Leslie Cannold on Veganism and Animal Rights

This Guardian article by Leslie Cannold has been getting a lot of attention. Although Cannold is sympathetic to animal welfare, she believes that ethical carnivorism is possible – that there are ethical or humane ways of killing animals for food. She frames this discussion in a rights vs welfare context. Unfortunately, however, her arguments are pretty poor, but they’re so common that I think it’s worth picking them apart.

Cannold begins by analyzing the concept of a right:

We speak about rights as if they were the only moral value with meaning, ignoring other important moral values like responsibilities or duties. In fact, responsibilities are the counterparts to rights – you can’t have one without the other.

How can animals have rights when they don’t have responsibilities? This is one of the oldest challenges to the animal rights position, and the response is fairly straightforward: we can think of several counterexamples to this principle. Infants and severely mentally disabled people do not have responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have rights.

Cannold says this next:

But for an animal to realise its right to life, farmers, hunters and researchers must collectively accept a duty not to kill them. Similarly, citizens, consumers and patients must refuse to eat, wear or use food, clothes and medicine that require an animal to die.

Yes. Yes, they must. This is precisely what animal rights activists have been arguing for. So what are the arguments against this position?

Cannold goes on to claim that “…the assertion of an animal right to life is non-sensical.” Forgive me for losing my patience with the article at this point. The view that animals have a right to life is not just mistaken, but nonsensical, apparently. I’d be a little less annoyed if Cannold backed this claim up with good arguments, but all she’s managed here is to display her own unfamiliarity with the relevant literature.

One of the problems with the right-to-life position, Cannold argues, is that it would require us to stop animals from hunting one another. Again, defenders of animal rights have responded to this in numerous ways. Consider, by way of analogy, human rights abuses in many parts of the world: Iraq, Syria, North Korea, etc. We all agree that people are suffering terrible human rights violations, but we don’t all agree that direct military intervention in these places is something we should consider. When we think about the likely disastrous long term geopolitical consequences of such a policy, we might prudently and reluctantly decide not to intervene. Something similar could be said of predation and animals in the wild. Preventing every instance of animal suffering in the wild is almost certainly beyond our capabilities. And the possibly catastrophic effects of interfering too much with the ecological balance give us reasonably good reasons to keep human interference in the wild at a minimum.

Moving on, Cannold says:

Even Peter Singer, one of the intellectual fathers of the animal rights movement, doesn’t believe animals have a right to life.

This is another glaring error. Peter Singer is not an intellectual forefather of the animal rights movement, he is a forefather of the animal welfare movement. Singer is a utilitarian. He doesn’t believe anyone has rights, because he doesn’t view moral issues through a rights-based framework. So I don’t see why Cannold thinks people are going to be impressed by her bringing up Singer. If she wants to understand the animal rights position, she should look at arguments put forward by people like Tom Regan (who would qualify as an “intellectual forefather” of the movement). If she wants to know why we think Singer is mistaken and animals do have a right to life, she should look at arguments by people like Christine Korsgaard and Paola Cavalieri (I’ve summarized some of these arguments in the past).

A few paragraphs later,  Cannold asks her readers this:

Why not press people who have chosen to make a difference through buying cruelty-free products to buy more of them more often? Or to buy them exclusively? Is it possible that vegetarianism and veganism continues to be promoted as the sole way of meeting our obligations to animals not because it is, but because it makes the promoters feel morally superior?

So now we have some speculative pop-psychology as well. And I thought this piece couldn’t get much worse. Here’s a question: is it possible that vegetarianism and veganism are promoted as the sole way of meeting our obligations to animals because some people are really convinced that this is true, and that there are good arguments for the strong animal rights position? Of course, no one is denying that there are some self-righteous vegetarians and vegans who care more about posturing and moral superiority than anything else, but the same is true of any movement.

Cannold also doesn’t seem to realize that two can play this game. I ask: is it possible that proponents of ethical carnivorism recognize that veganism is the only morally consistent position but just don’t want to admit that they don’t have the willpower to alter their lifestyle? Is it possible that they write poorly argued pieces in a desperate attempt to rationalize their position and make themselves feel better? Not a great feeling when your own sincerity and motivations are questioned, is it?

Cannold’s discussion about animal welfare movements is characteristically muddled:

To me, this is so obvious that I have to ask why in 2016 animal rights groups continue to advance vegetarian and veganism as the only legitimate way to end animal suffering. A 2014 study funded by Voiceless, found that 70% of Australians agreed that “human beings have an obligation to avoid harming all animals”. This sort of sentiment had led “substantial proportions” to buy “free range” meat and dairy and cruelty-free products. Despite this, the Humane Research Council – authors of the study – advised animal rights advocates that while they ought capitalise on “widespread support for incremental improvements” they must also continue to press people to “abstain from animal products entirely.”

There are several campaigns dedicated to “incremental improvements” in animal welfare that are doing great work out there. And those who favor a rights-based approach don’t necessarily oppose this: what we say is that we shouldn’t get complacent because of improvements in animal welfare, because the ultimate goal is liberation. We want a world where animals aren’t used as resources for food, clothing, entertainment, or testing. To paraphrase Tom Regan, we want empty cages, not larger ones. But that doesn’t mean we’re not all in favor of short-term welfare measures.

Finally, there’s this:

Do animal rights trump human interests? Not if the animal right we are talking about is a right to life, and the human interest at stake is health.

This is just plain misleading. The vast majority of people in modern industrialized nations don’t eat meat because it’s more healthy than a vegan diet. They eat it for reasons related to taste and convenience. Veganism can be more than nutritionally adequate, as confirmed by numerous organizations, including the American Dietic Association: “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases (source).”

Cannold will be arguing against the motion that Animal Rights Should Trump Human Interests in Tuesday’s IQ2 debate. If these are the best arguments her side can muster, I’m reasonably sure they don’t stand a chance of winning.

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5 Responses to Leslie Cannold on Veganism and Animal Rights

  1. Alex says:

    Is it really true that animals don’t have responsibilities though? I would say that many do. Police force, guarding homes, guide dogs, horses for transportation etc etc. I don’t think that’s a blanket argument people who don’t support animal rights cab spread across the table.


    • That’s a good point. I think one could make the argument that in virtue of the tasks assigned to them, guide dogs etc. do have some responsibilities. Those who oppose animal rights might agree that these animals have some rights, but would probably still maintain that most farm animals don’t have responsibilities or rights.

      As an aside, I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with using horses for transportation etc. I haven’t really thought about it though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alex says:

        Well huskies are used for transportation too. I don’t see anything wrong with horses carrying humans, as long as they aren’t raced or whipped.

        As for farm animals, they say you know the true character of a person by how they treat those who have nothing to give them. In this case, it’s even worse for those people who think farm animals don’t deserve animal rights, because these animals give them milk, eggs, cheese, bacon, turkey on Thanksgiving etc etc. We are an ungrateful set, us humans.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. vegan angle says:

    Thanks for posting. More than twenty years ago, a flatmate who was a vegetarian and a genetics doctorate student, asked me as a vegan how I felt about animals killing other animals. I didn’t have an answer. In reality there isn’t one, because we cannot affect the way that other animals have evolved and it is for this reason that the term ‘speciesism’ becomes nonsensical, because only humans have the power to reason not to kill for food or to ‘scavenge’ animal -derived food when other food is available.


    • Thank you for your comment! I agree there are no easy answers to the question of animal predation. I’m not sure why it follows from this that “speciesism” is nonsensical though. I’ve always seen it as a useful concept. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you?


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