DC VegFest Performance

I met some amazing folks at DC Veg Fest a few weeks ago (including Grey, who appears at the end of this video!). Sharing “Where War Begins” with so many passionate vegans and soon-to-be vegans absolutely made my day. Shout out to davidjwalls for recording everything and Compassion Over Killing for organizing this awesome event!

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Remembering Dick Gregory and Debating Animal Rights

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dick Gregory, a dazzling comedian, trenchant social critic, and tireless civil rights and antiwar activist who passed away last Saturday. A life like his gives us so much to contemplate, but I keep returning to his assertion that humans and other species “suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel, and vicious taking of life. We shouldn’t be a part of it.”

I think Gregory was on to something. Because they can grieve and ache just as much as certain humans can, sentient animals deserve justice.

I discussed these matters on Monday in a debate with Walter Block, a Loyola University economics professor about whose position on animal rights I wrote last month. Although we disagreed vehemently, it was a cordial and fruitful exchange. Whatever you feel about this issue, I hope you’ll watch this and seriously consider Gregory’s thoughtful words. Many thanks to Lucy Steigerwald for moderating the discussion.


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Animal Torture Violates Rights: A Response to Walter Block


Walter Block is one of the most highly esteemed libertarian theorists in the world today.1 The Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Chair in Economics and Professor of Economics at Loyola University, Block has written hundreds of articles and books on the intricacies of libertarian theory, even a cursory review of which reveals the tremendous depth and breadth of his thinking.2 Block’s logical consistency is impressive, and his iconoclastic scholarship on such weighty issues as militarism and drug prohibition warrants praise from anyone dismayed by abusive governmental power.

Notwithstanding his important insights on other topics, Block joins fellow libertarians Murray Rothbard,3 Tibor Machan,4 Roderick Long,5 and Jan Narveson6 in promoting unsound ideas about animal rights.7 According to Block, animals lack all rights because animals cannot: 1) petition for the right not to be tortured or 2) “promise to respect” others’ rights and “follow through” on that promise.8 Therefore, like several of his libertarian peers, Block concludes that humans should be allowed to torture their animal property with impunity.9

Block’s opposition to animal rights necessarily informs his ideas about a medley of serious issues. For example, it inclines Block to support the right of slaughterhouse operators to keep all the money they make from killing animals painfully. It also inclines him to support the right of private industrialists to pave over animal habitats.10 To understand the full implications of animal rights doctrine in a society based on Lockean property rights, we will eventually have to consider these ancillary positions at length. In this short essay, though, I provide just a basic refutation of Block’s case for legalizing animal torture.11 The first section describes Block’s argument, the second section enumerates my objections to Block’s argument, and the conclusion follows.

Block’s argument

On a personal level, Block opposes animal abuse, calling it a “highly immoral” practice.12 He also predicts, perhaps optimistically, that judges in some future libertarian society will not “land too heavily” on vigilantes fighting animal abuse.13 But because libertarianism prohibits violence against humans alone, Block maintains that the legal right to torture one’s own animals is an unavoidable corollary of libertarian doctrine.14

Though he does not mention it in his 2015 article “Animal Torture: A Critique of Thick Libertarianism,” Block has elsewhere claimed that a non-human species could theoretically gain rights if it petitioned for rights and sincerely promised to respect the rights of others.15 Block extends this principle to entities that may not be “animals” as we generally understand them, suggesting that humans’ libertarian obligations to extraterrestrial beings, for example, would also depend on those beings’ ability or inability to articulate an authentic affinity for rights.16

Problems with Block’s argument

There are three related problems with Block’s argument. First, Block assumes from the outset that the human-animal division is morally significant, even though that division’s moral significance is the very thing that Block needs to prove. Second, Block seems to make the inappropriate assumption that individuals have rights if and only if they can articulate a sincere respect and desire for rights. Third, Block pays inadequate attention to sentience when determining who has a right not to be tortured.

