Real Liberals Don’t Eat Animals: The Political Connection between Animal and Human Rights

Compassion is an attribute that ultimately transcends political ideology. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that progressive liberalism embraces the tenets of compassion more actively and conspicuously than political conservatism. The liberal tradition, at least since the early twentieth-century, has built its identity on values that promote empathy, tolerance, an open mind, cooperation, and the celebration of diversity.  Conservatives, by contrast, have typically espoused the qualities of individualism, competition, and suspicion of social welfare programs.

Embroidered into liberalism’s set of attributes is a more specific combination of ideals. This would encompass, but not be limited to, a belief in the equality of opportunity, the rejection of arbitrary power relations, and disdain for inherited hierarchies. As a result of these qualities, the liberal tradition remains a noble one–and one that I embrace. Even if these values are rarely honored in the breach of daily political life, they at least pay rhetorical homage to the better angels of human nature. They at least speak to the more dignified aspirations of those bound into nations, precincts, and tribes.

But, for many liberals, these values don’t extend to humans alone. If the virtues of compassion, tolerance, open-mindedness, empathy, and an insistence on fairness sound familiar, they should. They’re precisely the characteristics that underscore and drive the animal rights agenda.  Not only do these attributes pervade the literature on animal rights, they also seem to pervade the character of the movement’s advocates. I’m not saying that all ethical vegans are adorned with permanent halos, I’m only noting that their ideology is synonymous with that of those who do wear permanent halos.

I make this observation after attending and speaking at another remarkable “Veg Fest,” this one in Ottawa. Thousands of people attended; I was able to speak with dozens of them personally; and I was reminded yet again that individuals who advocate for animals–to whatever extent and in whatever form–generally exhibit a kind of humble empathy that, were it only manifested in the political sphere, would make the world a more harmonious and thoughtful place for all living beings.  Again, I’m not suggesting that conservatives aren’t compassionate. It’s just that their defining icons–Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck–aren’t exactly what I’d call paragons of that virtue. 

Sadly, though, despite the ideological compatability between progressive politics and animal right advocates, the former is about as interested in the latter as are Rush, Rick, and Glenn. Liberals’ unthinking–and sometimes thinking– decision to evade this potentially empowering relationship is especially unfortunate because the foundation of progressive liberalism has never been in more desperate need of repair. Fact is, it’s crumbling.

Cowed by the electorate’s alarming dodge toward some mythical notion of rugged individualism, small government, and Tea Party fanaticism, not to mention a range of other red state shibboleths, progressives in the United States are gradually shortchanging their liberal core to appease wavering centrists. An infusion of traditional liberalism is desperately needed. Conveniently, the animal rights version of these values is potent, alive, and undiluted by two decades of toxic political compromise. Our message has never been better honed and it’s ready to go primetime. It is certainly more attuned to liberalism’s ideals than the motivating mission of locavores, who strike me–with their exclusionary and libertarian-ish rhtetoric–as being far more at home on the political right than the left.

If the bricks of liberalism would benefit from the fresh mortar of animal rights, animal rights advocates would do well to bind themselves to those bricks with tenacity. People who fight for the rights of animals must also fight, in the spirit of progressive liberalism, for the human right to fair wages, universal health care, freedom from oppression, gender equality, gay marriage, racial equity, and a fair tax code, for starters. These concrete political goals are not only inseparable from the motivating values integral to animal rights, they’re the very goals liberals stand to relinquish if we fail to shore up the stressed foundation of progressive politics.

Merging animal rights with other justice-oriented causes, if only nominally at first, integrates the cause of animals into a much larger, much more public discussion. Whether liberals, who I imagine are just as addicted to animal products as conservatives, will accept this potential merging of interests is the key question. It’s for this reason that vegans–who I think it’s fair to say tend to be liberals– mustn’t fail to note that fighting animal injustice is a remarkably powerful qualification for fighting human injustice.

