Animal Protection > Activist Index

Utilitarianism, Animals, and the Problem of Numbers [1]

Stephen Hanson, PhD

The question raised in this essay is whether illegal animal liberation activities can be justified by a utilitarian analysis.  The form of utilitarianism I will discuss is known as act-utilitarianism, which states that an action is right when, of all the actions possible to a given agent at a given time, that action will produce the best ratio of good consequences to bad consequences for all sentient beings affected. [2]   I argue that utilitarianism can only justify illegal animal liberation activities under certain fairly uncommon circumstances.  I will describe some of the difficulties in justifying any illegal act on utilitarian grounds, elaborate the sorts of circumstances under which illegal acts could be justified in a utilitarian framework, and then begin to evaluate how a utilitarian may determine whether a particular proposed illegal action can be justified.

This might seem a rather narrow objective, since utilitarianism is but one of multiple moral theories that people consider.  An activist could agree with the argument herein and still feel she could ignore the conclusion because she is not utilitarian, preferring instead a rights-based or a virtue-based approach.  Yet my argument may be more generally applicable to activists than it might initially seem.  By definition, activists seek to effect change in the world around them, and are thus concerned primarily with their actions bringing about a desired set of results.  Consequently, to argue that a utilitarian ought to act in such-and-such a fashion because that produces the best results for humans and other animals is also to argue that activists who are truly concerned about producing the best results for animals should perform the same actions.  A utilitarian argument should therefore be generally applicable to many activists. [3]

I intend this article as a challenge to those who advocate illegal forms of direct action as morally and practically appropriate means for liberation of animals.  By the goal of “the liberation of animals” I mean making our society one that no longer treats sentient animals as food, tools for human use, or property of any kind.  The kinds of illegal actions I mean here include, but are not limited to, things like sabotage, arson, destruction or theft of data, breaking into a site such as a laboratory or factory farm to remove animals (including “open rescues” as well as anonymous, “closed” rescues) and any kind of trespassing on private property, even if only to make audio or video recordings of abusive conditions. [4]   While illegal activities certainly can produce some good results, their effectiveness can also be overstated; the challenge I issue to activists is to think carefully about the long-term consequences of illegal actions to ensure that they will produce the most good in the long run, and I suggest some reasons why such a long-term approach is the right approach to take. 

My key concern is that illegal actions may win a short-term victory - freeing animals, revealing the ugly truth about a lab or factory farm, or forcing the closure of a particular facility - but be counter-productive to the overall struggle fought out in the hearts and minds of the public as a whole.  True, not every illegal action is counterproductive.  Historically, it can be seen that even some acts of pure sabotage can serve as rallying points and lightning rods for change - consider, for example, the Boston Tea Party where in 1773 the Sons of Liberty destroyed 342 crates of British tea.  But other such acts can damage one’s causes in the minds of a public whose support they need.  The challenge is to ensure that the illegal action in question is truly the best option one has for the long-term goal of animal liberation.

The target of this essay is the liberationist who is considering, among various options, an illegal action as a means of furthering the cause of animal liberation.  I also challenge, by extension, those who support illegal liberation activities.  It should go without saying that many liberationists employ or support legal tactics as well as illegal tactics, as they realize that legal actions can be quite productive in at least some cases.  In order to defend an illegal action, however, one must consider the results of one’s actions (both intended and unintended) the grounds for any possible justification of illegal actions, and the possible legal alternatives. 

Media Coverage in the Context of Fear of Terrorism

One reason that utilitarian concerns tend to make one avoid illegal or violent actions is that our actions often have unintended side-effects, all of which must be considered when calculating what results a given action produces.  Particularly (but not exclusively) given the current fear of terrorism in the United States and many other Western countries, many forms of destruction or violence against one’s own society can be perceived by the general public as being similar, and wrong.  Recent terrorist actions in America, Spain, Russia, and elsewhere have made many people very wary of any destructive or illegal activities, whatever the justification.  When animal rights activists employ violence, theft, destruction of property, and the like, it is possible that many members of the public will consider only the violence and not the reasons behind it.  In the current climate of fear and “you are either with us or against us” mentality, illegal and/or violent activities - even those in service of laudable goals - are subject to being labeled as “terrorist” and can easily produce results contrary to their intended goals. 

