The Theory and Practice of Contemporary Animal Rights Activism

Joost Leuven

In the last few decades both public and academic interest in the human-animal relationship has grown. Academically this new interest has resulted not only in a large body of literature in the fields of animal ethics and political theory, but also in the birth of the new interdisciplinary field of human-animal studies. Outside of academia the interest in the human-animal relationship and wellbeing of animals has also grown. While this has resulted in growing support for animal welfare and rights organisations, there is much doubt among both activists and philosophers as to how successful the animal rights movement has been. Has the movement actually succeeded in bringing ‘animal liberation’ any closer to fruition?

Of course, whether one views the movement as successful would largely depend on what one sees as the end goal of the animal rights movement, and that is far from clear. There is still much uncertainty and disagreement about what a world ‘post animal liberation’, a world in which all animals have been emancipated, would actually look like. Some philosophers argue in favour of strict veganism, and their vision of an ideal world would have animals and human beings live almost completely separate lives. Our main obligation towards animals, they argue, is to simply leave them alone, and in such a world all animal use would be abolished, with many domesticated animal species slowly going extinct (Dunayer 2004, 117). Others take a different position, arguing that in some cases animal use is not problematic and wouldn’t have to be abolished (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011). Furthermore, some argue that animals deserve to be part of our communities and try to further conceptualise what a ‘post-animal liberation’ society would actually look like, asking questions relating to a range of subjects from animal citizenship to human-animal communication (Meijer 2016).

Still, while there is much disagreement concerning what animal liberation really ought to mean, most authors seem to agree that we aren’t there yet. While there have been some improvements in the way domesticated animals are being treated, there hasn’t been a fundamental shift in how people relate to these animals. While the numbers of vegetarians might slowly be increasing in western countries, worldwide meat consumption still continues to rise (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, 2) and the number of animals whose habitat is being threatened by the continued expansion of human settlements is still growing (Wadiwel 2009, 283-285). These figures contribute to the growing awareness within academic and activist circles that the contemporary animal rights movement might be winning some battles, but overall it seems to be losing the war.

The aim of this article is not to answer the question of why the animal rights movement, since its inception in the 1970s, hasn’t been more successful, nor will it try to define exactly what the end goal of the movement is or ought to be. Instead, it will leave these two questions mostly unanswered and use the debate on the strategy of the animal rights movement as a backdrop for exploring the role of philosophical theory in animal advocacy. Many scholars, in attempting to explain the movement’s lack of success, have turned towards the animal rights activists and animal rights organisations themselves, arguing that they are to blame for the movement’s failure because they adhere to, and promote, flawed ethical theories. While much of the debate about the animal rights movement’s strategy is focussed on discussing the merits and flaws of different ethical theories, relatively little has been written on what the relationship between those theories and the practice of animal advocacy is or ought to be.

In the first half, this article takes a closer look at how philosophers debating the strategy of the animal rights movement view the role of the theory in advocacy and will compare those views with results of different social studies on the role of theory in advocacy. In the second half the article will reflect on the work of Michel Foucault and other authors to take an in-depth look at human domination over animals and at what value theory can have within advocacy aimed at ending that dominance.

Debates on the strategy of the animal rights movement

One of the most prominent authors in the debate on the strategy of the animal rights movement is Gary Francione, a proponent of animal rights theory, who, in A Rain Without Thunder (1996), claimed that the animal rights movement has been a failure due to the ideological and strategic choices made by animal rights organizations and activists. In his book, he showed that many campaigns of animal rights organisations are not focused on promoting animal rights, but are instead primarily aimed at advocating small welfare reforms within animal husbandry (such as larger cages or more humane types of slaughter). Francione argued these campaigns were counter-productive, as they only served to legitimize rather than challenge the property status of animals. They soothe the conscience of consumers by attacking only the most gratuitous acts of violence within animal husbandry, while accepting the use of animals as a given. Furthermore, he argued that what underlies these strategic choices is a fundamental rejection of one philosophical theory in favour of another. According to Francione, activists have explicitly rejected the philosophical doctrine of animal rights in favour of a theory of utilitarian welfarism (Francione 1996, 3). What he sees as the solution to the political ineffectiveness of the animal rights movement are campaigns that more clearly and consistently advocate a theory of animal rights, focussing on promoting veganism as a moral baseline and the complete abolition of animal exploitation. In short, he proposed an ‘abolitionist approach’ to advocacy by fostering animal rights philosophy. Similar views are shared and voiced by many of the prominent proponents of animal rights theory, such as Tom Regan (Francione and Regan 1992), Joan Dunayer (2004) and Gary Steiner (2008).

