Animal Rights

PETA's Ingrid Newkirk on Principled Veganism: “Screw it”

| by Gary L Francione

Dear Colleagues:

In an article in Time Magazine, PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk discusses “flexitarianism,” or “[p]art-time vegetarianism.”

The goal for many activists is simply to get more people to eat less meat. “Absolute purists should be living in a cave,” says Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “Anybody who witnesses the suffering of animals and has a glimmer of hope of reducing that suffering can’t take the position that it’s all or nothing. We have to be pragmatic. Screw the principle.”

We can make several observations about Newkirk’s statements:

First, Newkirk repeats the mantra of the new welfarist movement: that animal welfare reforms actually reduce suffering. The reforms that are promoted by PETA and the other new welfarist groups for the most part do not provide significant welfare benefits for animals. They just represent a different form of torture. Waterboarding someone on a bare board and waterboarding them on a padded board is still waterboarding.

Moreover, for the most part, industry would eventually adopt these reforms anyway because they generally increase production efficiency. Giving slightly more space to veal calves or using alternatives to the gestation crate result in increased animal productivity, lower veterinary costs, and a better bottom line for producers. PETA explicitly recognizes that gassing chickens is an economically efficient thing to do. The symbiotic relationship between large animal groups and institutional exploiters is clear when we see that groups like PETA and institutional exploiters are involved in a drama whereby animal advocates target an economically vulernable practice; industry puts up a token fight; the reform, or some modification of the reform, is eventually accepted because it does not harm, and usually helps, industry; the animal groups declare victory; the animal exploiters bask in the praise that industry gets from animal advocates. Only the animals lose.

Second, Newkirk conveniently ignores that the relentless promotion of these welfare reforms by PETA and other new welfarist groups and the claims that these reforms make exploitation more “humane” make the public feel more comfortable about consuming animals and, as a result, consumption increases. It is interesting to note that per capita consumption of animal products is going up and not down. When groups like PETA give an award to slaughterhouse designer Temple Grandin, or praise animal flesh/products peddlers, or call off the boycott of KFC in Canada because it agreed to phase in buying gassed chickens from producers, what does that say to the public? It is nothing less than one big stamp of “animal rights” approval.

It should be increasingly clear that the “happy meat/animal products” movement is a giant step backwards.

Third, Newkirk conveniently misses the most important point in the debate whether to pusue a clear vegan moral baseline or instead to pursue welfare reforms.

It’s a zero-sum game. That is, we live in a world of limited resources. Every cent of money; every second of time; every bit of effort that we devote to welfare reform is less money, time, and labor that we devote to clear, unequivocal vegan advocacy. If the large new welfaist corporations put all of their resources into vegan advocacy, they could reduce suffering and death by reducing demand and helping to shift the paradigm away from the notion that animals are things that we can use if we treat them “humanely” to the notion that animals are beings with inherent moral value whom we should not be using at all.

Consider the following example: you have one hour to spend today on animal advocacy. Should you spend that hour educating people about eating cage-free eggs or about not eating eggs (or animal products) at all? You cannot do both and to the extent that you tell people—as these organizations do—that they can satisfy their moral obligations to animals by eating cage-free eggs or other “happy” animal products, you virtually guarantee that the best that will happen is that people will choose a different form of torture rather than no torture at all.

The choice is not, as Newkirk suggests, between redicing suffering or promoting veganism. It is only by promoting veganism—by working on the demand side of the equation rather than the supply side (the focus on welfare reforms)—that we will reduce suffering—and death.

A related point is that it is not just suffering that matters, as Newkirk suggests; killing matters as well. Newkirk apparently buys into Peter Singer’s view that animals for the most part do not have an interest in continuing to live but only have an interest in not suffering. I reject this view as a factual matter. To deny that any sentient being does not have an interest in continuing to live—that is, all sentient beings prefer, or want, or desire to continue to live—is absurd. The welfarist position, which Newkirk and Singer accept, is that animal life per se has no moral value. Perhaps this accounts for why PETA kills most of the animals it takes in at its Norfolk facility. In any event, I reject that view as speciesist.

As long as the issue is how we treat animals, as long as we think that we are justified in exploiting them as long as we treat them “humanely,” and not that we cannot justify animal exploitation, however “humane” it is, the paradigm will never shift.

Fourth, I understand why animal businesses like PETA promote “flexitarian” principles and are hostile to veganism. They want the biggest donor base possible. According to a PETA executive, half of PETA’s membership is not even vegetarian. If you want those people to make contributions and leave you in their wills, you need to make them feel good about their continued exploitation of animals. If you want to hobnob with Hollywood celebrities and other famous people who consume animals, you cannot have a clear vegan policy. So, instead, you have a position that includes everyone but, precisely because it does not rule out any behavior as morally unacceptable, the position means nothing.

The moral schizophrenia is astounding. PETA routinely condemns institutional animal exploiters but then fails to acknowledge that the consumers who demand animal products—including all those PETA members who are not vegan—are the animal exploiters who create the demand in the first place.

In sum, it is sad that the biggest opponents of veganism as a moral baseline are so-called animal advocates like Newkirk and Singer (1; 2). It is distressing when Newkirk’s response to principled veganism is, “Screw the principle,” or that those who advocate principled veganism “should be living in a cave.”

It is a matter of concern when those who cry the loudest that veganism is difficult or daunting are so-called animal advocates.

Please understand I am not questioning Newkirk’s sincerity. I just sincerely believe that she is very, very wrong.

If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. Don’t buy into the false dichotomy between flesh and other animal products. There is no morally coherent distinction between flesh and other animal products. Animals used for dairy generally live longer, are treated as badly if not worse than animals raised for meat, and they end their lives in the same hideous slaughterhouses as do their meat counterparts.

Going vegan is easy (despite what some large animal organizations claim); it is better for your health; it is better for the planet; and, most important, it is the morally right thing to do. Veganism is not a matter of compassion or mercy; it is a matter of fundamental justice.

Veganism is the least that we owe to nonhuman sentients.

Gary L. Francione
© 2010 Gary L. Francione

Related posts:

  1. Veganism: The Fundamental Principle of the Abolitionist Movement
  2. Veganism: Just Another Way of Reducing Suffering or a Fundamental Principle of Justice & Nonviolence?