It does not follow from this that no illegal act of liberation could be viewed positively by a significant segment of the general public, but it does make it more difficult.  Savvy media manipulation can make the argument to the public that a particular act of sabotage, infiltration, or animal liberation is justified.  In 1985, for example, the ALF freed a baby macaque monkey named “Britches” from a gruesome experiment. Dramatic “before and after” images of Britches were documented in a PETA video that earned widespread sympathy for the activists and contempt for the experimenters.  (Newkirk, referenced in Best and Nocella 22).  It also matters whether one can obtain a broad audience for that media manipulation, as was done (though not without a fair amount of difficulty) in the case of the 1984 ALF raid on the head injury lab at the University of Pennsylvania (Orlans, et al Chapter 3).  On the other hand, it is hard to deny the negative impact of footage of the smoking ruin of a building destroyed by arson on the eleven-o’clock news.

In her contribution to the anthology, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Karen Dawn questions whether there is such a thing as bad press for animal liberation, as the animals could not be doing worse and since any press raises the issue of animal suffering for further public discussion (Dawn esp. 216-222). Others, however, dispute this.  In the same volume, Tom Regan argues that bad press due to violent actions is a “tactical disaster” because it gives animal user industries free press coverage to push their anti-animal rights agendas (Regan 234).  Further, though Dawn does a good job at finding the benefits even in mocking or otherwise negative media coverage (221-222), a utilitarian must do more than find some good in the spin of an action – she must look to see whether that action produced the most good possible.  Even if there is no wholly bad press, there certainly is better and worse press.

In any case, certain actions may be more difficult to spin in the media.  Generally, it is harder to get positive coverage for destructive actions than non-destructive ones.  Actions that acquire video or audio documentation that can be used to show the public graphically why the action was performed make it easier to obtain sympathetic coverage.  Such was obviously true in the cases of Britches and the U. Penn experiments mentioned above.  What is being targeted also matters.  Consequently, foie gras and veal production make for easier media spin because they involve serious visible damage to animals most people can more easily feel sympathetic towards (see Dawn 217-220). [5]   Destruction by arson of a laboratory where experiments were performed on mice genetically modified to be affected by HIV would be a much harder sell.  Finally, as Karen Davis points out in her essay in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?, the “theatre” or style of how one documents a raid or illegal action, including features such as body language and clothing, can also affect how it is perceived (see Davis esp. 206-7).

At least some of these concerns are taken into account by media conscious activists.  But the current social context of the action also matters, and that is currently a problem for animal liberationists.  The United States Department of Justice has labeled the ELF and ALF the top two domestic terrorist organizations; this affects their ability to access mainstream media safely or effectively and to get their message through without negative spin.  Much of the media is also generally conservative, corporate-controlled, and therefore business-friendly.  Especially in an environment already less than willing to treat justifications from certain sources as credible, all of this must be accounted for when judging the results of an action.  (More on this concern will be discussed below as the “problem of credibility.”)

The upshot of the concern about unintended consequences vis a vis the general public is that persons can be turned away from the reasonable goals of animal liberation if they focus on rejecting the methods instead of understanding the message, and if they feel that the animal industry is a victim rather than the animals themselves.  Worse, they can be more easily guided by savvy media manipulation to ignore animal advocacy to side with those with vested interests in using and abusing animals.  In this way, even a successful liberation attempt can become a long-term failure.  The liberationist who, for example, breaks into a laboratory to free caged animals, may rescue some animals but risks losing many humans to the cause unless the general public can be carefully guided in its understanding of the case.  This can be done in some cases, such as in the farmed animal rescue videos shot by Compassion Over Killing. Still, the current state of corporate ownership and manipulation of mainstream media can make this more difficult than it might have been at other times. [6]   Illegal actions to liberate animals may present a rare dramatic opportunity to have the press cover atrocious animal treatment, but they can also give opponents the opportunity to mischaracterize and demonize animal liberationists as dangerous, naive, or “terrorist”.  That this is not fair - that the arguments which lead persons away from liberation are not as good as those which argue in favor of liberation - is of little import; what matters is whether an action produces the best results possible.  The potential for negative side-effects must be carefully taken into account in any justification of an illegal action.

Because of the dangers of media manipulation and negative influence on public opinion, the burden of proof is on an underground liberationist to show that illegal efforts produce more good than legal actions.  Yet all this may suggest is that certain illegal actions are less likely to have the best overall effect, while other actions more directly aimed at improving the media image of animal liberation and liberationists might have a positive effect on public opinion.  This will be discussed in more depth below.

