The American Left Should
Support Animal Rights: A Manifesto
Anna E. Charlton, Sue Coe and Gary L. Francione
The animal rights movement has grown enormously in the past two decades, and animal
advocates have effectively attacked the exploitation of animals for
experiments, food, clothing and entertainment. We have placed the issue
squarely before members of the general public. We have
disseminated widely the grotesque pictures of beagles and pigs that have been
blowtorched in burn experiments, and the primates whose brains have been
"accelerated" in worthless and costly head injury experiments. We
have educated virtually everyone about how veal calves are taken from their
mothers a day after their births, are confined in 22-inch wide veal
"crates" so that their muscles will remain undeveloped, and are fed a
liquid diet to ensure anemia--all so that consumers may enjoy
"milk-fed" veal. We have exposed the cruelty of rodeos, pigeon shoots
and diving mules. The abuses go on and on, and only the most oblivious or
callous would deny that animals get a pretty raw deal in post-modern
For the most part, however, the response on the left has been either to ignore
the animal rights movement, or to view it with suspicion and, perhaps,
hostility. The animal rights movement is seen as the
quintessential bourgeois movement, comprised of white, middle-class people who
are often apolitical, or, even worse, conservative, and who place animal
interests above human interest, often to the detriment of underprivileged
Such reactions by progressives understandably, but not
unjustifiably, find support in four sources.
* First, progressives are critical of a movement whose historical origins are linked to 19th-century middle- and upper-middle class
notions of "pet" ownership, and in criticism by the bourgeois of
animal exploitation by the working class. The implication is that the
philosophy of animal rights today can be seen as similarly
connected to middle- and upper-middle class property notions and to selective
condemnation of animal exploitation by the working class.
* Second, although most enlightened people support the "humane"
treatment of animals, progressives have failed to realize there can never be
"humane" treatment of animals as long as they are
regarded as private property of some other person. That
is, when it comes to animals, the most vociferous critics of private property
stop being vociferous critics and accept the status of animals as
private property to be used for virtually any purpose in a capitalistic or
* Third, and perhaps most fundamental, is that progressives have never really explicitly rejected the notions of speciesism or species discrimination. They have instead
accepted the propaganda of the biomedical industry and agribusiness, and have
regarded the animal rights movement and the doctrine of speciesism
as equating animal rights with human rights, or seeking greater rights for
animals than are accorded the most deprived or disabled members of society.
These interpretations are incorrect, but, as mentioned above, are those offered
constantly by the big-business users of animals, and echoed in the mainstream
* Fourth, many progressives mistake animal welfare for animal
rights. Animal welfare is a very conservative doctrine and may be (and
often is) espoused by those who have a great stake--usually financial--in
maintaining the status quo.
Conversely, many animal advocates have treated the issue of animal rights as if
it were politically "neutral" and able to be
packaged to appeal to the left, to liberals, and to conservatives. This
approach manifests itself in the all too frequent response by supposed animal
rights advocates, "we don't have a position on that," when asked
about any topic other than animals.
In this article, we want to explore the historical and theoretical bases upon
which the animal rights movement rests. We will conclude that the left has very
much misunderstood the movement, and that far from being alien to leftist
concerns on one hand, or politically "neutral" on the other, the
animal rights movement, properly understood, is very much a movement of the
left--and, indeed, of the working class.
In Marx and Engels on Ecology, Howard Parsons claims
that although social reformers were naturally interested in animal welfare,
concern for animals tended "to arise among the wealthy classes and
high-salaried or professional persons" who had an
"elitist fear of popular or socialist control of resources" and
"a desire to protect [their own] private holdings." According to this
view, the working class is seen as the victim of reform because reformers
unfairly sought to abolish animal abuses by the lower classes, while leaving
intact the blood sports of the rich, such as fox hunting.
The working class is also seen as an obstacle to
reform. Richard French, author of what is regarded as
the definitive history of the anti-vivisection movement in the 19th century,
states that the movement failed because of "the profound indifference of
the working class."
