, p. 295) for a discussion of the failures of the antinuclear and peace movements of the 1970s and 1980s, both of which used universalistic appeals, to achieve their goals.

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§ 11 Responses to Beyond Morality: Developing a New Rhetorical Strategy for the Animal Rights Movement

  • Максим–Поздравляю с выходом статьи в свет! Вперед–всегда вперед. Майкл

  • Dena Pezet says:

    A refreshing, very fine, well researched and articulated article. Whatever ethical stance one’s animal ‘rights’ blossoms from, to bring about requisite outcomes, argument must be articulated within and appeal to the globalised capitalist paradigm. Part of the reason why Europe has introduced such wide ranging, albeit on the whole welfarist animal law & regulation, is to promote a level economic playing field / market for animal produce in the European Economic Community.

    • Thank you, Dena. I am afraid I have to agree that nothing beats the audience’s self-interest when it comes to selecting premises on which to build a persuasive argument. But making money is not people’s only interest, even in a capitalist society. Many (most) humans also want to be healthy and not die prematurely. Once people realize that animal products in their diets are, by far, the leading cause of mortality (this has been the case in the U.S. for both men and women since 1918), animal liberation will become an easier sell (or so I hope).

  • Lady says:

    А на русском тоже есть?

  • Maxim, we are ad idem.

    Can someone translate the Russian posts for me?


    • Glad to hear, this, Dena, although if you see any flaws in my analysis, do share your thoughts. No need to translate Russian posts: just congratulations from an old friend and mentor, and an inquiry about availability of a Russian translation.

  • Dena Pezet says:

    Thanks for the translation.



  • Jo says:

    Your argument is compelling and well researched. I agree that appealing to the overall population’s self-interest, in this case: health, is more of a motivator than emotional appeals; however, I wonder how effective it is with young adults.
    Educating young adults (college students) about the holocaust humans are inflicting on non-human animals is an effective way of creating compassionate future generations. But will appealing to their health work since most see themselves as immortal?
    While attending a Socrates Cafe recently, a college student said, “The meaning of life is for everybody to do their duty… like a chicken’s duty is to be meat…” Well, after hearing that, I got an acute case of deafness and thankfully wasn’t able to hear the remainder of his comment. But, again, I realized this is the age where critical thinking needs to be taught. Would a moral argument work better for this group?
    As an aside, I always wondered why the animal movement’s detractors think animals should not have rights because they can not plan for the future. I’ve yet to meet any human who doesn’t cause himself needless suffering from obsessing about the past or worrying about the future. Non-human animals are the best examples of equanimous creatures out there relishing the present moment. Because of it, they deserve respect.
    Compelling article! Great work! Thank you! ~Jo

    • Of course you are right, Jo: talking about heart disease with a 20 y.o. may not be the most effective persuasive strategy. (Explaining to her that her acne will likely go away without any medication if she stops eating dairy might work much better.) However, when your student’s parent, relative, or family friend dies in his/her 40s or 50s from a heart attack, AND she knows that the premature death was caused by the deceased’s consumption of animal products, she may take notice. Once all medical professionals begin to follow science and tell their patients to avoid all meat, dairy, and eggs for optimal health (the same way they now tell people to avoid tobacco), the health argument will become much more effective. Until then, it will continue to have a serious credibility problem.

      As for moral/emotional appeals – I would never tell anyone not to use them. If you have found a way to use such appeals effectively, by all means keep doing the good work and share your best practices with other activists. (I would be interested to know what you mean when you say that educating young people about the facts of animal farming is “an effective way of creating compassionate future generations.” Has your center collected any evaluation data to measure short and long-term effects of such education? If so, I’d love to learn more!)

      In my experience, relatively few people are moved by such appeals as long as members of their peer group say there is nothing wrong with their actions. The majority of one’s peers (or group of reference) acts as a functional equivalent of the authority figure in Milgram’s obedience experiments. Also, the common (albeit mistaken) belief in objective morality makes challenging widely accepted beliefs and behaviors quite difficult. To accept the idea that killing a chicken is morally wrong suggests that one’s parents, grandparents, friends, colleagues, along with countless dead and alive nonvegans we’ve been taught to view as moral authorities, have been, in fact, acting immorally. No wonder people come up with all kinds of excuses to cling to their beliefs! “A chicken’s duty is to be meat” is excusable, coming from an undergrad, considering that distinguished philosophers make similar statements all the time to keep their ideology intact.

  • Jo says:

    Emotional appeals, health appeals… yes, I’ll try them all. I have a wellness coach coming in today to speak to students about the problem of the standard American diet. Ironically, students want to know if there will be free food… specifically pizza. Ah perfect, I see they really get it.

    Regarding my comment about educating young adults and creating compassionate future generations, I’m speaking from my own belief (no data to back it up other than some Educational Psychology articles about critical thinking increasing retention.) So, if students are taught to question assumptions at a young age (i.e. factory farming is acceptable, a chicken’s duty is to be meat), they’ll retain that knowledge through adulthood and pass it on to their kids creating a ripple effect. If Milgram’s results show few people resist authority, then authoritative teachers can challenge and influence the student who thinks a chicken’s duty is to be meat. I see your point why that comment is excusable, and the fact that it is excusable today is disturbing.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, Maxim! Wish me luck with my speaker (I told them no pizza, no chips, no dips, crunchy carrot sticks if they behave!) ~Jo