In the face of this, can illegal liberation efforts be justified on utilitarian grounds?  As I will argue, they may be so justified for some actions under certain circumstances but not for other actions or in other circumstances, a conclusion consistent with the act-utilitarian focus on assessing the results of specific actions.  The question will become which set of circumstances is more consistent with the overall goal of animal liberation.

The Problem of Numbers and the Basis for a Utilitarian Argument for Illegal Actions

A utilitarian argument could be made for seeking direct, even possibly illegal, animal liberation under certain circumstances.  But to describe those circumstances requires some groundwork.  Since farmed animals constitute by far the largest number of animals used by humans, let us consider their plight.  The quantity of animals raised and slaughtered for food every year is staggering.  According to the US Department of Agriculture, there are about 60 million pigs, 27 million cattle, 274 million turkeys and over 8 billion chickens being raised for slaughter in the United States alone (USDA Economic Research Service).  When one is debating what to do with one’s limited time and ability to influence animal lives, attempting to change, even minutely, the conditions in which animals are raised has the ability to influence literally billions of beings’ lives.  Even if they would still eventually be slaughtered, the small improvement in their lives is multiplied times billions, which entails that gradual change might easily be the action that produces the most good.  Call this the “problem of numbers”.

The problem of numbers might appear to show that seeking to change the status of animals raised for food via lobbying efforts, or seeking to change people’s minds through leafleting and rational argument, would be actions most likely to positively affect the most animal lives.  So many animals could be affected that even minor successes could create a large amount of good.  Since there are many ways to improve the lot of farmed animals while acting within the law, and since there are numerous hazards with acting outside the law, this problem might initially make one think that a utilitarian should (under normal circumstances) hold that we ought to spend most of our limited activist time and energy seeking to positively affect these billions of animal lives in legal fashions.  However, under certain circumstances, just the opposite may be true.

The issue of the number of animals affected could be used to defend the claim that illegal efforts might be morally permissible under certain conditions.  The rationale for this defense comes from a long-term understanding of the problem of numbers.  The argument depends on two opposing hypothetical statements: what should be done if legal actions alone can lead to complete liberation and what should be done if they cannot.  The eventual aim of all animal liberation efforts is a world in which animals are not treated as food, entertainment, or unwilling experimental subjects.  If this goal can be eventually obtained by operations largely within the legal system, then the arguments above suggest that the best approach to pursue would normally be engaging with the system by lobbying, demonstrating, raising public awareness, and the like.  Such methods are safer and avoid the difficulties of the “terrorist” label in the media, as well as the negative publicity that can be attached to illegal and/or destructive actions.  If employing only legal efforts will lead to liberation, that approach is best, since it would avoid dangerous pitfalls, may produce immediate improvements, and could still reach the eventual goal.  In fact, if there is even a reasonable chance that such an approach will eventually produce liberation for a significant number of animals, a utilitarian argument holds that one ought to pursue that approach as long as it seems likely to attain that goal.

However, if it is the case that there is little to no likelihood that the larger goal of animal liberation will eventually happen as a result of employing only legally accessible methods, then the utilitarian conclusion becomes very different.  If, for example, liberationists cannot get their message clearly portrayed in the corporate-owned media, or efforts to modify laws are effectively blocked by deep-pocketed lobbyists, then legal methods at modifying public opinion and law may be ineffective at achieving or even approaching the desired goal of a society that does not exploit or mistreat animals.  Since that is the overall aim of the animal liberation movement, a utilitarian argument can justify illegal actions in this context if employing those actions as well could lead to overall liberation.  Whatever it is that can best lead to liberation, no matter how small the chance that it will succeed, may be done if that is the only way to attain liberation.  Even if using both legal and illegal liberation efforts offer only a small chance of success, if they offer some chance and all other plausible efforts to attain liberation have been exhausted, then are those the efforts a utilitarian ought to pursue.  In the same vein, if illegal efforts combined with legal efforts offer a chance for liberation, but legal efforts alone do not, then liberationists must engage in both legal and illegal actions.

Consequently, if legal efforts such as lobbying, public speaking, leafleting, protesting, and other methods of change and persuasion cannot or will not eventually lead to significant liberation, then a utilitarian must do something else.  Under these circumstances, illegal liberation efforts could be supported by a utilitarian argument.