More to the point, as animal rights ideas inch closer and closer to the mainstream, liberals face the risk of being exposed for espousing a basic way of life–omnivorism–that reifies abuse, hierarchy, intolerance, and arbitrary dominion over those most in need of our cooperation and compassion. They risk, in other words, being exposed as violators not only of animal rights, but of their own deeply held values.  Vegans, in this sense, can save liberalism from consuming itself.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

11 Responses to Real Liberals Don’t Eat Animals: The Political Connection between Animal and Human Rights

  1. John says:

    Liberalism is a failed aspiration and is not worth saving. Better to say veganism and activism based upon restructuring of power might “save the world” than liberalism. Even better for humans to leave he world alone rather than “save” it.

  2. brian lindberg says:

    The only political figure I can think of who is an honest exemplar of the order of compassion which you are advocating is the Dalai Lama. And, I believe, it is figures such as St. Francis, Albert Schweitzer, Gautama the Buddha , Gandhi, and John Muir who are capable of igniting the fire of compassion in all men, regardless of whether they are politically conservative or liberal. Unfortunately, there is as much self-serving hypocrisy among liberals as there is pure selfishness among political conservatives. We have to go beyond that divide, discard those labels, and understand that the basis of human rights is also the basis of animal rights and the basis of environmental rights. It is the concept of svadharma and Dharma which is crucial to our understanding, and there is no real equivalent in Western thought (although we have exemplars of its practice).

    • Elaine says:

      The Dalai Lama is not a vegan or even vegetarian. He eats meat. 😦

    • KathyLovesKale says:

      How about Dennis Kucinich? A Liberal who is passionate about the rights of ALL living things. He is a vegan too (of course)!

  3. Gabe says:

    “Real Liberals Don’t Eat Animals”. Huh, I like that phrase quite a bit. Especially since most people who would consider themselves to be progressively minded rarely give any mind to how animals ought to be treated.

    Just as an example, when often referring to victims of genocide, a common phrase one will find is that “They [the victims of genocide] were treated like animals”, which if you ask me, sort of misses the point, since non human animals shouldn’t be treated like that either.

    • CQ says:

      Yes, Gabe, it’s as if they can feel self-esteem only if they compare themselves to someone who is *lower” than they are on some imaginary totem pole.

      That reminds me of news announcers reporting that “no one died” or “there were no fatalities” in a natural disaster or a highway accident — and this on the heels of mentioning that dogs or horses or chickens or pigs were killed in the incident. Their narrow minds think that humans, period, are worthy of mention and of counting.

      Hey, James, while we’re sitting here wondering why humans categorize sentient beings by their species, children are probably puzzled by why adults label themselves by their political leanings! 🙂

  4. Mountain says:

    Having grown up poor, one thing that always bothered me about liberalism was the focus on demonstrations of compassion, rather than focusing on poor people as individuals and attempting to understand what actually promotes their welfare. Put another way, good intentions are prized over results. Because of this, liberals and liberalism have always felt somewhat phony to me– conservatives may be thoughtless pricks, but at least they don’t claim to be otherwise.

  5. Louisa Dell'Amico says:

    GREAT piece!

  6. As a lifelong liberal and recent vegan, I really appreciate this post. I think the reason more liberals are not vegans and are not concerned with animals rights is because they have never thought about it (i.e. they continue to eat meat while repressing any thoughts about how that meat got to their plates). I know I never thought about it until last year when I made a conscious and active decision to find information for myself. One thing we can do is bring up these issues when we talk to other liberal-minded people and also urge liberal media to cover these topics to help raise awareness.

  7. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I found the same resistance in The Nation as the New York Times. It wasn’t for a lack of writers that they’ve ignored animal rights.

  8. Provoked says:

    Great observations! I agree that most consistent, ethically minded liberals are also vegan. At the same time I doubt that there are more than a handful (if any) conservatives in the Humane Party: They’re small for now… But if I were politically driven – I’d start paying attention! 😉

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