While the abolitionist rejection of welfare reforms and the claim that these reforms are counterproductive is somewhat controversial, authors who oppose such a position also seem to view this strategic dilemma as fundamentally a question of ideology and philosophical theory. For example, Robert Garner, who disagrees with the animal rights position and is more in favour of a type of welfarism, writes the following in a book which he co-authored with Gary Francione:

“The theoretical debate between the abolitionist approach and protectionist approach – the latter of which Francione calls ‘new welfarism’ – is not merely an academic one. The practical strategy of animal advocates must necessarily be informed by theory, and their political, legal, and social campaigns will be determined by whether they seek ultimately to abolish exploitation or regulate it and whether they believe that regulation will lead to abolition.” (Francione & Garner 2010, xi – xii).

In common with Francione, he argues that the failure of the movement can be attributed to activists from grassroots organisations and larger NGOs, fostering the wrong philosophical theories. In his view though, a choice for rights theory, not welfarism, has been detrimental to the movement’s effectiveness (Francione and Garner 2010). Ingrid Newkirk, whilst debating Francione and Regan, similarly argued that the political problems of the animal rights movement lie with the strict rights philosophy that many activists adhere to, and that such a philosophy would be too absolutist and divisive (Newkirk 1992, 44). The problems, according to her, do not lie primarily with outside forces, but can primarily be traced back to activists adhering to and promoting the wrong philosophical theory. Likewise, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka have argued in their book Zoopolis that the impasse that the animal rights movement finds itself in can at least partly be attributed to the way animal rights theory has been articulated, and they present their own political theory of animal rights in an attempt to help the movement overcome its problems (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011).

Overall it seems that in trying to explain (and solve) the strategic failure of the animal rights movement, many authors in this debate turn to the philosophical theory that activists supposedly adhere to and promote. This raises important questions about the relationship between animal ethical theory and the practice of animal rights activism. Does theory play a large role in animal advocacy? Do activists generally foster one (or maybe several) of the main philosophical theories on animal ethics, such as rights theory or utilitarianism? Do they, in their campaigns, clearly articulate philosophical positions, and how does the choice of philosophical theory influence the practical strategy of animal advocates? Regrettably, relatively little social research has been done on the relationship between theory and practice within the context of animal advocacy. However, the next section will delve into the few studies that have been conducted that do shed some light on the issue.

Social movement culture and activist philosophy

One author, who has written a lot on social movements and activism, including animal rights activism, is sociologist James Jasper. In his book The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements (1997), Jasper argues that most social movement scholars have ignored the aspect of culture as one of the important dimensions of protest. According to him, scholars in the past have too often assumed protesters to be ‘rational actors’, who weigh costs and benefits and logically follow a strict doctrine or theory. Frequently, Jasper argues, there exists within social movements a certain ‘social movement culture’, one that actually opposes making a clear choice between different philosophical theories and which instead favours vagueness and ‘decision making by consensus’. Rather than ‘one position being proven against all others’, activists in social movements would try to incorporate ‘all perspectives into one position, however unwieldy and inelegant.’ If this wasn’t possible, they took no position. This rarely led to clear, concise positions, which would have risked alienating those who disagreed with them (Jasper 1997, 191). This is possibly why activists generally focus on conveying basic emotions such as moral shock and disgust, by showing evocative imagery, rather than attempting to sway the public’s opinion with clearly formulated arguments (Jasper 1997, 176).

