Satyagraha and Open Animal Rescue

Tony Milligan

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The open rescue of animals, as practiced in Australia by Animal Liberation Victoria and Animal Liberation New South Wales, and by members of a variety of activist networks in Europe and North America, has been compared (by such activists) to Gandhian satyagraha. The latter may be understood, loosely, as a struggle which is based upon the power of truth and/or spirituality and non-violence. It may however be suggested that satyagraha is such a vague and shifting concept that the comparison is uninformative. (Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, notoriously asserted that the concept meant whatever Gandhi wanted it to mean on any particular occasion.) Given the open-texture, or sheer ambiguity of the satyagraha concept, why not simply say that open rescue (at least on the Australian model) is non-violent and that it meets a number of other criteria which are often associated with civil disobedience? (At least on an understanding of the latter which draws from Bedau, Cohen and Rawls as well as one or two more contemporary accounts.) This looks like a route to a more satisfactory classification. Alternatively, if a degree of conceptual ambiguity is regarded with tolerance, or if the satyagraha concept is regarded as somewhat more precise, then a rather different problem kicks in. Comparisons with satyagraha may then be accepted as informative but simultaneously regarded as inappropriate because of various limitations of open rescue. Most obviously, it does not seem to require any overt claim to be a form of spiritual political engagement. Moreover, open rescue as practiced outside of Australia has been very mixed in terms of its degree of openness and in terms of its success in avoiding property damage.
I want to suggest, and to some extent argue, that the first of these problems (the problem of ambiguity) is far from intractable. Not only are there plausible general reasons for at least sometimes tolerating conceptual ambiguity (reasons that we may draw from Iris Murdoch, or indeed from Derrida) but there is also a more case-specific consideration that may be brought into play. If we adopt a sufficiently open-textured understanding of civil disobedience, with a loosened up connection to non-violence, there will be an obvious rationale for comparing open rescue with satyagraha as a way of strengthening the former’s association with non-violence by suggesting that it goes beyond the more minimal requirements of civil disobedience. And such strengthening of an association with non-violence need not be mistaken for an attempt at precise classification. In addition, I will argue that while the second problem (the problem of appropriateness) is somewhat more troubling, it may perhaps be dealt with if we take into account Gandhi’s own views about the inbuilt ethical limitations of human agency, even the agency of those engaged in satyagraha. In the light of the latter, satyagraha need not be seen as impossibly demanding (an impression which Gandhi’s journalistic political writings do sometimes convey) or demanding in such a way that comparisons with open-rescue are automatically undermined.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013
Event ‘Defending non-human animals’ panel, Society for Applied Philosophy Conference - University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Duration: 15 Jul 2013 → …


Conference ‘Defending non-human animals’ panel, Society for Applied Philosophy Conference
Period15/07/13 → …


  • Animal Rescue
  • Gandhi
  • Civil Disobedience


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