On “Direct Action” Activism

By Bruce Friedrich & Peter Singer


We are often asked about the best way for animal advocates to spend their energy, and some of the most committed activists will sometimes ask us some version of this question: “Shouldn’t activists be devoting their entire being to the cause? Shouldn’t we be taking down the animal exploitation industries ‘by any means necessary’” – including breaking the law?


While we understand the sentiment, we believe that much direct action is problematic for two principal reasons: first, because it violates our central ethic of compassion; and second, because it’s counter-productive to our animal rights goals.


It is certainly true that nonviolent civil disobedience can be done in a manner that is consistent with the principles of the animal rights movement: Think about the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement and the suffragettes showing up to vote. But in these instances, as well as in the oft-cited examples of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, Dr. King and so many others, these protests happened in broad daylight, and the protestors took responsibility for their actions.


Direct action that takes place as dark-of-night vandalism is quite different though. The fundamental precept of the animal rights movement is to apply the golden rule across the species barrier, yet vandalism and similar direct actions fail to take this principle seriously: They attempt to appropriate the method of the oppressors, and the accompanying rhetoric is not of mercy, but of vengeance. As Dr. King rightly noted, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” We, as champions of nonviolence toward animals, must use nonviolent tactics as our method.


Violent direct Action is Counter-Productive

In addition to being ethically wrong, we believe that vandalism (and similar  forms of direct action) is counter-productive.


The people who advocate direct action are deeply distressed at the horrors suffered by animals on factory farms, in animal experimentation laboratories, and so on. Out of frustration—and the accompanying anger and hopelessness—some people resort to violent direct action. But anger is not the best foundation on which to build a movement.


Better foundations are science and ethics. It's a scientific fact that other animals are made of flesh, blood and bone, just like human beings. They have the same five physiological senses that we do, and they value their lives. They are, as Darwin taught us, more like us than unlike us. They are so similar to us that Richard Dawkins calls them our evolutionary cousins.


What about ethics? According to Gallup, 96 percent of Americans believe that animals should be legally protected from cruelty. And according an American Farm Bureau-funded study, 95 percent of Americans believe farmed animal should be well-cared for. Is there any other issue on which we have such consensus? We are a nation of animal lovers. People may have not yet made the connection between companion animals and other animals—and they might not yet know the horrors of the factory farm and slaughterhouse—but that’s simply a matter of education and leading by example.


For the same reason we love our dogs and cats—we know that they are someone, not something—we should have similar compassion for all animals. The argument is strong enough that intellectuals from Noam Chomsky to Richard Dawkins have suggested that the animal rights movement is our generation’s abolition movement.


We are convinced that those of us in the animal rights movement should be optimistic about the future of our movement; as Dr. King taught us, although “the arc of the moral universe is long… it bends toward justice.” Because we have science and ethics on our side, it is only a matter of time before society aligns our ethics with our understanding: Just as abolition and votes for women were inevitable, so too is a growing understanding that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, and use for our own amusement. And it’s simply impossible to reconcile the optimism that we feel about our place in history and our path forward with the extraordinary pessimism represented by vandalism or intimidation. For why would we do such things if we believe that the public will come over to our side, once they really understand what we are doing to animals?  When we resort to tactics that the general public finds repugnant—and with good reason—then we lose the debate; we defeat ourselves.


The best form of activism is influence-focused

If someone has the energy and passion that it would take to risk life and limb through violent direct action, surely they have the energy and passion required to devise a campaign to educate their community in a positive way—to influence people to become vegan and understand that what happens to animals is wrong and unnecessary. It is certainly simpler to rant about the suffering of animals, and it is also easier to throw bricks through windows than it is to build a movement. But animals are suffering, and we owe it to them to choose the form of activisms that will be most successful.


We believe that the best forms of activism—the forms that will transform our country and world—involve leafleting, tabling, showing videos taken inside factory farms, teaching cooking or community college classes, writing letters, convincing restaurants and caterers to have more and better vegan options, pressuring supermarkets to stop selling products involving the worst forms of animal cruelty, using social networking tools to educate vast numbers of people online, organizing politically, passing local, state or federal legislation to protect animals, getting pro-animal letters and articles published in local newspapers, garnering support from people of influence in your community, and so on. These are the things that have pushed animal protection to the forefront—that have resulted in a greatly-raised consciousness about animal issues over the last decade. And these are the things that will continue turning the tide for animals.



Our goal as a movement is not to change what people believe—nearly all Americans already agree with our sentiments about animals. So our goal should be to show them how they can align their actions with their ethics. We can win the public to our side if we stay true to the values that brought us to the animal protection movement in the first place. Animal liberation requires that we harness our energies in the most consistent and effective ways possible, and that means that we should eschew violence and property destruction, focusing our energies on actions that are consistent with our compassionate goals, and on areas of maximum impact. Violent direct action fails in both categories.



Peter Singer is the author of Animal Liberation and professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Bruce Friedrich is vice president for policy at PETA.