Wednesday, 20 January 2016

On Speciesism, Gary Francione, and the Great Vegan Schism

Is speciesism equivalent to racism? Should vegan campaigns never advocate for reducetarianism and instead only campaign for veganism?
That is the question posed by Gary Francione and the Abolitionist Approach that has led to a fracture through the animal rights movement, polarising opinion for and against. If you are not familiar with his work I suggest you read some of his blogs on his website such as his blog post "Essentialism, Intersectionality, and Veganism as a Moral Baseline". By focussing on some of the philosophical errors as I see them in Francione’s approach I hope to convince you that racism is not the same as speciesism, and that there are serious logical flaws in the approach advocated by Francione.

Additionally I will discuss how Francione uses arguments that do not acknowledge the presence of hidden premises and of moral intuitions which play a central importance in allowing us to judge what is and is not moral. His arguments obscures these intuitions through rhetorical devices such as through comparisons to racism and slavery that many find offensive, and cover over logical gaps in these arguments. Finally I will make the case that the problems with anti-speciesism as a position are so problematic that Francione is himself a speciesist.

So what’s Francione philosophy about?

Non-Speciesism is a central tenet of Francione’s argument, which begins by asking how we decide who counts as a "person" and so who has all the rights of personhood that go along with this. He argues that there are two main ways that we can potentially use to attribute personhood. The first way many people use to ascribe rights is to appeal to our species. All individuals of whom we are certain are persons are members of the same group, i.e. Homo sapiens. Therefore some people allocate "personhood", and the rights that go along with this, to anyone that is simply a human. The second way to attribute personhood is to appeal to the morally relevant characteristics that each individual holds. Francione rejects the use of species membership as relevant to the attribution of personhood and instead advocates for this second way.
Regarding group membership, he argues that to give rights based on group membership, for example because we are all human, is to commit the same error as racists. Specifically, Francione argues that the error here is one of essentialism, which is the idea that the ethical worth of any group is not dependent on any characteristic they hold, but rather that each member of a group is possessed of an essence which in itself has moral value. Such a belief is expressed by racists with regards to ethnicity, sexists with regards to gender, and speciesists with regards to species. Therefore Gary argues such that if one is to maintain that one is not racist one then must also adhere to anti-essentialism. This is further reasoned by Francione that if one admits that it is justified to limit personhood to group membership based on species, then on what basis do we have to argue against racists who limit rights to those of a certain race. As we are all part of many different groups, it seems arbitrary to select species as being the group along the lines of which we allocate rights. We belong to many groups, why not all primates, why not all mammals, why not community or family or indeed ethnicity? Lacking any means to decide why we should pick one group type over another to allocate rights then, Francione argues we must reject speciesism, just as we have rejected racism.
What are the results of this according to Francione? Well, lets then consider how we allocate rights based on the characteristics individuals actually hold. The principle by which Francione primarily uses to consider which characteristics are relevant is that they must be consistent with the way we currently allocate basic rights to all humans, including infants and people with mental disabilities, who are sentient yet have a drastically limited set of cognitive abilities. The unifying characteristic then of all those that we give rights to cannot be those complex cognitive skills which we hold in such high esteem, such as our capacity for language, self-awareness, advanced social learning or culture. If we did limit rights to those with more complex cognitive skills then we would be forced to deny rights to those humans who, while sentient, lack these skills. Rather Francione states that we should give rights to those that are sentient. Our sentience is so important, he argues, because our capacity to experience suffering and joy allows us to have interests, and it is the possession of interests by animals which confer on them both personhood and rights. The most basic interest we have is to continue to live and express those interests. As such, to act in a way where those who are sentient are treated as if they were merely means to our ends, i.e. as property and so to have no basic rights, is in effect to act in a way contradictory to their ability to have interests. Therefore in according rights to all those who are sentient, and in such a way that avoids speciesism, this obliges us to give to animals the same basic rights we accord to all humans. Specifically this would mean that we are obliged not treat animals as property, requiring us all to be vegan.

What’s wrong with vegan campaigns advocating for anything less than veganism?

Some vegan campaign groups, such as the vegan society, advocate that in addition to supporting veganism, we should also target those people who are unwilling to go vegan with campaigns to convince meat eaters to reduce the amount of meat they eat, eat meat that has not been factory farmed, and try to go vegetarian (at least some of the time e.g. meatless mondays) (all these approaches are wrapped up in the idea of reducetarianism). Francione maintains that all acts that violate an animal's basic rights, which are conferred on them by the possession of sentience and interests, are all equally bad, regardless of whether one act causes less suffering than another. The analogy here is that of slavery, hence Francione’s group being called the Abolitionist Approach. He argues all slavery is equally wrong, regardless of the fact that some slaves were treated better than others, and so by extension that is how we should regard use of animals. One could make other analogies too, for example with murder. All murder is wrong, regardless of how cruel the murderer was. There are other arguments Francione uses too regarding the efficacy of campaigns that focus purely on veganism, compared with those that also advocate reducetarianism, however such arguments are lacking on evidence on either side, so I will stick with the main ethical argument he makes against reducetarianism campaigns.
In sum, these arguments have created the current schism as it stands, with Francione denouncing many vegan campaign groups such as the Vegan Society, and vegan campaign groups denouncing Francione for his particularly inflammatory language (no one is going to like being compared to a racist when, from the vegan campaigns groups’ perspective, they are acting to reduce animal suffering in the best way they can)

Where are the problems with Francione’s argument?

