Noam Chomsky on Animal Rights

I noticed recently that there have been continued notes and questions to Noam Chomsky throughout the years regarding his views on animal rights, vegetarianism/veganism. One of the artifacts of this small conversation includes an email correspondence I had with him in January 2009, when I was a senior undergraduate at Michigan State University. So I decided it would be easier if I posted the email exchange here:

Professor Chomsky,
> My most sincere condolences for the loss of your wife.
> In the interest of your time, since I know you much time responding
> to emails, I’ll keep
> the pleasantries short- you’ve inspired me in many ways and I
> highly value your insight
> and research.
> Since you seem not only to be very well-read in world affairs, but
> also committed to
> discussing morality without the cold IR-like theories that
> obfuscate atrocities, I’ve
> been anxious to ask you about your opinions regarding the accepted
> kidnapping,
> enslavement, torture, and killing of animals for food,
> entertainment, and research. In
> Manufacturing Consent you mentioned numbers of livestock killed in
> Vietnam from US
> bombing, but that’s the most I’ve heard from you.
> I’m very interested to hear your position, as I (a human- and
> animal-rights advocate)
> feel that sympathy for the oppressed does not end on a barrier of
> species, but ability
> to suffer. This is happening in our own country and is directly
> supported by consumers
> who can easily live healthy while abstaining from animal products.
> I hope you will find the time for a short response but regardless,
> I hope to continue
> reading new works from you for years to come!
> Thanks so much for reading,


Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated.
> Actually, I have discussed animal rights a number of times, also
> expressing my feeling that as the tendency of the past centuries to
> extend the scope of rights — to slaves, to women, to children, to
> the disabled, to future generations (the environmental movement),
> etc. — it will increasingly come to incorporate animal rights, as
> has already happened, particularly as a result of the activism of the
> ’60s, which was instrumental in some of the cases I mentioned. I
> think that’s a good thing, and look forward to it. But time and
> energy are finite, and that requires us, necessarily, to set
> priorities. While I sympathize with and support these efforts, a
> much higher priority for me is the fact that a billion humans are
> starving, that the species is marching on to destruction of itself
> and perhaps most living organisms by reversible policies that are
> being implemented right now, that the US and Israel are at this
> moment consummating one of the worst crimes of recent history, and
> innumerable other similar cases.
> Again, time and energy are finite, and each of us has to set
> priorities. Mine are pretty much those.


A few follow-up questions and then I promise to leave you alone,

I certainly understand your point of view regarding humankind’s march to destruction, especially in the case of Israel and the United States; I have been attending numerous rallies and protests since the conflict began, including taking a bus to Washington DC. I also write on such topics regularly for my school’s editorial page. And although my time and resources are limited, I was able to do all of this and more without giving money to industries who cut the beaks off chickens, scald pigs alive, etc.

I know campaigning for animal rights is not your top priority (which is fine- you’re doing very important work), but don’t those of us who disagree with using animals as a means for human use have a moral responsibility not to participate in those acts insofar as it is possible or at least feasible? Isn’t what you “support” defined more by your financial decisions than your words? Similarly, if one disagrees with, say, child prostitution, they have a moral obligation to abstain from hiring child prostitutes. This is not a question of political action—although it effectively amounts to a boycott—but rather a personal moral responsibility.

The time and resources required to live a vegan lifestyle are marginal: a Google search or a pamphlet is an effective guide to products and good health, and otherwise one lives their life just like any other human being. This is quite apart from political campaigns, but if we recognize the capacity of animals to suffer and therefore the very serious suffering they incur, mustn’t we stop paying its torturers?

Also, where could I find your discussions on animal rights? I’d love to read/watch them if possible. Do you teach any graduate philosophy programs that would cater to animal issues or consumer ethical responsibility in general? (I just now thought to ask you this: these emails have not been a diversion from an application pitch.)

Thanks again,


I’ve discussed animal rights here and there, mostly in response to questions. It’s true that it’s not a huge effort — though it is a considerable one — to live a vegan lifestyle. It’s even easier to give up a lot of what we do to contribute to saving 1 billion people who are dying from hunger, or to stave off the serious threat to species survival that will destroy animal life too, or to try to prevent the destruction of biodiversity, or…. Your arguments hold just as well for these and innumerable other morally obligatory commitments, many of them I think ranking higher than using animals for human use. Should we, for example, buy commercial products from (and thus help fund) corporations that are contributing to global destruction? Try to avoid them.

But time and energy are finite, and each of us sets priorities, inevitably.

I’m not teaching grad courses on ethics, or on these issues. I have taught undergrad courses for many years (on my own time) on matters that seem urgent to me, the kind I write and speak about.

To be clear, I’m not challenging our priorities. Merely trying to indicate my own.

Noam Chomsky


Addressing Animal Liberation in Socialist Worker

The following is a letter I wrote to the Socialist Worker in light of a rekindled discussion on the topic of animal rights/liberation (here to be regarded as synonymous). It was not published, which is why I’m posting it here. Although I do not identify as a Marxist, I do identify as an anarchist/socialist and feel the sorts of pitfalls in the Socialist Worker discussion are endemic to the Left in general. Rather than address every statement made worthy of an eyeroll or facepalm, I would simply like to recommend better background for participants in these discussions before publishing one’s “position” on animal liberation.


I am delighted to see the recent discussion on animal liberation in Socialist Worker. Unfortunately, I have noticed two distinct problems with the debate up to this point: critics of animal liberation focus on marginal—often inconsequential—topics, and are often woefully out of touch with the theory and movement they are attempting to critique.

Many of the quarrels over animal liberation mentioned—e.g. how accessible veganism is to the poor, whether Marxism accounts for animal liberation—miss the fundamental facts on which the animal liberation movement is premised: nonhuman animals have communities, families, friends, and emotions just like humans do; and they do not want to be raped, imprisoned, mutilated, or killed any more than humans do. These are the central facts that make animal liberation important, and denying any of them flies in the face of scientific fact, common sense, or both.

The relative accessibility of veganism to the poor is not relevant to the rightness or wrongness of animal liberation theory—if the vice of capitalism did prevent the working poor from access to a plant-based diet, this is a place where socialism and animal liberation could come together, as both an animal ethics issue and a public health issue. It is not, however, a reason to invalidate animal liberation.

To the second example, animal rights activists do not need the facts about animal sentience and suffering to fit into a Marxist framework (although in some ways they do fit, and the movement would benefit greatly from Marxist approaches). Compatibility with Marxism is good, but the degree to which animal liberation is not compatible is merely the degree to which people who care about justice must also stand outside of Marxism to enforce it.

This is not new—feminism received much the same treatment decades ago. It was widely considered incompatible with Marxism and a distraction from class struggle. Many aspects of feminism fit within a Marxist critique of capitalism, but others complicate Marxism, forcing a reconfigured, more nuanced approach. We now accept that this does not mean we should discount feminism, but merely is evidence that, however valuable, Marxism’s scope is not all-encompassing, and we should not limit ourselves to it.

To be clear, there are plenty of valid critiques of the animal rights movement from the Left—allegations of rampant sexism, racism, and bourgeois attitudes are often valid, and should be voiced loudly and with conviction. But criticizing the movement as it exists must be sharply divided from criticizing the movement’s philosophy and central claims—especially the work of its many Left-Wing proponents. These works have obviously gone unread by the most vociferous socialist critics, whose often facile arguments are no different from those of the average person I encounter on the street. The fact that these individuals see fit to publish these arguments is evidence of their utter disregard for the rich and growing discourse around animal liberation, particularly the intersectional approach offered by the growing field of critical animal studies.

For example, in the latest issue of the Journal for Critical Animal Studies, Kris Forkasiewicz critiques the valuation of animal being within ecological socialism. In the Prison and Animals special issue, Amy J. Fitzgerald explored the implications of slaughterhouse work programs for prison inmates. The central theme behind the field of CAS is understanding the oppression of nonhuman animals as closely tied to capital and to modes of human oppression, with a focus on forming effective political alliances across issues.

There are differences between class struggle and animal liberation, as there are differences between any two movements, but these differences need not diminish the significance of either one, and there is much to be gained by addressing both. My hope is that future debates about this issue on Socialist Worker will catch up to the discourse going on in Left-Wing animal liberation circles, leaving questions like “what will we do with all the animals when we stop eating them?” and “What about free-range meat?” in the Google search bar where they belong.