One recent study looking at the relationship between theory and practice in animal advocacy was done by Carrie Freeman (Freeman 2014). Her research looked at how animal rights organisations frame their campaigns, and consisted of interviews and an empirical study of flyers and other campaign materials from several animal rights organizations. As in Jasper’s work, the results of her study show how limited the role of philosophical theories, such as rights theory or utilitarian welfarism, actually is in animal advocacy. Her study revealed that many organizations avoid choosing one philosophical doctrine in particular, not wanting to pick sides, as that would risk alienating possible supporters. So, organisations such as PETA or Compassion Over Killing try to stay out of the more ‘academic’ debate. Instead, they choose to focus on influencing individual consumer choices and promote a more vague idea of compassionate consumption. The priority of these organisations, as they describe it, is not to convince people and change beliefs that are harmful towards animals, rather, it is primarily to make people eat less meat and change the behaviour that is harmful towards animals (Freeman 2014, 193-194). That convincing people of the necessity of the emancipation of animals is no longer the main objective of these organisations also explains why in some instances campaigns by animal rights organisations do not address animal interests at all, but instead argue against meat production or consumption as being harmful to human health or the environment (Freeman 2014, 126).

Sociologist Corey Lee Wrenn (2013) further analyses the focus of animal rights campaigns and compares the tactics of the contemporary animal rights movement with the tactics of the anti-slavery movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She argues that both movements have a lot in common, as they show a large variety of similar tactics, ranging from violent direct action to legislative efforts. One of the tactics she discusses in more detail is consumer-based resistance. One way activists tried to protest against slavery in those days was through boycotts of slave-produced products, such as rum or sugar. These campaigns, Wrenn explains, were one of the first to frame issues of social justice in terms of consumer responsibility, and the activists hoped that through such economic pressures they would be able to help bring about the abolition of slavery sooner. It is not surprising that the animal rights movement has adopted similar tactics. However, Wrenn argues that in the case of the animal rights movement, the focus on consumer responsibility and a compassionate lifestyle should not be seen as merely a chosen tactic, but as something deeply ingrained within the philosophy of the activists, as such consumer-based resistance has become, as she described it, ‘the linchpin’ of their advocacy (Wrenn 2013, 191).

Philosopher Elisa Aaltola further explores the relationship between theory and practice within the animal rights movement in her article The Philosophy behind the Movement: Animal Studies versus Animal Rights (2011), and she arrives at similar conclusions to Freeman. She argues that many animal rights activists shun overly theory-based approaches and reject strict adherence to one philosophical doctrine, be it rights theory, utilitarian welfarism or some other theory. The focus of activists, Aaltola argues, does not lie on winning philosophical arguments, but instead on conveying certain basic emotions and experiences of shock and disgust, similar to those that initially motivated the animal rights activists themselves. To support the claims made in her article Aaltola conducted a small research survey among British animal rights activists, many of whom expressed such sentiments and were weary of theory. Discussing their responses, Aaltola writes the following:

“It seems that many within the grassroots movement are critical of theory. In the responses, few referred to philosophical works as their main inspiration. A common animal rights metaphor talks of a burning building full of animals, which is witnessed by an activist and a theorist. The theorist discussed the moral status of animals and embarks on metaphysical pondering, while the activist runs in and saved the animals. This sentiment is epitomized in the rather popular slogan: ‘You are a terrorist? Thank God. I though you said you were a theorist!’ Thus, there is a sense of elemental practicality to grassroots activism, which adds to the uniqueness of its philosophical ramifications.” (Aaltola 2011, 404).

Activists, according to Aaltola, are not cold rational and calculative agents, who focus on winning a philosophical debate through rational argument, but instead are more often interested in conveying basic emotions, and she describes this as a distinct ‘activist philosophy’.

Looking at these different social studies, the overall impression one gets is that in contemporary animal advocacy the role of the main philosophical theories of animal ethics (such as rights theory and utilitarian welfarism) is quite small. There is sometimes a culture within social movements, and which also seems to be the case in the animal rights movement, of activists actively avoiding philosophical theorizing and of taking clear positions in philosophical matters. It’s not hard to understand that activists are sceptical about the value of philosophical theory though, when the objective of many organisations does not seem to be to convince people of the necessity of animal liberation (whatever that means exactly). Instead their main aim is often simply to convert as many people as possible to vegetarianism, for which challenging and changing fundamental beliefs about the human-animal relationship is often not a requirement. Because of this, activists choose to partake in campaigns that do not clearly express controversial philosophical positions about the human-animal relationship, preferring instead to opt for campaigns that advocate more basic messages of compassion, conveying emotions of moral shock, or messages that focus on non-animal related issues, such as human health or the environment.

