A few thoughts on the animal rights movement

It seems fair to say that Tom Regblogcloudpican has made a profound contribution to the modern animal rights movement, and in this television interview with William Friday, Regan offers a broad introduction to animal rights theory.   In more recent times it has been interesting to examine how this view of intrinsic rights is represented within the ‘animal rights movement’ itself, and it appears these views have become marginalised in favour of a utilitarian approach (generally regarded as harm reduction) where veganism has been presented as one option among many that could effectively address our responsibilities to non-human animals.  This approach has also tended to include a discussion of animal welfare in a way that is underpinned by collaborative efforts with the animal industry, rather than in regard to genuine caregiving or help for non-human animals (Lee Hall considers differences in welfare between ‘authentic welfare’ and ‘a term that deceives’).

One group in particular that has appeared in the ‘animal rights movement’ are the ‘effective altruists’; and a common claim of this group is that they wish to reduce animal suffering on as wide a scale as possible.  However, in practice this often results in violating the rights of one group or individual, in favour of others, in the name of effectiveness.  Decisions taken as to which violations are more acceptable than others often seem to be centred upon the position of human domination, and could be attributed to a continuation of our culturally indoctrinated speciesism.  In this way we could say their approach is inherently speciesist, because they choose not to argue from a position of the individual rights of others, but from their own position of domination.

One of the central tenets of veganism[1] itself is that it opposes animal exploitation, therefore it fits neatly into a *justice for all* approach where there is an anti-speciesist foundation, this is because we need to incorporate anti-speciesism in a similar way to how we need to incorporate anti-racism and anti-sexism into our justice approach.  Adopting this perspective legitimises animal rights as part of an intersectional justice movement.  It would seem the minimum we need to do here for non-human animals is that we refrain from either reinforcing or offering reassurance to people in their exploitation of animals, whilst presenting veganism as the basis of our anti-speciesist approach.

In a recent book Casey Taft outlined how we can advocate effectively for animals in ways that are consistent with veganism and animal rights; and Bob Torres wrote about how we also need to be critical of the structure of ‘animal rights’ organisations because their desire for mainstream success progressed in a way that perpetuated mainstream oppressions (for instance racism and sexism).  Indeed, the quest for positive news stories facilitated a false narrative that effectively limited, ignored or dismissed criticism from justice advocates (often under the guise of being ‘divisive’).  This issue has spilled over into ‘animal rights’ conferences that have frequently been organised to cater to a specific agenda rather than as an opportunity to present a broad number of perspectives *from* an animal rights position.

Since the inception of the modern animal rights movement it appears as if core values have become marginalised, as it is probably fair to say the initial intention was to help people bring animal rights and vegan ideas into practice through support and education (Donald Watson considered this ‘ripening’), engaging in awareness raising activities and to help non-human animals where possible.  The issue of marginalisation has appeared two-fold, on the one hand there is the professionalisation of the movement which has acted to diminish grassroots advocacy, and on the other, the ‘abolitionist’ bogeymen (not without foundation) that have allowed people to conveniently sidestep questions from a rights perspective that legitimately challenged their position.

As the animal rights movement presently stands it could justifiably be described as confusing, and this has caused ‘conflict’ within the movement itself. The animal rights movement has ceded space and hasn’t in turn compensated by either creating new spaces or maintaining space for the expression of rights based ideas.  Where utilitarians have attempted to mitigate conflict they have generally privileged their own approach (hypocritical) and marginalised animal rights views (hypercritical).  As part of this process there have also been attempts to silence animal rights advocates through accusations of ‘policing’, ‘shaming’, and by the construction of false ideas that suggest we are ‘all heading in the same direction’, a misnomer designed to present all ideas as similar enough to be compatible, or that it is our responsibility to back down from a rights based position because it suits the ‘mainstream’ movement for that to happen.  This dominant position within the animal rights movement seems to overlook the necessity for a certain degree of ‘conflict’/ debate / discussion / reflexivity that helps to maintain a functional movement.

As a result it appears useful to refer to the ‘animal movement’ instead of the ‘animal rights movement’ when encompassing the various groups involved, whilst being mindful of different descriptors such as reducetarian and flexitarian to explain utilitarian preferences, and how these approaches have necessarily diminished vegan advocacy.  We ought to allow space for people to discuss animal rights ideas without disruptive accusations such as ‘sounding like an abolitionist’ or not being ‘effective, pragmatic or strategic’ because activists are simply unwilling to reassure people over their animal consumption.  The actual animal rights movement itself has stagnated under the weight of ‘effective’ utilitarian ideas, which when closely examined have little in common with either veganism or animal rights.



From Animals to Anarchism, by Kevin Watkinson and Donal O’Driscoll (2014)

Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights, by Bob Torres (2007)

Motivational Methods for Vegan Advocacy: A Clinical Psychology Perspective, by Casey Taft (2016)

On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation for the 21st Century, by Lee Hall (2016)


[1] The Vegan Society definition* and not a dietary misrepresentation some people seem to prefer.

*“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”


Thanks to the people who have contributed to this piece in a variety of ways.

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