Joshua Frank’s Proposal and the Problem of Credibility

So the question for a utilitarian pondering what to do becomes, is it possible for an action within the system to move us closer the eventual goal of liberation?  If not, then illegal actions may be justifiable.  A useful tool for judging may come from Tom Regan.  He gives a set of criteria for justifying what he calls violent actions which include ensuring that violence is only used when necessary to rescue innocent animals from terrible harms, and holding that violence could only be justified if all reasonable nonviolent alternatives have been exhausted (233).  He claims that in many cases where violence is aimed at freeing innocent animals, nonviolent alternatives have not been exhausted and consequently the actions are not justified (234).  Though Regan is obviously speaking as a rights theorist and not as a utilitarian, and though he speaks of violent actions instead of illegal ones, a similar claim could be made of illegal actions generally.  Because of the concerns discussed above and elaborated below, illegal actions can generally only be justified if the legal options able to produce comparable results have been exhausted.

It is surely too early to hold that we have exhausted all plausible legal options in all areas of animal abuse.  Though arguments for animals having moral value go at least as far back as Ancient Greece, the modern animal liberation movement is quite new.  The very notion of a liberation movement of any sort, after all, is a relatively new concept.  The initial publication of Animal Liberation in 1975 was an eye-opening experience for many people; many of the journals dealing with this relatively new concept began only as early as 1979 (Singer 85-6).  The ALF was officially created in England in 1976 (Best and Nocella 20).  We are no more than one generation away from the very concept of animal liberation being introduced in any fashion whatsoever to most persons.  We cannot know that it is impossible or improbable that mass change cannot result simply by showing more and more people the truth, working to change laws, teaching, speaking, and so on to achieve a “critical mass” of persons who no longer wish to exploit animals.  It is very early in a movement with the goal of nothing less than a radical restructuring of society to declare that working within the system has failed and that only methods outside the system can be effective.

But it could still be the case that a particular illegal effort could be the action in a given circumstance most likely to move society towards improvement and eventual liberation.  This means that persons compelled by utilitarian concerns to consider animals as morally relevant must seek to determine what, in the time and location in which they are working, will truly lead to the best results.  Utilitarianism could justify some illegal actions, if those actions are likely to produce the most good, but the standard of justification which must be met is quite high, including considering some options which may seem unpalatable.  As an example of how one might determine whether a given action meets this high justificatory standard, I will evaluate a recent defense of one type of illegal activism.

Joshua Frank has recently argued in this journal that illegal activities have led and can continue to lead to significant increases in public awareness about the conditions of animals in experimentation and factory farming.  Frank argues that most Americans think that animals should be protected from at least some harms, and that most persons think that standard farming practices do constitute unacceptable harms (5).  But if persons are to be able to “vote with their dollars” against animal cruelty, he notes, they must know what is going on behind the scenes (2).  It is not that people do not care about what happens to animals, but that (generally) they do not know what happens.  Finally, he argues that images and video have a significantly stronger impact than mere descriptions when it comes to making people understand what is actually going on in farming practices, etc. (6).  However, there are legislative and judicial roadblocks in place which make legally obtaining such images and video difficult (7-8).  From this he concludes that illegal efforts to obtain the video and images that are so influential in changing people’s views about factory farms and the like remain necessary and justified on a utilitarian framework.  (Though he does not use the word “utilitarian” he argues in an essentially utilitarian fashion that we must evaluate the consequences of our actions, both positive and negative, in terms of their providing benefits to human and animal interests.)

I argue that this conclusion may not be justified.  Frank rightly notes that there have been a number of successful ALF raids that have acquired video footage that has been helpful in revealing the inner workings of laboratories.  The film Unnecessary Fuss, for example, which was made from stolen tapes shot by researchers themselves at the head injury laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania, was instrumental in shutting those experiments down. (Frank 8-9; see also Orlans, et al. Chapter 3).  Anyone who has seen this disturbing video cannot help but recognize that Frank is right about the power of images to convince.  However, it does not yet follow that, as he suggests, further raids and videos would necessarily be the best use of today’s animal activists’ time.