Given these findings, another important question is bound to arise: is it advantageous or disadvantageous to the movement for activists to avoid fostering clear philosophical theories and to show little interest in changing the way people think about animals? Is it necessary for activists to clearly articulate philosophical positions on some issues or is it enough to just cause moral shock, for example by showing the public gruesome images of the treatment of animals, or to convince people to become vegetarian for environmental or health reasons?

Animals and disciplinary power

While the French philosopher Michel Foucault did not write extensively about animals or animality as such, and did not write about animal advocacy at all, his work on disciplinary and regulatory power practices, and the ways power relationships are maintained or disrupted, can be of great use in answering some of these questions, especially since Foucault also wrote about what role theory ought to play in social activism. Numerous authors have in recent years indeed started using his theories on power to describe and analyse the human-animal relationship (Taylor 2013, 539). Some notable examples are Dinesh Wadiwel (2009), Timothy Pachirat (2011) and Clare Palmer (2001). The following paragraphs will use the work of some of these authors and of Foucault himself to take a closer look at the way humans dominate over animals, identify the human-animal symbolic boundary as the root cause of animal exploitation, and argue that theory can play an important role in dismantling that symbolic boundary.

Foucault famously argued that since antiquity, power had always been defined as the sovereign’s right of the sword: the power to take life or let live. In modern times, Foucault claimed, power has taken on the form of two distinctive types of power, namely disciplinary power and regulatory power (Foucault 1990, 135-136). The sovereign’s right of the sword was replaced by the power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death, through the careful ‘administration of bodies and the calculated management of life’ (Foucault 1990, 140). These different power practices are applied to human bodies in institutions such as prisons, schools, hospitals and factories. But can one insert nonhuman animals in Foucault’s model of power relations? Although it has been argued, quite successfully, that animals should be considered to be ‘persons’ in a moral sense (Francione 2008, 61), this doesn’t automatically make it appropriate to treat them as ‘persons’ within the context of Foucault’s model of power relations.

Both Thierman (2010) and Palmer (2001) spend some time discussing this issue. Thierman argues that we can think of other animals as ‘subjects’ whose existence is shaped and constituted by power, not unlike how human beings are affected by power:

“Neither human beings, nor other animals, are Hobbesian fungi; that is, neither we, nor they ‘suddenly (like mushroom) come to full maturity.’ We, and they, are gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted in different contexts by a variety of different forces. Animals in the wild will be very different from their laboratory (or zoo) raised counterparts. A dog confined to a cage at a shelter is a very different creature as compared to a well-loved family companion. In this sense, other animals are subjects that are shaped by a variety of forces, and who respond to that shaping in many different, and idiosyncratic, ways. They are not inert objects without the ability to react or respond.” (Thierman 2010, 97-98).

Palmer further notes that Foucault himself emphasized the irrelevance of consciousness and why this means one can most likely extend Foucauldian power relations to include other animals:

“The principle reason why this extension of Foucault’s analysis of power to animals is relatively unproblematic is because of his insistence that, while the actions of the party exercising power must be in some sense internalized by the other, and result in altered behaviour, this process need not be conscious. […] What is crucial is not consciousness, but that the effects of power are unpredictable because those over whom power is exercised must be free.” (Palmer 2001, 348-449).

It is because animals are ‘free’, in the sense that they respond in a variety of different and idiosyncratic ways to the powers being exercised upon them, in ways that micro-organisms, plants or inanimate objects can’t, that makes it appropriate to think of them as being in a relation of power to human beings. Of course, not all animals can be viewed this way, as Palmer (2001) also notes, since animals such as sponges might not be capable of internalizing disciplinary power and might not be considered ‘free’ in this sense, but these form an exception. Most animal are ‘free’: we use words like ‘training’ and ‘obedience’ when discussing companion animals like dogs or cats, for example, precisely because they internalize the powers that are exercised upon them and, as they are free, their response to disciplinary power is unpredictable (Palmer 2001, Thierman 2010).

