Refounding Progressivism

Interview for the magazine Versus
David Olivier Whittier interviewed by Martin Gibert

This interview by Martin Gibert was published in French in issue #2 of the Quebec vegan magazine Versus (October 2015).

"David Olivier is one of the rare openly antispeciesist French philosophers. In this iterview for Versus, he comments on his personal history, explains hedonistic utilitarianism and shares his thougths about predation, sentience, vegan purism and the politics of the animalist movement. He tells us why he feels less and less lonely."

16 min.

— You have been vegan for many years. How did you come to be interested in this question?

Like many children, I tried to refuse eating meat as soon as I put two and two together and realized that it came from animals who were killed to produce it. I perceived the contradiction that exists between meat and the benevolence that I had been taught -- a benevolence that extended to those animals that we would sometimes encounter and pet in the meadows. The adults' reactions were very hostile. It was in the 1960s, and I thought I was alone on earth with such ideas. Despite this, the arguments in reply were very similar to those that animalists hear today; in particular, there was the one about predation in nature, to which I answered, as I do today, that indeed, predation in nature is bad too. I remember wondering if it would be right to kill a snake in order to save a large number of mice, without harbouring any hatred for the snakes.

As a teenager, I somehow lost interest in these issues. I believe it was mostly from the desire to fit in, at that very socially conformist age. Instead, I met anarchists and became an activist, mostly for issues of racism and sexism. But I also absorbed an amount of revolutionary ideology. It was only when I found the courage to question the anarchist and Marxist dogmas that I turned my attention again to the non human animals. I ceased eating them in 1986. At that time I also met Yves Bonnardel, who told me of the existence of an active animalist movement in England, among the youth, the punks and so on. It is then that I really became active on the issue. We were only a handful when we wrote a booklet1, and then discovered Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, and came in contact with Paola Cavalieri's group Eguaglianza Animale in Milan...

— Can you tell us about the beginnings of the Cahiers antispécistes?

Our encounter with Paola Cavalieri led us to learn of the existence of a large and thriving philosophical debate within the English-speaking world that was completely unheard of in France. It appeared to me useful to create a journal that would combine two activities that are usually kept separate: theoretical thought and concrete activism. This was the launch of the Cahiers antispécistes (“antispeciesist notebooks”). We saw antispeciesism as implying profound transformations on the material, cultural, ideological and artistic levels and we could not claim to be its sole driving force. Our task was to initiate the movement by promoting our rationalist, atheist, antinaturalist, progressive and largely utilitarian outlook, but also by translating and publishing important texts, including some that conflicted with our own views. Thus, starting in the early 1990s, we translated Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Paola Cavalieri, Steve Sapontzis, Carol Adams, Joan Dunayer and others.

We put an emphasis on ethical rationality that was crucial in the context of the time. Since non humans are defined as irrational, any concern for their fate was seen itself as irrational and reduced to the realm of “sentimentality”; while I believe, quite to the contrary, that ethics can be built, at least as much as the “hard” sciences, upon rational reflection, and that this reflection implies that we must reject speciesism. However, the downside was that this emphasis on rationality meant that we paradoxically strived to deny our resemblance with the very beings we were defending; thus it was also the effect of an internalized speciesism.

— What were your other positions, apart from this very rational approach to animal liberation?

In the Cahiers antispécistes, the critique of naturalism was immediately at the center. We never viewed animal liberation as having to do with environmentalism; it was clear that our concern was for animals as individuals, while environmentalism cares about species and “systems”. Vegetarianism was then, even more than it is now, perceived as a health-and-nature issue, and we struggled hard against this image. Our refusal to eat animals wasn't a way to “be closer to nature”. Predation between sentients has existed for over 600 million years, but that doesn't imply that we should “respect” it. Our perspective, instead, was that for the first time in natural history the members of one species, to begin with, would abolish collectively their own predation out of consideration for the interests of their prey.

We even produced a special issue in 1996 in which we “came out of the closet” concerning predation, with in particular the translation of Steve Sapontzis' text “Saving the Rabbit from the Fox”.

Another reflection that the Cahiers antispécistes launched, in 2003, was on the notion of sentience and how it fits in with the physicalist vision of the world -- the vision that follows from present-day science. Sentience is a central notion for antispeciesism, but it brings up the problem of its limits. Who is sentient and who is not? Mammals are, certainly, but what about fish, shrimp or insects? Is it possible to be more or less sentient? These questions are of scientific nature, but sentience -- the “hard problem of consciousness”2 -- forms, I believe, a deep riddle for science, and solving it will be essential for animal liberation, and also for the construction of rational ethics.

The Cahiers antispécistes have had a lasting effect on the French animalist movement, by their promotion of open ethical and political reflection, with a progressive and antinaturalist outlook. But with the growth of the animalist movement, it appeared to me that a journal centered on the notion of antispeciesism was no longer relevant, and I left the journal in 2004. Estiva Reus and others have chosen to pursue it.3

— You are often described as a utilitarian. How would you introduce this moral theory to someone unfamiliar with animal ethics? Is there a particular version of utilitarianism that you favour?

