Objection (2): Wrong Priority
“There are more important and urgent matters in the world than animal rights. Why bother about the ethically sound treatment of animals as long as there are still people living in abysmal conditions, suffering from various injustices and dying from hunger, wars and horrible diseases? Shouldn’t we attend to human destitution and misery first and only then turn to the plight of animals?”
More often than not, this argument is put forward by those who neither work for nor otherwise actively support any worthy cause themselves. Instead, by appealing to this argument, these people appear to be criticising those working for a cause for working for the wrong cause. This hardly seems to be a credible basis for criticism, though. Because those who do nothing at all are in no position to chastise others for allegedly doing the wrong thing. But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that this reproach is put forward by an active supporter of a different cause than the promotion of animal rights.
(2.1) The Inconsistent Application of the Principle of Urgency Is Speciesist and Counter-Intuitive
The principle of urgency, as advocated here, is hardly convincing as its logic is applied inconsistently, i.e. only when one of the competing causes is related to animals. For, no one would possibly think of chastising those working for the elderly for not working for needy children – or vice versa. Within the human arena, such charges of wrong priority would certainly be rejected as being outlandish, if not outright absurd (see 2.2).
In this respect, the argument is therefore speciesist. Speciesism – i.e. moral discrimination based on species membership – poses a problem in so far as it is structurally identical with other discrimination paradigms such as sexism, racism etc. All of these forms of discrimination are flawed by the fact that they fall back onto a morally irrelevant criterion to ground moral differences – namely membership in a certain group. But if sexism or racism is considered morally abhorrent today, so should speciesism as it’s structurally identical.
Moreover, this argument is counter-intuitive as it seems to suggest that human-related causes, always and in all respects, tend to be more urgent or important than animal-related issues. This, however, would hardly seem convincing. For clearly we can imagine situations in which the urgency of attending to the enormous suffering endured by animals (such as particularly cruel forms of ritualistic slaughtering of masses of animals at some sacrificial feast) outweighs the urgency of alleviating some relatively minor inconvenience suffered by human beings (such as improving living conditions of a group of people who are poor but not living under the poverty line). Urgency is quite obviously not correlated with species membership. And so human-affecting issues don’t necessarily need to be given priority over animal-affecting issues.
(2.2) The Consistent Application of the Principle of Urgency Is Counter-Intuitive
The reason why a consistent application of the principle of urgency (i.e. extending it to the human sphere) is rejected is that it would have dramatic and counterintuitive consequences for intra-human morality. For whenever we were faced with a potentially worthy cause, we would be required to first make sure that the cause in question is the most pressing one, with no other more urgent causes present, so as not to waste our time and energy. This would involve weighing up causes in terms of their urgency, which is, more often than not, simply impossible. Or how, for instance, would you decide whether working for abused children is more or less urgent than working for starving children?
And even in cases where this appears to be more obvious, urgency certainly isn’t the last word on this subject. Or else doctors would have to abstain from treating patients with minor injuries such as broken fingers as long as there are still patients out there suffering from serious, life-threatening conditions such as cancer. So clearly, other factors also come into play here, which strongly contradict a strict application of the principle of urgency.
However, there are situations in which the principle of urgency can be justified indeed: if you are faced with two cases of different urgency directly (such as treating one patient who has cut his finger or treating one patient who has cut off his finger), urgency can be a relevant criterion. The choice between working for animal rights and, say, working for human rights, is no such situation. Therefore, applying the principle of urgency based on a narrow understanding is hardly convincing.
(2.3) The Assumption of a Dilemma Is Ill-Founded
A dilemma – or predicament – is a decisive situation between two options both of which are equally good or equally bad. Either both options are morally required, but you can only choose one; or both options are morally impermissible, but you have to choose one. In any case, your choice entails an unwelcome consequence.
This argument wrongly suggests a dilemmatic situation between competing worthy causes against the backdrop of limited resources: you have to choose between, say, helping abused children and abused animals. Now, the issue of limited resources in terms of time, energy and money is certainly undeniable. But throughout history, many social reformers have proven this obstacle not to be insurmountable as they have worked for several worthy causes, animal and human alike, simultaneously.
Take, as a case in point, Henry S. Salt, a 19th-century British social reformer, who was not only among the first to argue in favour of animal rights but who was also committed to campaigning against the oppression and abuse of humans across a wide range of social institutions and political structures; or Henry Bergh, who not only founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) but was subsequently also involved in establishing the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; and many major animal rights organisations today also explicitly endorse anti-sexist, anti-racist, non-violence and social justice agendas.
