Tuesday, December 15, 2009

PETA: A Corporate Tangle of Contradictions

In the media and the minds of most people, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”) is the corporate embodiment of “animal rights”. In some respects, this common belief in the connection between “animal rights” and PETA is understandable. Browse PETA’s website or literature and you’ll frequently see the terms “animal rights” and “vegan” mentioned favorably, as well as their motto, “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment”. Indeed, PETA wants to be thought of as the largest and best-known “animal rights” organization in the world, and they have the resources, relative to other individuals and organizations involved in animal advocacy (approximately $34 million in annual revenues) to keep that impression strong in public discourse and the media.

Despite the “animal rights” public image PETA intentionally promotes, however, their underlying philosophy and activities, by and large, are decidedly welfarist and substantially contradict any coherent notion of animal rights.

PETA’s Self-Contradictory Philosophy of Animal Ethics

PETA is notorious for calling the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer “the father of the animal rights movement” as well as calling Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, the “bible of animal rights”. Ironically, however, Singer is an act-utilitarian who explicitly rejects rights for anyone, human or nonhuman. In contradiction to PETA’s motto, Singer believes that animals are ours to eat, wear, and experiment on (1, 2, 3). According to Singer, as long as we raise and kill them “humanely”, or as painlessly as reasonably possible, there is nothing wrong with using animals for our purposes. In other words, for Singer, following the 18th century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham who founded the animal welfare movement 200 years ago, the issue is treatment, not use.

So, according to PETA, we have an “animal rights” philosopher who “fathered” the animal rights movement and wrote its “bible”, but in bold contradiction, would agree with Jeremy Bentham that rights (for anyone, including humans) are “nonsense upon stilts”.

Why does PETA, whose motto claims that animals are not ours, and presents itself as an “animal rights” organization, promote a philosopher who rejects animal rights and strongly believes that it is morally permissible to exploit animals? This is the core contradiction that lays the foundation for most of the other contradictions that we will explore in this essay.

PETA’s Self-Contradictory Activities

Like a serious error made early in a long math problem, PETA’s philosophical self-contradiction carries through to most of the activities in which they engage, rendering those activities confusing and misleading at best, and at worst, antithetical and regressive to animal rights. If our philosophy – our blueprint and foundation for carrying out our activities – is seriously flawed, then no matter how well we execute that philosophy, it will lead us down the wrong trail and end in botched and bungled results. What follows is a list of activities regularly carried on by PETA – welfare campaigns, sexism, embarrassing publicity stunts, a self-interested business model, and worst of all, unjustified killing – that boldly contradict the philosophy of animal rights and its foundations of justice, nonviolence, good judgment, and equal consideration of others based on morally relevant criteria.

PETA’s Welfare Campaigns Contradict Animal Rights

PETA allocates a substantial portion of their money, time, and effort to high-profile campaigns that attempt to reform and regulate the methods and practices of the animal exploitation industry. This helps to reinforce the speciesist paradigm in two significant ways: 1) By adding additional layers of rules and regulations and additional “inspector” jobs, it strengthens the legislative, economic, and bureaucratic system that supports animal slavery; and 2) Through the marketing of these reforms and regulations, people feel better about contributing to the rape, torture, and murder [1] of tens of billions of innocent beings annually, which in turn increases industry’s profits.

These welfare campaigns are consistent with Peter Singer’s speciesist [2] utilitarian philosophy, but contradict any meaningful concept of animal rights. It is useless to talk about what “rights” someone may have if they do not have a basic right not to be intentionally killed or seriously harmed for the preferences of others. For example, consider how we would assess a human rights organization running campaigns for regulations prohibiting certain methods of slavery, rape, torture, and murder, instead of campaigning consistently and unequivocally for the end of these practices. The vast majority of us would oppose such a human “rights” organization that lacks ambition to the point of implicitly condoning such activities, regardless of their superficial mottos and platitudes about “rights”. The only thing stopping us from opposing PETA for the same reasons is our speciesism.

PETA’s Sexism Indirectly Reinforces Speciesism

Speciesism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism are all bigotries rooted in the same underlying confusion that ignores morally relevant characteristics, like sentience or interest, in favor of morally irrelevant characteristics, like species or race, in providing equal consideration to others. And yet so many people are strong, passionate advocates trying to eliminate one or more of these prejudices while ironically scoffing at another. It is common to see feminists, LGBT activists, and civil rights advocates ridicule concern over speciesism while blithely ignoring the underlying implications of their dismissal. Many condemn the bigotry of others, but cannot see their own.

The same goes in the other direction for PETA and their sexism. If PETA is exploiting women in fur and flesh campaigns, reinforcing the current societal paradigm which sees women as objects and their bodies as commodities, why should anyone take seriously what such a hypocritical organization has to say about speciesism? Advocates of social justice issues render their own cause trivial when they trivialize the causes of others.

PETA’s Publicity Stunts Trivialize a Grave Injustice

When we look at successful social justice movements of the past – 19th century abolition of slavery, the suffragists, and the civil rights movement – we see that their leaders were people of strong, serious, and noble character. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks were not the kind of people who would have engaged in silly or embarrassing publicity stunts to grab the attention of the media of their time. When they received attention from the public, it was because of the moral power of their message and words, not because they “got naked” or engaged in shock humor or other stunts that trivialized the injustices they were fighting against.