I was a utilitarian at eight, without knowing the word. It's a simple idea. Our acts matter by their consequences. The consequences that matter are the pleasure or happiness, and the pain or suffering, that they cause for all sentient beings whom they affect (this is hedonistic utilitarianism). This may imply weighing a certain happiness against a certain suffering, sometimes between different persons. Ideally, we would want a way to measure precisely the amounts of happiness or suffering produced or avoided by an act (what is called their utility, positive for happiness and negative for suffering); in practice, rough estimates are usually enough. Utilitarianism means no more than taking the rough prudential calculations we constantly perform for ourselves -- weighing, before taking our decisions, our own expected pleasures against our own expected pains -- and universalizing them, that is taking into consideration the pleasures and pains of all, not only of ourselves.

Of course, it is not all that simple. It would be good to know more about these things called happiness and suffering. One can also wonder if they are all that “matter” in life. And also: why then would death be a harm, if it is received without fear or pain? I believe that these problems cannot be solved without a better understanding of the nature of sentience. I am a hedonistic utilitarian, pending a greater understanding of this issue.

— What do you think of the other approaches in animal ethics?

The main competitor of utilitarianism is deontological ethics, often termed “rights theory” and championed by Tom Regan, Gary Francione and others. They often are more in harmony than utilitarianism with our everyday intuitions; nonetheless, I do not share their outlook.

The shift in perspective that utilitarianism operates relative to these deontological approaches, approaches that we inherit from Kant and, before that, from medieval scholastics and ultimately from Aristotelian thinking, is similar in structure to the shift operated within physics by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo relative to Aristotelian physics when they understood that our planet is not at the center of the world. Today, we have come to see that our species is not at the center of the ethical world; this implies, I believe, a necessary ethical transformation similar to the “Copernican revolution” in physics.

This shift has implications in terms of levels of abstraction. Before Galileo, the principles of physics closely mirrored everyday experience. For instance, in our everyday life, any movement that is not constantly maintained will quickly cease. It was thus believed that the “natural” state of a body is the absence of movement, at least within the earthly world -- since instead in the “supralunar” world of celestial bodies, movement appears eternal. Galileo overturned this vision, not only by formulating new laws such as the law of inertia, but more generally by establishing a distance between on one hand the abstract level of theoretical thinking on which the physicist operates and on the other hand the practical level of the engineer, which is tailored to concrete terrestrial problems. By establishing this more abstract level, Galileo allowed for the unification of the sublunar and supralunar realms which had appeared to be governed by completely different laws.

— If the analogy is correct, what are these two levels in ethics?

I am an ethical realist, that is I believe that ethical assertions have an objective truth value, just like scientific assertions. I also believe that the structure of ethics is similar to that of physics. The abstract principles, such as the command to maximize utility, belong to the “critical” level of ethics.4 On the practical level, a certain number of everyday ethical rules and intuitions are derived from these principles. They follow from the critical level just as the laws used by engineers follow from those of physicists, through the incorporation of the specific details of the concrete reality they are applied to.

Instead, deontological ethical systems do not recognize two such levels; their rules evolved in a human-centered context, just as Aristotelian physics was devised in an Earth-centered context. For instance, deontological ethics give a central place to notions such as personhood, dignity, autonomy, virtue, merit, rights, respect, exploitation… that are important for humans, but may not be relevant, or perhaps are less relevant or in different ways, concerning a fly, even though the fly, if sentient, should matter for ethics. Thus, Tom Regan explicitly limits his ethics of rights to those sentient beings who are most similar to humans (described as subjects of a life). Generally speaking, the tendency among supporters of the rights approach, such as Gary Francione, is to view as ideal a situation of separation between humans and other animals (“a vegan world”); they want to just leave non-human animals “in peace”, which in practice means leaving them to slaughter each other, to suffer and to die from diseases, parasites, hunger, thirst and so on. This apartheid of species avoids facing the irrelevance of the deontological ethical concepts when we move too far from the human sphere.

— The movement has grown greatly in recent years. What are your views on the current state of affairs?

I come from a time when I thought I was the only human who could cry for a mouse. To see thousands of people in street demonstrations demanding the closure all slaughterhouses is a childhood dream come true.

The movement has grown, and its growth is accelerating. In France, particularly, its themes are even starting to be taken up by some politicians -- something we could hardly imagine just five years ago.

Another positive point is that wild animal suffering is not quite so much a blind spot of the animalist movement as it used to be. Even if it remains most often ignored, the issue is starting to gather some steam, through the works and publications of David Pearce, Oscar Horta, Brian Tomasik, Catia Faria and others, by the creation of specific groups on social networks and so on. Peter Singer too is taking less meek positions on the issue.