Looking at the human-animal relationship from a Foucauldian framework of power relationships reveals the large number of ways in which animals are subjected to disciplinary and regulatory power practices by human beings. Wild animal populations are regulated through the use of fences and ‘wildlife management’. The breeding and killing of farm animals is carefully rationalized. and for generations they have been subjected to selective breeding for shaping their bodies in such a way so as to optimize them for human use. Furthermore, as Clare Palmer explained in her analysis of the life of Yuri the cat, companion animals too are subjected to a plethora of human power practices, both aimed at controlling their bodies as well as their basic life functions: they are trained to sit, stay, lie down or move. They are taught to use the litter box and can only eat when we give them food. They can only go outside when we allow them to. We also control whether they can reproduce (Palmer 2001, 356-358).

When one looks at the biopolitics of the human-animal relationship, the different power practices and the scale and intensity at which these practices are taking place, it might seem that the human-animal relationship is in a situation of almost total domination of humans over animals. However, it should be noted that these relationships are not always solely one-sided. There are ways in which animals co-shape the human-animal relationship in meaningful ways. For example, Eva Meijer (2014) describes how the leash is not simply a repressive institution that disciplines and aims to internalize human power over companion animals, but can also function as a platform that enables a dialogue, in her case between herself and her companion animal Olli. In our relationships with animals, animals often show agency and, in minor or major ways, can influence power hierarchies and renegotiate the terms of their relationship with us (Irvine 2004). Often, it is the animal’s choice to relate to human beings in a certain way. Furthermore, there are many instances in which they can resist human power practices if they so desire. Resistance is found, for example, in wild deer that jump over fences, leaving the small patches of wilderness behind that humans allotted to them, or in a household cat which refuses to be disciplined and use the litter box. Other examples of resistance can be seen when a cow refuses to follow the herd when entering a slaughterhouse, or even in the case of a laboratory animal, when it turns away its head in distress. While these instances of resistance exist, it is clear that in many situations the human-animal relationship is very much unbalanced and animals are subjected to repressive power practices which they cannot meaningfully resist. Many of these repressive power practices are those that the animal rights movement would want to reform or end completely. Therefore, it is important to understand what upholds them and what made them possible in the first place.

The human-animal boundary as the root cause of repression

Foucault believed that the ‘power over life’ that the state exercised over its citizens was made possible by developments in the social sciences and by the birth of a racist state. The social sciences had a large role in the spread of disciplinary power, as the rise of new technological developments in sciences such as medicine, psychiatry and sociology, centred on the human body and how to discipline it. Disciplining and punishing the ‘deviant’ only became possible once these sciences had both developed new technologies for controlling the body and had identified deviants by creating labels and distinguishing between different categories such as ‘normal’, ‘insane’, ‘criminal’ or ‘mentally ill’ (Foucault 2003, 255). Once these distinctions were made, racism justified the destruction of the ‘inferior’ races (the ‘ill’, the ‘abnormal’ etc.) by the state, as their destruction would purify the species and make life and the population as a whole healthier and more prosperous. This ‘destruction’ of the inferior races by the state needn’t be blatant or direct. It didn’t have to take the form of murder or genocide, but could be enacted, for example, through a biased welfare policy (Foucault 2003, 256).