The problem with the view that the animal rights movement finds its roots
exclusively in bourgeois ideology is that it is simply wrong. There was, of course,
a bourgeois presence in the movement, but is role has been
greatly over-emphasized to the detriment of socialist thought on the
doctrinal level, and the important practical participation by women and the
Nineteenth-century concerns for animals was very much expressed by liberals,
such as Bentham and Mill, and socialists, such as
Shaw, Henry Salt, and Edward Carpenter, all of whom opposed animal exploitation
and were active in other social causes. For example, Frances Cobbe, who opposed animal exploitation, was a tireless
opponent of cruelty toward women and children, and opposed pornography.
Charlotte Despard, a vegetarian and
anti-vivisectionist, was secretary of the Women's Social and Political Union,
and went to jail for her activities in support of universal suffrage.
Few are aware that in London
in 1907, trade unionists, mindful of Engels'
admonitions that men's labor would be replaced by the
cheaper labor of women, nevertheless joined forces with feminists and
anti-vivisectionists to oppose vivisection in what has become to be known as
the "Old Brown Dog Riots." The three groups literally battled a group
of doctors and medical students from the University of London.
Two calvary charges of police were required to
disperse the rioters.
In her historical study of the riot, The Old Brown Dog, Coral Lansbury states that both women and workers distrusted the
medical profession and found symbols of their own oppression in the practice of
vivisection. "The vivisected animal stood for the vivisected woman: the
women strapped to the gynecologist's table, the women strapped and bound in the
pornographic literature of the day."
Lansbury discusses in great detail
how women who could not afford medical treatment were forced to get treatment
by volunteering to be mere teaching tools. They were strapped down in an
unnecessary and vulnerable position, and examined by a doctor while dozens of
medical students observed, poked, and prodded, thereby transforming the women
into objects of degradation.
Workers objected to using animals in experiments because it was not difficult
for them "to see those animals as images of themselves." On the grounds that the few must suffer for the many, the
working class and unemployed were used as "experimental subjects"
without consent, and the dead bodies of the poor often ended up in the
anatomist's dissection room.
Even those who worked in slaughterhouses objected to tormenting animals that
were to be killed. Their concern finds its modern
resonance in a speech given in Washington,
D.C. at the March for Animals on
June 10, 1990 by an official from the meat-packers' union. His passionate
speech on behalf of animals illustrated clearly his recognition of the
exploitation of both worker and animal, and the concern that his union has for
these animals. This point is underscored by a recent
tragedy. In March 1992, 25 people--mostly women of color--died when a North Carolina chicken
processing plant burned. The owners of the plant had blocked the fire exits to
ensure that the workers did not try to steal any chickens. The workers and the
animals died because the factory owners saw both as expendable commodities. Is
it any wonder, then, that the working class has been sympathetic to the plight
Karl Marx would probably not have supported the idea of animal rights, although
it must be admitted that many leftists very
conveniently ignore that Marx was also not particularly excited about the idea
of human rights, either. Moreover, although Marx attacked almost every other
institution, there are many indications in his writing that he saw science as
"superior" to those other institutions. Marx thought that the
supposedly "objective" knowledge learned by scientists would result
in powerful technological tools that would aid the working class in achieving
its goal of a communist society.
In any event, whatever Marx's position on rights as a general matter, he
certainly believed that nonhumans differed from humans primarily with respect
to what he called "conscious life activity." According to Marx, a
"species being" such as a human, is conscious in a way that differs
from animals--the former "makes his life activity itself the object of his
will and his consciousness" while the animal "is immediately one with
its life activity."
Marx probably got his idea from Hegel, who believed that animals were not
self-aware. But he also could have gotten it from
others, such as Descartes, according to whose reductionist
scientific method, animals had no consciousness or sentience at all. In any
event, Marx (and Hegel and Descartes) was, of course, wrong. Few will doubt
today that most animals are conscious, sentient, and intelligent. Putting aside
the matter of rights, nonhumans most certainly may be said
to be "alienated" in a capitalist system in very fundamental ways.
As Dutch philosopher Barbara Noske
has remarked, under prevailing forms of capitalist agriculture and biomedical
research that are closely linked with industry and the military, animals are,
in essence, treated as "machines" Because of their confinement, they
may be said to be alienated from many of the actions that their bodies would
perform, alienated from other animals, and alienated from natural surroundings.
Thus, contrary to prevailing opinion, concern for the treatment of animals was
not limited to the elite, and was shared by women, by
the working class, and by left-wing intellectuals. Although there was a
bourgeois element concerned about animal welfare--primarily about dogs and
cats, which were viewed as property by their
owners--this group cannot be said to be the exclusive, or even the primary
influence in the development of the modern animal rights movement.
Animal Welfare and the Property Status of Animals
Many progressives accept the legitimacy of animal welfare, and urge that we
treat animals as "kindly" as possible, but refuse to accept that
animals have any rights. They believe that under certain circumstances, it is
permissible to exploit animals in various ways. The problem is that a framework
of animal welfare--as opposed to animal rights--will never, and can never, succeed in ameliorating or even alleviating
Animals, unlike human beings, are regarded as
completely incapable of having rights. Under the common law system of Commonwealth
countries and the United States,
and under virtually all the civil law systems of Europe,
animals are regarded as property of human owners.
Animals are simply "things."
This is not to deny, of course, that there are many laws that
appear to alter the status of animals as property and that appear to accord
rights to animals, or, at least, require that human beings have duties that run
directly to animals. Nevertheless, such laws reflect the position of
animal welfare--a position that accepts animals are the property of humans and may be exploited "humanely," but only when
For example, there are laws that regulate vivisection, and although these laws
look fine on paper, and appear to provide ample protection to animals, they do
not. The primary source of regulation of experiments involving animals is the
federal Animal Welfare Act. It may safely be said that
the Act provides no effective limitations on what types of experiments or
procedures may be done on animals.
Although the Act stipulates that researchers are
supposed to provide anesthesia and analgesia to animals used in experiments,
such pain relief may be withheld when "scientifically necessary." And the determination of what constitutes scientific
"necessity" rests mainly with the individual vivisector,
subject to approval by an internal committee composed almost exclusively of
other vivisectors. Moreover, the Act makes clear that
the government may not interfere with the conduct or design of experiments.
Legal protection for animals is very much a matter of empty theory. In nearly
all instances, a relatively trivial human interest is
balanced against an animal's most fundamental interest in not
experiencing pain or death, and the human interest nevertheless prevails. Even though
we all reject "unnecessary" cruelty, we still allow bow-hunting,
pigeon shoots, rodeos, and all sorts of activities that are very difficult to
justify on any coherent moral ground. Nevertheless, such practices are tolerated by all of us, and vehemently defended by those who
participate in them.
In most instances, our entire approach to resolving human-animal conflicts
virtually guarantees that animal interests will be regarded
as of lesser import, even when the human interest is trivial relative to the
animal interest. The reason for this is that when we balance human and animal
interests, we generally balance two very different entities. Human interests are often supported by accompanying claims of right, because
the legal system does not view animals as capable of possessing rights. Thus,
to the extent that humans have rights and animals do not, animal interests, will, of necessity, be accorded less weight than the human
rights with which they conflict.
The lopsided results generated by such an approach are
exacerbated when the property rights of humans are involved, because
animals are a form of property. As such, humans are entitled under the law to
convert or sell their animals, consume or kill them, use them as collateral,
obtain the natural dividends of animals, and exclude others from interfering
with an owner's exercise of dominion and control over an animal. A property owner's treatment of an animal may ostensibly be limited
by anti-cruelty laws, but property rights are paramount in determining
the ambit of protection accorded to animals by law.
