AALS Boycott -- The Vegan Perspective

Non-academic readers may not have been closely following the controversy that has erupted over the next scheduled annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) in January 2009. In a nutshell, the conference is scheduled to take place partly in a San Diego hotel owned by a man who has contributed $125,000 to the campaign for the ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriage in California (and thus overturn the California Supreme Court's decision finding a state constitutional right to same-sex marriage). In protest, a number of groups and individuals have called for a boycott of the conference. There are other issues in play, but these are well discussed in a welter of blog postings, collected by Paul Caron here (with more posted all over the web in the last few days).

Whether the proposed boycott is appropriate is, in my view, a hard question. I agree with those commentators who point to the dangers of an organized boycott of a business establishment not because of any practices of the establishment itself, but because of the political activities of the owner; in a market economy with political freedom, the money one spends on various goods and services will eventually come into the hands of people who espouse views with which one disagrees, or even finds odious. At the same time, however, if the views are odious enough, then even an attenuated connection may be worth severing. I also think that the odiousness and connection thresholds for justifying an individual decision not to patronize a business should be lower than the thresholds for concerted action.

Here I'll note only that those of us with strong but highly marginalized moral views constantly face this sort of problem, and constantly must compromise our principles to a much greater extent than do ardent supporters of same-sex marriage (of which I count myself one as well). Suppose, for example, that you were strongly pro-life, but that you lived in a society in which, for historical reasons, just about all hotels performed late-term elective abortions in their lobbies. You might choose never to stay at a hotel, but if your job includes travel, you would be seriously inconveniencing yourself as a result. Consequently, you would likely say to yourself that YOU are not having an abortion when you go to a hotel, and just grin and bear it.

As someone who thinks it is wrong to kill or seriously harm sentient animals for food, that is roughly the position in which I find myself, although it's not confined to days on which I travel. On any given day, I patronize non-vegan stores and restaurants, and even if I were to grow all of my own food---a task for which I am completely unqualified---I would still spend time each day with friends, colleagues and acquaintances engaged in acts I deem immoral. (Reassurance to readers: I don't think non-vegans are "bad people." I think actions that are wrong are "really" wrong, i.e., not just a matter of taste, but I also understand that conventional morality and social pressure will lead most people with whom I share a basic understanding of morality not to become vegans in the immediate future. Until a couple of years ago, I myself wasn't a vegan, and until five years ago, I wasn't even a vegetarian. That leaves me with an understanding of the behavior of others rather than the zeal of the convert. I hate the sin, not the sinners.)

Other than to hijack another discussion of legal issues into matters of animal rights, what's my point? Just that it's a sign of substantial progress towards achieving sexual orientation equality when a boycott of the sort now being proposed can even be contemplated. If I were to attempt to organize a boycott of hotels with non-vegan food, I would be dismissed as a nut. I made an academic version of this larger point in the 2002 California Law Review. (It's not available for free online, but if you have Lexis, Westlaw, Heinonline, or JSTOR access, you can get it at 90 Cal. L. Rev. 791 (2002).) Here's the core of the argument:
Those in greatest need of legal protection against some ground of discrimination are least likely to have it. Sexism was a more powerful force in the nineteenth century, when there were no legal barriers to sex discrimination, than it is in the twenty-first, when there are many. Obtaining legal protection requires a sympathetic audience among lawmakers or judges, and if a group is sufficiently subordinated, neither legislators nor judges are likely to see anything wrong with that state of affairs. I do not mean to say that legal protection only comes when it is unnecessary. An enlightened vanguard can create legal protection against a form of discrimination before a majority of citizens sees that discrimination as wrongful. Even once a majority comes to condemn the discrimination, legal protection may be necessary to overcome pockets of stubborn resistance. But before any of this can occur, a movement to combat some form of discrimination must shift from the fringes to the mainstream.
So the very fact that most hotel owners do not publicly oppose same-sex marriage gives organizers of the potential boycott of the AALS conference options that they wouldn't have had even a couple of decades ago.

Posted by Mike Dorf