Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement
by Gary L. Francione
Temple University Press, 366 pages, $59.95 cloth, $22.95

Anyone whose image of the animal rights movement is one of nasty-tempered radicals who bomb laboratories and spray paint on fur coats will be in for a surprise in reading Gary Francione’s Rain Without Thunder. Francione, a law professor at Rutgers and an animal rights advocate himself, here scolds the movement for actually being too temperate, for having sold out to the animal “exploiters” in search of cultural acceptance. His targets are the major groups in their national mode, increasingly centralizing their efforts and squeezing out the grassroots, behaving like any self-aggrandizing organization––which, in Francione’s view, tends to make them less radical. About the only group that meets his approval is the Animal Liberation Front, the outfit that raids laboratories to free the captive experimental animals. As for the rest, ranging from the ultra-conservative Humane Society to the pretentiously radical-talking People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), they behave “far more like bourgeois charities than revolutionary organizations,” because they are unwilling to attack the legal status of animals as private property.

Francione is particularly vexed by PETA’s whoring after entertainment stars in its search for fame and money, especially in using naked women in its anti-fur campaign (“I’d rather go naked than wear fur”) and descending to shamelessly pornographic advertising. The whole movement reeks of toadying to the reigning powers, instead of standing firm as outside radicals attacking the system of “institutionalized animal exploitation.” They compromise and are thus compromised.

The problem is not just a desire for social status, though that is a large part of it and the occasion for Francione’s special scorn. The difficulty is also rooted in the inability of most animal advocacy groups to understand the difference between mere reform and total abolition. The first is “welfarism,” concerned to reduce pain and suffering. The second is the true “animal rights” position, concerned to treat animals as ends in themselves unavailable for human use. A movement dedicated only to treating animals kindly or “humanely,” sparing them “unnecessary” suffering, concedes the argument that they may be used for human welfare as long as certain safeguards are in place, that suffering “necessary” (or unavoidable) to human ends is morally acceptable.

Francione will have none of this: “Animal rights theory rejects the regulation of atrocities.” Welfarists are only advocating “longer chains for the slaves.” Animal defenders who mute their talk of rights and settle for mere reforms delude themselves when they think they can reach their long-term goal: an end to the human exploitation of animals via step-by-step improvements in the animals’ treatment. The basic right of an animal not to be treated as property either is or is not acknowledged; it cannot be approached incrementally. It is obvious, for example, that better slaughtering methods will not lead to the cessation of animal-raising for food; but because that is the goal, “humane” methods of slaughter cannot ever be acceptable to a sincere animal advocate.

Francione notes that critics from within the movement have attacked the strict rights advocates like himself as “fundamentalists” who are wrecking any possible progress by insisting on an “all-or-nothing” approach. That really annoys him, of course, because it plays into the hands of the “research establishment”––the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, and their kin––who call the animal rights people “extremists” in order to discredit them. The animal groups who have compromised rights for welfare have struck a bargain with the devil, and we all know who wins those deals. Abandoning their idealism for mere “compassion” leads to acceptance of policies that are indistinguishable from those who frankly use animals for experiments. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966, with its 1985 amendments, is a fraud, toothless and unenforced, used only by the biomedical establishment to lull the public into accepting its work. It is nothing but a license to the research community to continue business as usual. Nothing will change until we come to accept nonuse of animals, period––the absolutist position.

Francione’s main purpose in this book is to rally the dispersed animal advocacy movement around his rights thesis and against the welfarism which, he argues, is counterproductive. He is quite certain his own course is not quixotic, and, pace the critics, not an all-or-nothing policy, either. Rights theory can in fact provide an incremental progress toward abolition of institutionalized use of animals. One can abstain from using animal products oneself, use education to persuade others likewise (including nonviolent civil disobedience), or mount boycotts, all actions consistent with rights theory. One can also work for specific prohibitions against the use of certain animals, or against the use of all animals for certain purposes (“Don’t wear furs”), treating the animal as it would be treated if it were no longer property, not just substituting one form of exploitation for another but actually eliminating a “piece of the exploitive industry.”

