Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Good Use of Our Princeton Education

Since PAWS was featured on the mtvU show Cause Effect, we’ve received lots of emails praising our dedication to animals. Of course, we’ve also met some critics. For example, today I got home from a long day of classes to read this email from “Dave”:

“I sure am glad that you are putting that high dollar Prinston [sic] education to some use. Have you ever given some thought to all of the suffering PEOPLE in this world? It is no different than the treatment of animals. Women are beaten Children are born into this world with HIV, Crack Cocaine in their system and Meth in their system. There are homeless people and people freezing in the streets. Go Girl save those chickens. Must have been the easiest choice for a project assignment!!”

It would be easy for me to dismiss this email, because we hear this argument all the time, and we think it is self-evidently wrong. Our automatic response is that eating humanely does not take any time away from your other causes, and hey, what are you doing to save the world with all your free time, anyway? By eating meat, are you able to spend more time helping people? Probably not. It often seems that the people who are the most critical of our activism are the people who have never been activists themselves, and have no desire (it would seem to me) to make the world a better place. PAWS activists, on the other hand, tend to be the exact same people who participate in a variety of other positive, progressive activities on campus. Many of us participated in the anti-torture protest last year, many of us care about enacting universal healthcare in this country, alleviating global poverty, and fighting AIDS. We are compassionate, ethical people who care about reducing suffering—no matter who is suffering.

In short, fighting for animals and fighting for people are in no way mutually exclusive. And because of global warming and health, they are actually complementary.

But let me look at this criticism a bit more seriously. While it doesn’t take any more time to be a vegetarian, Dave is actually correct: it does take time to be animal activist. When I’m out setting up demonstrations, leafleting around town, and writing blogs like these, I’m fighting for animal rights when I could be fighting for human rights.

But does that imply that I implicitly put a higher value on animal life than human life? Am I saying that I care about animals more than humans? That seems to be what Dave is accusing me of. Believe it or not, I do think that would be wrong. In general, humans are more self-conscious, more rational, and more emotionally attached to their loved ones than animals can be, so I would have no basis for saving one animal life over one human life. But I don’t think that’s what I’m doing.

Instead, I’m using my unique passion, skills and motivation to make a difference exactly where I can make the biggest difference. Other people who feel passionately about other issues should fight for those causes. In no way am I saying that animal rights is the most important cause—just that it’s my most important cause.

For a thought experiment, let’s say that it was possible to estimate, empirically, the magnitude and intensity of the suffering inflicted by current global problems. We could then rank world atrocities and potentially name the worst atrocity in the world right now. Now, let’s assume that global poverty towered over all the other problems in the world right now—far worse (empirically, remember) than genocide, air and water pollution, AIDS, the US healthcare system, the Iraq War, animal exploitation, and all other problems. If a ranking like this came out, should all activists stop what they are doing and switch to fighting against global poverty? Would that even be effective?

I think the answer is clearly no. We bring about the most change by fighting for what we care about. If everyone worked on one issue (or if everyone worked on “human” issues) then less positive change would occur—spreading out our efforts offers the largest marginal benefit. Everyone making the free choice to pursue her own passions will be what makes the world a better place, even if some problems are clearly worse than others.

Yes, I agree: there are many serious issues facing the world today. While crusading for animal rights won’t fix all of them, criticizing us for taking on this issue won’t solve any. At least we’re doing something.


  1. Great post, Jenny! People like "Dave" are so ignorant that they don't even realize that "animal" issues are actually similar to "human" ones. Protecting the environment, abhorring violence, etc.

  2. Well, as a reader, I'm tempted to ask why animal welfare is the most important cause for you?

    For me, it's because I think animal suffering is so much greater than most people think it is. Problems such as poverty, genocide and disease - all of them worthy of attention and redress, of course - already merit a fair amount of awareness among the educated. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the current situation of animals - their lives and deaths are largely undocumented, and so distant from the average human. My activism, to me, is just a way of enabling people to make an educated choice. And nothing is more pleasing than people agreeing to stop consuming meat as a better choice for animals and for humans.