I was invited on several occasions to sign the Montreal Declaration on Animal Exploitation. I appreciate that the drafters asked me to sign but, for the following reasons, I am unable to do so.
First, the Declaration Does Not Reject All Animal Use
What is the end — the ultimate goal — envisaged by the Declaration?
The Declaration purports to seek “the end of animal exploitation.” But what does that mean?
Just about every animal charity condemns “animal exploitation.” But just about all of these charities also promote various types of supposedly higher-welfare animal use. They may characterize factory farming practices as “exploitation” but promote supposedly more “humane” farming. They reject “exploitation” but give awards or praise to companies that produce or use these supposedly “happy” animal products. Some groups even have their own higher-welfare labels. The same is true of the signers of the Declaration. They oppose “exploitation” but many still promote various types of animal use.
To say that one opposes “animal exploitation,” without saying more, is meaningless and may — and almost always does — mean nothing more than that one is opposed to some practice that one finds immoral or unjust.
For precisely this reason, it has been and remains my view that we must be unequivocally clear that we seek the end of animal use. We must be clear that all use is exploitation.
The Declaration does not do that — and could not do that — because many of the signers have in various ways explicitly rejected the idea that all animal use is exploitation. Therefore, I cannot sign the Declaration.
Second, the Declaration Does Not Promote Veganism as a Moral Imperative
A central point in my work since the 1990s has been that the animal rights movement has failed because it decoupled the means from the ends, and proposes means that are not suited to achieve the end of abolishing animal use. I have argued that means such as welfare reforms or single-issue campaigns are not only not conducive to the end of abolishing animal use but are actually counterproductive because they make people feel more comfortable about continuing to participate in animal use and thereby perpetuate it. It has been and remains my view that veganism — not using animals for food, clothing, personal care products, research and medicine, entertainment, etc. to the extent practicable — is a necessary and non-negotiable means to the end of abolishing animal use.
As we saw above, the Declaration does not seek the end of all animal use. So it should not come as any surprise that it does not promote veganism as a means to end animal use. The Declaration does not propose that we adopt veganism now as a moral imperative as a means to that end. Indeed, the Declaration says nothing specific about individual obligations.
I suspect that the problem here is that many of the signers are not vegans. Moreover, some actively promote nonvegan strategies such as reducetarianism, or supposedly higher-welfare animal products; some have been very critical of consistent veganism. The Declaration really could not have proposed veganism as a moral imperative without putting many of the signers in a most uncomfortable spot.
What does the Declaration propose as to what we should do? What is its normative message?
The Declaration claims that we need to develop “plant-based food systems.” But what does that mean? Putting aside that eating animals is only one of the ways in which we exploit them, the food system cannot change unless individuals demand that change and those who continue to eat, use, or otherwise participate in animal use are not likely to demand the change that they themselves refuse to adopt. The Declaration proposes that we advocate for the closure of slaughterhouses. But that demand is absurd unless it is made in the context of the signers objecting to and refusing to participate in all animal use in the here and now. Slaughterhouses exist because the public demands animal products. The problem is not slaughterhouses; the problem is the demand for animal products. If ten slaughterhouses are closed today, but demand persists, ten more will be built or ten existing ones will expand production capacity.
So, in the end, what the Declaration, which explicitly states that change cannot happen “in the short term,” is doing is calling for incremental measures short of veganism now to get to some morally better position later.
Because the Declaration does not promote veganism as a moral imperative, I cannot sign it.
Third, the Declaration is Not Clear About “Necessity”
The Declaration states:
Insofar as it involves unnecessary violence and harm, we declare that animal exploitation is unjust and morally indefensible.”
It is obviously possible to refrain from wearing leather, attending bullfights and rodeos, or showing children captive lions in zoos. Most of us can already do without animal foods and still be healthy, and the future development of a vegan economy will make things even easier.
I have argued now for several decades that even if we do not embrace an animal rights position, our conventional wisdom — that it is wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering on animals — means that we should at least reject imposing any level of suffering, or death, on animals pursuant to any use that does not involve a true compulsion — where there is no meaningful choice.
The problem is that without a very clear and explicit compulsion component, a necessity requirement may be satisfied by mere inconvenience. For example, I would say that the only people for whom it is necessary to eat animal foods are those marooned and starving on the mythical desert island, adrift in the mythical lifeboat, or otherwise in a situation that could plausibly be described as involving compulsion. There are supporters of the Declaration who have sought to justify the consumption of animal products when traveling or dining out or when with non-vegan companions who might be put off by veganism.
The “inconvenience” approach to necessity is suggested by the claim that the “future development of a vegan economy” will make it easier to do without animal foods in the future. But it’s perfectly easy for us to avoid animal foods now. Vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, seeds, etc. are available just about everywhere and are almost always cheaper than animal products. The “future development of a vegan economy” may mean that one may have more choices when stuck at an airport than between a piece of fruit or a bag of potato chips and a meat/dairy/egg selection, but I would never say that it is “necessary” to choose animal foods in the airport. It’s just a matter of the inconvenience (very minor in my view) of a limited choice.
Moreover, given that the signers condemn “unnecessary harm and violence” but not all signers are vegan, and very few promote veganism as a moral imperative, one is left to wonder about what is meant by “unnecessary.”