It is evident that this is a book about politics and tactics, and that it is addressed to the general constituency of animal defenders. It is in that respect rather like a long internal memo. (It is also endlessly repetitive. A hard-nosed editor could have cut it by a third without losing anything of the argument.) But a reader who comes upon this book without a prior commitment to animal rights will be oddly distanced from the argument, even if considerably informed by it. All the varieties of opinion within the general animal advocacy movement are here, in excruciating detail. There is much tedious, picky chat about who gets credit for what. One would have to be a concerned insider to care that much about the infighting among the various groups.

Those of us who come to this work from outside the family will be more interested in the rights argument itself, whose validity Francione simply assumes as background for his discussion of the accommodationist course of the movement. He does take care to distinguish his position from the utilitarianism of Peter Singer, who gets more credit than Francione thinks he deserves for the renewed momentum of the animal protection movement. Singer thinks it is all right to use animals as long as their interests receive equal consideration with humans. Both may be exploited for cause––if the consequences are good enough. He does not argue for animal “rights.” Consequences are what count, and it is conceivable that the consequences of abolishing animal-raising for food might hurt humans in the aggregate more than hurt the animals killed, at least if the animals were raised and slaughtered in “humane” ways.

Thoroughly exasperated with Singer, whom he virtually accuses of hypocrisy (without using the word) in posing as the animals’ champion, Francione casts his ethical lot with Tom Regan’s deontological (non-consequentialist) argument. Regan claims that animals do have rights, inherent rights based on the mere fact of being alive. “There is simply no nonspeciest way of differentiating human subjects-of-a-life from nonhuman ones, which have inherent value for precisely the same reason that the humans do: because their life matters to them apart from whether it matters to anyone else.”

There is, of course, a lively debate about this argument, but Francione does not enter it. One can sense him skirting such hard questions as whether all living entities have rights (“at least some nonhumans,” or “at least some animals can be regarded as rightsholders”), or whether characteristics or qualities or interests confer rights. Regan, Francione’s moral exemplar, does in fact accept a hierarchy that allows him to kill lower forms of life but not mammals. But there is no hint of such important qualifications in this book.

Whatever the hidden details of Francione’s reasoning, he adheres to a theory of strict moral equivalence between humans and animals. He will countenance no use of animals for food (including dairy products) or clothing (including leather and wool) or experiments or entertainment, just as we would not use people for any of these ends. He does apparently keep dogs, although he refers to them as “the dogs who live with me,” as if to disguise the pet “owner” he inevitably is.

The moral equivalence theory creates some startling analogies that a general reader is likely to reject out of hand: “The killing of healthy animals solely for the convenience of humans is morally similar to killing unwanted groups of people for reasons of social convenience.” Animals raised for slaughter are like humans innocently imprisoned and tortured. We should not work for “humane” treatment of food or laboratory animals any more than we should pass laws requiring murderers to murder less violently, or men to rape women more gently, or slave owners to be kinder to their human property.

It is this last piece of moral equivalence that allows the book’s title, a quotation from Frederick Douglass criticizing those who desire the freedom of slaves without the radical agitation of the abolitionists as wanting “rain without thunder.” It is an application to the animal rights movement that readers not attuned to Francione’s thesis will find jarringly inappropriate. It reminded me of another current book on environmental ethics, where a list of human sins against nature runs together “Nazis cremating millions of Jews, Americans slaughtering billions of passenger pigeons...” as if they were perfectly comparable.

This is the moral obtuseness produced by the advocates of animal rights, and the tragedy is that they don’t even know it. There is surely better ethical wisdom available in the discriminate judgments that understand humans as the moral animal distinct from and ethically responsible for the lesser beasts, obligated particularly by our religious belief in the goodness of creation to treat lower creatures with kindness and respect, insofar as that is permitted by a realistic commitment to the priority of human welfare.

Thomas Sieger Derr, a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things, teaches in the Department of Religion and Biblical Literature at Smith College.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift