Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, discusses the controversial subject of whether single-issue campaigning in animal protection is compatible with veganism.
I am an abolitionist ethical vegan who has worked in animal protection for over 25 years.
If you check my LinkedIn account, you will see how often I was employed by organizations that mainly deal with a single animal topic. And within these, I worked in single-issue campaigns. During most of these jobs, I was already vegan. Did I do anything wrong? By working on particular animal protection issues, did I somehow betray my veganism? Some may think I did.
Prof Gary L Francione is a very influential scholar of the animal rights movement. He is the author of, among many books, the 2015 bestseller “Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach”, which promotes a school of thought in animal rights known as abolitionist theory. After obtaining several degrees in philosophy from the universities of Rochester and Virginia, he initially worked in the judicial system practicing law in New York. In 1985 he began teaching animal rights theory at the University of Pennsylvania as part of his course in jurisprudence. He is now a Professor of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Prof Francione is, therefore, an experienced philosopher and lawyer with great credentials, perfectly suited to comment about animal rights with authority. Ah, and he has been an ethical vegan since 1982.
As the abolitionist I am, I very much respect Prof Francione, and I agree with most of his opinions, but there is one point I disagree with. In his famous book, he sets up the six principles of the abolitionist approach in animal rights:
- All sentient beings, humans or nonhumans, have one right: the basic right not to be treated as the property of others.
- We must abolish, and not merely regulate, institutionalised animal exploitation, and not support welfare reform campaigns or single-issue campaigns.
- Veganism is a moral baseline and creative, nonviolent vegan education must be the cornerstone of rational animal rights advocacy.
- The Abolitionist Approach links the moral status of nonhumans with sentience alone and not with any other cognitive characteristic; all sentient beings are equal for the purpose of not being used exclusively as a resource.
- We must reject all forms of human discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and classism — just as we reject speciesism.
- We must recognise the principle of nonviolence as a core principle of the animal rights movement.
These are great principles, and I only disagree with the last three words of principle number 2. In this article, I will put forward some of my arguments for this disagreement.
The Abolitionists’ Objection
To understand why those like Prof Francione object to single-issue campaigning, we need to be sure we are on the same page when we use the term “single-issue”. Broadly speaking, it means a campaign that focuses on a single topic or species as opposed to all. For instance, in the case of animal protection, anti-fur, anti-bullfighting, anti-hunting, anti-captivity, anti-whaling or anti-vivisection campaigns are classic examples. It seems that Prof Francione is broadly against campaigning for these issues saying that the only acceptable campaigning is comprehensive abolitionist vegan advocacy. In 2011 he wrote the following:
“The bottom line is clear: unless and until we get people to question and reject their daily and wholly unnecessary consumption of animals, we will have no success in getting them to oppose in any serious ways animal uses that they regard as necessary or non-trivial, such as vivisection, or other unnecessary uses that they quite correctly view as arbitrarily chosen by animal advocates and no worse than the uses that they themselves support and engage in every day of their lives.”
But aren’t all campaigns, by definition, single-issue? They all have specific goals about one particular aspect of one particular situation. That’s the idea of a campaign. It starts with something specific to change, a strategy to change it, a goal to achieve, a series of tactics to run involving the public, and an end of the campaign if the goal has been achieved or is no longer attainable. Is there really any multi-issue campaign that covers all issues? Even a political campaign that aims to address many governing matters is boiled down to a single goal: one candidate or one party must win the election. And campaigning is what all animal advocacy organizations do.
Additionally, is not advocating for veganism also single-issue campaigning? Is not campaigning only for non-human animals also single-issue campaigning. Why is this a problem with singularity? Doesn’t singularity sharpen focus, increase clarity, and allow better assessment of impact?
And not all the so-called single-issue organizations work on a single-issue either. They may cover several. For instance, CAS International is a Dutch anti-bullfighting organization I work with which now also deals with the killing of greyhounds and lurchers by hunters. Or the Born Free Foundation, an anti-captivity organization I also worked with that used to be called Zoo Check, has been campaigning on wildlife conservation as well for many years now.
