Let us now turn to some more controversial forms of activism. Consider “open rescues” of animals from farms: these typically involve trespass, breaking and entering, and theft of animals that are somebody’s property. All these actions are illegal. Some people argue that such rescues are morally wrong because they are illegal. They might argue similarly against any form of activism that involves illegal activity.
These are unsound arguments and nearly everyone agrees with that because nearly everyone believes that this unstated premise, which is essential to the argument, is false:
Necessarily, if an action is illegal, then it is morally impermissible.
Hiding Jews from Nazi’s was illegal, yet morally permissible; helping slaves escape to freedom was illegal, yet morally permissible. Many more examples make the same point. Contrary to a common reaction, these examples do not make any “comparisons” whatsoever between animal issues and slavery or human holocausts1; they are simply used to show that any (or just about any) argument against some kind of activism based on the premise that it is illegal is unsound (or, at least, just about everyone’s beliefs entail that it is unsound, since they think the above premise is false: just because something is illegal does not necessarily entail that it is morally wrong). Animal advocates are advised to read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”2 They will find much to resonate with Dr. King’s discussion.
1 For an insightful discussion of such comparisons, see Karen Davis’s The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities (Lantern, 2005). http://www.upc-online.org/
2 Widely reposted online; www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf