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Of “Pragmatism” And “Absolutism” – A Response

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A recent article published by Quartz demonstrates a woeful ignorance of the reality concerning corporate welfarism and the state of the animal movement over the last four decades. When the tagline of a piece states that the vegan movement “amassed more power” when its “brain outgrew its heart,” you know from the off that something is terribly wrong.

“How the vegan movement broke out of its echo chamber and finally started disrupting things” is authored by a journalist named Chase Purdy. The “disruption” refers to the activities of all the large welfare groups – namely HSUS – since 2001. Yeah – it’s that bad. Purdy has never been involved in the mainstream “animal movement,” nor does he seem to have any connections whatsoever with corporate welfarism beyond reporting on the “business of food.” Since 2014 he has written articles here and there concerning the various “victories” of the mainstream “movement” – most notably his piece for Politico  documenting the United Egg Producers supposed surrender to animal organisations demanding the end of “conventional cages” prior to a ballot initiative proposed – strangely enough – this month in Massachusetts. In it, he was ignorant to the corporate tango and token opposition that industry must always demonstrate – even if the proposed change would benefit them – so as to dissuade groups from attacking them down the road in trying to implement changes that they don’t want. Purdy demonstrated no concept of the notion of animals as property, whereby the law protects any measure that industry wants to take for the given exploitation provided there is a human benefit to be derived, nor the opportunity cost that industry must impose on the groups “fighting” them. In the Politico article, an example of such an opportunity cost would be the token $10 million dollars the United Egg Producers raised to “fight” against proposition 2 in California – mere pocket change to an egg industry that is worth $10 billion dollars in the United States alone. The reality of this, of course, fell under Purdy’s radar.

Despite this, Purdy, a food journalist, feels somewhat qualified to comment substantively on the “vegan movement.” Oh joy.

For starters, Purdy assumes that there has ever been a “vegan movement.” There hasn’t. There has never been a unified movement, fully educated on what it is we actually owe animals and why, taking that message to the public on a large scale. Until the work of Gary Francione came about in the mid 90’s, there was never a solid foundation for a movement that required veganism as a moral imperative and that recognised the property status of animals to be an infringement on the fundamental right of all sentient beings not to be used exclusively as resources. Before then, there was only really Peter Singer and perhaps Tom Regan informing the mainstream “movement.” Both of whom fall miserably short of recognising real animal rights and actually perpetuate speciesism. Singer, as a strange blend of preference and hedonistic utilitarianism who believes that the animals we exploit don’t care about dying, and Regan who, while embracing deontology and rejecting utilitarianism, judges the value of a life in certain contexts on irrelevant cognitive characteristics and never seriously considered the implications of property status. The informants, so to speak, of the mainstream “movement” – namely singer, “the father” –  are speciesist and perpetuate nonhuman oppression in their work. Yet this is the “vegan movement” that Purdy is referring to? A movement that in its fledgeling years, rejected the counsel of Gary Francione, and decided to go down a path of regulation that would merely solidify and further normalise the property status of animals that holds them in chains in the first place? A “movement” that explicitly rejected the idea that vegan education was imperative? No, Purdy. Just no.

After establishing what he interprets as the “vegan movement,” he goes on to split it in two. The “pragmatists” supposedly deserted the “absolutists” in 2001, where the likes of Matt Ball, Miyun Park, Paul Shapiro, Bruce Friedrich and others, got together and decided that instead of “picketing outside of McDonalds” and “throwing red paint at the fashion industry,” they would devote their energies to “behind-the-scenes farm animal welfare policy.” Seemingly unbeknownst to Purdy, these people and their groups – HSUS being the main player – are responsible for ushering in the age of “happy” animal products, whereby the public are made to feel better about animal exploitation and that by consuming animals tortured via method X over method Y, they are doing some good. Industrial animal exploitation has never been more profitable or efficient. These groups are ensuring the continuation of animal exploitation by further normalising the notion of animals as property, and easing peoples consciences to feel more comfortable about consuming animals. They have legitimised the notion that consuming and using animals is morally defensible.

