Case Against Vandalism and Violence
By Tom Regan
Vandalism and violence are close cousins. Vandalism is the form violence
sometimes takes when things, not people, are the direct object of destruction.
Examples include breaking furniture or windows, painting houses or cars,
up-rooting plants or shrubs, and trashing offices or apartments. Vandalism
involves violence on a small scale.
Without a doubt, some Animal Rights Advocates (ARAs) commit acts of
vandalism. Without a doubt, many people are turned off when they read
about ARAs breaking a furrier’s windows or trashing a vivisector’s
office, or when an outing turns violent and houses or cars are spray-painted.
So let me say this as clearly as I can: the vast majority of ARAs are
not into vandalism. Oh, we understand how frustrated ARAs might find
Ronald McDonald’s windows or Ted Nugent’s SUV mighty inviting
targets for a little extra-curricular animal rights activism. But frustration
is not justification. Despite what some people say about us, most ARAs
are not lawless fanatics.
Do ARAs ever go beyond vandalism? Is full-on violence ever used? If
we listen to the FBI, the answer is yes. The agency estimates that
Animal Liberation Front, along with the Earth Liberation Front, “have
committed over 600 criminal acts in the U.S. since 1996, resulting in
damages in excess of $43 million.” That adds up to a lot of violence
in the minds of FBI agents. For their part, ALF spokespersons insist
that ALF’s record of property destruction is part of “a
nonviolent campaign, activists taking all precautions not to harm any
animal (human or otherwise).”
Violence is not limited in the way the ALF or their supporters would
have us believe. Someone who sets fire to an empty abortion clinic
torches a vacant synagogue causes no physical injury to any sentient
being, but to suppose that these acts of arson are nonviolent distorts
what violence means. When The American Heritage College Dictionary
defines “violence” as “physical force exerted for the purpose
of violating, damaging, or abusing,” it does not say that the
damage must involve a sentient being. We do not need to hurt someone
in order to use violence against something. If the ALF uses an incendiary
device to level a building, they engage in some serious violence. To
speak of “the violent destruction of property” is not a
contradiction in terms. Why persist in denying the obvious? In my opinion,
unless or until ALF spokespersons acknowledge the violent nature of
many ALF actions, everything else they say to the general public will
fall on deaf ears. We never garner support for what we do if we are
unwilling to admit what this is.
Many people are turned off by the violence attributed to ARAs. “Yes,
I think animal rights is a wonderful idea, and I really would like to
embrace it,” they say, “but I can’t abide all the
violence.” Of all turn-offs, this may be the hardest for ARAs
to address. For this reason, we need to take our time in exploring
even then what I have to say is far from complete.
We begin by reminding ourselves that opponents of animal rights have
crafted a strategy requiring reports of violent acts done in the name
of animal rights. And their strategy requires a lot of such violence.
Personally, I do not doubt for a moment that some of the violence attributed
to ARAs actually is done by somebody else, possibly even thugs employed
by people who themselves are employed by one or another of the major
animal user industries…
Notice, too, how one-sided this discussion always plays out. On the
one side, we have all the wonderful law-abiding people who work for
the major animal user industries. On the other side, we have all (well,
maybe not all) the law-breaking ARAs. Paragons of nonviolence on the
one hand, beady-eyed flame-throwers on the other. Not only is this absurdly
unfair to ARAs, it is nothing less than a cover-up of the truth when
it comes to what the major animal user industries do. Think about some
of the things done to animals in the name of science, to take just one
Animals are drowned, suffocated, and starved to death; they have their
limbs severed and their organs crushed; they are burned, exposed to
radiation, and used in experimental surgeries; they are shocked, raised
in isolation, exposed to weapons of mass destruction, and rendered blind
or paralyzed; they are given heart attacks, ulcers, paralysis, and seizures;
they are forced to inhale tobacco smoke, drink alcohol, and ingest various
drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. And they say ARAs are violent?
The violence done by ARAs (by which I mean the violent destruction of
property) is nothing compared to the violence done by the major animal
user industries, a raindrop compared to an ocean. Just because a profession
is legal, perhaps even (as in the case of vivisection) prestigious,
does not mean it is nonviolent. On a day to day basis, the greatest
amount of violence in the world occurs because of what humans do to
other animals. That the violence is legally protected only serves to
make matters worse.