On the negative side, I see first of all an identitarian obsession concerning “lifestyle” choices. Our movement can and should include all persons who recognize our aims as just, whether or not they are “pure” in their practices. The slavery of blacks was not abolished by a “lifestyle” and consumer movement, but as the result of a political claim for justice. This identitarianism all too often takes aggressive turns that express more a fear of personal contamination than a will to change the world.

— How do you explain this kind of attitude among certain vegans?

I think that they make too much of the notion of personal consistency. Consistency is a logical virtue, not an ethical one! A meat-eater who cares nothing about what animals endure is just as consistent as a vegan who opposes animal exploitation, but on the ethical level the former's position is doubly bad. It is much worse than the inconsistent position of someone who is shocked by the treatment of dairy cows but will occasionally eat some cheese. Here is at work the same quest for hyperrationality that I criticized concerning our own early positions, a quest that is implicitly speciesist in the radically different conception it has of humans and of other animals.

Identitarianism, with its obsession about building walls, is fundamentally a right-wing passion. Many in the movement are fearful of a real or imagined “infiltration” by the far right, as if they were at risk of being contaminated by contact. But I am less afraid of far-right persons than of far-right ideas, and these are already all over the place in the movement, including -- indeed, perhaps, particularly -- in the minds of the most “radical” and vocal “antifascists”.

In particular, there is an unforgivingness towards humans that contrasts with the indulgence displayed towards non-animal behaviour and that often leads to the demonization of our opponents. A cat who tortures a mouse is deemed “innocent” -- for he is only carrying out his “nature” -- but a bullfighter is a “monster” and a far-right human is “scum”. Yet both the cat and the humans have reasons for their acts, even if those reasons don't make them right; and we should understand these reasons in order to change the state of affairs, rather than heap hatred on them. Calls for murder abound on social networks against cat torturers, bullfighting aficionados, but also against fascists and so on. The striving for progress has given way to a striving for elimination.

This demonization of bad humans often pairs with a demonization of humanity itself. There exists a real reverse speciesism, which celebrates the pristine purity of the pre-human world, or of the human world of old. Human innovations -- GMOs, in particular -- are demonized. Anticapitalism too has turned to demonization -- of McDonald's, of Monsanto -- rather than pursuing any real efforts to establish a more just economic system. The overall impression is that the inability to conceive roads to progress leads to a reactionary yearning for an idealized precapitalistic, feudal, world.

— What practical and theoretical questions do you see for the animal rights movement in the coming years?

The demand for the abolition of the consumption of meat, including fish, must take a central place in the movement and come to be understood, both inside and outside the movement, as THE animalist demand of this century. It is founded on ethical principles that are already largely recognized, and indeed are often written into our laws: that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering or death on an animal. In that lies its force, making it reachable, country by country, within the upcoming decades. It does not imply the end of speciesism, any more than the abolition of the slavery of blacks implied the end of racism; it is nonetheless a crucial step.5

We will still be far, I believe, from having finished the task. Of course, there will be those other issues such as animal experimentation, zoos, and so on that are already part of the standard demands of the movement. But I am thinking here of the issue of wild animal suffering. From an egalitarian, non speciesist, point of view, it is impossible to turn a blind eye to this question. It will have to be debated how far the “expanding circle of our moral concern”6 should go -- and I believe that it indeed should go far.

We will have to rebuild the outlook and projects of the “left”, of progressivism, freeing ourselves from the revolutionary paradigm which centers around the expectation of a “Grand Soir” -- an overnight overthrowing of Evil. To confront the question of wild animal suffering we will need time, perhaps hundreds, thousands of years or more. We must learn to think in the long term. Revolutionaries often contrast themselves with “reformists”, which they describe as lacking ambition. I believe the opposite to be true. If we hope that all will change over a short period of time, we blind ourselves to those problems that cannot be solved over a short period of time. We limit our scope. This is, I believe, one of the reasons of the hostility of many anarchists and marxists towards the ideas of animal liberation.

Though I oppose the idea of a revolution, I am favorable to what I call “deep evolution”. It would include a large part of the hopes that are classically seen as on the left, without the tattered rags of Marxist mysticism.

An essential part of this evolution will be open debate. We will not abolish meat consumption by imposing taboos, but because we are right and will be capable of getting it across. The left has become so entrenched, on issues such as racism and sexism, into a defensive position cemented by taboos that it appears today as an enemy of free debate and rational argument. Animal liberation will, instead, lead us to refound progressivism on a culture of debate.

1. Nous ne mangeons pas de viande pour ne pas tuer d'animaux (“We do not eat meat in order not to kill animals”), 1989; downloadable (in French) on the Web.

2. The expression “the hard problem of consciousness” is due to David Chalmers.

3. Most texts of the journal are openly accessible on the website

4. The distinction between critical and intuitive levels of ethics is due to R.M. Hare, Moral Thinking, 1981.

5. By necessity it includes the abolition of essentially all consumption of dairy products and eggs, since the production of these items cannot be cost-effective without harming and killing animals.

6. The expression is from Peter Singer in The Expanding Circle, 1981.