Animal Rights : from Ethics to Politics

Seminar by Corine Pelluchon, June 16, 2017

Portrait de Corine Pelluchon par Emmanuelle Marchadour

Animalism is a philosophical, cultural as well as social movement made up of groups and individuals who share the belief that animals should be taken seriously. This presentation’s objective is to show that this movement has depth. Animalism is not only about adopting a certain lifestyle but is also a global project that aims for a more equal world, as understood from an environmentalist and animalist ethical point of view.

Animalism pertains to political theory. Political theory is not only about politics but also about the political. It implies thinking about what it is to lead a “good life”, in terms of, in this case, cohabitation between humans and non-humans. Therefore, speaking about animals consequently sheds some light on how we construe and practice “development”, more accurately, on what our relation to animals says about our development model.

First, why an animalist manifesto? The fate of the human race is at stake when speaking about “animality”. The cause of the animal is that of the animal.

Second, what does ‘politicizing animal rights’ mean? Unlike ethics, politics demand that we think together and not alone.

Third, what concrete propositions can be made today?

1. The purpose of an animalist manifesto

A manifesto is a document written for those who have the power to shape history. Animal rights concerns everyone in the sens that our lifestyle has direct and indirect consequences on animals. A manifesto is the affirmation that the cause which it seeks to defend is important and that is has already entered the cité. Its aim is to give structure to the cause by helping it overcome confidentiality and denunciation. It does have an utopic dimension but is not limited to the latter.

Denouncing the conditions we impose on non-human species sheds light on a system, which exploits living beings as well as on a development model that works in favor of the interests of specific groups and lobbies. Animalism goes hand in hand with a criticism of economism, based on the fact that the economy has outgrown the societal space it should be occupying. As shown by economism, due to the currently hegemonic capitalist mindset, breeders and animals are under constant pressure to increase their production.

Ethical and cultural considerations are also articulated within the animalist movement, as exemplified by its criticism of speciesism. The word ‘speciesism’ was first popularized by Peter Singer. It refers to discrimination against non-humans, based solely on specie-membership, that disregards that humans and non-humans are both sentient and vulnerable beings. It singles out and criticizes the speciest prejudices which are a part of our everyday lives. In order to grasp how difficult dis-constructing these categories would be we first need to acknowledge the magnitude of speciesism. There is a persistent gap between theory and practice: few people would today argue that animals are similar to machines, yet, we carry on treating them as such. This may be taken to mean that history does not change or that it cannot be changed by the sole strength of ideas.

What is the purpose of a manifesto for animal rights? Its aim is to make animals the focus. An animal rights defense movement has today emerged because it calls into question our economic model, at the heart of which is ever-increasing production and consumption; a model we must get rid of. Animalism is a way for young activist(s) to question and call out this model. The term ‘animalism’ enables us to link the movement for animal rights to justice. This book is to be read and understood as anchoring itself within a logic of transition, meaning that we are in the process of change, which may lead up to the abolishment of animal exploitation.

One model: according to Robert Badinter whether or not the death penalty should be abolished may not be decided upon by referendum as the role of justice is not to be a reflection of people’s individual opinions. Another model: during the War of Secession Abraham Lincoln offered financial aids to States which abolished slavery, thereby exemplifying a more pragmatic approach to transition.

Thanks to works that have sought to deconstruct the animal condition (De Fontenay, Derrida) we know that animalism is a humanism. However, we are now in need of a more constructive approach to animalism. Animalism is a humanism of diversity and difference. Changing our relation to non-human species also depends on changing how we think of ourselves, as human beings.

A philosophy of the body, of corporeality, that is to say, of our own body’s materiality may be of help to us: the ‘individual’ is a practical fiction, by questioning it we may be able to reflect on the aims of the political and ‘refurbish’ humanism based on a new political theory.

The aim of such a manifesto, therefore, is to show that animal rights is universal, in that all humans and non-humans share a same vulnerability. Animal rights is also of strategic interest as it may be used to provide significant leverage in favor of the environmental cause (for example, because of the environmental impacts of meat production and its effect on climate change).

2. A history of animal rights and its universality

Although he is perceived as such, Descartes is not the absolute ‘bad boy’. In a number of his writings Descartes criticizes one’s tendency to believe that everything was constructed for oneself, which amounts to thinking of oneself as central, like God. Therefore, Descartes, and his work, does not part from what was previously thought. The genuine break in thought comes with the industrial revolution and the simultaneous emergence of a form of predatory individualism. Due to an increase in population growth and the development of different techniques we are witness to the acceleration of our civilization’s decay. Animalism presents us with an opportunity to revise this trajectory.

Animal abuse mirrors what we have become. Yet, it is a reality that we have a hard time acknowledging. Videos that document and denounce animal abuse create in us cognitive dissonances, which is why these videos have to be supported by an argument (cf. Johana Macy, etc.).