The historical processes of intensification and rationalisation that took control of the lives of humans at the same time took control of the lives of animals, and the underlying processes that enabled these mutual developments, in the sciences and racism, are also similar. Throughout history, through scientific advancement, humans have developed new and more efficient technologies for using animal bodies and their products to satisfy human desires (Swabe 1997, 169). Many of these practices rest on the establishment and continued existence of a clear boundary between humans and animals. This symbolic boundary plays a major role in human lives, both socially and philosophically, as people often define who they are by contrasting themselves with other animals, thereby denying nonhuman animals certain properties that they view as essential. For example, Aristotle argued that although human beings were also animals, they were fundamentally unlike the animals because of their ability to reason. He argued that because animals lack certain abilities, they exist to be used for human purposes (Aristotle 2012; Cliteur 2010, 31). Later philosophical schools also established a clear distinction between humans and animals by attributing to animals a lack of certain positive or essential characteristics such as ‘reason’, ‘consciousness’, ‘sentience’, ‘intelligence’, ‘compassion’ or ‘refinement’ (Franklin 1999, 9). The establishment of a clear boundary between humans and nonhumans, a biological break with the larger population should, from a Foucauldian perspective, be seen as a form of racism, as it divides the unified biological domain of life into different categories and allows for the establishment of a hierarchy between the established groups and species. It is this hierarchy between species, this ‘symbolic boundary’, that is used as a basis for the different power practices that attempt to discipline and regulate animals, and it is this same hierarchy which the animal rights movement needs to deconstruct if it wants to change the moral status of animals.

Both Stephen Thierman (2010) and Timothy Pachirat (2011) analyse the power practices and politics involved with upholding this human-animal symbolic boundary, through case studies of modern-day slaughterhouses. Their work gives insight into how this hierarchy between humans and animals is being upheld. In Apparatuses of Animality: Foucault Goes to a Slaughterhouse Thierman uses Foucault’s concepts of disciplinary and regulatory power to argue that in modern-day slaughterhouses systems of surveillance are used to prevent authentic interaction between human and nonhuman individuals, as well as to transform their bodies into docile bodies (and in the case of animals, Thierman notes, further transform docile bodies into dead bodies) (Thierman 2010, 103). The architectural design of the slaughterhouse enforces these hierarchies, as spatial separation limits the possible ways of interaction between different groups. Furthermore, a Panopticon-like situation is created by positioning the managers’ offices on scaffolding above the factory floor, looking out over what all the workers are doing below.

In Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, political philosopher Timothy Pachirat further develops such a Foucauldian perspective as he discusses his experiences of five months’ undercover work in a slaughterhouse, which mimic many of the things Thierman described. Pachirat argues that the slaughterhouse is a place of ‘politics of sight’, in which power relations are enforced through making certain things hidden and invisible, while at the same time making other things transparent and visible. Repugnant activities, such as the killing of animals, are masked and hidden to make them more tolerable. In the slaughterhouse, there is a fixed division of labour between the workers. Only a few have actual contact with living animals and even fewer are assigned the job of killing them. Pachirat describes the uneasiness and traumatic experiences of those few workers whose job it is to kill the animals, many of them requiring psychological counselling. At the same time this status quo is upheld through strict surveillance, in which all the workers participated, which Pachirat linked to what Foucault calls an ‘apparatus of total and circulating mistrust’.

This politics of sight is not limited to slaughterhouses though, as it is a characteristic of many of the relationships we have with other animals. Pachirat ends his book on a positive note, saying that this politics of sight might also be used against these systems of exploitation: through breaching ‘the zones of confinement and rendering the repugnant visible again’ social movements might be able to effectively work towards social transformation (Pachirat 2011, 145). The only thing that would be necessary to change the way we treat animals, he argues, might be to ‘turn the walls of slaughterhouses into glass’, breaking through the zone of concealment. Returning to our original question on the ideal relationship between theory and practice in animal advocacy, one might argue, based on these arguments, that what Pachirat describes is exactly what animal rights activists are doing now, when they choose to focus not on conveying difficult philosophical arguments, but instead on spreading horrific images. If Pachirat is right in this regard, activists would rightfully be weary of overly theory-based approaches, because merely showing people what was previously hidden will be enough to shock them out of their apathy, motivate them and disrupt the current power relationship between humans and animals.

