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Gaps in Logic, Lapses in Politics: Rights and Abolitionism in Joan Dunayer's Speciesism

“We must eliminate false hopes, which blind us to real possibilities” Derrick Jensen

In her two key works, Animal Equality and Speciesism, Joan Dunayer has made crucial contributions to ethics and animal rights by uncovering the human biases and prejudices against other species such as are embedded throughout our language. What was done for racist and sexist language needs to be done for speciesist language, and Dunayer has arguably led the way in her books and articles. As she notes, “The way we speak about other animals is inseparable form the way we treat them. Along with our actions, our words must accord them full consideration and respect” (xiii). To call chickens and hens “poultry,” for instance, connotes that they are not individuals to be respected but food items to be consumed.

Not content with criticism, Dunayer also suggests new ways of speaking that reflect respect for other species. She inspires readers of her work to become more aware of the politics of language and convincingly demonstrates the truth of the philosophical proposition that language matters, as it shapes our perception of the world and thereby conditions our thought, values, worldviews, cultures, and actions. As she makes clear, speciesism “is both an attitude and a form of oppression” (5); the theory informs the practices which involve endless and unspeakably cruel forms of torture and exploitation.

With philosopher Gary Francione, Dunayer stands out as one of the most radical champions of animal rights and abolitionism of all forms of animal slavery. Just as Francione unmasked “new welfarists” who speak in the language of rights but advance welfarist policies in practice (such as PETA), Dunayer seeks to expose the “new speciesists” (including Francione himself!) who pretend to be anti-speciesist, but ultimately elevate human interests over nonhumans and thereby wrongly discriminate against other species.

Throughout Speciesism, Dunayer drives a rigorous line of reasoning that doesn’t flinch from its logical consequences, such that the value of a mouse’s life is exactly equal to that of a human, yet these conclusions often are problematic and flawed.Two key problems stand out. The first problem, philosophical in nature, arises from the logical incoherence of her radical egalitarianism that rejects any attempt to compare moral values among different life forms. The second problem, political in nature, stems from a naïve “legalism” that assumes abolitionist goals can be won through the corporate-dominated channels of the state, thereby failing to see the need to pursue illegal and far more forceful methods of struggle.

Although Dunayer follows Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Francione, and other key philosophers in rejecting speciesism as arbitrary and unjustifiable, she finds that ultimately they are all “new speciesists” who often violate the principle of equality by privileging humans over nonhumans.

On Singer’s view, for instance, there is a moral premium on self-awareness and mental complexity to which one can appeal to weigh different values if necessary. For Singer, "it is not arbitrary to hold that the life of a self-aware being, capable of abstract thought, of planning for the future, of complex acts of communication, and so on, is more valuable than the life of a being without these capacities."1 Thus, for Singer, it is worse to cut short the life of a “normal” brain functioning human than a dog, as the human has a more complex form of “personhood,” but it is wrong to favor a brain dead human over a dog for the same reason.

Dunayer, in bold contrast, vehemently rejects all appeals to cognitive complexities and existential differentiation to insist on the total equality of any form of sentient life. To her credit, Dunayer follows her logic and premises to their inexorable conclusions: “Am I saying that a firefly is as fully entitled to moral consideration as a rabbit or baboon? Yes. Am I saying that a spider has as much right to life as an egret or human? Yes. I see no logically consistent reason to say otherwise” (134).

As much as I admire her all-out assault on human supremacy, I submit that we do and must make choices between life forms all the time, and we thereby unavoidably judge and weigh relative life values. The criteria for such choices may often be tacit and unconscious, but it is necessary, and not necessarily speciesist, to attempt a rational formulation of these principles such as Singer, Regan, and others do.

Is it desirable or even possible in all cases not to operate without some hierarchical scheme? Can one ever be non-speciesist in the pure and total way Dunayer seeks? Isn’t Dunayer, like everyone else, complicit in the destruction of life and doesn’t she privilege herself, humans, or some animals over other animals all the time? If we want to take a walk in the park, for example, we will unavoidably step on and kill countless insects we do not see. We know this in advance, but take the walk anyway, so what makes our desire for a walk more important than the lives of insects we will unavoidably trample on? The same complexities face us when choosing among the lives of nonhuman animals. When we kill ticks and fleas that annoy and can sicken our cats and dogs, we value them over ticks and fleas. A choice has to be made, such that we will provide comfort to one life at the expense of another. To choose our beloved cats or dogs over fleas is discriminatory, but it is neither arbitrary nor wrong.

Dunayer’s radical approach leads her into numerous inconsistencies and hypocrisies. She admits, for instance, that she would kill a bear in self-defense to preserve her own existence. Self-defense is a legitimate reason for causing harm to another being, but her hypothetical action is inconsistent with her radical egalitarianism, for she is assuming that her life is more important than the life of a bear who needs food. But how can she conclude this if all beings and things are equal? She thus values her own life -- and perhaps human life in general in such cases -- over an animal’s need to live by obtaining a tasty human meal. And suppose that the bear is an endangered species – is it not infinitely more valuable, in the grand scheme of evolution and biodiversity, than Dunayer’s life or the life of any human at all?