To be fair to him, I don’t think Prof. Francione actually disagrees on focusing on an issue during a campaign, or he is against organizations that mostly work on the issue they are most expert about. He does not support campaigning on single “narrow” animal issues without accepting veganism as the moral baseline, and without including vegan advocacy as part of the campaign or organization work. In other words, piecemeal animal protection vs. vegan education. Those who agree with him on this may feel that it is incoherent to spend time and resources on single problems of some animals without addressing the fundamental problem of animal rights and animals as property first — or applying the advocacy for veganism as a solution. They believe the piecemeal approach of single-issue campaigning is inconsistent and futile because its goals would never be achieved.
For me, whether an individual campaign deals with one, two, three or more issues should be irrelevant. But if all these campaigns together ignore the veganism solution, then I agree this is unsatisfactory.
The Failures of Single-Issue Campaigning
I get why single-issue campaigning can be problematic. I accept that many organizations with a focus on a single issue (or just a few issues) may be very inefficient and ineffectual at challenging speciesism. They may spend many resources and achieve very little. But this is because of faulty strategies and tactics, and especially because of human error caused by the wrong people running them.
More commonly in countries with a long history of animal protection, there has been a tendency to begin hiring people with the right skills but the wrong values, and if these end up being in charge of hiring others, these organizations can get corrupted very quickly, and become simply money-making machines. Some animal charities can indeed attract the wrong staff. Not only non-vegans who may not quite understand what the fundamental problems are but also avid carnists who can infiltrate these organizations attempting to move them away from their core values and purpose, dangling them dangerously close to the edge of the unethical precipice of profit-making scams. But this may be temporary as it is solvable with the right governance and “checks and balances” safeguards — or by ethically-minded staff internally fighting against wrongdoing, goal deviation, and conceptual dilution.
Even if I personally had bad experiences working with some single-issue campaigning organizations in the past (I was fired by one of them for being a vegan), I blame management and people, not the organizations as such — or their goals. But I also remember that when I was working on some single-issue organizations, I was not vegan yet, so employing non-vegan staff does not necessarily mean the wrong people will take over. They indeed can change too, as I did. They may just be the right people who have not yet matured enough — ethically speaking. The problem is not the theoretical concept of single-issue campaigning, or the issues themselves. It’s the people.
You cannot blame the animal protection movement for the failures of some organizations (or people) without blaming the veganism movement for similar failures. If it is morally and strategically sound to advocate for veganism even if the movement leading it is flawed and does more things wrong than right, it must be equally right advocating for animal protection with the same shortcomings. And advocating for single issues in animal protection with the same human errors and weaknesses also must be. We either have faith in public advocacy to transform the world, or we don’t. And if we do, we should judge any advocacy fairly, and not compare historical practical failures of some with future theoretical successes of others.
Abolitionist Single-Issue Campaigning
It is perfectly possible to work on both single animal issues and veganism at the same time. I know single-issue animal protection organizations run by vegans (with all vegan staff), and which have as a value that veganism is the moral baseline. You could work on animal liberation liberating one animal at a time, without breaking any veganism principle. And if you are an abolitionist like me, you could work on abolishing animal exploitation by abolishing one type of exploitation (or by liberating a group of exploited victims) at a time.
This is what I have been trying to do. Through my anti-captivity work, I permanently closed five zoos. By doing that, I abolished the exploitation they perpetrated, and no animals have been born in them since as they no longer exist. Through my anti-hunting work, I helped to abolish the hunting of foxes and hares with dogs in several parts of the UK. Organized public hare coursing events do no longer take place in this country thanks to the bans and prosecutions the single-issue organizations I was working with achieved. And although hunters managed to circumvent the laws created to abolish hunting, my latest analysis suggests that the imperfect Hunting Act 2004 had helped over 100,000 wild animals — even when poorly enforced. Through my anti-bullfighting work, I helped to ban bullfighting in several towns, cities, and regions, completely abolishing such practices there. I know, all this does not mean the abolition of captivity, hunting or animal fights, or the abolition of animal exploitation, but there are steps towards it. Not smaller steps than the advances of vegan advocacy have made so far. Not smaller than my success in making ethical veganism a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.
