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Humanities LibreTexts

8.6: Violent Actions

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  • More controversial forms of activism involve violence or threats of violence of different kinds. Violence comes in many different forms, as our authors observe.

    Some animal advocates, e.g., some members of the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), engage in property destruction (e.g., of animal cages, computers with experimental data, etc.) and even sometimes even arson. Although they claim that their actions are “non-violent,” this strains the concept of violence. They argue that since they are not violent to anyone, i.e., they do not inflict bodily harm on anyone, they thereby act non-violently.

    This inference does not follow: one can act violently yet do no violence to anyone. For example, it seems to make perfect sense to say that someone could violently smash carton of fruits and vegetables with a sledgehammer, especially if the person was in a heated frenzy. One might not want young children to see such a spectacle because, well, it’s too violent! So the ALF’s insistence that they are always non-violent strains the meaning of the term. Perhaps they (and animal use industries) want to insist that they are non-violent because they think this principle is true:

    All acts of violence are morally impermissible.

    If this were true, and they acted violently (in performing arson, or in how they treat animals, for example), that would imply that they were acting wrongly.

    But the above principle is false, according to most people: violence can be, and often is, morally justified. If violence (or threats of violence) are needed for self-defense, then it’s permissible. If it’s needed to defend an innocent third party, then it’s justified. Perhaps some wars can be justified. So the above principle is false, according to most people.

    Most people might even think that it’s false regarding some animals too: if someone tried to attack your dog or cat, might you be morally justified in responding with violence, or threats of violence, to defend your companion animal if needed? What if the animal was a stray? What if the animal was in a farm, slaughterhouse or lab? If they knew the details of the case, perhaps many people might think that violence, if needed for defending animals, would be morally permissible in at least some of these cases.

    So perhaps violence could be justified in cases of rescue. Whether violence can ever be justified for any other purposes, e.g., in an attempt to change society’s general views about our obligations to animals, seems extremely doubtful. In fact, given all the relevant considerations, it is likely that any such violence, including possible genuine “terrorism,” would be deeply morally wrong, for reasons that Regan, Singer and Rowlands articulate.

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