Domesticated Warfare, Continued

by Mike O’Brien

Well, it’s been two months since my last column, and I assume that most of my readers are still alive, so it’s time for a second consideration of the “war analogy” regarding our treatment of non-human animals.

I mentioned in May that Tom Regan, celebrated animal rights philosopher and activist, expressed some misgivings about the aptness and usefulness of this analogy, which compares the killing and maiming of humans in warfare to the killing and maiming (but usually killing) of animals in our economic status quo.

In several essays and interviews, Regan compared the war analogy to two other analogies employed by critics of animal agricultural industries, those of slavery and of the Holocaust. He notes that, unlike the slave owner, it is in the hog farmer’s interests to kill his captives. This is almost correct, but not quite. In both cases, the killing that results from exploitation is incidental to the goal of extracting labour, on the one hand, and meat, on the other. It would be better for the slave owner to work his captives harshly enough to kill them, but somehow have them survive to work another day. Brazilian slave owners, having access to a steady supply of new slaves from Africa, worked their captives to death at a far higher rate than those in the antebellum United States, leading Darwin to curse the country as one of the cruellest on Earth. The economically fine-tuned system of American chattel slavery is not paradigmatic of the practice across history; this is an example of how analogies between practices as widespread and varied as war, slavery and meat-eating require some nuance, specifying which instance of practice X mirrors which instance of practice Y.

As for the hog farmer in Regan’s example, or the furrier, it would be ideal for him to be able to sell the meat from a hog, or the fur from a mink, without killing it, as with the wool of a sheep. Medieval texts speak of legs being cut from living animals for meat, without slaughtering the donor; as far as I know, there were no follow-up appointments noting how well the 4-n legged animal fared afterwards. There were, prior to the dominance of steam and oil power, many animals that were kept for labour rather than meat, and these seem to be an obvious analogy for slavery, or simply a type of slavery. Such captive animal labour still abounds in less industrialized economies, and in niches of more industrialized ones, such as entertainment, companionship and security. Even in the case of scientific toxicity testing, where animal subjects must die to generate data, it would be ideal if they could be revived and reused (provided this could be achieved for less that the replacement cost of the animal). Their dying satisfies a need for a peculiar kind of labour, not a need for destruction.

The Holocaust analogy, foremost but not unique among examples of genocide, is apt for a situation where destruction is the goal of the killing. But such an eliminationist goal is much more rarely pursued with regard to animals than the goal of profiting by rendering bodily substances. It may be becoming more common, as invasive species are more urgently targeted by governments for the sake of protecting vulnerable native species and economic concerns, and as some animal populations are seen as vectors and reservoirs of zoonotic diseases (I admit that, given the toll of pesticides, eliminationist interventions may already kill more animals that extractionist interventions. A question for a future column). These concerns echo those of the race-eliminationists who wrought the Holocaust: populations threatening the prosperity, health and survival of “the people” by perniciously living as they do, or even by living at all. Anyone who doesn’t belong on a scaffold can agree that eliminationist targeting of Jews, trade unionists, and other victims of Fascism is abhorrent and unconscionable, in part because we know that the justifications for their persecution were (and are) pernicious and false. But eliminationist solutions may yet be justified and necessary for, say, an animal population carrying a catastrophic disease. The Holocaust analogy applies more usefully, and more comfortably, to those historical cases where animals were wiped out in a panic inflamed by myths and lies. It has the disadvantages of historical singularity (we hope), and of moral-affective inflammation, the former making analogies harder to hold, the latter making them too quickly grasped.

Finding slavery and genocide deficient analogies for the assault on animal life waged in our industrial economies, Regan suggests war as a better comparison. He lays out four shared facts supporting this case: individuals are injured, individuals are killed, individuals are imprisoned, and weapons are used (“weapons” being defined as tools employed to submit and kill). Of course, these four points apply very well to slavery and to genocide as well, in some respects perhaps even more aptly than in the case of war. Unlike the case of war, slavery aims at profitable exploitation, as does animal agriculture. (War profiteers certainly aim at profitable exploitation, but they only sometimes and only jointly decide to initiate and continue the wars by which they enrich themselves). Unlike the case of war, genocidal violence is generally one-sided and more akin to colonial policing (indeed, it has often been continuous with colonial policing) than to combat between armed forces. This criticism is too quick, though, considering that the modern model of war as an organized affair between armed groups is historically specific; marauding predation upon civilians was and is part of the spectrum of warfare. In such cases, though, what is lacking is the context of domination and control that marks the genocide of internal populations as well as the killing of captive animals.

I do find it puzzling that Regan thought the war analogy to be significantly better than the slavery or genocide analogies. To be generous, I can think of a few additional merits: war can be a persistent and normalized state of affairs, as in the “Cold War” or “War on Terror”. But then again, so was slavery, and campaigns of ethnic extermination may be carried out slowly and steadily. Regan cites as a parallel with war the use of mercenaries, comparing their work of killing for hire with that of the farm and slaughterhouse workers. This seems too tenuous a comparison. Yes, mercenaries do “dirty work” on behalf of their patrons, but the circumstances of their employment varies widely. They are sometimes employed by aggressors, sometimes by defenders; they are sometimes employed out of necessity, sometimes out of convenience; they sometimes supplement a regular professional or conscripted army, and sometimes compose the major part of the force themselves. Even if there exists some instance of mercenary deployment which usefully mirrors the role that the bolt-gun wielder plays for the pork-chop purchaser, the linkage requires more stretching than should required of a helpful analogy. If an analogy requires explanation and argument, it is adding to rather than lightening the communicator’s burden.

War has been a compelling frame for storytelling perhaps as long as there have been stories. It is certainly a popular topic in the most ancient surviving texts. That narrative power makes it a useful analogical template into which new stories may be stretched or crammed, losing some fidelity for the sake of ready reception. Just the mere mention of a “war on animals” elicits sparks of imagination, as the recipients of this metaphorical prompt colour in the details themselves. One of my favourite film franchises, the most recent iterations of “Planet of the Apes”, is compelling to me precisely because it creates a scenario in which a proper war exists between humans and animals. It could be a Shakespearean drama, or an embellished Roman history. The reason it works is that it gives the apes, via sci-fi intervention, a level of language and shared self-awareness sufficient to constitute a political identity. An ape bloc, not merely an ape crowd; a collective force that recognizes their human aggressors as enemies and resists them as such. It’s a great story, but a poor analogy, because by transforming the apes into quasi-human agents, it creates a parity and reciprocity that does not exist between captive animals and their human consumers. But to what degree should the truth and accuracy of analogies matter to philosopher-activists who use them? I have related quibbles with anti-speciesist thinkers who compare the wrongness of species-based discrimination with race-based or sex-based discrimination. There is much traction to be gained by hitching your rhetorical wagon to the anti-sexist and anti-racist opprobrium that exists in (we hope) most people’s minds, but are all species equal in the morally relevant ways in which all human “races” and sexes are? It would convenient for the anti-speciesist argument if they were, but truth should trump expedience for philosophers, even hyphenated philosophers such as philosopher-activists. (This is not to accuse radical anti-speciesists of dishonesty, which would be an awkward position to hold, knowing as many of them as I do. But sometimes I do worry that there is rather too much reasoning from a conclusion to an argument, and rather too many store-bought arguments instead of DIY ones, all of which is proper to rhetoric but not so for philosophy).

I must say that all these difficulties make me even more appreciative of Saskia Stucki’s comparison of animal welfare protections to wartime regulations such as the Geneva Conventions (Stucki’s arguments are the subject of my previous column). The analogy is defensibly strong and selective in scope, not trying to compare the whole phenomenon of war to the whole phenomenon of animal exploitation, but rather finding a parallel between two defined statuses in extant law. Of course, it lacks the broad appeal of more sweeping comparisons, which is fine if it is meant to stimulate legal scholars and policy analysts, but a demerit if it is meant to rally the average citizen.

To be fair, Regan also considered the more narrow comparison of prisoners of war to captive animals, and recognizes the important difference that human POWs have a “normal” rights-holding status to return to, whereas animals do not. He compares animal welfare reform efforts to petitioning for improved POW conditions while allowing the war to continue unabated. He also recognizes that our exploitative relationship with animals must, to some degree, be recognized as sui generis despite the temptation to draw comparisons with our intra-species injustices. He was given as an activist, and particularly as a hopeful and future-oriented thinker, to see the war analogy not just as descriptively helpful, but as motivationally powerful, leading opponents of animal exploitation to situate themselves as allies of animals and enemies of their enemies.

I am having general misgivings about analogical reasoning as a tool for understanding our moral entanglements with animals. The familiarity which makes analogies useful for communicating, especially to a lay audience, also binds them to something other than the matter at hand. At worst, the analogy works so well that the new concept is incorporated into our thinking by simple substitution. A is to B as X is to Y, and so on down the line, as new vocabulary is added while the old grammar remains unchanged. Perhaps we are just so lucky that new moral problems really are analogous to old ones, and it really is proper to re-apply old solutions mutatis mutandis. This good fortune would leave us woefully unpracticed in the kind of innovation and conceptual evolution that would be required to handle a truly novel and alien problem, if and when it comes. Of course, “us” in this context refers to some kind of chimera, a moral philosopher/ordinary human hybrid attuned to both sophisticated ethical concepts and common moral sense. I don’t really know on whose behalf I am worrying, besides my own. And the hundreds of billions of slaughtered animals, I suppose.

Another danger of pitfall of relying on analogy is that it can lead to a certain passivity about new, or newly recognized, dangers. Witness the debates, now swelling but long ongoing, about whether some nasty authoritarian movement is like the Fascists, or like the Communists. Let’s ignore, for the moment, whether the people having these debates can tell a Nazi or a Stalinist from a hole in the ground. The historical specificity of the preceding Worst Things Ever are such that significant dis-analogies will always exist, supporting a quietist position that “there’s no need to panic, they’re not Nazis yet”. Just like Covid isn’t the Spanish Flu, and Putin isn’t Stalin. But if the satisfaction of a perfect analogy is our trigger for extraordinary action, we will never have occasion to take any extraordinary action. Perhaps we have been lulled by the “end of history” nonsense that was thrown around since the fall of the Soviet Union, believing that any truly exceptional, catastrophic dangers still ahead will merely be faithful reboots of history’s “greatest hits”, and recognizable as such.

Our exploitation of animals in nothing new. But the present industrialized exploitation of scientifically optimized prey organisms, in scientifically optimized exploitation factories, at a scale of tens of billions of lives per year, untethered to our sustenance needs, that is new. Just as the Holocaust did not invent genocide, but crystallized its logic with horrifying clarity. Just as the trans-Atlantic slave economy did not invent slavery, but distilled and magnified it into something too abhorrent for even the merciless British empire to bear. If the present animal-industrial complex ever does end, I wonder if we will ever understand it correctly in hindsight, and if we will see it as the logical conclusion of pre-existing relations to animality, or some monstrous techno-cultural irruption that carried a logic of its own. Will it be seen as more monstrous than knowingly cooking the earth for profit? More monstrous than toying with nuclear annihilation? Monstrosity, insanity and suicidality don’t seem to much impede the material success of profitable endeavours, and unsustainability doesn’t seem too urgent in manifesting itself. Will humans ever fight wars of abolition for the sake of animals, while there are still animals to save? That might scratch the war-think itch of those aggrieved on behalf of suffering beasts, without the unseemly business of clumsy analogies.

Correction: In my previous article, “Domesticated Warfare”, I cited Saskia Stucki as drawing a line between “necessary unnecessary suffering” and “unnecessary necessary suffering”. It should have read “necessary unnecessary suffering” and “unnecessary unnecessary suffering”.