Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Many Problems with Animal Welfare

Animal advocates pursue two distinctly different approaches. Animal welfare (or welfarism) seeks to improve the treatment of animals through the regulation of institutional suppliers. Abolition, on the other hand, seeks to end the use of animals by reducing demand. This is achieved by educating people about veganism.
Traditionally, those who pursue the animal welfare approach seek only to improve animal treatment, and are not concerned with the fact that animals are being exploited, or that animals are considered to be mere property or commodities. In his 1996 book Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, law professor and animal rights theorist Gary L. Francione used the term “new welfarism” to describe the idea that the animal welfare approach can lead to abolition. New welfarism adherents claim that their approach is the most effective (and perhaps the only) way of achieving abolition.
Among other things, I’ll explain here why abolition cannot be achieved through the animal welfare approach, why animal welfare and abolition are fundamentally incompatible, and why I believe the idea—frequently put forward by new welfarists—that we should support all forms of animal advocacy, is wrong.

Animal Welfare Doesn’t Target the Property Status of Animals

Nonhuman animals are property, both legally and in terms of how most of us perceive them. Our cultural conditioning has imposed arbitrary boundaries along which we recognize or deny personhood to other species. Generally, companion animals such as dogs and cats fare better, while the vast majority of animal species, including most obviously the ones that we eat and wear, are subject to far more harm. But even the nonhumans who we grant the status of personhood, are still considered property in the eyes of the law. Property rights—strongly valued by our economic and political traditions—severely limit animal welfare reforms to those measures that don’t impose significant and enduring costs to producers and ultimate consumers. It is for this reason that genuine welfare reform cannot take place while animals are still considered property. As property, animals will always be valued more for how useful they are to us as commodities, than for their intrinsic worth as sentient individuals.
Animal welfare, with its focus on how animals are treated, and its disregard of the idea that animals should not be exploited in the first place, does nothing to steer people away from viewing nonhumans as property. Further regulation of treatment ends up strengthening the property status of animals in the same way that Jim Crow laws in the southern US a half-century ago had the effect of legitimizing and strengthening existing racist attitudes. These laws mandated “separate but equal” public facilities such as drinking fountains, swimming pools, and schools, for black Americans. But in reality, those separate facilities were inferior. Regulating racism ends up strengthening racism, just like regulating speciesism ends up strengthening speciesism. The abolitionist approach would instead focus on eliminating the root of the problem, be it racism or speciesism.

Supply Versus Demand

Animal welfare focuses on supply rather than demand. As experience with the never ending “war on drugs” has shown, attacking sources of supply is ineffective at curtailing the use of illegal substances. It stands to reason that such an approach would be even more ineffective at reducing the use of products such as animal flesh, secretions, or skin, for which there are no legal consequences for sale or possession. Not until there are fundamental changes in attitudes on the part of a sizable number of individuals, will there be sufficient political will to impose major legislative bans or restrictions on suppliers. When a strong and sustained demand exists for something, someone will inevitably supply it. On the other hand, suppliers won’t produce things that are no longer in demand. Abolition, through thoughtful, non-violent, vegan education, directly reduces demand. Abolition recognizes that change begins with the individual.

Animal Welfare Makes People Feel More Comfortable About Exploiting Animals

Perhaps the most significant problem with animal welfare campaigns from a practical standpoint is that they make people feel more comfortable about continuing to exploit animals. Ballot measures such as last year’s Proposition 2 in California that set minimum space requirements for egg-laying chickens and a few other animals raised for food, were marketed as major steps forward for animals. The big animal protection organizations that sponsor these measures spend large sums of money to get them on the ballot and to ensure their passage; money that could have been better spent doing vegan education. In fact Proposition 2 affords relatively little benefits to animals. The measure is riddled with loopholes, and includes a very long lead-time during which producers can continue operations as usual. It’s very likely that producers would have eventually adopted the new standards anyway due to cost savings from improved long-term efficiencies. Generally, the standards imposed by these kinds of welfare reform measures are economically beneficial to producers once initial capital expenditures have been paid for. As long as animals remain property, any improvements to their treatment beyond what can be achieved at minimal or no cost to producers and consumers, is largely illusionary.
If you fail to educate people about why it’s wrong to enslave and kill or otherwise exploit animals (however well they may be treated in the process) for reasons that are not only unnecessary but downright trivial, while you simultaneously expose them to marketing hype for “certified improved” animal products from “happy” animals, it’s not likely that many of them will decide to reduce their use of animals, let alone become vegans. Also, it’s not far-fetched to assume that marketing for things like “free-range” eggs or organic milk may persuade some uninformed vegans to become ex-vegans, or that some vegetarians might be persuaded by pro family-farm propaganda to return to flesh consumption.

Animal Welfare Promotes Moral Inconsistency and Confusion

Animal welfare is morally problematic in a number ways. For one thing, the approach suggests that it’s morally acceptable to exploit animals as long as we treat them well. This is a very disturbing and confusing concept that elevates the importance of treatment, while trivializing the act of killing.
Some animal welfare adherents believe that we should focus on welfare instead of abolition because realistically animal exploitation will never be eliminated. Therefore we should push for more “humane” ways of exploiting them, they contend. But no rationally thinking person would agree that it would be acceptable to murder a human as long as the perpetrator treated him well beforehand. If you believe that murder is morally wrong, common sense and logic would have you spending your time and effort on reducing the incidence of murder, even if you believe that murder will never be completely eliminated from society, rather than focusing on persuading murderers to treat their victims better prior to killing them. If you believe that killing and eating animals is morally wrong, common sense and logic would have you spending your time and effort on persuading others to become vegans, even if you believe that animal exploitation will never be completely eradicated, rather than focusing on getting producers to torture animals in new, “better” ways that may or may not make any meaningful difference in levels of suffering. Simply put, regulating something that is fundamentally wrong to begin with, is a fundamentally wrong approach.
Another way that animal welfare is morally problematic is the frequent use by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of sexist campaigns that portray women as objects. For multiple reasons, PETA’s objectification of a historically subjugated group (women) in its numerous “get naked” campaigns is a terrible way to bring attention to the objectification of another historically subjugated group (nonhumans). First, these kinds of campaigns imply that it’s okay to look at women as mere objects. Objectification robs those who it’s directed at of their essential personhood, making people feel more justified in exploiting them. It is part of the problem, and should never be part of the solution. Second, they do nothing to point out how all forms of oppression and exploitation are related. Third, they distract people’s attention away from the issue of animal protection. Finally, these campaigns along with other ridiculous PETA attention-grabbing antics and stunts make animal activists look like idiots while trivializing the serious issue of violence against animals.

The Problem of Single-Issue Campaigns

The big animal welfare groups are largely centered around single-issue campaigns that either focus on reforming the exploitive practices of a specific industry such as chicken egg or pig flesh production, or eliminating an exploitive industry such as dog racing or rodeos.
Because these campaigns are carefully selected to appeal to the largest number of potential donors, they often focus on the plight of animal species such as dolphins, dogs, or seals that we perceive as cute or adorable due to our cultural biases. By narrowly focusing on a particular species or a particular use, the idea is conveyed that harm to some kinds of animals (the “cute” ones) represents a greater wrong than harm to other kinds of animals (those that we find less attractive and/or perceive less commonality with). We all struggle with personal biases when relating to other people, but I think most of us understand that people who we perceive as less attractive and/or who have less in common with us are just as deserving of the right not to be subjected to unnecessary pain, suffering, and death, as people who we find to be more attractive and/or have more in common with. Particularly, as is most often the case, when such campaigns fail to place the situation in the context of the larger overall problem of animal exploitation, speciesism is reinforced.
Single-issue campaigns focus lots of resources on peripheral aspects of animal exploitation while failing to address the root of the problem, which is speciesism. They fail to explain why all forms of animal exploitation are wrong. They fail to focus on what is by far the largest aspect of animal exploitation: 56 billion animals (not including countless fish and other marine animals) killed worldwide every year for food. And they fail to call for veganism as the solution.

Welfare Supporters Frequently Call Abolitionists “Divisive” or “Elitist”

I’ve encountered many animal advocates who shy away from constructive debate of welfare verses abolition, mix up and confuse the terms “animal rights” and “animal welfare,” insist that we should support all types of animal advocacy efforts, and that we should remain united. People who disagree with these opinions are often called “divisive” and even “elitist.”
But just as liberals and conservatives have distinctly different views on many issues, so do welfarists and abolitionists. We see these issues very differently, believe in different things, and are headed in different directions. We cannot remain united because we have never been united in the first place.
With limited time and resources, it doesn’t make sense to support approaches to animal protection that don’t work, let alone those that are counterproductive. As Gary L. Francione has pointed out, “We have had animal welfare laws for 200 years now … [yet] we are now exploiting more animals in more horrific ways than at any time in human history.”
It also doesn’t make sense to avoid intellectual debate about philosophy and methodology. Sharing and debating ideas is crucial to identifying the most effective approach to the furthering of animal rights and other social justice issues.
Characterizing the abolitionist approach as “elitist” is merely an attempt to close off debate and summarily deny its standing as a valid animal rights approach. What can be more accurately characterized as elitist are the ideas frequently put forth by welfare groups that the public isn’t intelligent enough to understand veganism, that the concept of veganism as the moral baseline is extreme, and that stupid antics and sexual exploitation are necessary components of educational campaigns.


Animal welfare is a deeply flawed approach that leads people down a morally muddled and circuitous path. In contrast, the very simple and straightforward abolitionist approach deals directly with the root of the problem through vegan education. Those who understand abolition and veganism, see animal exploitation, speciesism, and other forms of discrimination as interconnected parts of the overall problem of violence in society. Veganism is not a set of rules or restrictions. Nor is it just a diet or lifestyle. It is a basic prerequisite for anyone who wishes to start caring seriously about animals, including humans. It is a moral and political commitment to non-violence. Furthermore, veganism is easy, both in its understandability and its day-to-day implementation.


Kim said...

This is a very well written and thoughtfully explained distinction between animal welfare advocates and abolitionists. It makes a lot of sense and sure makes makes me think about things.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,

I agree with Kim, you've done an excellent job explaining the difference between strides to regulate versus eradicate the exploitation of others.

Thank you!

P.S., I added your voice, once again, to my quotes site (http://bit.ly/9nrHBA).


Randy W. Sandberg

Anonymous said...

"These laws mandated “separate but equal” public facilities such as drinking fountains, swimming pools, and schools, for black Americans. But in reality, those separate facilities were inferior. Regulating racism ends up strengthening racism, just like regulating speciesism ends up strengthening speciesism."

Do you want public drinking fountains, swimming pools, and schools to accommodate nonhuman animals just as much as humans?

Do you want to abolish public drinking fountains, swimming pools, and schools so that they don't accommodate humans any more than they do other species of animal?

Or is your idea of equality among the species still "separate but equal"?

Ken Hopes said...

I used that analogy simply to show that such an approach doesn't fix the problem. Obviously things like drinking fountains, swimming pools, and schools don't apply to nonhumans. The right we need to extend to them, if we agree that it's wrong to impose pain, suffering, and death on an animal necessarily, is the right not to be property. Swimming pools, schools, along with the right to vote or protest, apply to our world. I seek to end animal domestication and let nonhumans live their lives in their world.

Anonymous said...

In other words, "separate but equal"...

I mean, if you want more rights for animals then it's fine to say so!

At the same time, calling those additional rights you want for animals *equal* rights and likening them to equal rights for blacks and white, now *that* rhetoric just waters down racial equality.

Ken Hopes said...

All animals are equal with respect to the right not to be treated as property. Such a right is based not on species, but on sentience. I don't see how it waters down racial equality.