Christian Talley, from Chattanooga, TN, is a Senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is majoring in History and is writing a thesis for the History Honors Program. His research concerns United States-China trade relations in the 1970s. Additionally, he is an editor for the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the president of Phi Alpha Theta, a 2015 Presidential Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, and a brother of Phi Gamma Delta.
Sarah Palin recently engaged in a battle of wits with an organization possibly more inscrutable than even herself: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). She drew the organization’s fire when she posted a picture of her 6-year old son Trig stepping on the family dog to access the kitchen sink. PETA complained “It’s odd that anyone – let alone a mother – would find it appropriate to post such a thing, with no apparent sympathy for the dog in the photo.” Whether or not Palin was justified in posting such a photo, does PETA have the right to be on such a moral high horse? Probably not.
PETA itself is founded on contradictory ideals and the false appropriation of moral philosophies that its founders, Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco, have contorted.
PETA vehemently decries speciesism, the discrimination against animals for belonging to a different species other than Homo sapiens. PETA’s website states that “the interests of members of one’s own species” cannot outweigh the interests of the members of another species. Such prejudice is morally comparable to racism and sexism and “must also be condemned.” Ingrid Newkirk has directly stated, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” implying an equivocation of moral worth across the animal kingdom.
Yet in practice PETA contradicts its supposed moral mission statement. The obvious example is its use of kill-shelters, in which stray animals are euthanized rather than put up for adoption. PETA claims that euthanasia is exclusively reserved for “elderly, feral, sick, dying, aggressive, and otherwise unadoptable animals.” How PETA determines “unadoptability” is a mystery, since PETA does not actually have an adoption program. Through unofficial channels, the adoption rate for dogs that pass through its doors is about 1.6%.
Instead, it euthanizes 85% to 90% of the animals it receives within the first 24 hours, implying that there is actually little evaluation of the animals’ ability to find a loving owner. In 2011, its euthanasia rate was 94%. PETA also is not receiving decrepit and feral risks to society. In June 2005, police in Norfolk, Virginia and the Office of Veterinary Services investigated PETA when they discovered that the organization was improperly disposing of the bodies of dozens of puppies and kittens in garbage bins after it had euthanized them. Clearly puppies and kittens are not “elderly, feral, sick” or “dying.”
PETA’s kill-shelter policy is a prima facia disproof of Newkirk’s trite “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” claim of moral equivalence. If PETA ran a shelter for humans, (hopefully) they would not enforce a 94% euthanasia rate within 24 hours of the person’s arrival.
PETA’s moral incoherence extends beyond their kill-shelter policy. While PETA is pro-“animal companion,” the organization heavily criticizes the institution of conventional pet keeping:
“This selfish desire to possess animals and receive love from them causes immeasurable suffering, which results from manipulating their breeding, selling or giving them away casually, and depriving them of the opportunity to engage in their natural behavior. They are restricted to human homes, where they must obey commands and can only eat, drink, and even urinate when humans allow them to.
Because domesticated animals retain many of their basic instincts and drives but are not able to survive on their own in the wild, dogs, cats, or birds, whose strongest desire is to be free, must be confined to houses, yards, or cages for their own safety.”
Despite concerns over the lack of freedom and curtailing of natural behavior seen with pets, PETA proposes the bizarre recommendation that cats and dogs should eat vegetarian diets to improve their health. PETA suggests closely regulating the animal’s food intake and monitoring their behavior to see how they react to the new diet.
PETA’s stance on this issue is clearly incoherent. Pets are forced to curb natural instinct and are overly regulated, and therefore you should curtail their natural instincts even more radically by denying obligate carnivores meat and constantly surveilling them?
Aside from the obvious problem of imposing a moral ideology on a sentient being that is incapable of consent, which is exactly what PETA is proposing with their diet recommendation, such a diet is difficult to implement anyways and could easily increase the net suffering of animals if done improperly.
