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Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror by Lee Hall

Joel Marks advocates animal rights with Lee Hall.

Capers in the Churchyard is not a book of philosophy, but it ought to be. Ostensibly about tactics in the animal rights movement, the book is in fact a manifesto for thinking about nonhuman animals in a wholly different way from what we have become accustomed to. The author, Lee Hall, is legal director of the America-based Friends of Animals, an animal advocacy group whose approach to the issue of animal rights is novel even by animal advocacy standards.

The churchyard capers of the title refer to a particularly gross episode of animal activism that took place in England in 2004: somebody absconded with the remains of the mother-in-law of a farmer who bred guinea pigs for a testing lab. Letters were subsequently delivered to the family demanding that the breeding stop if they wanted mother-in-law returned to her final resting place. Eventually it did stop – a supposed success of the extreme tactic. However, a number of protestors were eventually implicated and hauled into court on the charge of blackmail, where they faced long prison terms; and another new anti-terror bill was introduced by the British government. Meanwhile, the local populace was outraged by the grave desecration, as was the whole country when informed by the media. Presumably the testing lab found an alternative supplier of animals. So, on balance, was this a victory for animal liberation? Hall wants to impress upon the reader that the answer is most likely “No.” As she puts it: “if the actions of the militants appear to work on some level, it’s neither the level of changing minds nor laws. Indeed, on both counts, they’ve triggered a fierce backlash” (p.121).

When I had first heard about new so-called ‘anti-terror’ legislation aimed at animal rights activists in both the U.S. and England, I could only roll my eyes in knowing cynicism that Bush and Blair ’s new universal pretext was being exposed as the fraud it is. If you don’t like something, label its advocacy ‘terror’. For example, the Fur Commission USA’s website applauded the prospect that “[this] major improvement over current law… could provide prosecutors with a substantially greater incentive to prosecute animal rights terrorists…” – meaning those who oppose the fur industry?

But Hall makes clear that even a dedicated activist such as herself can have more than qualms about certain tactics being used, endorsed, or tacitly accepted by some in the animal rights movement. For one thing, they play right into the hands of the terror-labelers. Her objection runs far deeper than that, however. Here the book becomes not just tactical advice for activists, but also an exploration of ethics. When Hall writes that “There is no victory in changing someone’s conduct because a grave has been desecrated” (p.118), she does not mean only that the costs to the movement may outweigh the benefits, but more essentially, that coercion as a tactic is a betrayal of the proper end of an animal rights movement. That end would encompass all animals – which is to say, humans included: the goal is nothing less than the elimination of domination and hierarchy from the relations of humans to humans as well as of humans to other beings. This would be a regime of peace, Hall argues, because violence or the threat of violence is only a tool of domination, no matter how apparently benign the overt goal.

A big surprise of Hall’s treatment of activist terrorism is her linking it to the animal reform movement. It turns out that the rubric of ‘animal rights’ in fact masks a deep schism in the movement, not (only) over tactics, but also over goals. On the one hand are those who desire the incremental improvement of the lot of nonhuman animals, sometimes accepting alliances with the major corporations which use animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and health products for human beings. This side does not necessarily oppose the human use of animals as such. On the other hand there are those, like Lee’s group, Friends of Animals, who oppose any use whatever of other animals for human purposes, and hence their treatment as property or commodities. This side seeks nothing less than animals’ total liberation from human control or even oversight.

The former are called reformists, since they advocate bettering the conditions of animal use by humans, but seem to accept that use in the main. The latter are abolitionists, because they would altogether sever the ties that bind other animals to human dominion. The abolitionists see the denial of animals’ natural freedom as a kind of enslavement. Thus, for example, reformists typically push for anti-cruelty legislation, and bring pressure to bear on corporations to institute more ‘humane’ treatment of animals on farms, in labs and the like – while abolitionists call for the outright banning of animals in experimental research, from circuses, etc, and advocate a vegan diet.