The property aspect of animals is almost always a
major component in the resolution of human-animal conflicts, because even if
the property aspect is not explicit, in almost all circumstances in which
humans and animal interests conflict, a human is seeking to act upon her or his
property. As far as the law is concerned, it is as if we were resolving a
conflict between a person and a lamp, or some other piece of personal property.
The winner of the dispute is predetermined by the way
in which the debate is conceptualized in the first place.
It is clear why the legal system must regard animals as property: in our
capitalistic society, their exploitation is functionally indispensable.
Virtually every industry from food to defense to cosmetics to clothing to
pharmaceuticals uses animals or animal products. The economic interest in
regarding animals as property is so strong that even when people do not want to
consider animals as mere "property," and instead, view animals as
members of their family (as in the case of dogs, cats, and other companion
animals), the law generally refuses to recognize that relationship. If one
person negligently kills the dog of another, most courts refuse to recognize
the status of the animal as family member and will limit the owner to the same
sort of recovery that would be allowed if the property were inanimate--the fair
market value of the animal.
The status of animals as property is really no
different than the treatment of slaves as property of their master, or a woman
as the property of her husband or father. In all cases in which sentient beings
are reduced to being chattels or property, they will
never win in conflicts between them and their "owners." The deck is
always stacked. For example, a law that prevented masters from killing their
slaves for no reason was often not applied because
courts deemed that any master who would destroy his own property (the slave)
was temporarily insane. The expression "rule of thumb" derives from a
legal principle that prohibited husbands from beating their wives with a stick
or rod that exceeded the width of the husband's thumb. This was
"progressive welfarist" legislation
designed to provide protection to women, who were regarded as
the property of their husbands, but still entitled to moral consideration.
Rights for Animals?
The left has really never faced the question whether
it is morally acceptable to continue our treatment of nonhumans as property for
the purposes of determining legal status. Consequently, most progressives
continue unwittingly to adhere to the theory of animal welfare, and to ignore
the theory of animal rights. In doing so, the left ignores a powerful doctrine
that lies at the foundation of animal rights belief.
That doctrine consists of the rejection of species discrimination or "speciesism." Speciesism is
the belief that the species of a being is morally relevant for determining who
is a member of our moral community, or, assuming that we agree that a being is
a member of that community, the weight that should be
accorded to that being's interest. Humans frequently assume that animals
lack certain characteristics, such as the ability to think and reason, speak,
have complex personal relationships, etc., and that this supposed lack of
"important" characteristics entitles us to exclude animals from our
moral consideration, or to accord less weight to their interests.
Our differential treatment of animals can be explained
by our species bias: even though a human and animal may be similarly situated
with respect to a putative "defect," such as the inability to speak
or reason, we accord greater weight to the human interest than to the animal
interest. This elevation of species to a morally relevant characteristic is no
different from the elevation of race or sex to such a characteristic.
This does not mean that we ignore morally relevant differences between members
of different species and treat all species equally. It does mean that we cannot
use species alone to justify differential treatment, just as we cannot use race
and sex alone to justify differential treatment.
Once we take off the blinders of species bias, is there any reason not to
extend at least some rights to animals? In his book, The Case for Animal
Rights, philosopher Tom Regan makes a compelling case for extending rights to
animals. Regan argues that evolutionary theory, common sense, and ordinary
language all point to the possession of consciousness--indeed, of a complex
mental life--by animals.
Although acknowledging that it is difficult to draw a line, Regan believes that
virtually all mammals (human and nonhuman) share mind states such as
perception, memory, desire, belief, self-consciousness, intention, a sense of
the future, emotion and sentience. Animals with such characteristics are said by Regan to be subjects-of-a-life. They have a
sense of psychological identity in addition to being alive in a biological
Regan then goes on to argue that a subject-of-a-life has inherent value in that
her life is of value to her irrespective of how that life is
valued by others. The most basic moral right is the right to respectful
treatment, and this right precludes treating right-holders as a means to an
end. For example, if someone walked up to you and persuaded you that pain and
death inflicted on you during an experiment would benefit many others, you
would probably not volunteer for the experiment. Your life is of value to you
irrespective of its (high or low) value to others.