And there are ways to tell if the campaign you are involved with is truly abolitionist. In 1996, Prof Francione defined some criteria for an acceptable incremental approach to achieving abolition: 1) must constitute a prohibition; 2) must eliminate an exploitative institution; 3) must recognize and respect a noninstitutional nonhuman animal interest; 4) must not be tradable, and 5) must not substitute one form of exploitation for another.
If helping one person to become vegan at a time is an enterprise worth doing, helping abolish one event of animal exploitation at the time, one type of animal exploitation at the time, or the exploitation of animals in a particular location at the time, must also be.
Single issues all added together may eventually equate to global issues. The piecemeal approach could work if all the pieces of the cake are coherently dealt with, as all animals deserve moral consideration. In a movement mainly based on grassroots activism of individuals doing their best with limited resources, their collective single work, supported by effective single-issue organizations (with their investigations, research, campaign materials, and lobbying), should add up to something bigger and holistically worthwhile. If it does not, this may be because there are not enough single-issue campaigns as some issues and species have become too popular, and others have historically been neglected. But this could be solved by increasing the number and type of single-issue campaigns, not by eliminating them, and by avoiding any filtering because of false hierarchies (fluffy dogs and “clever” apes should not take priority).
Some Issues are Strategically Key
Single-issue animal protection without a veganism baseline may be a problem. Reformist animal welfare single-issue campaigning not designed to lead to abolition would definitively be a problem. But abolitionist single-issue campaigns in the context of a veganism moral baseline should not.
Even more, they can be the right strategic solution for the bigger picture. Some issues are key in the theory of change process leading to a vegan world — and this may explain why they are more common within the animal protection movement. I would argue that bullfighting and foxhunting are two clear examples of this. In many Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon nations, they are boulders in our way that slow down the vegan revolution. Tackling them in an abolitionist way not only would remove them but can help us to recruit new vegan advocates and new animal rights activists.
I know by experience that the anti-bullfighting community in any of the nine bullfighting countries where this horrible spectacle is still allowed is bigger than the animal rights or vegan communities there. And the same can be said in the UK regarding the anti-hunting community. These single issues in these countries are gateways towards animal rights, so campaigning on them leads to more people eventually becoming vegan than just campaigning for more vegan options in menus or for the recognition of personhood for non-human animals. I know many vegan advocates in the UK who started their ethical journey being anti-hunting activists. They first joined the Hunt Saboteurs Association, and seeing how most hunt sabs were vegan, they became vegan themselves.
I have visited twice all the countries in America that allow bullfighting, and I met the local anti-bullfighting movement there. Some of their leaders were not vegan when I met them, but they are now. One of them is Terry Hurtado from Colombia, who has become now the first vegan Council member of the city of Cali (and he is pushing the anti-speciesism agenda).
Each country or region may have a single animal protection issue that has transcended all the others and has become almost a symbol of the animal rights struggle. Issues that, because any other socio-political intersections they have (such as class war, colonialism, racism, etc.), attract wider interest and are easier to be addressed. These are strategic milestones that can be used as slingshots that will propel society faster towards the vegan world. As the Voyager probes’ flybys of Jupiter and Saturn propelled them beyond our solar system via gravitational slingshots without the need for extra fuel, key animal issues can do the same for animal rights and veganism.
And there are also logistical reasons to support some single-issue campaigns. Learning to pick up lower fruit is part of learning to pick up fruit, so later you can pick the higher ones. Entering animal rights activism via single issues avoids early burnouts and facilitates the learning of campaigning techniques. As such campaigns often achieve more tangible successes at shorter terms, they also work as positive feedbacks that consolidate activists into the movement. And as they are often simpler, single-issue campaigners become more knowledgeable and proficient sooner, increasing their confidence. They could become training grounds, if you will, for a wider vegan advocacy remit, helping to build the vegan revolution by creating efficient vegan revolutionaries.
The Reducetarians’ Objection
Those who advocate for reducetarianism instead of veganism, or those within veganism who favor incremental individuals’ behavioral improvements rather than prohibiting the use of some animal products, banning forms of animal exploitation, or encouraging the adoption of the vegan philosophy, may also object to the work of single-issue organizations, like those focusing on anti-vivisection or anti-hunting campaigning. These reducetarians (who often shun the term vegan and replace it with plant-based), may claim these types of campaigns are inefficient and ineffective and others should be supported instead.
