Review of On Their Own Terms by Lee Hall


It has been nearly 70 years since Donald Watson and others launched the Vegan Society, proclaiming to the world a radical idea: that humans had no right to use animals in any way, for any reason. Since then, many seminal thinkers and works have argued the case for animal rights. Peter Singer published Animal Liberation nearly 40 years ago, and we have for decades had available the works of theorists such as Tom Regan and Gary Francione. Through their work, and the work of countless “grassroots” activists of many forms, “animal rights” has become a term of general knowledge—though its connotations can vary drastically depending on the speaker and audience!

In recent years, and especially within recent months, people in the animal rights movement have begun to reflect publicly on the movement itself, assessing principles, practices, and future efforts. Of particular import in this reflection is the question of what kind of use of animals is acceptable…or is any use not acceptable at all?

This question has rippled through animal advocacy in all its forms, leading many to wonder if there are not two animal-focused movements (often being referred to as “abolitionist” and “welfarist,” depending on how the question is answered).

Lee Hall’s book On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth tackles this question head on, exploring the real message of animal rights theory and how it should be applied to animals. Through her training as a lawyer and an experienced advocate, Hall looks at the modern animal rights movement and finds some key instances in which it lacks consistency and, as a result, can be counterproductive to its own goals.

It is clear that Hall’s book is (at least primarily) addressed to other animal advocates and would-be advocates. This comes up throughout, be it in her concern to refine the usage of terms, to the proper (consistent) application of rights theory, to how to respond to various issues and campaigns, to workshops on “finding your animal rights theory” (262), to tips for creating effective vegan pamphlets.

Given her intended audience, it makes sense that she asks fundamental questions about how we, as advocates for animals, are working to end completely a millennia-old system of human domination. As Hall puts it, “The deepest and most comprehensive question for our social movement is why and how modern human society has developed through patterns of domination; and the greatest challenge we face is imagining humanity without the master role” (93).

To begin this process of re-imagination, Hall makes a key distinction between domesticated animals and “free-living” (wild) animals. She argues that “rights” are only truly applicable to the latter, because domesticated animals are inextricably tied to human control and dominion; without human interference (husbandry), these animals would not (and could not) even exist, so they can never be liberated from a system of domination (34). As a result, “animal rights” is meaningful as a term (and a movement) only insofar as autonomy is protected or augmented (191). That is, as she emphasizes repeatedly, the true pursuit of rights for free-living animals is granting them the right to be left alone.

In contrast, “Rights for purpose-bred animals would be, according to a sound theory of animal rights, a contradiction in terms” (105), and pushing for reforms of their conditions actually undermines the effort for true abolition from human enslavement. This is because husbandry reforms both perpetuate a system of domination and help corporations to continue getting public support for their commodification of animals for profit, by instilling the false idea that the animals are treated “humanely.”

Addressing, as she does, animal advocates, Hall picks out inconsistencies and theoretical shortcomings of both ends of the animal rights spectrum. On the one end, she criticizes people like Peter Singer who condone “humane” farming based on the idea that the animals do not suffer, since this is both unjust (continuing the use of animals as property) and unsustainable on large scales (because of expense and resource-usage) (62).

Meanwhile, abolitionists arguing for total animal liberation, according to Hall, often fail to recognize adequately the crucial distinction between free-living and domesticated animals, and so do not promote the rights of free-living animals over the abuses suffered by domesticated animals (83). As a result, in her estimation, they can end up drawing too much attention to abuses and conditions in which animals are used, not promoting the rights of free-living animals to be left alone as the best case for social reform.

To bring all of this theoretical discussion “down to Earth,” Hall weaves into her argument many recommendations for how to engage in consistent, effective advocacy for the rights of animals to live autonomously.

One important part of this effort is to combine animal rights with environmental laws. There is dire need for this twofold approach because humans have destroyed so much habitat, making it harder and harder for wild animals truly to live free. Ironically, Hall points out, domesticated animals are inextricably tied to this environmental devastation—be it through their need for pasture and feed, protection from predators, or for other resources (though, of course, the only blame lies squarely with the humans breeding, raising, and consuming them). Thus, the majority of our efforts should be in the promotion and protection of free-living animals and their habitats. These should be our ideals and the focus of legal reforms, Hall claims.

While pursuing rights for free-living animals, the proper response to the conditions of domesticated animals is not attempts at husbandry reforms or stopgap welfare regulations. Instead, advocates must promote a consistent vegan paradigm, which decreases (and ultimately would eliminate) the demand for domesticated animal products and so for animals who, in their very existence, are objects of exploitation. Instead of backing some new reform effort, then, advocates should put their energy into building the ranks of vegans—and building support networks that keep them vegan.

Lee Hall’s On Their Own Terms was a profoundly thought-provoking book for me, coming at a time in which I have wondered whether or not the time has passed for animal advocates of differing philosophies to have a truly meaningful conversation. Hall’s intellectual integrity, and her willingness to stick with her principles to their logical ends no matter how unpalatable to some human readers they may be, is refreshing to say the least—and desperately needed at this moment, when consistency in animal advocacy (and even veganism) cannot be taken for granted.

“Animal rights” for Hall is not so much a matter of laws and regulations, but of the right to be left alone on all levels. I agree with Hall completely on this, though I am not yet convinced that domesticated animals could not benefit from legal protections as part of a clear argument for abolition. Although they are inherently dependent beings, they are still individuals, and focusing too much on their dependency can obscure, to varying degrees, this fact, and the care and respect that we still owe them. I am not sure that the law would not be a useful tool in this aspect of a vegan campaign, though I understand how there is the risk of backfiring, as Hall argues.

The fact that I am asking myself these questions, and grappling with how my own advocacy may or may not further the movement for animal liberation, speaks to the efficacy of Hall’s argument. After all, Hall’s goal in On Their Own Terms is to make us do this sort of self-reflection as we seek to turn theory into practice, philosophy into activism. And her book is valuable for helping us to recognize that in a truly just world, animals would never need to come under the rule of human law in the first place. And that is what a vegan paradigm must aspire to…and never forget.

Image credit: Brent Rostad (own work), via Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.

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