So worthy causes are neither necessarily mutually exclusive, nor do they require a hierarchy with animal causes inevitably relegated to the lower ranks. Quite on the contrary, there seems to be a mutually reinforcing principle at work here. For it is safe to assume that people who work for animal causes are more likely to work for human-related causes as well, owing to their heightened empathy, stronger sense of justice and greater sensitivity for the suffering of others. Therefore, charges of animal preferentialism or misanthropy, commonly levelled at animal advocates in this context, are largely unfounded.
(2.4) Intersectional Nature of the Animal Issue
Many aspects of animal and human welfare are in fact interconnected or intersected. So, for instance, the large-scale consumption of animal products engenders not only massive suffering on the part of the animals; it’s also a contributing factor to a multitude of issues affecting humans: food justice and world hunger, the spread of diseases and multi-drug resistances, waste of resources, climate change, environmental degradation etc. The whole bad litany of unwelcome consequences of consuming animal products could be recited further no end.
Consequently, those working for the animal cause often also support solving human-affecting issues and thus contribute to creating a better world for humans as well. This may happen directly as illustrated in the last rebuttal (2.3). But even if they do not explicitly endorse an agenda including human issues, animal rights advocates and activists nevertheless often contribute to improving the situation for humans as well – albeit indirectly. Either way, at the end of the day, human beings definitely also benefit from animal rights advocacy.
(2.5) Failure to Distinguish between Negative and Positive Duties
This argument overlooks the distinction between weak positive duties and strong negative duties and the fact that supporting animal rights only requires omission of certain actions.
Positive duties imply taking action: they require you to bring about something actively – like supporting others or furthering their wellbeing. Traditionally, these duties or obligations are considered to be weak, i.e. their binding power is comparatively low and only certain people are the addressees of these duties (with the sole exception probably being assistance in cases of emergency – a strong positive duty of which everyone is an addressee).
Negative duties, by contrast, imply inaction, omission or non-interference: they require you not to do something – such as refraining from actions that have an adverse impact on others. So the principles “Don’t kill!” or “Don’t harm!” express negative obligations. Traditionally, these obligations are considered to be ‘strong’, i.e. their binding power is strong and they apply to all moral agents equally. Negative duties form the baseline of morality, as it were.
Now the argument in question attempts to construct a dilemma where we have to choose between helping humans and helping animals. And of course, so the argument goes, helping humans has a higher priority. But supporting animal rights does not require you to actively bring about something; all it requires you to do is to refrain from doing something – namely supporting the system responsible for animal exploitation. And this can easily be achieved by stopping to buy animal products and replacing them with alternative products instead.
Consequently, supporting animal rights does not force you to put aside any other worthy cause you are working for. So, for instance, cutting animal products from your diet does not prevent you from helping children in need. And you certainly don’t need to be a meat-eater or milk-drinker to support the sick or elderly. So the good news is: when it comes to animal rights, you can be a supporter by not doing certain things: you can be an activist by not consuming animals.
(2.6) Special Status of the Animal Issue
Even if active animal rights advocacy does take up time and energy, there are crucial differences to most human-related causes that still justify it:
(i) Animals can’t speak up for themselves; instead, they depend on humans to do so for them. (In fact this makes the animal rights movement one of the few truly altruistic social movements. For none of those who are involved in its promotion can expect to gain or benefit personally but, quite on the contrary, willingly accept certain restrictions in terms of their lifestyle and consumer behaviour.)
(ii) There is a lack of public awareness – with most people ignorant of the scale, forms and intensity of animal suffering. (This being due largely to the fact that most people do not seek information that might make them feel ill at ease but choose wilful ignorance instead.)
(iii) There is no moral consensus regarding the moral status of animals – except for the general tendency to relegate animals to the inferior moral ranks.
(iv) There is a lack of institutionalisation – as almost all work directed at improving the moral and legal status of animals is left to NGOs and committed individuals of the civil society. (Even existing animal protection laws are rarely, if ever, enforced by the authorities of their own accord; instead, enforcement almost always depends on action initiated by NGOs, activists and concerned individuals. And even then the legal sanctions facing offenders are, more often than not, rather harmless by comparison.)
(v) And there is the, at least indirect, involvement of an overwhelming part of the population – with all the obvious resistance that goes with it when it comes to questioning a system everyone has grown accustomed to and, in a sense, dependent on.