Regan maintains that we have a prima facie obligation not to harm beings with
inherent value. Anyone who wishes to override a right must present valid moral
reasons for doing so and may not simply appeal to consequences that would
result were the right to be overridden. Regan distills
clearly the concept of a right as it is used in modern
legal philosophy: a right acts as a barrier between the right-holder and
everyone else, and the barrier cannot be breached solely because the breach
will result in some utility to someone else.
Of course, once we recognize that animals have rights, we must determine what
rights they have. We do not propose to present a catalog of those rights, but
we do wish to maintain that there is one right that must be
given to any right-holder: the right not to be considered as property.
The reason for such a right is clear--that as long as a being is regarded as
property, that being will virtually never prevail in any conflict with a
right-holder seeking to assert her or his "property right" in that
Once an animal is seen to have the right not to be considered as property, then
it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to justify the use of animals in
experiments, for food, or for entertainment purposes. These results flow from
our conception of the scope of human rights: human experimentation without the
informed consent of the subject is prohibited almost everywhere,
and we do not eat, wear, or use people in entertainment without their consent.
Some participants in the debate about animal rights have argued that we cannot
be morally obligated to extend rights to animals because animals cannot have a
moral entitlement to rights. This theory states generally that rights were created by humans and only humans can properly
have any claim to rights.
As a historical matter, rights were originally the creation of
a privileged elite. There were no working-class participants in the
signing of the Magna Carta. Eventually, the concept
of rights was extended to a broader and broader range
of human beings, but there is no sense in which the concept of rights was
originally intended to benefit all humans and humans only. As a logical matter,
we now extend legal rights to humans, such as children and the mentally
incompetent, who could not, in any sense, be said to
be formulators or creators of the concept of rights. Nor can they said to be bound by duties. Of course, there will be hard
questions concerning animal rights; such questions also arise when we consider
Finally, to those who criticize animal rights on the ground that rights are
patriarchal or hierarchical because they are notions derived from male
political philosophy and theory, we reply: physics and
geometry were developed primarily by men, but that does not mean that we should
junk all science and math. Sure, men formulated the notion of rights, but that
is because men have historically been in charge of just about everything.
Rights may be interpreted in a patriarchal manner, but
they may also be interpreted in a feminist manner--there is nothing about a
right that is inherently patriarchal. Even if we changed to a matriarchal (or
Marxist) society immediately, we would still need some mechanism for asserting
and resolving claims that we have. There will never be a society
that will be wholly without conflicts, and there must be some notion of
what counts as a legitimate claim. And that is what
rights talk is all about; the problem now is that rights doctrine is often used
to support patriarchal means--a practice that we deplore.
Animal Liberation is Human Liberation
The rejection of speciesism is powerful because it
assumes a rejection of other forms of prejudice as well. Animal rights
advocates reject animal exploitation because it is morally objectionable. And it is morally objectionable because it is like racism,
sexism, or homophobia, all of which also impermissibly use morally irrelevant
criteria to determine membership in the moral universe
Speciesism permits the exploitation of nonhumans for
economic gain, and must be condemned, just as a lack of economic justice
results in economic exploitation of the working class. Recognition of animal
rights will not injure the underprivileged; on the contrary, it will strengthen
them. Animal agriculture is not only ruining the ecology of the planet, but it
is making it impossible for the earth to feed all of its inhabitants--a goal
that would be easily within reach if we abandoned an animal-based agriculture.
The animal advocate seeks justice for all animals--human and nonhuman alike.
This is not to say that all animal rights advocates are flaming radicals.
Indeed, most of the large (and rich) national groups quite intentionally avoid
speaking about other social issues lest they offend their conservative donors.