Theology came first: our ancestors lived for themselves, yet, believed that judgment would subsequently follow. Followed the age of History Philosophers, which ended simultaneously with the fall of the Berlin wall. We, then, entered what Arendt calls “loneliness”, which is the experience of not belonging to the world. The individual looses what connects him to other beings, making him/her more likely and eager to join mass movements and crowds. Today “loneliness” shines forth through a paradoxical desire to dominate and appropriate, in accordance with a consumerist mindset. Moreover, violence, and our relation to it, has become normalized. However, we simultaneously live within the ‘age of the living’, characterized by theoretical considerations on vulnerability, finiteness and limits. Animalism was born from these discussions in regards to alterity.

3. How to politicize animal rights? Tools and strategies

What does saying that animals have agency mean? It means that, when thinking about animal rights, we should not project our own modes of existence but take animals’ own point of view as sentient beings, although there are substantial differences from one animal to the next. Behind the fur and feathers there is someone. In general, we have decided upon coexistence standards that do not acknowledge the interest of non-human species. We, thus, have to give the term ‘zoopolitics’ texture: as we do, in practice, coexist with animals, it is accurate to speak in terms of zoopolitics, yet, only human interests are considered when decisions are taken.

We, therefore, have to be attentive to what animals tell us about themselves as political subjects. This entails equal consideration of interests, according to anti-speciesism, which does not mean equal rights and material conditions. In more concrete terms, it entails preventing ourselves from thinking of ‘virgin’ (old-growth) forests as such: these forests are not ‘virgin’ but are inhabited by orangutans and other animal species. In order to create the circumstances of justice, we need to think of a system in which risks of disregarding animal rights are minimized. Some theoreticians refer to animals as ‘co-citizens’. I believe, this may be confusing as citizenship entails a sense (even vague) of belonging to the same community. Yet, a cat does not care whether other species go extinct. It is important to take difference seriously, to acknowledge the alterity existing between humans and non-humans.

The three levels of political struggle:

-The normative level, constitutional.

-The institutional level. We could, maybe, consider a third chamber, using a meta-representative system that would make sure that proposed bills do not infringe upon animal interests. There is a tension, between representative democracy (human and that requires presence) and the representation of animal interests (the same problem comes up within environmental movements that demand that the interests of the Earth/upcoming generations be taken into account).

-The cultural and educational level. In order for animal interests to be taken into consideration, change has to be instigated within the fashion, food etc. industries. Space has to be made for alternatives to emerge, a vegetarian menu within school cafeterias, for example. Yet, we should limit ourselves to ethical propositions: students must be taught about animals, they must be taught to love them and consider their interests, which differ from our own.

The two temporalities of political struggle:

-In the long run, which might lead up to a type of abolition.

-In the short run: consensus and compromise. As people enter into debates their perceptions and opinions will change. Indeed, many people who still consume meat are also very critical of the conditions in which wild animals are held captive. Change may therefore be instigated in a few domains, such as captive dolphins, but keeping in mind Lincoln’s pragmatic approach to transition, that is to say considering what change means for the people whose subsistence is based on what is being altered.

We can make a list of all the habits that may well be dropped, yet, livestock farming is not one of those. It entails a longer and more drastic change. We have to be aware of the fact that livestock farming is a matter political consciousness. Therefore, animalism is active on more than one front, and is not restricted to livestock farming. And, more importantly, animal rights looses its meaning if it is not thought of in conjunction with our relation to the world and alterity: nous avons un monde à y gagner. We can all benefit from animal rights, even those that aren’t yet convinced.

4. Questions, answers, remarks and other digressions

Yves Cochet: You have rightly questioned what we call in the West dualist thinking which, in this particular case, creates a distinction between humans and non-humans. Some argue that non-humans have intrinsic value, although you have not used this term. Others argue that ecocentrism is anti-humanist. Others still, like Naess, are monists, that is to say that they believe that there is no fundamental disconnection between human beings and nature: all living beings are not to be placed on the same footing but they are all part of the same Nature. However, there is one problem: if everything is natural, everything is also artificial, entailing a certain ambiguity. So, do you think of yourself as a monist or a dualist, or do you believe this debate needs to be transcended?

Corine Pelluchon: Monism should not be used to transcend nature-culture dualism. What I have suggested is that we take ‘philosophy of life’ as a starting point, that we use the “nourishment”, that is to say all that enables us to live, to develop a larger conception of what it is to be human. The goal is, thus, to transcend dualism while avoiding the pitfalls associated with monist or holistic environmental ethics. First of all, Naess’s work is more subtle than what is commonly thought: you can find in his work a reflection on the widening of the concept of the agent. It is by choosing the ‘human’ as our starting point, by reconsidering what has been erased (the corporeality of the agent, his vulnerability and “nourishment” in particular), that we enable ourselves to think of our relation to the world in a different way. Therefore, what I suggest, is that we toss aside these old blueprints.