In his ignorance, Purdy maintains that the “pragmatists,” now in present day, have “built the movement they imagined.” Yes. Of course they have, and it’s not a pretty picture. They have become partners with animal exploitation industries, informants for meat, dairy, and egg producers; a multi-million dollar industry that acts as an agricultural economist, identifying practices that are economically inefficient, and creating profitable niche markets for animal product producers to exploit, such as the Whole Foods Market grading system where you can select your own preferred level of animal torture when you buy. If Purdy thinks that this is for the sake of the animals, he is dreaming. The Massachusetts ballot measure that first appeared in his Politico article last year, is once again brought up in the Quartz article, where “78% of voters on election day supported the Question 3 ballot measure.”

Well, Chase Purdy, lets take a closer look at the act you are heralding as the pinnacle of success for this new “pragmatist” movement. The act concerns the “cruel confinement” of hens, sows, and veal calves – “it shall be unlawful for a farm owner or operator within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to knowingly cause any covered animal to be confined in a cruel manner.” By that they mean, the animal must have enough space to spread their limbs, wings, and turn around without touching the side of their enclosure. That’s it. But if this pinnacle of success wasn’t anti-climatic enough, there are – as there always and necessarily will be due to animals being property – a nice selection of loopholes for producers to choose from in order to ignore the act. The act does not apply during transportation, exhibitions, slaughter, medical research, “examination,” testing, “individual treatment or operation,” the five day period prior to a breeding pig’s expected date of giving birth and any day the pig is nursing, and the “temporary periods” of animal husbandry whereby animals can be confined for 6 hours every 24 hours. If a producer is found to be enclosing their animals in a “cruel” way, they can simply rely on any of the above reasons to protect them. Why? Because the law will always look to the property owners interests and the nature of the exploitation to determine whether or not the treatment of the animal in a given situation is “necessary.” The animals are not protected by the act, it’s the owners property interests in the animal that are protected. They are free to do with their property as is necessary for the given exploitation. The only reasons there are any limitations at all for producers – if any – have nothing to do with the animals and everything to do with increasing the human benefit of that exploitation. For example, the act pays lip service to “preventing cruelty” (which means nothing given that the law interprets “cruel treatment” as “necessary” treatment whenever there is a benefit), but crucially it maintains that “extreme methods” of confining animals “threaten the health and safety of Massachusetts consumers, increase the risk of foodborne illness, and have negative fiscal impacts on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In other words, the only party benefitting from this act – in a multitude of ways – is humans. Human health, safety, risk management for consumers through control of foodborne illness, and the protection of property rights for producers to confine their animals how they wish with the requisite “necessity” as outlined by the act. The only interests that have been balanced here are the interests of the property owners to use their property as they wish, and the interests of other humans in reducing the chance of illness and other “negative impacts” on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The only interests of animals that are considered in this, are those that benefit humans. When it doesn’t benefit humans, producers can ignore the act and use any of the loopholes granted by law to confine their animals how they want. Oh, and one small detail – the act doesn’t even take effect until 2022. If this is your idea of a “vegan movement,” Chase Purdy, you may want to rephrase your terminology. These “pragmatists” you describe represent the anti-vegan movement, where the property status of animals is used to conjure up the most human benefits possible for a given type of exploitation. The animals are still – and as property, will always be – subject to necessary “cruelty” as outlined in the in the acts you are now helping the “pragmatist” movement tout as being somehow beneficial to those very same animals. The only difference is – and here’s the clincher – the public are now being told to feel better about that exploitation through the promotion of “happy” labelled animal products that occur as a consequence of this madness.

This sort of industry pandering and selling out of animal interests under the guise of helping animals, is what Purdy is describing as the success of the “pragmatist” movement – a wing of that he falsely believes to be the “vegan movement,” when in reality, the so-called “pragmatists” never took veganism seriously in the first place. We can pass off Purdy’s article as innocent cluelessness about the realities of the mainstream “movement,” but the dangers of such cluelessness become outright irresponsible when you have the likes of Erik Marcus of vegan.com – a would-be roadie of the “happy” exploitation movement were it a progressive rock band – using Purdy’s article in an attempt to give the impression that one has a leg to stand on.