Let us begin with the first problem. To determine whether animals have rights, Block outlines what we may call the “articulation standard,” asking whether animals can request rights and convey an honest willingness to respect the rights of others. Because animals cannot meet this standard, Block reasons, animals have no rights. But the question itself is specious, which becomes clear when we imagine applying Block’s standard to a human group. Let us imagine, for example, using Block’s formula to determine whether human babies have rights. Unpalatably, Block’s logic would yield the conclusion that human babies lack all rights, seeing as babies can neither petition for rights nor promise to respect the rights of others.

In reality, Block has expressed support for human babies’ rights. Although he condones parents’ limited use of spanking for disciplinary reasons, Block acknowledges that grisly child abuse—grinding babies to death without anesthetic, for example—does indeed violate babies’ rights.17 It is clear, then, that Block is not prepared to hold all human groups to the standard to which he holds all animal groups. In order to justify his use of the articulation standard, though, he would need to apply it to animals and humans alike. His failure to do so suggests that he is simply intent on denying rights to animals.

Block could now respond that human babies, unlike animals, have rights because other (i.e. older) members of their species meet the articulation standard. But that response would reveal the crux of his argument’s problem. In trying to prove that all humans deserve special protection, Block’s argument unfairly assumes from the outset that traits common among other members of one’s species is what matters morally. We could just as easily, and just as unjustifiably, assume from the outset that the traits common among other members of one’s age group is what matters morally, and we could frame our question and answer accordingly: “Does the individual belong to an age group that has requested rights, pledged respect for rights, and followed through on that pledge? If not, then he deserves no rights.” Because this arbitrary formulation would deprive human newborns of rights simply because of their membership in a group—a group invoked for no particularly good reason—Block would properly deem the question unfair. However, Block’s own formulation, which promotes rights for human babies but not for their equally articulate animal counterparts, is also unfair. For that reason, we should reject Block’s question as well.

It is of course possible that Block would at this point agree to hold every individual equally to the articulation standard. But even if that would make his reasoning more consistent, the articulation standard itself would remain woefully misguided. A couple of case studies should elucidate this second problem with Block’s argument.

Suppose that an Apple computer were built in the shape of a human body, dressed up like a human, and programmed to say, “Please don’t torture me, and I will not torture you.” Let us also assume that this computer, designed to help and not to hurt humans, would “follow through” on its promise not to torture people. Because this computer’s utterance would sound like an earnest petition for and commitment to rights, Block’s reasoning would lead us to support rights for this computer. But if this computer forever lacked sentience, then recognizing its “rights” would be bizarre indeed. For although the computer could say that it dislikes torture, the computer would not actually feel an aversion to torture. Indeed, the computer—what with its inability to process emotions or physical pain—would lack all preferences on all matters pertaining to its own wellbeing. Therefore, offering rights to this computer would make no more sense than offering rights to tables, chairs, pillows, and other objects that are perpetually apathetic to the treatment they receive.18

Although the group of individuals who meet the articulation standard does not overlap perfectly with the group of individuals who actually desire a right not to be tortured, perhaps Block would respond that all individuals who want rights can express an affinity for rights (even though not every entity capable of expressing an affinity for rights actually wants rights). But as Block implicitly recognizes in his other writings, it is simply not true that everyone who wants rights is capable of articulating an affinity for rights. To return to a previous example: human babies are incapable of articulating any desire or respect for rights. Human adults with severe cognitive impairments may be similarly incapable. Schizophrenics overwhelmed by delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia might also fail to request and pledge respect for rights with any more coherence than an animal. And yet Block still recognizes that human infants, the cognitively impaired, and the mentally ill want and deserve rights.