Though there are legal blocks in the way of obtaining video and images from the inside of factory farms and laboratories, Frank notes that these blocks are not impenetrable – it may be possible to obtain some, though not all, desired video footage via surreptitious but legal undercover methods (8).  As well, the difficulties which Frank mentions with obtaining information can be connected to the very illegal actions he is promoting.  He argues that many legal avenues to obtaining information have been closed down (7-8).  But illegal actions such as breaking and entering tend to engender fear in those who have had their property entered.  Fear breeds suspicion, which makes people more likely and willing to back measures restricting the flow of information.  One must consider whether continued illegal efforts will make it even more difficult to obtain future information, legally or otherwise, before defending a given raid.  Also, and very importantly, the state of the world today is different than it was when the Animal Liberation Front stole the videos from the University of Pennsylvania head injury lab.  In the current political context of the “war on terror,” the general public in the US and other Western countries is arguably less likely to perceive illegal actions for a political cause as permissible, especially those involving violence or breaking and entering (as distinguished from, say, sit-ins at public places).  The same actions by the ALF today might result in a very different set of consequences.

This is related to a more systemic problem with illegal actions by animal activists.  Frank notes that animal activists have a credibility problem so serious that people will often believe that individual recorded instances of abuse are exceptions, or even that gruesome footage is “staged” by activists (10).  This seriously interferes with the ability of animal activists, liberationist or otherwise, to achieve their goals; removing this block must be a high priority, since its being in place diminishes the value of everything activists do.  The credibility problem, especially with regard to medical experiments, comes in good part from the generally positive opinion people have of scientists and medical researchers, which makes it all the more important to keep the impressions people have of activists from being negative.  If the general public has to believe that someone is torturing baboons, and their choice is between scientists and animal liberationists, people’s decisions will be affected quite a lot by how the liberationists are perceived.  If scientists, who are portrayed and perceived by many as respected, highly educated people working to advance medical knowledge and cure human illnesses, are contrasted with a “shadowy network” of thieves who operate outside the law, destroy other people’s property, and won’t even show their faces, it will be much more difficult to convince people that the “animal terrorists” are actually telling the truth.  This is one reason why “open rescues,” where the rescuers show their faces and accept arrest in order to make their case to the public, may often be more productive than the closed rescue tactics used by masked members of the ALF (Davis, 207-209).

The credibility gap makes denying the truth too easy.  This is particularly so since knowing what goes on in factory farms or in scientific research could cause people to have to make lifestyle changes they won’t want to make; so if given any semi-plausible reason to discredit the source of disturbing footage, it is all too easy to do so.  For the reasons discussed earlier, many illegal activities can provide persons a reason to ignore the evidence in front of their eyes.  This is not a good reason, but again, it doesn’t matter whether reasons are good if people will use them.

Frank correctly notes that more evidence obtained from more sources, will make rejecting the activists’ conclusions less reasonable (10-11).  Though true, this may leave the credibility problem itself intact.  If animal activists are suffering from a credibility problem that is already not largely based in reality (what reasonable person could honestly think that animal activists are staging animal abuse?  In order to prevent what?  Lesser abuses than the ones they are staging?) then they must be exceptionally careful not to enable further unreasonable credibility problems.  Given the legal and social reactions people have to illegal animal activism, especially of the violent variety, avoiding illegal activities unless absolutely necessary is one important way to do this.

Consider that few could (or did) criticize the source of the shocking information and images used by Henry Spira to help end mutilating experiments on cats in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, much of which was obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests (Singer 54-75).  It is true that the Patriot Act has made information much more difficult to obtain through these sorts of means, but that what he did then could not be done legally now is irrelevant when what is being asked is how people perceive a particular action.

This holds animal activists to a higher standard than what is expected of proponents of many other positions.  When a political activist digs up dirt on an opponent through illegal means, for example, the means are usually ignored in favor of the facts uncovered.  Animal activists, however, often find their message obscured by their methods.  Again, this is not fair; but again, it doesn’t matter.  If being more scrupulous than others, and being more scrupulous than one’s opponents, is what one must do to convince others of the truth, then that is what one must do.

Considering Very Different Alternatives

But what if illegal actions are absolutely necessary?  Though possible in some cases, legal routes to obtaining footage are difficult and may be effectively blocked off by the law or defense against surreptitious recordings.  If there is no reasonably possible way to legally obtain footage from a given site that one seeks to expose - or, more generally, if there is no reasonable legal way to attain some other liberationist goal - could illegal actions be justified then?  Here is where seeking the best results can be very demanding.  If one thinks that concerted effort, including some illegal activity, could shut down a particular experiment or facility after months or years of campaigning (as was the case with the U. Penn head experiments), one still has to ask whether that is the best way to spend that time and effort.  One must also consider the possible results of very different activities (such as spending that same amount of time and effort leafleting, speaking, working with a vegan outreach plan, using older material already available, or seeking to shut down a different facility where footage might be legally obtained) which would perhaps do nothing to shut down that particular experiment but which may have a better effect on animals overall.