I appreciate the progressive spirit, moral generosity, and non-discriminatory egalitarianism in Dunayer’s approach, but I find it too utopian, too divorced from the complexity, ambiguities, and painful choices we all face in the real world that unfolds beyond and without philosophy. Existential differentiation is not always or necessarily moral discrimination.

While we certainly can disagree about what criteria should be employed, we cannot avoid making choices, however we might try to deny them. To paraphrase Jean Paul Sartre, we are condemned to making ethical choices and arranging moral hierarchies. For every second we live in this world, we do harm to it, we favor our own existence over the lives of countless beings we inadvertently kill (whether we are vegans, freegans, or neo-primitivists), and non-violence is a position we can only strive for but never fully attain. The only justification we have for living is that we might do more good than harm in our brief time on this planet.

Given her radical philosophical commitment to egalitarianism, one would expect to see a parallel commitment to militant tactics and politics, but instead there is a major disjoint. 2 While Dunayer sketches a general picture of what her version of authentic abolitionist campaigns would like in practice, the book is striking for (1) its naïve faith in capitalist “democracy” and (2) its failure to discuss the most controversial elements of animal rights politics, namely, the ever-growing use of illegal, direct action approaches, such as the rescues, raids, and sabotage associated with the Animal Liberation Front or the high-pressure tactics of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign. 3 Demonized by corporations and governments as terrorists, these groups have rescued animals and shut down exploiters, succeeding where legal tactics would fail.

As militant liberation tactics have become increasingly prominent and controversial in the UK, US, and elsewhere, it is a glaring failure that Dunayer ignores and evades the key struggles and debates of the present, as ever more abolitionists see legislative tactics as futile and take extreme actions appropriate to the extreme situation of animal exploitation. Dunayer does discuss and endorse “open rescues” whereby activists free animals from cages and, unlike the “closed” approach of masked ALF activists, take full responsibility for violating the law. Plausibly enough, she contends that such rescues are just stopgap measures as they save relatively few animals and are easily replaced by others. Yet she assumes an all-or-nothing outlook, failing to see the open and closed rescues are crucial elements in a larger global struggle against animal slavery, and she shows no such skepticism of her favored legislative-based tactics.

Ultimately, Dunayer presents a staid defense of the political status quo as the solution to animal exploitation, thereby arriving at the same conclusions as the blatantly welfarist organizations she reviles, such as the Humane Society of the United States. Her abolitionism is based on a fundamental misconception of the state. The fundamental role of the capitalist state – always has been, always will be -- is not to protect citizen rights and promote justice but rather to protect the profits and property of corporations. Dunayer’s modern-day version of abolitionism has little to do with the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, which was galvanized and advanced by widespread acts of sabotage, arson, and violence against slavemasters. Nat Turner, John Brown, and countless other abolitionists defended and/or employed sabotage, arson, and violence as necessary and legitimate tactics in the struggle to free black slaves. Why aren’t these same tactics necessary and legitimate to use for rescuing animal slaves and stopping the animal slave trade?

Critics of illegal direct action tactics cite chapter and verse of King and Gandhi, but they labor with overly romanticized and idealistic views of human nature, believing that species supremacists can be converted through appeals to their compassion, humanity, religion, and reason. While a small minority of animal exploiters can be changed through education and moral persuasion, the vast majority are ideologically and economically wedded to violence against animals. Direct action critics rely on an equally naïve model of political struggle which assumes that “democratic” systems are sufficiently pluralistic and receptive to appeals for justice and rights that activists can defeat the economic and political monopolization of power held by corporations and powerful special interest groups. Amazingly, Dunayer and other self-proclaimed abolitionists continue to champion legalist methods in the aftermath of two stolen elections by George Bush and his cronies; in the repressive environment of the USA PATRIOT Act; from within a web of total surveillance of citizens and dissenters; in the face of encroaching fascism; and amidst the most cynical, corrupt, corporate-controlled, oppressive, and illegal political administration in US history.

Dunayer thinks there is a paradigm shift between welfarism and a genuine rights-based approach, but the continuities are at least as significant as the discontinuities. The main division in the animal advocacy movement is not between animal welfare and animal rights approaches, but rather between “legalists” who support change only in and through corporate-dominated political channels and direct action “pluralists” who acknowledge the value of education and legislation-based approaches, but also insist that sabotage, raids, and other illegal actions are necessary to free captive animals and to stop animal exploiters protected by the state.4

In addition to sabotage, questions of the efficacy and legitimacy of violence must also be addressed not avoided. If animals are under violent attack and cannot defend themselves, if the state protects only their oppressors, and if animal rights activists are the only ones who can defend animals, do they not have the right to use sabotage and even violence against exploiters as proxy agents adhering to the principle I call “extensional self-defense”? Similarly, the principles of just war theory state that violence is morally justifiable if all nonviolent options of resistance or self-defense have been exhausted, and the minimal amount of violence needed to defeat injustice is used. Is just war theory not applicable to the war between animal exploiters and animal liberators and does it not justify the use of violence as all peaceful and legal measures have failed to stop the genocide? In addition, don’t the precepts of “humanitarian war,” a justification human rights hawk Bill Clinton used for bombings on Yugoslavia, apply to liberating animals with “forceful intervention” (to use Clinton’s language) to prevent future harm? And isn’t Bush’s doctrine of “preemptive strikes” also available to abolitionists to justify violence against animal oppressors?

Societies like the US and UK defends and use violence against human beings all the time, such as blatantly evident in the current war against Iraq, but the cultures that support violence for human causes moralistically rejects it if used to defend animals. The contradiction is explained, of course, through the speciesist logic that views humans and animals as of unequal value, such that animals suffering the worst forms of living hell are somehow not worthy of a battering ram or bullet. One expects this hypocrisy in society in general, but it is particularly striking when self-professed animal advocates decry sabotage and violence against animal exploiters as morally wrong or too complex or controversial to even discuss.

Enlightenment -- a precondition for legislative-based tactics -- is itself not enough for moral progress to advance; it never has been and never will be. Whether “enlightened” or not, the fact always has been that in most cases human beings seek to promote and defend their own interests. It is thus the case that throughout modern history, moral progress has occurred not through civilizing the elites who then voluntarily relinquish or broaden their power but rather through one kind of force or another – protests, demonstrations, boycotts, property destruction, and, physical violence and armed struggle.

We must not only educate, we must become a social movement. The challenge of animal rights also is our challenge, for animal rights must not only be an idea but a social movement for the liberation of the world’s most oppressed beings, both in terms of numbers and in the severity of their pain. As with all revolutions, animals will not gain rights because oppressors suddenly see the light, but rather because enough people become enlightened and learn how rock the structures of power, to shake them until new social arrangements emerge.

Dunayer and other legalists have a huge burden to show us that the capitalist state --- such as represented by Bush, Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff , and others – is actually capable of bring justice to animals and upholding what is right over what is profitable. If legal measures are not adequate, then what lines do we draw and why one place and not another?

If welfarism means bigger cages, and rights means abolition, and if abolition is justified “by any means necessary” in existing conditions of pervasive and institutionalized violence, unfolding on a global scale far larger than Auschwitz and Treblinka, then rights/abolitionist theory demands discussing and pursuing all kinds of political and tactical paths. If sabotage, violence, and armed struggle is necessary to protect/defend/rescue human life, why not for animals also? Animal advocates who defend sabotage or violence to defend humans but not animals are speciesists.

However the questions will be answered, they need to be raised, not evaded. One expects as much from mealy-mouthed welfarists, but one seeks much more from avowed militants like Dunayer. The key question that goes unanswered is: What full range of tactics is appropriate and justified for a true abolitionist position and politics?

On the whole, Speciesism is a superb examination of the moral and political failures of welfarism, and a lucid examination of rights and the abolitionist policies an animal rights position implies and demands. Despite its philosophical inconsistencies and political deficits, this book is a must read for the entire animal advocacy movement and worthy of careful study and sustained discussion.


1. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation. New York, Random House, 1990, p. 20.

2. Throughout the book, especially in the final chapter to the book, Dunayer tries to show what a true abolitionist measure or campaign is, as opposed to pseudo-abolitionist, new-welfarist, or old welfarist approaches. I shall leave aside the complex ambiguity of trying to discern what is or is not “abolitionist” within the general framework of institutionalized killing of animals (if ending battery cages is not for Dunayer, is ending factory farming in favor of free range farming abolitionist?), in order to focus on the general approach whereby all of her proposed tactics and measures take place in and through an inherently corrupt capitalist legal system and state that she fails to problematize.

3. For a detailed discussion of the ALF and the ethical and tactical questions raised by such an underground approach raises, see Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals. New York: Lantern Books, 2004.

4. In truth, Dunayer is conflicted. At times, she recognizes the corruption of the political process she looks to for justice: “The U.S. government is deeply involved in nonhuman exploitation” (137). But such insights are ultimately outweighed by fallacious sentiments such as “with regard to humans, democratic law honors individuals’ fundamental rights” (136). Dunayer believes that through the long march through the institutions, “the Supreme Court … could rule that …animals aren’t properly regarded as human property but should be legal persons” (138). Perhaps, as a long shot, but this begs the question of what level of force, pressure, and mass movement is required to move the state to such a revolutionary position. If enacted, abolitionism, of course, would mean the end of the current slave-based economy and science-knowledge complex (whereby animal experimentation drives the powerful pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries), a consequence that Dunayer does not consider as a major obstacle to society ever implementing abolitionism and which demands that abolitionists must envision and help implement an alternative economy and science if they want to achieve their goals in and through the existing state.

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