Lisa Maguire Fiction

Ethics into Action

Posted on | June 28, 2013 | 2 Comments

When I started working at a horse rescue earlier this year, my husband put a book in my hands. Ethics Into Action is not just for animal lovers but for anyone who has ever felt the urge to right a wrong.  The book is an account of the life and work of Henry Spira, who did more to help animals in a period of about fifteen years than any animal advocate or welfare organization did in the previous two hundred.

Henry Spira was the son of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe, arriving in New York on the eve of World War Two. His father bullied his wife and children, and Henry, who as a young boy was unable to protect his mother, made it his life’s project to stand up for those who could not defend themselves. Henry left home as a teenager and joined the merchant marine. Throughout the 1950s and 60s he worked on the margins of various social causes and political movements- Zionism, Socialism, labor, and civil rights, eventually going to college and teaching in an inner city school.

Henry never fit in anywhere. He lived alone in New York–until he adopted a cat. He loved the cat, and, in Henry’s words, “I began to wonder about the appropriateness of cuddling one animal while sticking a knife and fork into another.” He read Peter Singer’s essay on animal liberation first published in the New York Review of Books in 1973. He saw intense, systematic, socially sanctioned suffering, and victims unable to organize to defend themselves. Henry had found his cause.

In 1974, he founded Animal Rights International. ARI consisted solely of Henry and an occasional helper. Over the next twenty years, Henry almost singlehandedly (leveraging larger animal welfare groups as he needed) stopped the widespread use of unnecessary animal testing in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and consumer products and other needlessly cruel practices in the food industry, such as face branding cattle.

How did he do it?

Henry was an acute observer, and his experience in activism taught him what led to real change and what didn’t. He did not follow the model of the socialist and workers’ groups he once frequented. A few of his tactics came from successes he observed in the civil rights movement. Some of Henry’s key principles, which are adaptable to any cause:

1)  Do something. Don’t just fund raise, or ‘raise awareness.’ Organizations that raise funds and awareness  simply increase the size of the organization, which in turn increase the need for funds.  Henry’s experience with organized labor made him aware of how large organizations become corrupted and lose purpose. The point is not to perpetuate the organization, but to do something.

2)  Bring about change one step at a time.  In other words, pick a fight you can win. “Select a target on the basis of vulnerability to public opinion, intensity of suffering, and opportunity for change.” You cannot get all Americans to stop eating meat, but you can rid slaughterhouses of an inhumane practice that would outrage people if they knew about it. Henry was a believer in gradual change–even the smallest victory was real if it could make the world a kinder place for animals.

3)  Stay in it until victory. Too many people march around with placards (to ‘raise awareness’) only to give up and move on to another thing (often because the cause is not winnable- see #2).  Henry would pick one specific issue (Museum of Natural History using cats in unnecessary research) and stuck with a sustained campaign until he won or got his opponent to the negotiating table. He would spend months, often years, trying to engage and then negotiating with his adversary.

4)  Keep your eyes on the prize.  Radical animal rights groups who break into labs don’t accomplish much, except draw attention to themselves (which Henry would say was the real objective, as opposed to helping animals).

5)  Once you get your opponents to the table, treat them fairly. Henry was willing to compromise, offering face-saving and cost-effective solutions. Henry was an adept practitioner of what is now known as “reintegrative shaming as well as working with opponents privately rather than attacking them in public. Using these tactics, Henry was able to extract concessions from large pharmaceutical corporations on their research and testing protocols. He did not eliminate testing overnight, but started a years’ long process that eventually developed alternatives to many tests, which no animal advocates before him had been able to do. Being hostile to an opponent may feel good, but it does not win people over. Henry’s cooperative and pragmatic approach, while the reason for his success, was also why he was maligned by more radical groups such as PETA, who accused him of cooperating with the enemy.

5)  If you can’t get them to the table, escalate through public shaming.  This is really a last ditch scenario, as advertising and other media cost money.

6) Don’t assume legal action can solve the problem.  Henry had the typical outsider’s suspicion of ‘the system’ and viewed the law as a way of upholding the status quo. Political or legislative lobbying also becomes a substitute for action.

You don’t have to be a militant animal rights activist to be inspired by this book. Henry’s tactics can be applied to any cause. Henry’s story teaches us that the gap between you and me and Nelson Mandela is not that great. You don’t need money, power, or celebrity to fix something wrong in the world, you just have to want to do it.

This book may shame you into action. I know what to do–I just have to find the courage to go out and do it.  And now, so do you.


2 Responses to “Ethics into Action”

  1. Lisa Maguire
    June 30th, 2013 @ 12:58 PM

    Jeff, with your background in corp communications, you would be a dangerous opponent for evil doers …the animals could use your help, as would many other causes

  2. Lisa Maguire
    June 30th, 2013 @ 1:01 PM

    Mark I think greening our cities and learning to use them better is a great cause that can start small and practical, as you have shown. It’s perfectly suited to Henry’s approach.

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