Drew Robert Winter is Director of Publications at the Institute for Critical Animal Studies

Meat, Globalization, and World Hunger


A recent issue of BEEF Daily, an industry e-newsletter, characterized vegan and vegetarian advocates as hindering the meat industry’s ability to “feed a growing population.” The rhetorical question of “How do we feed a growing population?” (the implied answer being “more intensive meat production”) has become an industry talking point. In fact, contemporary agriculture and meat production are anathema to a well-fed world. However, the common relationship between meat and world hunger is not as simple as some activists may think. To garner a better understanding of why this is the case, it is important to understand that industrial agriculture–whether specifically for animal products or not–is invested in profit above all else.

Read the rest here.

Why Animal Rights Activists Shouldn’t Applaud the IDF

By Drew Winter and Missy Lane

On November 1, World Vegan Day, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) released a photo on their Facebook page illustrating their policy accommodating vegan soldiers. The measure includes faux leather boots, a stipend for purchasing one’s own meals and the right to deny immunizations in protest of animal testing. Our article is meant to illustrate why this must not be applauded by animal rights activists. Though appearing as a gesture of compassion, this measure is merely part of an ongoing, conscious marketing campaign by the Israeli government to soften its image and obscure the ruinous effects of its occupation of Palestine.
The occupation is segregation. It is apartheid. Throughout the region the separation by race of Israeli-only roads, schools, busing, jobs and housing are “legally” enforced by the might of the sixth largest nuclear power in the world. The separation wall further illegally annexes Palestinian lands, checkpoints are often sites of humiliation by IDF soldiers, and the visas and ID cards necessary for travel are frequently revoked or denied. This severely limits access to healthcare, work, school, and travel for Palestinians. It also affects the majority of non-Jewish Israelis within Palestine/Israel.
Baleka Mbete, the National Chairperson for the African National Congress (formerly lead by Nelson Mandela) said last week at their International Solidarity Conference that she has been to Palestine herself and that the Israeli regime is not only comparable but “far worse than Apartheid South Africa.”
The conference voted to support the Palestinian civil society-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) against Israel.
In response to growing international pressure, the Israeli government has strengthened its efforts of marketing itself as a haven for left-leaning ideals.
“We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits,” former Israeli Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Arye Mekel told the New York Times in 2009. “This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
Since then, other campaigns have sprung up, including the “pink washing” attempts to advertise its tolerance of the LGBTQ community.
While the thriving LGBTQ community in Tel Aviv and even the current anti-fur bill which will hopefully pass in the Knesset are examples of the successful work of progressive Israeli activists, they must be kept in perspective. Nazi Germany enacted extensive environmental and animal protection laws and was the first state to ban vivisection – for which they deserved no praise whatsoever.
Giving commendation for offering cursory animal-friendly options to an institution that is increasingly recognized for human rights atrocities merely serves to further the myth that animal rights activists are misanthropic and will overlook human misfortune as long as fewer animals are killed. Furthermore, the IDF’s trading of animals’ suffering like a bargaining chip in exchange for public approval is itself a form of the exploitation of animals for selfish gain.
Mirroring the fall of apartheid, support for the occupation is crumbling. Those who made public their support for the military that carried out such hateful oppression — and their justifications for it— will be derided as foolish and opportunistic.
As vegan activists who understand that all injustice is intertwined, we must not be bought off with tokens or soften our criticism of a murderous regime. Nor must we ever lose sight of how our liberation is also intertwined—human and nonhuman, the oppressors and those who are oppressed. If we truly believe in justice without prejudice, we must stand in solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian equality and the rights of nonhuman animals everywhere.


Drew Robert Winter is an activist and writer.
Missy Lane, worked, studied and traveled throughout the West Bank and Gaza with Holy Land Trust in 2005. She was a human rights monitor during the olive harvest in Hebron for the Siraj Center in 2007. In 2011 she joined the international “flytilla” action in Tel Aviv and was a passenger aboard the US Boat to Gaza – The Audacity of Hope.