One could argue that these alternate efforts will do nothing to target a specific place of abuse operating at the present time.  Older footage or footage from different facilities will do little to expose that particular facility.  Thus, the argument would continue, one would have to use illegal means in order to obtain footage in order to shut down this facility.  This is entirely correct, but it misses the point of the challenge.  The goal is to achieve the best results overall for all sentient beings, not (necessarily) shutting down a particular facility.  If illegal actions are required to shut down one facility, but those illegal actions have sufficient negative consequences to make that action produce poorer results overall than adopting a legal tactic against a different target, then the burden of seeking the best results require that, under those circumstances, one would have to choose those other actions.  This would not help shut down that particular facility but could do more good for animals and humans as a whole.

Acting on such a belief is not easy to do.  When one knows of a particular gruesome occurrence, it is natural to want to stop it, even by whatever means necessary.  But achieving the ultimate goal is what matters most, not short-term successes.  Illegal actions may be the best way to expose a particular site; but now what a true utilitarian must ask is whether exposing the truth at this given site is what promotes the most good.  Images are exceedingly good at showing people the truth, but they need not be new images in many cases.  Films such as “Meet your Meat”, “The Witness”, “A Cow at My Table”, and “Unnecessary Fuss” are effective tools that are already in existence; perhaps showing these images to people – especially persons who’ve not yet seen any such footage – would promote as much good as the illegally obtained images, but without the risks of illegally obtaining them.  Many people have no idea what goes on in creating fur and meat, or in experimental laboratories; for these people, old evidence can be as eye-opening as new evidence.  As a professor, I routinely encounter students who, after no more than an initial introduction to animal ethics or the conditions on factory farms or the alternatives to animal experimentation, ask why they’d never heard of any of this before.  As Frank notes, it often takes nothing more than the presentation of the facts for many people to radically change their behavior (which is perhaps why people have not been exposed to any of those facts before) (4-6).  So one must not only ask whether the images one seeks can be gained by legal means, but also whether one’s time is most profitably spent obtaining those images at all.

One might respond that using only older footage could allow some persons to reply, “That’s old footage; things aren’t like that any more.”  There are three replies to this criticism.  First, one need not use only older footage to stay within the law.  As noted by Frank, some legal methods of obtaining new footage are still available (8).  Second, the importance of this critique is compounded by the credibility problem; if that problem were lessened, the reply could simply be given that things are still much the same, which can be shown by the non-pictorial data legally available in, for example, agricultural journals.  The “it’s not like that any more” critique is easily rebutted, but whether the rebuttal is believed depends on the credibility of the activists rebutting it.

Finally, if a respondent continues to hold, despite the above approaches, that things are better now, a utilitarian may simply be required to ignore that person.  If the only way to convince such a person would be to obtain illegal footage, then it may not be worth it to convince this person.  The harms caused by obtaining illegal footage may outweigh the benefit of convincing those persons so reticent that they cannot be convinced by the methods above; especially since one of the harms (aggravating the credibility problem) may enable even more people to believe that “things aren’t really like that”.

Recall that the long-term goal is animal liberation, and that attaining this goal is the only way illegal actions could be justified in the first place.  One effective way to achieve significant liberation would be to get most people to seek it.  Given that people often can be persuaded to see how animals ought not be used and abused for their trivial desires simply by showing them, for example, how modern agribusiness works, many people can be started on the path towards seeking liberation by being shown evidence that is already available.  Aiming towards that may be the most profitable action an activist can take.

Of course, this oversimplifies.  New projects and new images do bring in and inspire new converts and new activists, which is also good.  I have no doubt that illegal undercover work can be very effective at convincing people of the shocking treatment of animals in modern agriculture and science; numerous examples of this exist (Best and Nocella, Davis, Frank, Orlans, et al).  Violent and threatening acts may be quite effective, for example, in frightening people away from selling foie gras (Dawn, 218-219).  A defense of such actions, however, would have to do more than just note that they were effective; it would have to weigh how effective those actions were, including all of their negative side-effects, against how effective other actions, including legal ones with fewer negative side-effects, might be.