A notable exception is Feminists for Animal Rights, the only national rights
group that took a position against the Gulf War and other little imperialist
endeavors, and which argues for radical, sexual, and economic equality across
A frequent concern voiced by animal rights advocates involves abortion. Some
animal advocates think recognition of animal rights means opposition to
abortion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Abortion presents a unique
moral problem that is replicated nowhere else in our
society. Even if the fetus is regarded as a
rights-bearing "person," the reality is that this subservient
right-holder lives inside the body of the primary right-holder--the mother. We can either leave the decision to terminate pregnancy to
the mother, or we can leave the decision to some white male legislator or judge
who cannot get pregnant. In our patriarchal society, those are the only choices
that we have. In our view, our opposition to oppression commits us to support
freedom of choice.
Moreover, the fetus cannot be analogized to a
laboratory animal with the mother as the vivisector.
Both the vivisector and the nonhuman are separate
entities in which the state has an interest to protect. The animal does not
live "inside" the vivisector. The nonhuman
is more like a child living with the vivisector. The
law routinely allows the removal of a child from her home if she is being mistreated, and most of us think that such removal,
if justified, does not unduly invade the privacy of the abusive parent(s).
There is simply no way for the state to regulate abortion without actually
"entering" the woman's body and dictating her use of her reproductive
system. And in a patriarchal society, that invasion
must be deemed oppressive and objectionable.
We will never get the support of our sisters in the women's movement unless we
make our positions plain: we oppose all oppression, and that means that we
support a woman's right to complete equality of treatment and the right to
control her reproductive system.
Progressives often confuse animal welfare with animal rights, and view
"the movement" as a conservative one or one that tries to tread the
line right down the political center. This is an accurate characterization of
animal welfare. Welfarists accept the property
paradigm and maintain that animal exploitation may be justified as long as no "unnecessary" pain is inflicted, or as long as
the nonhuman is treated "humanely." Welfarist attitudes are often
espoused by people or groups that stand to benefit substantially (and
usually financially) from the status quo. There are two reasons why this
characterization is not accurate as far as animal rights is concerned.
First, to accept the doctrine of animal rights is to reject the notion that
some animals might have their interests sacrificed and rights violated today so
that some benefit may be bestowed on other animals
tomorrow. Moreover, we believe there is no empirical evidence to suggest that
the welfarist strategy even works. That is, there is
no reason to believe that animal welfare steps lead to an animal rights end
rather than just to more animal welfare.
Second, an animal rights theory simply makes no sense unless one has already
accepted a human rights theory with widest scope. For example, one cannot sensibly
maintain that humans must not interfere with nonhumans, but that heterosexual
humans can prevent or penalize the sexual expression of lesbians and gays.
Again, acceptance of animal rights does not disadvantage any humans; on the
contrary, the rights of animals serve to bolster, support, and stretch human
rights to their furthest limit.
More and more, individuals are abandoning the bloated national organizations
and establishing small grassroots groups all across America. These groups are
political, and their politics are generally those of the left. They have come
to understand that the movement must return to its radical roots and recruit
the people who must work for a living (the vast majority of citizens) into its
ranks. They have come to understand that a revolution such as the one we
contemplate cannot be imposed from the top down, but
must come from the bottom up.
Rejecting speciesism requires the rejection of the
exploitation of all who are oppressed under capitalism; and those on the left
who reject the oppression of all human animals need to start asking themselves
why they draw the line so as to exclude the other
sentient beings with whom we share the planet. Conversely, those in the animal
rights movement must understand that a coherent animal rights position needs to
provide justice for all beings. Any other position leads to a valid criticism
that our movement is misanthropic.
Despite the supposed growth of worldwide democracy as the result of U.S. military
actions and covert cold-war tactics, the world economy is in grave danger. More
and more economists are starting to recognize that the capitalist system is
crumbling, and that something else must be put in its
place. What that something else looks like will depend on our determination and
our willingness to reach out and embrace all of our sisters and brothers who
seek liberation from oppression.