Not long ago I found this poll in one of the vegan Facebook groups I am part of: “Which would you consider to be a greater success for animals? A) banning horse and greyhound racing in the UK, B) Reducing chicken consumption in the UK by 5%.” I voted option ‘a’, which won by a very small margin. In the comments, I wrote this:
“Banning or reducing? The goal is to achieve 0 animals exploited, which includes 0 chickens being killed in the UK. If the UK population reduces chicken consumption by 5% this means that the industry may simply export more chickens to other countries to maintain their profits. It also means that their infrastructure will be intact so, in the future, if the population in the UK may eat more chicken (because the PR propaganda of the chicken industry may improve and the government may increase their subsidies), they can go back to their usual 100%. On the other hand, when you ban greyhound and horse racing, their infrastructure and support will go, so they will not return.
Another argument is the chicken option is a 95% failure that may become a 100% failure to achieve the goal, while the racing option is a total success in achieving the goal of the campaign.
A third argument is realizing that we will not achieve our goal to eliminate all animals for food production or animal research if we do not manage to eliminate the exploitation of animals for entertainment or other activities that are not considered essential. In other words, people may not consider a chicken worth protecting if they do not consider a dog or horse worth of protection first.
And finally, another argument is banning is always a greater achievement than reducing, as the banning is a moral and ethical victory over a concept or activity that moves society forward while reducing only changes numbers but keeps the status quo.”
I believe society will not ban any animal exploitation it considers essential (i.e., for food or medical research) if it still allows the exploitation and torture of animals for any activity not considered so. For instance, it is highly unlikely a country would ban beef production on animal welfare grounds if allows bullfighting, and its claims that bulls don’t suffer when tortured because they have different biology than other mammals (ridiculously false claims, of course, but made by established vets who support bullfighting). There is a logical philosophical order in how society progresses, and it has nothing to do with the number of affected “victims”, but how new concepts evolve and change the ethical paradigm.
When we are discussing the reducetarians’ objections we are talking about which sort of human interventions over human behavior are more likely to be successful in eliminating animal suffering. For me, banning practices that cause suffering and abolishing industries that rely on this suffering is a greater success than reducing the number of victims of such practices and keeping them forever. Even if you are a utilitarian, I think that, in the long run, banning all animal exploitation one kind at a time may reduce more suffering than keeping all exploitation forever and just reduce the number of victims a small percentage. Hence the role of single-issue campaigning in the building of the vegan world.
There Is No Limit on the Number of Issues
As I said earlier, I agree with most of the second principle of Prof Francione’s list. So, I agree that we must abolish, and not merely regulate, institutionalized animal exploitation, and not support welfare reform campaigns. I understand why reformist animal welfare campaigning exists, and if it helps individual animals to live better lives (which is not always the case), I cannot oppose it. But as an abolitionist, I cannot support it either if the alternative abolitionist campaign exists.
For me, choosing abolition over reform is the way to go. Not only ethically but strategically, as only reforming (which means changing the form but not the substance) doesn’t solve the problem. It only improves some of the symptoms.
Having said that, I accept that some abolitionist campaigning may look like reformist if it is based on incremental steps considering what is feasible in every given time and place. But if the goal is total abolition and real progress is made towards it, I would not consider this sort of tactical incremental campaigning part of what Prof Francione calls “welfare reforms”.
In summary, I believe that despite the fact the effectiveness of some single-issue campaigning and the piecemeal approach can indeed be questioned, one can engage in effective abolitionist campaigns for single animal protection issues while still holding — and actively promoting — the philosophy of veganism, without falling into any fundamental contradiction.
Whether you campaign on an issue, two, three or many, the number does not matter. Why you do it, how you do it, and what do you ultimately want to achieve in the long run is what does.
Veganism is not incompatible with campaigning for single animal protection issues. On the country, I would say that advocating against engaging in such campaigning is something more likely done by carnists than vegans.
It’s better to campaign for something than sit and let the world go by. Vegan education to end speciesism may be the single most critically important campaigning issue there is, well worth dedicating time and effort to. So, if you must choose just one issue, choose veganism.
But the thing is, you can choose as many as you want. If you do, you may find it more rewarding.