It is possible that one could answer this challenge and conclude that, in a particular case, illegal activity could be reasonably expected to produce the most good.  Certain actions are more likely to be justifiable than others:  non-violent over violent actions, rescue over destruction, and so on.  Even damaging behavior can be done in different ways that will have different consequences: as Wicklund notes, spray-painting fur stores with, “Fur is dead and you’re next” will have a rather different impact in the public than spray-painting, “Please go vegan” (Wicklund 249).  For these reasons, the (illegally) well-documented and concisely defended open rescues of hens from battery cages performed by Compassion over Killing and described by Davis might be more productive than closed rescues, especially if they are well-received by the public and can lead to overall changes in laying hens’ conditions (Davis 208-210).  Utilitarianism could potentially authorize such actions, though they involved breaking and entering; but one must consider carefully the rather stiff challenges of worsening credibility, the issue of numbers of animals, and even alternative options that leave one’s desired target alone, before such an act would be justified.  The challenge for the utilitarian activist is to ensure that any illegal actions considered, with all their potential negative repercussions, will truly produce the most good.

Stephen Hanson received his Ph.D in philosophy from Georgetown University in 2002 and teaches ethics and medical and professional ethics at McNeese State University. He writes in the areas of theory and pedagogy of medical ethics, animal ethics and environmental concerns, and other social policy issues.

[1] I am indebted to Steve Best and Matthew Calarco for their helpful advice on improving this essay.

[2] “Act utilitarianism” is differentiated from “rule utilitarianism”, which holds that we ought to devise a set of rules that, if we all followed them, would produce the most good.  No matter what the details of a given case, a rule-utilitarian would hold that it is correct to follow those rules, even if in an extraordinary case breaking the rules would produce the most good.   Peter Singer is generally understood to be an act-utilitarian; Richard Brandt is a rule utilitarian.  Many (though not all) utilitarians recognize that pain and pleasure are mental states that can apply to many animals as well as humans, and thus that any calculus of consequences must include all sentient beings; this can be credited to Jeremy Bentham’s inclusion in 1789, in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, the claim that capacity for suffering was the criterion for moral standing, instead of rational ability. (Chapter 17).  For a more complete discussion of utilitarianism and animal ethics, see Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation.  New York: Ecco press. 2002, or Bart Gruzalski’s “The Case Against Raising and Killing Animals for Food,” in Animal Rights and Human Obligations, 2nd ed., Tom Regan and Peter Singer, eds. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice Hall, Inc. 1989. pp. 176-191.  For a more indepth discussion of animal sentience, see DeGrazia, David. Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1996.  For a more complete discussion of the different versions of utilitarianism in general, see Beauchamp, Tom L. Philosophical Ethics:  An Introduction to Moral Philosophy, 3rd ed.  McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2001.  

[3] Though not all; devoted rights theorists (such as, for example, Tom Regan) may care more about whether rights are violated than whether their actions have the best long term consequences for animals.  But I believe that most activists seek primarily to produce good results, and to those persons the arguments herein should be relevant.

[4] This would include even pacifist illegal actions like a sit-in and passive resistance, although the arguments in “Media Coverage” and “The Credibility Problem” make it clear that these actions would be much easier to justify than more destructive actions.  I do not include in this argument legal direct actions such as boycotts and protests.  Though the effectiveness of these actions must also be carefully calculated, most of the concerns I raise herein would not apply to them.  In principle, I am also addressing more violent actions such as murder as well, though I know of no animal activist who has actually suggested such a strategy.   This is a fairly common critique of act-utilitarian approaches, though:  any action can, in principle, be justified.  So, if murdering a number of breeders of animals used for destructive experiments could produce the most good, act-utilitarianism could allow it.  It should be clear from the discussion that follows below that I believe it would not be the case in any set of circumstances we are likely to encounter that such murders would actually produce the most good, and so this is a merely hypothetical problem for a utilitarian, not an actual one.  Murder would cause all the problems mentioned in this work, and much more so than the illegal actions actually discussed; consequently it is exceedingly unlikely that that will ever be the option which will produce the most good.  A similar objection involving slavery instead of murder is addressed by R.M. Hare in “What is Wrong with Slavery?” in Applied Ethics, Peter Singer, ed.  New York: Oxford University Press. 1986. pp. 165-184; and he discusses a general problem with such objections briefly but clearly in Hare, R.M. “Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism.” in Utilitarianism and Beyond, Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1982. pp. 23-38.

[5] One might also note that eliminating foie gras and veal does not radically change most persons’ diets.  Again, what one targets can affect persons’ reactions to it.

[6] The fact of and problems with corporate media ownership and manipulation are described at, among other sources, and


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