Dominique: The Holocene marks the moment when human beings began exploiting and developing livestock farming, before they were hunter-gatherers. In doing so they increased the production of wheat (which can now be found all around the world) but committed harm against animals. However, it also helped sustain demographic growth.

Pénélope: Animal rights are important. I work in a circus with no animals.

Marie-Pierre: I want to add to how people can be mobilized, so that this afternoon may also be dedicated to actions having a concrete impact on animals and humans . As long as we speak of animal rights and ecology in relation to morality, it will not work . We have to provide children with spaces in which they can become aware of the Nature within them and form attachments with a small patch of grass or a flower. We should not introduce them to Nature with herbariums and boring names.

Julie Celnik: Why do you use the term animalism rather than anti-speciesism? Moreover, you rightly criticize capitalism, but some anti-capitalists prescribe to ‘get back to the land’, which partly involves animal exploitation.

Corine Pelluchon: What we experience as liberalism today is very different from how it was first theorized, Lock must be rolling over in his grave. What I have today suggested would have little sense if taken out of its specific context, that of the Anthropocene: it is in this very context that criticizing unlimited exploitation makes sense. There exists a philosophical vegetarianism, which is timeless, as exemplified by Plutarque (« qui suis-je pour faire couler le sang des bêtes quand je peux faire autrement ? »). By opposition, there is a more militant, context-specific vegetarianism, which stems from the shame we feel when we see how animals are today treated.

Another answer to your question: some anti-capitalists do indeed breed goats, yet, they are not involved in industrial livestock farming.

Why do I not use the term anti-speciesism? Because I do not like the prefix ‘anti’, it does not resemble Lincoln, yet, I like Lincoln and his generosity. Animalism is an already constituted movement, whose last development is this refurbished humanism I have previously talked about.

What can be done to actually change things? Today’s education encourages individualism rather than compassion for non-human species. On the one hand we have to learn to acknowledge the difference and alterity of animals, and on the other they will help us understand that we are only brains on two legs.

Agnès Sinaï: It’s moving although you give the impression that the conditions you describe are quite stable. Yet, isn’t this system bound to collapse, hand in hand with industrial animal exploitation which functions through material and energy flows? Moreover, what of degrowth? Are we headed towards a more organized form of survival as part of the bioregions or non-organized as part of the collapse? Will this chaos encourage some form of return of the wild? In short, I have some difficulty with this topic as I am not a philosopher and I think of the collapse, of what could be a contemporary humanism. Moreover, I’m not sure we – human beings – and animals do not share a common destiny, in the sense that we too are victims of this system.

Arthur: I’d like to have your opinion and perhaps your advice regarding the militant aspect of animalism. Because of our academic culture we, here, have a tendency to move from reflection to action. That is what happened with humanism and is now happening with animalism. However, today, we reflect on the Anthropocene and on the collapse but we stay within the domain of reflection. There are no ‘collapsologist’ protests. We are the first to know and the last to be in a position to act, from which follows a reduction of the possibilities to move from reflection to action.

Benoît Thévard: A practical case, and a moral dilemma. Some friends took me to “La Vallée des Singes”, which I believed would be horrific. Yet, once there, although the monkeys were indeed kept captive, I realized that the site’s communication was directed towards raising awareness on species extinction and the destruction of natural habitats.

Christophe Laurens: I do not believe that we are the first ones to know and the last to be in a position to act; on the contrary, I believe, that we will act a lot more.

Yves Cochet: I believe in collapsology and am quite catastrophist. Therefore, I believe that by the year 2050 there will be no more, or very little, cars but that we will fall back on draught animal power. Hence, the proposition which I have made to develop national stud farms.

Corine Pelluchon: There is an important nuance between exploitation and utilization. For example, guide dogs and herding dogs may take pleasure in working, they are utilized but not exploited. It is possible on a case by case basis to utilize animals as long as it does not fall into exploitation, that is to say a system in which the animal cannot rest, have a life of its own, and have its interests acknowledged and taken into account.

To answer another question: yes, I believe that we are not that last ones in a position to act, yet, in the context of the Anthropocene there is a sense of urgency due to the global irreversibility thresholds. The difficulty with global warming is that although we are aware of the latter and its potential consequences, it remains quite abstract. By opposition, animal rights strikes a primal nerve within the human being. There must, therefore, be a way for the environmental movement to inspire itself from the movement for animal rights, a way for the two to converge.

Another answer regarding collapsology: China and India are both big meat consumers, which creates an enormous demand. So, there are some alternatives, but there extent is very limited.

As regards “La Vallée des Singes”: There are different types of captivity. I was mostly talking about circus or dolphinariums, in which animals are being exploited.