Block is not alone. It seems axiomatic that sentient human beings who have harmed nobody, even if they are amoral and inarticulate, have a right not to be tortured under normal circumstances. To understand why, we should consider Rothbard’s assertion that humans have property rights because humans “transform their environment in order to prosper.”19 In other words, humans have property rights because humans can make use of and desire the benefits of property rights in a way that rocks, rivers, and other uncreative entities cannot. Although Rothbard opposed animal rights and therefore failed to embrace the logical implications of his own reasoning, Rothbard’s premise made sense. There is good reason to believe that an entity should receive a negative right when the entity actually wants, and perceives a benefit in, the protection afforded by that negative right.20

When we use Rothbard’s premise to assess the morality of torturing animals, we necessarily conclude that torturing innocent sentient animals does indeed violate rights. This conclusion brings us to the final problem with Block’s theory of animal rights: it neglects the importance of sentience. Because a sentient being can experience pain, it should be clear that all sentient beings have an interest in avoiding the distressing experience that torture entails. To put it in terms that Rothbardians ought to appreciate: it is “natural” for sentient beings, given their aversion to torture, to have rights against torture. That the inarticulate—the cognitively impaired, the psychologically troubled, the young, and, yes, the non-human—cannot eloquently express their affinity for these rights does not matter. What matters is that all sentient beings, unlike perpetually inanimate objects, want not to be tortured. If that desire warrants official respect when it belongs to humans, then it also, at least presumptively, warrants official respect when it belongs to non-human animals.


According to Block, the sole purpose of law is to regulate human interaction, meaning that the treatment of animals should be resolved privately.21 Of course, Block is allowed to advocate this viewpoint, but so are we allowed—perhaps even called upon—to condemn the morally arbitrary and misguided calculations that bring him to his conclusions concerning the abuse of non-human species. Because it would greatly exaggerate the importance of agents’ articulateness and vastly understate the importance of their capacity for pain, any legal system permitting unprovoked assaults on sentient animals would be unjustified.


  1. Newsmax labeled Block one of the 100 “most influential libertarians.” See “100 Most Influential Libertarians: A Newsmax/FreedomFest List.” Newsmax. June 1, Accessed July 3, 2017. 2017. http://www.newsmax.com/BestLists/libertarians-newsmax-freedomfest/2017/06/01/id/793510/.
  2. For a list of Block’s publications, see “Walter Block Publications.” Accessed July 3, 2017. http://www.walterblock.com/publications/.
  3. Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998), 155. This book was originally published in 1982.
  4. Machan, Tibor R. “Do Animals Have Rights?” Public Affairs Quarterly 5, no. 2 (April 1991): 163-73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40435778.
  5. Long, Roderick T. “Why Fur Is Not Murder.” Praxeology.net. January 26, 2003. praxeology.net/unblog01-03.htm#13.
  6. Narveson, Jan. “Animal Rights.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7, no. 1 (March 1977): 161-78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40230681.
  7. “Animal” in this essay means “non-human animal.”
  8. “Walter Block – Q&A Session [Australian Mises Seminar].” October 6, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLqEk3BKoiQ&t=1m15s.
  9. Block reaffirms his commitment to this position in Block, Walter, and Steven Craig. “Animal Torture.” The Review of Social and Economic Issues 1, no. 4 (2017): 82. http://rsei.rau.ro/images/V1N4/Comm2-ANIMAL%20TORTURE.pdf. Although this recent journal article should be addressed in its totality on another occasion, what matters now is that this piece articulates Block’s apparently unchanged, if grudging and uneasy, view that animal torture is permissible under the libertarian legal code that he favors.
  10. Of course, Block could still theoretically oppose the right of slaughterhouse operators to keep their money and the right of private industrialists to pave over animal habitats. That opposition, though, would not stem from a commitment to animal rights.
  11. I am focusing on Block’s case for legalizing animal torture under normal circumstances, which means that I am ignoring some crucial ethical questions while addressing others. For example, I am not contemplating whether it should be legal to torture one animal in order to save the lives of many more sentient beings. But I am contemplating whether it should be legal to debeak, dehorn, violently penetrate, and confine animals in close quarters in order to facilitate the production of meat, dairy, and eggs for American consumers who can survive without animal products.
  12. Block, Walter, and Stephen Montgomery. “Animal Torture: A Critique of Thick Libertarianism.” The Review of Social and Economic Issues 1, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 106. Accessed July 4, 2017.
  13. Ibid., 106.
  14. Ibid., 106-107.
  15. “Walter Block – Q&A Session [Australian Mises Seminar].” October 6, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLqEk3BKoiQ&t=1m15s.
  16. “Walter Block – Q&A Session [Australian Mises Seminar].” October 6, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLqEk3BKoiQ&t=2m00s.
  17. Grinding babies to death is my example, not Block’s. I use it because the egg industry lethally lacerates millions of male chicks every year. See McKenna, Maryn. “By 2020, Male Chicks May Avoid Death By Grinder.” National Geographic. June 13, 2016. Accessed July 4, 2017. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/06/by-2020–male-chicks-could-avoid-death-by-grinder/. For Block’s treatment of children’s rights, see Block, Walter, Ed Smith, and Jordan Reel. “The natural rights of children.”Int J Health Policy Manag, 2014, 85-89. doi:10.15171/ijhpm.201.
  18. In granting rights to these objects, then, we would be placing unnecessary restraints on the way that individuals with preferences treat these objects.
  19. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 155.
  20. Perhaps entities can have rights even if they lack a present preference for rights. For example, anesthetized humans, notwithstanding their temporary unconsciousness, probably have a right not to be touched aggressively. My present claim, then, is that sentient beings have rights—not that sentient beings alone have rights. Another essay is necessary to investigate this matter more thoroughly.
  21. Block and Montgomery, “Animal Torture,” 105.