The necessity of theory in dismantling the human-animal boundary

However, it seems unlikely that it is that straightforward. Simply ‘showing’ people the truth would not be enough, as many people already know deep down what is going on in slaughterhouses and actively collude, for example through the use of deceptive euphemisms, in this politics of sight. The practices of factory-farming and animal-testing are well known and are not well-guarded secrets. It is not uncommon for people to experience mental discomfort, also known as cognitive dissonance, when confronted with their contradictory views towards animal suffering and their own consumption practices (Joy 2010). To deal with the uncomfortable tensions caused by this cognitive dissonance, people have adopted different coping strategies, ranging from attempts to trivialize the issue to shifting the responsibility to others (Nijland 2016, 288-289).

The only way to make social transformation possible, according to Foucault, is through the clear articulation of critical ideas. Foucault believed that theory plays an essential role in changing beliefs and making social transformation possible. In So is it important to think? (2000) he discusses the importance of critique for any kind of social transformation to happen, and he defends the work of intellectuals in this regard. According to him ‘ideal’ criticism is too often put in opposition to ‘real’ transformation, with the argument that the efforts of intellectuals don’t lead to anything substantial. This is a similar type of sentiment as Aaltola (2011, 404) mentioned in the paragraph that was cited above, where the activist and theorist stand in front of a burning building. Foucault argued that such a perspective on the work of intellectuals is simply mistaken, as social reforms do not come about in a vacuum. It is precisely because of theoretical work that certain problems can now be aired effectively that couldn’t be raised before. It would have been impossible, Foucault explains, to successfully challenge social practices regarding imprisonment, mental illnesses or the hierarchy of the sexes, to name a few examples, without the theoretical work that was done in those areas. In the case of the animal rights movement this might be even more obvious, since philosophical work on animals played an important role in the 1970s in bringing about the contemporary animal rights movement, which proves that philosophical theories can initiate trends rather than simply follow them (Jasper & Nelkin 1992).

However, Foucault didn’t just argue that philosophical theorizing plays an important role in instigating social change. He also argued that articulating theory is an important aspect of advocacy itself, one that is generally undervalued. One reason philosophical theorizing is undervalued by activists is that ‘thought’ is, as Foucault argues, often regarded as something that is irrelevant or even non-existing. He believes this to be wrong, as thought is everywhere, and carefully articulated critique is necessary for revealing those thoughts:

“We need to free ourselves of the sacralization of the social as the only instance of the real and stop regarding the essential element in human life and human relations – I mean thought – as so much wind. Thought does exist, both beyond and before systems and edifices of discourse. It is something that is often hidden but always drives everyday behaviours. There is always a little thought occurring even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits. Criticism consists in uncovering that thought and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as people believe, making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy.” (Foucault 2000, 456).

As it is thought that drives the behaviour that activists try to change, advocacy should be aimed at changing those thoughts. It is through the articulation of critique that one can show alternative ways of thinking and make previous and effortless ways of thinking more difficult, if not impossible.

In that sense, theory shouldn’t be seen as something separate from the practice of political advocacy at all, but as being at the heart of activist practice. The formation of a counter-discourse should be seen as an important and indispensable part of any kind of social transformation:

“For a transformation that would remain within the same mode of thought, a transformation that would only be a certain way of better adjusting the same thought to the reality of things, would only be a superficial transformation.” (Foucault 2000, 457).

Within the context of the animal rights movement, this means that campaigns which fail to criticize the underlying issue of the human-animal boundary and an anthropocentric worldview (be it from a utilitarian, rights or other philosophical perspective), could be considered strategic failures. Even if they succeed in making more people convert to a vegetarian diet (for example by appealing to health or environmental reasons), they don’t actually succeed in making people ‘have trouble thinking the way they have always thought’ about human superiority over animals.

Both James Jasper (1997) and Carrie Freeman (2014) refer in their work briefly to Foucault’s arguments. Jasper believes that protest movements benefit both individuals and society as a whole, precisely because of their ability to articulate critique and put forward alternative visions:

“For many, the creativity of protest provides the experience of sheer joy, the play of a utopian vision. Protest has potential value for modern society beyond the satisfaction of protestors themselves. Results include practical information about current problems and techniques for doing things better. At a deeper level, protest can inspire us all, even nonparticipants, to probe our intuitions and question our actions. This in turn is a key component of democracy, which depends on a conversation between competing moral positions but also on the fullest elaboration of each of them.” (Jasper 1997, 367).