The Moral Argument
I am not a Gandhian pacifist. I do not think it is always
wrong to use violence. In particular, I do not think it is wrong to
to defend the innocent (for example, to rescue children from their
estranged father who is threatening to kill them). Of course, we should
more violence when less will suffice. And we should not use any violence
at all until we have exhausted nonviolent alternatives, as time and
circumstances permit. Non-pacifists like me (and this includes almost
everybody) don’t have to be trigger-happy anarchists, either.
Morally, then, ARAs could attempt to satisfy these conditions by arguing
1. Animals are innocent.
2. Violence is used only when it is necessary to rescue them so that
they are spared terrible harm.
3. Excessive violence is never used.
4. Violence is used only after nonviolent alternatives have been exhausted,
as time and circumstances permit.
5. Therefore, in these cases, the use of violence is justified.
What should we say in response to this line of reasoning? If all the
premises (one through four) are true, how can we avoid agreeing with
the conclusion (five)? True, Gandhian pacifists can avoid the conclusion;
they do not accept any violence, even in defense of the innocent. However,
most of us are not Gandhian pacifists; for us, the plot thickens.
Personally, I don’t think the second premise is true of all or
even most of the violence done in the name of animal rights. Why not?
Because the vast majority of this violence does not involve animal
The vast majority (I estimate 98 percent) is property destruction,
pure and simple. In cases like these, the defense we are considering
nothing by way of justification.
What of the remaining two percent of cases, where violence is used and
animals are rescued? For example, suppose a multi-million dollar lab
is burnt to the ground after the animals in it have been liberated.
Would this kind of violence be justified, given the argument sketched
Again, I don’t think so. And the reason is because I don’t
think the requirement set forth in premise four has been satisfied.
Personally, I do not think that ARAs in general, members of the ALF
in particular, have done nearly enough when it comes to exhausting nonviolent
alternatives. Granted, to do this will take time and will require great
patience coupled with hard, dedicated work. Granted, the results of
these labors are uncertain. And granted, animals will be suffering and
dying every hour of every day that ARAs struggle to free them using
nonviolent means. Nevertheless, unless or until ARAs have done the demanding
nonviolent work that needs to be done, the use of violence, in my judgment,
is not morally justified. (It is also a tactical disaster. Even when
animals are rescued, the story the media tells is about the “terroristic” acts
of ARAs, not the terrible things that were being done to animals. The
one thing ARA violence never fails to produce is more grist for
the mills run by spokespersons for the major animal user industries.)
Supporters of the ALF are certainly free to challenge my critique of
ALF violence by arguing that violence is justified under different conditions
than those I have given. For example, they could argue that violence
is justified when the damage caused is so extensive that it puts an
animal abuser out of business. In this case, no animals are rescued
but (so it may be argued) some animals are spared the horrors of vivisection
in a lab or a lifetime of deprivation in a fur mill, for example. However,
to consider such an argument is premature. Before it merits consideration,
ALF supporters will have to agree that the ALF sometimes uses violence,
something which, as we have seen, ALF supporters are loath to admit.
The role of violence in social justice movements raises complicated
questions that always have and always will divide activists on matters
of substance, ethics and strategy in particular. It need not divide
ARAs when it comes to assessments of character. I know ARAs who have
spent years in jail because they have broken the law, having used violence
as I understand this idea. To a person, these activists believe ARAs
already have exhausted nonviolent alternatives. To a person, they believe
the time for talking has passed and the time for acting has arrived.
I have never doubted the sincerity and commitment—or the courage—these
activists embody. I am reminded of an observation Gandhi once made,
to the effect that he had more admiration for people who have the courage
to use violence than he had for people who embraced nonviolence out
of cowardice. So, yes, members of the ALF are courageous in their acts,
and sincere in their commitment. And yes, perhaps some of us who reject
the violence they employ do so out of cowardice. Nevertheless, violence
done by ARAs, in my judgment, not only is wrong; it does not help,
hurts the animal rights movement.
Tom Regan is professor emeritus of philosophy at
North Carolina State University and author of numerous books, including
the influential The Case for Animal Rights (1983). This essay
is excerpted from Regan’s new book, Empty Cages: Facing the
Challenge of Animal Rights (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). To learn
more, see www.tomregan-animalrights.com.
Reprinted with permission.