See Marcus’ response below:


A ridiculously misguided article like Purdy’s – representing the very worst of journalism – is like gold dust for Marcus and his corporate welfare masters who are always looking for opportunistic ways to spread misinformation and denigrate the real vegan message.

The notion that these “pragmatists” have a practical solution to animal exploitation is both laughable and absurd. Equally absurd is this idea Purdy has that the “absolutists” are not pragmatic or practical. This occurs due to, once again, a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the mainstream “movement.” It was the likes of those who are now labelled the “pragmatists” – who did not engage in real vegan education nor had the theoretical backdrop from which to educate effectively – who engaged in the acts that he attributes to the “absolutists.” Even though there are also many who consider themselves abolitionists that engage in anti-social nonsense, the mere fact that they do means that they are not abolitionists. Those anti-social acts serve to alienate and further confuse public perception of what animal rights and veganism actually means. That isn’t abolitionism. Conflating abolitionism with anti-social behaviour, and using the term “absolutist” in a pejorative sense, is disingenuous at best and perhaps deliberately misleading at worst. We are all “absolutist” with respect to fundamental human rights, and to use the term in a pejorative sense is representative of Purdy’s own speciesism, as well as the overriding speciesism informed by the welfarist and new welfarist movements respectively. Corporate welfarism does not in any way represent incremental change – it’s the acceptance of the prevailing societal norms with respect to animals. It takes those societal norms and merely gives the wheels a bit of a polish and the bodywork a little bit of a wax.

Rightly described, the movement as it stands today is not split in two. There is a corporate welfarist movement that dominates (Purdy’s “pragmatists”) and a growing movement of abolitionists (Purdy’s “absolutists”) that seek to undo the damage of the welfarist movement and see nonhuman justice. They are two separate movements altogether. The former wants a continuation of the status quo – merely in a more efficient or profitable form – the latter wants an end to the status quo. I am in agreement with Purdy that throwing paint on people is both useless, alienating, and immoral; I am in agreement that picketing outside of McDonalds is as useless as rolling up outside a slaughterhouse with a sign saying “kill me instead.” But the idea that this is what real education is, or that this is what we, as abolitionists advocate doing, is pure madness. Abolitionism, properly understood, is the embodiment of incremental change. It focuses on peaceful, non-violent education, based on the six principles of abolition. We reject violence, and firmly believe that in order to enact change you must first educate yourself – at least on the basics of abolitionist moral theory – before you can be an effective educator.

Purdy equates the abolitionist movement to “wielding a bullhorn on the street,” saying that “absolutist tactics estrange the vegan movement from mainstream culture.” What he actually describes is the opposite of abolitionist education. No abolitionist would maintain that those tactics are acceptable. But outliers of the welfarist movement? New welfarists inspired by the likes of Peter Singer? Those are the people who engage in such useless and damaging tactics. The people who follow the cult-like mantra of the large welfare organisations that tell you “shh, don’t talk to people about veganism – send us a cheque,” and those “advocates” who – on account of not spending any time educating themselves – end up in no-mans-land and board the new welfarist train going around the same track over, and over, and over again. These are the people you will find throwing paint, standing with ambiguous signs outside fast food outlets, and “disrupting” public places. There are also some in that demographic who don’t engage in those tactics – but are still not abolitionists. Abolitionist education doesn’t estrange the public, it harnesses the publics conventional wisdom – that causing unnecessary suffering is wrong, that animals matter morally – and brings that wisdom to its rational conclusion – veganism. If the mainstream “movement” had taken that path back in the 1980’s, instead of a growing “happy” exploitation movement, we would now most likely have a sizeable vegan movement.

The misrepresentation in Purdy’s article is breathtaking, but in the end he proves the abolitionist point. He maintains that for the “pragmatists” (the corporate welfarists) cutting ties back in 2001 was “necessary.” It was a “natural evolution” for the movement that would take a “steady, patient walk toward achievable goals that would have lasting impressions.” Well, it certainly has, just not in the way that Purdy thinks. Its goals were never to be part of a vegan movement; the lasting impressions were never meant to be for the sake of abolishing animal use. What it has achieved represents everything that we as abolitionists must continue to fight against. We are living in a time when being a “animal advocate” means working for an organisation that forms partnerships with industries and sells animal interests down the drain for the sake of ensuring continued profits and benefits for the humans that continue to use those animals as property. Where “victory” is nothing more than the ability to turn around in your cell unless your master doesn’t benefit from your ability to do that – and then you’re killed anyway. Meanwhile, the humans celebrate their “victory” with increased production efficiency, increased profits, a happier and more comfortable public – oh, and a champagne dinner too.