This article originally appeared at C4SS.org

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Where War Begins

This is “Where War Begins,” my poem decrying various wars waged against humans and non-human animals both. Many thanks to Jonah Bregstone and Adrian Craig for recording me. Go vegan!


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Vegan Musings on Retribution


The more evil I encounter in ordinary places, the more convinced I become that many criminals withering away in prison are not alone responsible for their crimes. In this respect, they resemble my “non-criminal” friends who regularly commit unconscionable acts. They resemble many readers of this essay, some of whom are probably committing objectionable acts while reading this essay. And they resemble me, in that I have also committed horrid acts condoned by the culture and legal system surrounding me. But because I cannot bring myself to believe that we “normal” people deserve incarceration, I am starting to doubt also that widely condemned criminals deserve the harsh punishments they receive.

Let me back up. Although I have not always been, I am now vegan and will remain vegan until I die. I refuse to consume animal products, because I consider it wrong to torment sentient beings for fun. I take comfort in the fact that many people share my sentiments. Most Americans recognize, at least in theory, that it is unethical to torture sentient creatures needlessly.

When it comes to animals, though, our actions often contradict our words. We teach children to respect animals, but we pay businesses to castrate male pigs without anesthetic, to impregnate cows via “rape racks,” and to destroy chickens’ beaks, sometimes so profoundly as to prevent the victims from eating. We chow down on lobsters dismembered and boiled alive, drink milk wrested from hapless goats, and flaunt wool ripped from the backs of abused sheep. All told, we Americans kill billions of animals annually. We “peace lovers” sometimes participate in this odiousness without a hint of irony, having convinced ourselves that it is possible to respect sentient animals while harming them. Others of us simply ignore the contradiction, content to promote peace in the streets while unthinkingly ingesting corpses in the dining room.

Others of us claim that non-human species—because they are less rational and morally informed than humans—actually deserve nothing better than their inferior treatment. But this justification begins to collapse when we remember that the newborn human babies we so adore, as well as some cognitively impaired adults, are no more rational or morally informed than the animals that humans eat and wear regularly. And even if we somehow manage to circumvent this reality of “species overlap,” we fall short when we then try justifying the unsettling idea that rational and morally informed beings are the only ones who deserve torture-free lives in the first place.