Because the Declaration is not clear as to what is meant by “unnecessary,” I cannot sign it.
Fourth, Necessity Cannot Tell the Whole Story in Any Event
Although I have discussed the necessity component of our conventional thinking about animals in my work, I have made it clear that necessity — even if compulsion is part of the analysis — cannot provide the sole basis for ethical theory as it concerns animal use. The reason is that anything that is generally/widely accepted as necessary falls outside a rule that is intended to target animal uses that are transparently frivolous. Indeed, many who reject transparently frivolous uses of animals — e.g., for food, clothing, or entertainment — hold that at least some animal use for scientific purposes is justified morally precisely because such use is “necessary” to avoid a tremendous burden to humans.
There is language in the Declaration that possibly seems to address my concern. The Declaration claims to “condemn the practices that involve treating animals as objects or commodities.” Animals used to supply heart valves for humans, or for basic or applied research, or for other supposedly scientific purposes are all commodities or objects. The only reason why we can use them for these purposes is because they are commodities or objects. They are property.
Now, as someone who has written extensively going back to the 1990s about how the property status of animals necessarily relegates animals to the status of being commodities or things despite our claiming to recognize that they have morally significant interests, I agree that, if we recognize that nonhuman animals have a morally significant interest in not being used as property, that addresses the problem of vivisection. We are not justified in using animals for vivisection or for any institutionalized use because all institutionalized uses depend on animals being commodities.
But if the Declaration was intending to propose the abolition of the status of animals as property, and, in effect, to recognize that all sentient nonhumans have a moral right not to be used as property, then why didn’t it just say that?
I suppose that the answer is that, as mentioned above, a number of the signers of the Declaration have explicitly rejected the abolition of all institutionalized animal use that would be entailed by a rejection of the property status that makes that use possible in the first place.
As long as animals are property, it will not be possible to accord their interests equal consideration because their interests must weigh less than the interests of property owners. That is what it is to have an institution of animal property.
Because the Declaration does not promote the abolition of the status of animals as property, I cannot sign it.
Fifth, the Declaration Does Not Recognize Nonhuman Personhood
The Declaration recognizes that sentience is sufficient to have a morally significant interest in not suffering but does not recognize that sentience is sufficient to have a morally significant interest in continuing to live. That is, the Declaration does not recognize that sentient nonhumans are persons. I suspect that the reason for this is that a number of the signers maintain explicitly that sentience is not sufficient for personhood and that painlessly killing a merely sentient animal does not harm that animal because the animal lives in an eternal present and is not connected to a future self.
I have rejected this position in my work (1,2) and maintain that sentience is sufficient for having a morally significant interest in continuing to live, and that deliberately killing a sentient animal, or participating in institutional uses of animals that result in their death, is morally wrong. Even if merely sentient nonhumans are stuck in an eternal present (and I doubt that most of the nonhumans we routinely use are), there is something it is to be them in each second of their consciousness and that necessarily includes awareness of what it is like to be them in each second. Even if animals live in an eternal present, they are necessarily connected to the next second of their consciousness. They are aware of themselves in every second. There is a “me” in every second. That is what it is to be subjectively aware. Sentience is a means to the end of continued existence; to say that a being who is sentient but does not have a humanlike mind has no interest in continued existence is like saying that humans who have eyes have no interest in continuing to see.
The Declaration claims that it is wrong to differentiate between the more and less cognitively sophisticated for purposes of evaluating an interest in not suffering. I agree. But we also cannot justify differentiating between the more and less cognitively sophisticated for the purpose of evaluating an interest in continuing to live. And some of the signers do exactly that in their work.
In any event, the Declaration does not recognize that sentience is sufficient for nonhuman personhood and I cannot sign it.
I recognize that the Declaration was deliberately written with a high degree of ambiguity that can be read to support just about any position and can be signed by vegans and non-vegans alike. But in my view, a large number of people signing something that means whatever anyone wants it to mean and can accommodate vegans and nonvegans, is not only not helpful, but is positively counterproductive. What is needed — desperately — is a clear call for the abolition of all animal use and for veganism as a moral imperative. If animals matter morally, veganism is the only rational response.
I note that the Declaration was timed to be released on World Animal Day, which states as its aim: “Through increased awareness and education we can create a world where animals are always recognised as sentient beings and full regard is always paid to their welfare.” The Declaration, like World Animal Day, expresses a position that is woefully short of recognizing the fundamental right of all sentient beings to not to be used exclusively as means to human ends.
I cannot support the Declaration in its current form. In the spirit of collaboration and movement building, I offer the following brief paragraph as an addendum to the Declaration, to serve as its final paragraph:
In light of the foregoing, we the undersigned agree that animals, in virtue of their sentience alone, are full moral persons who have a morally significant interest in not suffering and in continuing to live. We agree that we must end animal exploitation, by which we mean that we must end all animal use and abolish the legal status of animals as property. Finally, we agree that veganism is both morally obligatory in the present and crucial to cessation of animal exploitation so described.
If that were added, I would sign most enthusiastically.
Gary L. Francione
Board of Governors Professor of Law and Katzenbach
Scholar of Law and Philosophy, Rutgers University
Visiting Professor of Philosophy, University of Lincoln (UK)
Honorary Professor of Philosophy, University of East Anglia (UK)
October 4, 2022