Activists are, in Jasper’s opinion, together with artists and intellectuals, key articulators of alternative worldviews and contribute to a conversation between alternative moral positions that is necessary for a democratic society to flourish. Activists create controversy, which is of great value as it ‘leads to the weighing and testing of perspectives and values’ (Jasper 1997, 368). It is therefore important that protesters try to foster understanding, embrace the discursive moment of protest and try to actually persuade people, instead of simply tricking or manipulating or nudging them into doing what the protesters want them to do (for example, switching to a vegetarian diet). It also means that protesters should be open to participate in actual debates and not be afraid to have to admit they do not have all the (philosophical) answers yet either. There are indeed still shortcomings to any of the major philosophical doctrines. The beauty of protest, as Jasper says, is to play with different utopian visions, and it is through such conversation that visions change, crystallise and, hopefully, improve. An instrumentalist and absolutist attitude, in which protesters do not take this democratic task seriously and only care about the end result, at the expense of the process, is what threatens the heart of moral protest and its virtues (Jasper 1997, 369).

It is such an instrumentalist attitude, as Jasper describes it, that we have observed in the above-discussed studies on contemporary animal advocacy: the tendency of activists to avoid expressing controversial messages regarding the human-animal dualism, the tendency to avoid taking positions in the philosophical debate entirely and avoid using terms such as ‘rights’ or even ‘welfare’ and, finally, the tendency to use anthropocentric consumerist arguments to ‘trick’ people into becoming vegetarian, as that is easier to do than to actually convince them of the immorality of the human-animal symbolic boundary.

Referring to the arguments made by Foucault, Freeman (2010, 2014) criticizes the lack of ‘ideological authenticity’ in most animal advocacy campaigns, arguing that social movements should strive towards more transparency about their own philosophy and utopian worldviews. It is through participation in a conversation, articulating their non-conformist ideas in social discourse, that social movements challenge the way people think. Freeman argues that it is necessary for activists to adopt messages and frameworks that are more informed and supportive of philosophical theory, ‘so that they are logically aligned to pose a needed philosophical challenge to the root cause of exploitation, the human/animal dualism’. They shouldn’t shy away from framing the issue as being a moral issue about social justice (Freeman 2014, 264).

The future of the movement and the future of the debate

This article explored the role of philosophical theory in animal advocacy. Referring to the results of different social studies, it was argued that, while much of the debate on the strategy of the animal rights movement focuses on arguing about the merits and flaws of different philosophical theories of animal ethics, activists generally not only pay too little attention to these theories, they actively avoid taking clear philosophical positions out of fear of causing controversy and alienating potential allies. These findings suggest that the focus of this philosophical debate on the strategy of the animal rights movement should change, from trying to explain and solve the failures of the movement by identifying flaws in different philosophical doctrines, to critically reflecting upon both the attitudes of activists towards theory and upon the question of whether the main objective of animal advocacy should be to change fundamental beliefs about the human-animal relationship or to change consumption behaviour.

This article also attempted to find an answer to that last question, by reflecting on the writings of authors such as Pachirat, Foucault, Jasper and Freeman. Based on the discussion of their work, one might argue that the objective of animal rights campaigns shouldn’t be to simply change people’s behaviour, but to change people’s thinking. Doing so requires activists to take philosophical theory seriously. As Freeman (2014, 264) also importantly notes, taking philosophical theory more seriously certainly doesn’t mean that activists should try to use academic terminology and references in their protests. It does however most likely mean that through their messages they should always aim to clearly and unequivocally challenge the current thinking about the human-animal relationship. This however also means that advocates can’t continue to shy away from participating and taking positions in important conversations about what a future animal utopia might look like, or the need to move towards such a utopia, out of fear of causing controversy or seeming divided. Instead, activists should embrace those moments where different moral visions can compete, as an important aspect of their advocacy.


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Joost Leuven

Joost Leuven (1990) studied philosophy and cultural sociology at the University of Amsterdam. His main interests are animal ethics, political theory and social movement studies.