Underlying Francione’s approach is the belief that if one accepts that animals matter at all, then one must be vegan and ascribe to all the rest of his views to be logically consistent. The first problem with this is that there are some unacknowledged premises in his arguments. The first I would like to address is when he makes the argument that because we give rights to children, we must also give rights to animals. Underlying his acceptance of the rights for infants is that the moral intuitions we have about this are correct and are non-arbitrary. Why does he believe so? Because children have interests. But why should having interests mean they should be respected? There is an is-ought gap here that he just does not acknowledge. There is no logical necessity that an animals possession of sentience and interests imply rights at all, it is a moral intuition. As such one cannot just claim that interests mean rights, it is an intuition for which he is unable to justifiably say to others that they are logically obliged to agree with him. And if we agree that such intuitions are valid, then why should other intuitions not also be valid? Indeed why should the vegan campaigns intuition, that animal suffering is what matters more than a violation of an animal’s right to life if the later is going to be violated anyway, not be just as valid as Francione's intuition?
The only way the intuition the vegan campaign groups hold could be invalid is if it was based on some logical inconsistency. Francione would have us believe that speciesism is that inconsistency, such that because we give absolute rights to children we must give them to animals. However the argument against speciesism is one based on a comparison to racism, one which I do not believe is apt. Why? Because this comparison operates as a rhetorical device, not a logical argument. There are many arguments used to support racism, and what they are primarily based on is not that some ethnicities are just of lesser moral value, but rather they are of lesser moral value because they (supposedly) lack certain characteristics. Racists will say all sorts of things about other ethnicities, such as that they are inherently more prone to criminal behaviour, or sexual “deviance”, or are less intelligent. The important point about these arguments is that they are factually wrong! There is just no evidence to back up these points. By accepting speciesism, that infants do indeed have rights animals do not, we are not committing the same error as racists, because they are committing an error of fact.

Furthermore, it is not like Francione even holds speciesism consistently. Consider all the rights we give to infants. If parents cannot provide for a child’s basic needs then this support is provided by the government. If a child does not receive such care from its parents, they can be prosecuted. To be consistent with non-speciesism then we would have to offer the same rights (such as food, healthcare, shelter, protection from foreseeable harm) to all wild animals. The fact that the child is a member of a family or community is irrelevant, as relational duties would have to be view as essentialist according to Francione to be consistent with non-speciesism. Yes by rejecting non speciesism it would be a loss of an ability to use that one argument against racists, but there are still many other arguments against racists, and we can use these arguments without leaving ourselves open to being inconsistent. By only applying anti-speciesism when it suits him, Francione is then himself a speciesist.

Francione ascribes to a type of moral realism in his arguments that does not acknowledge the presence of moral intuitions and the central importance they play in allowing us to judge what is and is not moral. His argument obscures these intuitions through rhetorical devices such as through comparisons to racism and slavery. At the heart of the issue though is that he has a moral intuition about animal rights, whereas those running the vegan campaigns that he opposes have intuitions with regards to the reduction of animal suffering. In the comparison he makes to slavery, Francione states that slavery is wrong all the time and so we should oppose it all the time, regardless of their being better or worse forms of slavery. In the comparison to sexism he states that sexism is wrong all the time, and so we should oppose sexism all the time. He then extends this argument to animal use stating that it is wrong all the time, and so we should oppose it all the time and not advocate for reducetarianism. But this argument is only valid if we accept that animals have the same hierarchy of rights that humans do, such that the violation of an animals rights to life overrides the violation of other rights such as avoidance of the many forms of abuse that happen on a factory farm but not on other types of more “humane” farms. Such a belief again is based on non-speciesism which even Francione cannot hold consistently. And once you reject the idea that speciesism is wrong or in some way equivalent to racism or sexism, his whole argument crumbles.

I would not say which is right or wrong beyond what my own intuition tells me, but by claiming that the vegan society position is logically invalid Francione is in error, and merely pushes the animal rights debate towards fundamentalist positions with one group of vegans claiming that another group are not “true” vegans. It’s divisive and should stop.


  1. Actually The Vegan Society don't advocate a reducetarian position, though they do operate on a non-judgmental policy for those who cannot go vegan overnight.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    If you look on the Vegan Society page How to go vegan they state that;

    "Some people manage to go vegan overnight and if that's the right approach for you, fantastic. But don't be concerned if you feel you need more time. Like any other lifestyle change, going vegan not only takes getting used to, but it takes time to determine what will work best for you. It's not a one size fits all experience and there are numerous approaches you can take.
    Making small changes to your everyday meals is one of the easiest ways to increase the amount of plant-based foods in your diet. You could start by removing meat or dairy one day a week and go from there. Or you could try changing one meal at a time, having vegan breakfasts during your first week, adding a vegan lunch during week two and so on."

    I would classify this as a reducetarian approach, as it explicitly justifies a gradual reduction in non-vegan eating, rather than the abolitionist position that one must immediately switch to veganism and that any use at all is equally bad.