Most meat-eaters are not malicious, though. Many non-vegans are actually deeply compassionate.

They assist sick relatives, donate to the needy, hold doors for strangers, and even mourn the deaths of their pets. True, non-vegans seem not to extend their sympathies to the animals they consume. But away from the dinner table, a good many non-vegans are as kind as can be. Some meat-eaters, like Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Noam Chomsky, even manage to achieve global renown for agitating on behalf of the oppressed.

This puzzling reality—that otherwise moral individuals voluntarily commit patently immoral acts—gets me thinking about the logic of retributive justice. Understandably, many Americans believe that murderers deserve death or life in prison for the crimes they commit. Although I have long opposed the death penalty because I fear wrongful executions, I have also never much doubted that actual killers deserve death. Nor have I ever categorically opposed life sentences without the possibility of parole. Like many Americans, I have thought that individuals who voluntarily commit unconscionable acts should have to take responsibility by suffering unpleasant legal consequences.

But my sentiments are changing. Whenever I see restaurants full of “normal,” “good” people slathering parcels of dead cow with barbecue sauce, I remember that barbaric cultural norms can motivate humans to act against their better judgment. I have thus concluded that people are not singly responsible for their misdeeds and that many retributive punishments today are too harsh.

If you struggle to understand this point, consider just how prevalent the denigration of animals really is. Every time they drive on the highway, meat-eaters are likely to encounter advertisements for sliced turkey lodged between hunks of bread. They are likely to send their children to public schools that serve decapitated chickens for lunch. They are bound to see televised models and actors proudly flaunting accessories made from alligators. In light of our world’s intractable addiction to the flesh of non-human species, it is hardly surprising that meat-eaters treat non-human animals like garbage and respond with confusion, indignation, or contemptuous laughter when a dissenting somebody suggests (accurately) that there is no meaningful moral difference between torturing a random cow and torturing a random human baby.

I am inclined to believe that many criminals—the ones who assault humans—are similarly inspired by other violent people to become violent themselves. Research on the adverse effects of child abuse vindicates my intuition. When only one child in a twin pair experiences abuse, the abused twin is markedly more likely than his similarly situated non-abused twin to embrace criminality. Causality is difficult to prove, but surely it is no far stretch to hypothesize that abuse teaches its child victims that aggression is a fine way of dignifying oneself, of showing the world that one’s wishes should not and cannot be ignored. And although the data on single-parent households do not definitively prove that growing up without a parent increases one’s chances of committing crime, the disproportionate amount of fatherless prisoners may very well suggest that fatherlessness, and perhaps the poverty with which it is associated, pushes children in a violent direction.

I say none of this to understate the severity of horrific crimes. For me, as for many people, there is hardly anything more infuriating and heartrending than unprovoked violence. Nor do I say any of this to suggest that we should permit dangerous individuals to roam freely. However, I maintain that we should restrain criminals primarily in pursuit of public safety, not retribution. And if we do remain committed to restraining criminals largely for the sake of retribution, in order to give them “what they deserve,” then we should at least urge judges to account for criminals’ unchosen circumstances when handing down sentences.

Ultimately, though, defeating cultures of violence will require more than finger-pointing and confinement. It may be tempting to treat mainstream criminals as “different” from us, but that would overlook most Americans’ serious, if banal and accepted, participation in the brutal slaughter of billions of sentient beings that have done nothing to deserve pain. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans have contributed to this monstrosity, which makes it both practically inadvisable and morally questionable to treat retribution as a panacea. Let us instead try to promote respect—for humans and animals both—through education and rehabilitation of offenders. It may be our only hope.

This article originally appeared at goodmenproject.com

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Does Animals’ Meat-Eating Justify Our Own?

I do not think that humanity can justify its mass consumption of sentient non-human animals. However, some humans try to justify it by pointing to the carnivorous behavior of other species. “If alligators and pigs consume animals,” these meat-eaters figure, “then why shouldn’t we?”