In 2013, a vegan couple presented a dying cat to an Australian veterinarian clueless as to why it was in such bad shape. When the veterinarian learned it had persisted on a vegan diet, which lacks key dietary nutrients such as taurine, she nursed the cat back to health within three days with a strict meat diet.
If, according to PETA, the average pet owner is so unenlightened and callous that they are regularly reducing the quality of life of their pet, how could they possibly implement such a strict dietary regime without causing irreparable harm?
Another gripe with PETA is its puerile, misogynistic, and frankly strange advertising tactics. In 2011 when a fisherman was bitten by a shark, PETA commissioned an ad that said “Payback is Hell. Go Vegan.” In 2007, an activist claiming affiliation with PETA threw red paint on a fur worn by actress Kim Cattrall. PETA also seems to have a strange fascination with objectifying the female body. A banned commercial entitled “Veggie Love” features women in sexually provocative poses with vegetables, claiming that vegetarians have better sex. An add entitled “Boyfriend Went Vegan” starts out with a woman in a neck brace, ostensibly the victim of domestic abuse. The announcer reveals that, in fact, her boyfriend went vegan and due to his new-found energy during coitus, rammed her so hard from behind it smashed her head through the drywall. A final gem of an ad features a woman wearing a fur coat being beaten to death by a man with a baseball bat. Who exactly is PETA appealing to with these ads?
The ultimate issue with this organization is that it has no morally coherent belief system. It imposes an absolute ban on using animals because doing so causes suffering. This stance is contradictory in and of itself since it tries to use a utilitarian argument (total levels of suffering) to justify an imperative command (don’t use animals). The weaknesses of such a stance are revealed under scrutiny. Why can’t humans use natural sponges? They have no nervous systems and no capacity for suffering. What about animals that lived a full life and died of natural causes?
The best evidence for PETA’s incoherence in this regard is their appropriation of Peter Singer’s work. Singer himself is pro-vivisection in cases of clear human benefit, tolerant of limited meat eating, and is not a full vegan. Yet PETA touts Singer’s Animal Liberation as one of the five pillars of “compassionate classroom reading,” calling the work “pivotal, revolutionary” for having introduced the idea that “animals have the right to live free of suffering.”
The problem is that Singer never actually argues this in the book. His stance is merely that animal suffering should be considered in a utilitarian calculus. If a certain action increases animal suffering substantially more than it mitigates human suffering, it should not be undertaken, and vice versa. Singer himself stated, “Now, other people assume, incidentally, that in Animal Liberation I said that killing animals is always wrong, and that was somehow the argument for being vegetarian or vegan. But if they go back and look at Animal Liberation, they won’t find that argument.” Singer also finds inscrutable the “fanatical” vegans who use his work to justify their lifestyle.
PETA claims to stand against factory farming, fur farming, and animal testing. These are basically worthy causes. Animal testing is somewhat ambiguous. While cosmetics testing is clearly frivolous, animal tests have also undoubtedly saved human lives by aiding in deep-brain stimulation and heart transplant studies and the development of drugs for progeria, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and atherosclerosis. Factory farming is a clear evil in society. PETA is fallacious in equating “eating meat” to “endorsing factory farming,” but nevertheless any improvement in that institution is a good one. Fur farming is also an unnecessary evil that should be curtailed.
The issue is not entirely this organization’s cause, but the nutcase ideologies it uses to justify its obnoxious tactics. A PETA benefactor from 2002-2005, Gary Yourofsky, notoriously stated, “Every woman ensconced in fur should endure a rape so vicious that it scars them forever. While every man entrenched in fur should suffer an anal raping so horrific that they become disemboweled.” Perhaps if PETA could disassociate itself from such twits and establish a morally coherent foundation, it could become a more well-respected and effective organization.
[Image Credit: http://www.guidestar.org/organizations/52-1218336/people-ethical-treatment-animals.aspx]