The animals need us abolitionists to reject this nonsense and continue with building our movement of nonviolent vegan education. Ultimately, both welfarists and abolitionists are “pragmatic.” It’s just that the former are “pragmatic” about protecting human interests while disregarding animal interests, and the latter are “pragmatic” in effecting real, incremental change in the form of theory-backed, peaceful education, that recognises the inherent value of all sentient beings.

Only one of those is the real vegan movement, and it should be obvious which one it is.

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  • stephen f. eisenman

    “theory-backed peaceful education”: This is a necessary condition for abolition, but is it sufficient one? Slave abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay liberation all required TBPE but a great deal more. For example: marches, protests and rallies, boycotts, legislation and yes, sometimes violence. Determining which of these strategies was the most important has been the work of historians for generations. But all would agree that some combination of these, built on a solid core of TBPE is what was most effective.

    Why would you reject legislation that might render animal agriculture unprofitable? Why ignore direct action to rescue animals, recognizing of course that one must be judicious? Why not organize mass rallies, marches and protests to attract press and therefore public attention? What about a political party (an “animals party”) or a lobbying group? I can understand why some abolitionists may wish to work solely through TBPE, but why reject all other approaches? I am NOT speaking of Purdy’s welfarism — I am speaking of tested methods in addition to TBPE to achieve widespread veganism and generalized abolition. Abolition needs to engage the various domains of power, not just persuasion.

    • I assume what Ben Frost means by “theory-backed peaceful education” is presenting a logical argument that veganism is the only morally right position to take; any position short of veganism involves animal exploitation. The book Eat Like You Care by Professor Gary L. Francione and Professor Anna Charlton helps to address all the standard concerns that may come up in a conversation about veganism.

      Re. violence, the abolitionist principle number six (set by Gary L. Francione) states: “abolitionists recognize the principle of nonviolence as a core principle of the animal rights movement”. Professor Francione argues that even if you see violence as a solution for solving world affairs, violence in the animal rights movement is counterproductive for the simple reason that 99% of the population perpetuates animal injustice, torture and death. In such situation, how sensible would it be for 1% of the population to attack 99% of the population? Do we attack the animal exploitation industries, slaughterhouse workers, or our non-vegan friends and relatives who demand animal products on the table? Abolitionists never focus on the animal exploitation industries. They understand that as long as there is demand there will be supply.

      In principle, we support any peaceful action that is consistent with the message of veganism as a moral imperative. Most mass rallies, marches and protests aiming to attract press and public attention compromise the message of unequivocal veganism because these events rely on large numbers and form a coalition of vegans and non-vegans. If non-vegans were willing to support the core principle of veganism as a moral baseline, they would be vegans themselves and would not be eating, wearing and using animals.

      Unless we live in a dictatorship, why would any parliament consisting of non-vegan members (who were voted in by non-vegans) ever propose legislation that might render animal agriculture unprofitable? Why engage in violence to rescue animals when there are millions of homeless ones who can be legally obtained? As long as the demand for animal products remains, breaking into private properties and opening cages will always result into lost animals being replaced by increased production.

      A political party can only grow in numbers if the numbers of voters grow too. Again, non-vegans do not vote for the position that eating, wearing and using animals is morally wrong. No political party in the current climate will ever advocate unequivocal veganism. In the U.S. the Humane party engages in single-issue campaigns and regulating “inhumane, scientifically indefensible, and economically unsound” animal torture, and its VP rejects veganism as a moral baseline by calling it “vegan fundamentalism”.

      In conclusion, in the current situation in which vegans make up only 1% of the population, the most sensible approach is putting all our energies into vegan education until we significantly increase the number of vegans and our bargaining power with larger numbers. There are no shortcuts.

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