There are several answers. First of all, it appears that most carnivorous creatures cannot yet survive without eating animals. Perhaps that does not justify their aggressive behavior, and maybe humans should intercede for animal-carnivores’ unfortunate victims by restraining belligerent creatures and working harder to create plant-based diets that are suitable for carnivores’ consumption.

That said, we must draw a moral distinction between those organisms that need to consume sentient animals and the human meat-eaters who do not. Killing for survival is surely not so egregious as killing for pleasure, and humans who slaughter animals usually do it for pleasure (or what we call “taste”).

Of course, not all animals do need to consume other animals. Omnivorous pigs, for example, can survive on plant-based diets. It is therefore legitimate for humans, much like guardians who prevent toddlers from pummeling each other, to prevent pigs from eating other sentient beings. 

But even if humans never manage to protect all prey from wild omnivores, humans’ own assaults on sentient animals will remain illegitimate. As we should know instinctively, other agents’ aggressive behavior cannot justify ours. If American parents tried mutilating their daughters’ genitals on the grounds that “parents in other countries do it with impunity,” we would laugh them out of the room. We would recognize there—as we should recognize here—that other actors’ failure to fulfill their moral obligations does not vindicate a similar failure on our part.

However, it is still possible that humans, despite their moral obligation to herbivores, have no moral obligation to those omnivores that eat sentient herbivores. For unlike herbivores (which eat insentient plants) and carnivores (which must eat animals), these omnivores needlessly inflict suffering on peaceful animals. Maybe it is moral, then, for humans to “punish” these predatory omnivores by killing and consuming them.

This line of reasoning, which essentially counsels the death penalty for non-human omnivores, should give us pause. Readers categorically opposed to the death penalty ought to reject the idea out of hand. For if it is wrong to execute humans who kill needlessly, then it is also wrong to “execute” bears, foxes, and whales that kill needlessly.

But even death penalty proponents should not support executing predatory omnivores. Capital punishment supporters moved by arguments from deterrence should realize that flesh-eating animals, because of their inability to understand the law, would not be deterred by the legal threat of death.

Death penalty proponents interested in retribution should be skeptical as well. Ruling it unconstitutional to execute cognitively impaired murderers, Justice John Paul Stevens noted in Atkins v. Virginia that executing somebody with a “diminished ability to understand and process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, or to control impulses” does not serve the death penalty’s retributive purpose. New York State similarly recognizes diminished guilt for offenders who “lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either that [their] conduct was against the law or that it was against commonly held moral principles, or both.” If only “the worst of the worst” deserve the death penalty—as eminent pro-death penalty scholar Robert Blecker argues—then predatory omnivores incapable of grasping the gravity and nature of their offenses should not be killed.

Granted, some literature suggests that certain animals do have the capacity to differentiate right from wrong. If people want to use that literature to try proving in a court of law that the predatory omnivores they kill deserve death, then they should be allowed to try. But if we permit the execution (and consumption) of predatory omnivores on the grounds that these moral agents violate other creatures’ rights, then—for equality’s sake—we must also be willing to execute (and feast upon?) humans who kill herbivorous deer, sheep, and rabbits. Maybe it is wisest, then, just to drop the retributivist justification for meat-eating altogether.

This set of excuses, based on the idea that animals’ predation justifies humans’ predation, may be tempting. Those searching for a reason to keep consuming animals might even think they have found the perfect alibi: they are doing nothing worse than their own victims do. Ultimately, though, other actors’ moral shortcomings cannot excuse our own, and subjecting predatory omnivores to a massive regime of capital punishment has scary implications that hardly anyone would accept.

This article originally appeared at unfetteredequality.com. The painting is Pieter Aertsen’s A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms.

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A Debate on the Rights of Non-Human Animals


I urge you to watch this important debate between Gary Francione and the late Tibor Machan regarding the rights of non-human animals. I think you will find Francione’s case quite strong.


Posted in Animal rights, Peace
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