In contrast, PETA is best-known for its obnoxious and often sexist publicity stunts and gaudy self-promotion, appealing to the lower aspects of human attitudes and behavior. Sadly, PETA cannot even attempt to speak with moral authority because it would so blatantly contradict their attitudes and actions as manifested in “Save the Whales” billboards that make fun of female obesity, banned television advertisements, and sexist campaigns like “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur”.

PETA Is a Business

PETA’s self-contradictions can be traced to two primary factors: 1) their contradictory blend of traditional utilitarian-welfarist philosophy (animal are ours…) with a façade of rights-sounding rhetoric (“animals are not ours..”) and 2) that PETA is, among other things, a corporation existing as a legal person, but with none of the potential conscience of a human moral agent.

PETA’s business cycle starts with single-issue and welfare campaigns against targets selected as low hanging fruit – practices that industry would not mind changing even if only for public relations reasons, but often for profitability reasons as well. PETA then sends out the urgent call to donors: "HELP! Donate as much as you can or we might not win this victory!" Donors – most of whom are not vegan, and are therefore contributing to the very problems to which they donate money to “resolve” – respond by opening their checkbooks and filling PETA’s coffers. After several weeks or months of campaigning, the target exploiter “gives in” to PETA’s campaign. PETA immediately declares “VICTORY!” to their donors and, usually as part of the deal with the target exploiter, PETA promotes the exploiter in a public relations campaign, as they did for KFC Canada.

The result of the business cycle is that PETA wins donations and reinforces their reputation as the “watchdog” over industry, enabling them to perpetuate the cycle indefinitely. Non-vegan donors win a “victory” and a false sense that they are doing something to offset their own personal contribution to the hell that their innocent victims endure. The animal exploiters win by increased misguided public confidence that these products are “humane” and by obtaining the public relations support of a (so-called) animal “rights” organization. The losers, of course, are the innocent beings who are exploited and killed for the trivial pleasures of those who see them as commodities.

Further, since there are so many ways in which we exploit and inflict cruelty on sentient nonhumans, and since industry is so resilient to the temporary and superficial changes brought about by the so-called “victories”, the opportunities for the welfare-campaign-donation business cycle can easily last indefinitely, or for as long as industry itself lasts.

PETA’s Opportunity Cost
PETA’s contradictions in philosophy, rhetoric, and activities – which have led to profound public confusion and fortification of the utilitarian-welfarist status quo that has been in existence since Jeremy Bentham – have been a barrier to progress in advancing animal rights, and will continue to be a barrier as long as they continue as an animal welfare organization.

However, PETA as a barrier to animal rights is only one part of the cost to any viable abolition movement. The other part is the opportunity cost incurred by PETA. We should ask not only how PETA could remove itself as a barrier, but how much more PETA could do by being consistent with animal rights philosophy in their public education. What if PETA dropped the garbage – the single-issue campaigns, the welfare campaigns, the sexism – and engaged solely in creative, nonviolent vegan education? When we add the opportunity cost to the barrier cost, the total cost to progress in animal rights is enormous and tragic.

Vegans Against PETA
Is it any wonder why vegans who are serious about animal rights and the eventual decline, fall, and abolition of industrial animal exploitation and killing are against PETA? In Abolition versus Welfarism: A Contrast in Theory and Practice, I explained industry’s strengths and weaknesses and explained how welfarism caters to industry’s strengths, while the abolitionist approach attacks industry’s weaknesses. PETA’s welfarism, sexism, and trivializing publicity stunts all play to industry’s strengths. Only a strong and consistent message that we are not morally justified in exploiting sentient nonhumans and that veganism is a minimum standard of decency will shift the paradigm and result in the eventual abolition of industrial exploitation and cruelty. Large, corporate organizations like PETA are the last groups we need to make this progress. Only a strong, grassroots, abolitionist animal rights movement will succeed.

Further Reading
The topic of new welfarism in general and PETA in particular is too broad to tackle with adequate depth in a blog essay. As such, I highly recommend reading Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement by Professor Gary Francione for a far more comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the problems with new welfarism and PETA. In addition, the links above offer additional information and perspective on the topic of new welfarism generally.


[1] By “murder”, I mean unnecessary, intentional killing. At least 99% of the intentional killing of animals in our society is unnecessary, in any meaningful sense of that word, and qualifies as murder if any act does.

[2] Although Peter Singer talks a lot about avoiding speciesism (and implicitly denies that he is a speciesist), his assumption that sentient nonhumans have no interest in their continued existence is itself plainly speciesist. We do not need on-going “projects” in our life, as Singer believes we must, to have a strong and important interest in continued existence. All sentient beings struggle for existence, and it doesn’t take an expert in ethology to confirm it. This struggle for existence makes the interest in continued existence obvious. To deny it in nonhumans, or to define “an interest in continued existence” to the exclusion of this struggle, is speciesism.