The reason I said that Hall’s book ought to be a book of philosophy is that the above distinction cries out for more analysis and argument than she provides. The reader needs to understand what is really at issue. Specifically, is the animal rights debate intended to move beyond a discussion of tactics, or does it remain that? For example, there are reformists who claim that their goal is the same as the abolitionists’ – to free all animals from human exploitation – but, contrary to the abolitionists, they believe that the great mass of humanity can only be brought along stepwise, and in the meantime animal suffering can and should be alleviated. Alternatively, the abolitionists could be seen as arguing that their strategy will be more effective in the long run, since advocating only stepwise reforms is likely to have the unintended effect of lulling the public into self-satisfied acceptance of their main habits of animal use and consumption. Thus there is not necessarily any fundamental disagreement between the reformists and the abolitionists on ultimate goals, but only a disagreement about how best to proceed.

Hall’s book does not portray the situation this way, however; or rather, the book is divided. For while Hall does, as with terror tactics, offer many examples of the simple ineffectiveness, even counterproductivity, of reformist methods, her brief in both types of cases goes further: to question goals, and, indeed, motives. She even characterizes some reformists as selling out to well-heeled corporate sponsors, or at least as being their dupes. Hall is surely right about the prominence in the advocacy field of strong appeals to potential donors’ sympathies for the plight of abused cuddly creatures, as well as of self-serving claims of victory with each new deal with a major animal user to use animals more humanely. These tactics no doubt bring in a lot of money to certain animal advocacy organizations. But do they thereby hasten the eventual end of animal exploitation, or only create another vested interest in animals’ long-term subjugation?

Meanwhile, the connection drawn by Hall between reformism and terrorism is based in the first instance on cases of the same person or group espousing both methods in their animal advocacy. What sense is to be made of that? Hall discovers the root cause in “a steely utilitarian philosophy that supports ends-justified manipulation of others” (p.118). In a word, it’s Machiavellianism: do whatever works to achieve your end. But some of these means, as we have seen Hall argues, subvert the end by failing to appreciate and promote the proper end of animal advocacy.

I find Hall’s vision compelling, but much theoretical work remains to be done. The issue here is as deep as ethics itself, for there is nothing so enduring in morality as the tension between means and ends (except for the tension between self or ‘us’, and others: this surely also plays out in the province of animal ethics). If what is truly at issue are means, then the question is an empirical one, and much more is needed to clinch the argument than an ad hominem questioning of motives or the citing of what appear to be outré and exceptional cases, such as the titular capers. The world is painfully aware of this kind of issue being fought in Iraq, among many other places: what kind of tactics will win the day, and for whom? It is a very ancient question, and it is not even clear who decides the answer or when the answer can be decided. (Remember the banner on the aircraft carrier announcing ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’?) Furthermore, it is equally open for the opponents of Hall’s abolitionist kind of advocacy to level a charge of wishful thinking, or even its own brand of self-serving or deluded motives.

If what is at issue are ends, then the world where humans allow other animals to live “on their own terms” (a frequent refrain in this book) needs to be spelled out in much greater detail, and defended as practicable, and indeed, as desirable. Hall does offer us intriguing glimpses of what her ideal world would be like; but would humans like it, or even the other animals? For example, Hall argues that “risk is part of living in a vibrant ecology” (p.113). Apparently she means that if the cost of properly respecting other animals is that the occasional human will be mauled by a wild-but-free creature, so be it (p.98). But other animals will also suffer, for “Coming to respect the interests of conscious beings in living on their terms does not mean seeking to erase all the suffering and risk that life involves” (p.135). So instead of coddled pets, once-domesticated animals will be fending for themselves in the wild. Hall surely believes that in some fundamental sense this will be better for the animals, in the sense of restoring their dignity, if not their freedom from pain (p.71).

It is a noble vision, to be sure, but one that needs to be argued. One could honestly question if this is yet another human imposition on the lives of other animals – a romantic conception in lieu of an utilitarian one. Who is to say that the average animal in the wild might not prefer ‘a dog’s life’ in a human environment, if given the choice (which indeed the ancestor of the modern dog may have had)?

I pose these questions as devil’s advocate. What I would really love to see is another book by Lee Hall, this time focused not on questions of strategy but instead on the proper goal of animal advocacy. Indeed, Hall asserts that the whole point of a social movement is “to cultivate an alternative viewpoint, one that takes hold, gains energy, and becomes plausible to enough people to effect a paradigm shift” (p.73). But Hall’s vision needs to be delineated in much greater detail. As Hall herself notes, “Advocates might know what they oppose, but they are less sure about a positive vision to replace it” (p.96). Hall’s book is filled with succinct, striking, stirring statements such as, “The likelihood of individuals or cultures asking fundamental ethical questions about vivisection is not strong where those same people routinely interact with other animals by eating them” (p.60). But these epigrams cannot substitute for a sustained (ie booklength) development of the alternative vision.

For one thing, the vision needs to be made consistent. There is at least an ambiguity, and potentially a deep tension, in what Hall’s vision actually is. What she says in this book suggests forging a wholly non-dominating relationship between humans and other animals; but Hall simultaneously appears to be advocating an utter separation of human lives from theirs. The latter is instanced when she writes, “It’s simply not plausible that humanity can renounce our privileged position over them, yet live in situations where we could exert our will” (p.53). Thus she speaks of animals’ “right to be left alone” (p.52). Hall makes this comparison: “Feminists have observed the ways in which society’s extension of protection to women is a bargain that ends up with the women still under [men’s] control” (p.74). Is an implication therefore that the solution for the domination of women by men would be the complete segregation of the sexes? By the way, it becomes clear in the course of this book that Hall also considers that the ‘dominance’ by humans which is the root cause of animals’ plight is also a male phenomenon (eg, p.90). Presumably Hall does not mean to ship the men off to Mars. But how are her various statements about the ideal/morally-necessary relation between humans and non-human animals to be understood in concrete terms?

What’s more, any extended treatment of Hall’s vision needs to get into the theory behind the ideal. As I have already indicated, Hall can seem unclear on this score. Interestingly, Hall lodges a similar complaint against the terrorists and reformists for failing to understand their own theory (eg, p.80). It is nonetheless a crucial issue, as Hall herself suggests when she writes, “Social justice movements everywhere find guidance in the idea that another world is possible, and that once an idea can be conceived, it can be achieved. Theories can indeed be put into practice overnight …” (p.137).

In particular, does Hall really offer an alternative to the utilitarian ideology of her antagonists? Perhaps in dismissing a ‘steely utilitarianism’ Hall does not mean to dismiss utilitarianism outright. So much of this book, as we have seen, inveighs against the bad effects of terrorist and reformist tactics. But suppose it turned out that a reformist or even a terrorist strategy would be more effective in bringing about a world free from domination (including terrorism)? Hall’s arguments and evidence notwithstanding, I see no intrinsic paradox in such a possibility. I strongly suspect that even so, Hall would still insist that reformism and terrorism should be rejected. In other words, I don’t believe Hall wants to cast the fate of her vision upon such contingencies. The reason to reject terrorism and reformism is not that they might be ineffective, but that they are inconsistent with her vision of a world without coercion, manipulation and domination.

It may therefore be necessary to transcend tactics and goals altogether. This manifests the deep distinction in ethical theory between consequentialism and non-consequentialism – the latter being precisely the view that the ends do not justify the means. If one opts for this ethical thinking, one has thereby put aside questions of ends and means, and replaced them with questions about a way of living. Note that this approach can encompass both questions of strategy in the animal rights movement and the more fundamental question of how human beings ought to relate to other animals. I gather that is what Hall intends with the phrase “activism as integrity” (p.19).

One last problem remains. In classic non-consequentialist theory (in particular, Immanuel Kant ’s categorical imperative), it is not the use of others as such that is proscribed, but only ‘mere’ use – that is, abuse. For example, it is wrong to cheat someone, but perfectly fine to obtain something from them in a fair exchange. But it seems pretty clear from her book that Hall does not think it is possible in the real world for human beings to use other animals without abusing them. So, once again, the implication seems to be that humans should live and let (other animals) live. But this disparity between human-human and human-animal relations needs to be explained. Let the title of Hall’s next book therefore be: On Their Own Terms.

© Joel Marks 2008

Joel Marks is our Moral Moments columnist.

• Lee Hall, Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror, Nectar Bat Press, 2006, $14.95.

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