Abolitionists spend significant time talking about theory. It’s an integral and indispensible part of our rationally based arguments. In contrast, those who pursue animal welfare (welfarists) generally take the view that theory is unnecessary. They are often dismissive of it, characterizing its use by abolitionists as wasteful and elitist intellectualism or dogmatic divisiveness. Ironically, whether they realize it or not welfarists also use theory, at least as the basis of their positions and goals—though as I will explain shortly, they embrace a distinctly different theory. Theory is an important part of any social change movement because it informs us of what position to take, what our goal should be, and the best way to get there. In a world where our time and energy are finite, it is critical that we not waste those resources on approaches that are ineffective, or worse, counterproductive. Furthermore, theory helps us stay focused, serving as a template to ensure that our means and messaging remain consistent with our identified ends.
The abolitionist position rests on the theory that our very use of animals represents harm to them, and that all use is wrong. Use is synonymous with exploitation and abuse. Welfarists, on the other hand, do not challenge our use of animals, but instead promote a theory that reflects the dominant thinking in our culture today: the idea that since animals are cognitively different from us our use of them doesn’t necessarily constitute harm. This belief informs the welfarist position that how we treat animals, not our use of them in the first place, is the pertinent issue.
19th century utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham was an early animal advocate whose views formed the basis of the animal welfare movement and continue to shape current thinking. While he maintained that animals could suffer and therefore should be included in the moral community, he pointed to their cognitive differences with humans to justify his idea that they lacked an interest in continuing to live. Since Bentham didn’t acknowledge animals’ fear of death, he didn’t see killing them as necessarily harmful or morally problematic. Assuming we did so “humanely,” when killing animals for food, “we are the better for it, and they are never the worse,” he wrote.
Bentham’s views are essentially the same as those of philosopher and Animal Liberation author Peter Singer. They are essentially the same as those of all the big animal organizations and of the vast majority of people who exhibit any concern for animals. They represent the default cultural paradigm, so ingrained and so pervasive that few of us see its flaws.
We know that sentience, the condition of perceptual awareness or the ability to perceive or feel things, is present in almost all of the animals that we exploit. We may question the sentience of insects, but scientific consensus confirms what is obvious to almost anyone who has ever lived with an animal, which is that sentience is present in the fish, land animals, and birds that we regard as resources and unnecessarily kill by the tens-of-billions annually worldwide. The very nature of sentience, when combined with the fact that none of us need animal products to live a healthy life, contains all of the justification we need to conclude that animal exploitation is wrong. Given that, requiring something beyond sentience, specifically the presence of normal humanlike cognition, is a speciesist position. And speciesism, like all forms of discrimination, is based on an arbitrary characteristic that in this case harms nonhumans and privileges humans.
Once we accept the validity of our underlying theory and our resulting position and goal, it becomes clear how we should get there. If we agree with the cultural norm that animals are property and it’s acceptable to continue to use them as resources as long as we treat them “well,” we can support groups like PETA and Human Society of the United States (HSUS), and corporations like Chipotle whose animals are “naturally raised” and Whole Foods with its 5 Step™ Animal Welfare Rating system endorsed by many animal organizations. We can encourage people to choose “cage-free” eggs, and milk from small farms where the cows are given names yet are still exploited and killed. But if instead we see the problem as one of animal use, deciding in favor of the clearly distinguishable abolitionist path that decries speciesism and denies the property status of animals, we focus on promoting veganism and coherently articulating why it should be the baseline of moral behavior.
Additionally, if properly used, theory will keep us consistent. This is where the welfare groups fail miserably, and their aversion to theory most shows. PETA, for instance, explains the wrongfulness of speciesism by comparing it to sexism and other forms of discrimination. These are valid analogies. Yet PETA bases many of its campaigns on sexism, portraying females as mere sex objects and using fat shaming tactics. Putting aside its wrongfulness on its own, objectifying women in the context of a sexist and patriarchal culture is not an effective way to teach people why they shouldn’t view animals as objects.
HSUS is another big welfarist organization that professes to care about animals, yet closely partners with corporate animal exploiters to actively promote the sale animal products, and views veganism as just another option to reduce overall suffering rather than as a moral necessity.
Both organizations favor single-issue campaigns that focus on things like fur, dolphins, nonhuman apes, etc. These campaigns leave the impression that some kinds of animal use are a problem while others are not, that certain animals (those we find cute, belonging to an endangered species, or that are believed to possess cognitive qualities closer to our own) have greater moral value than others, and that the problem constitutes a handful of separate issues requiring individual attention and separate solutions rather than an overall problem of speciesism in need of a single solution. Granted, single-issue campaigns can be remarkably successful at eliciting donations, as many of them target narrow and unpopular animal uses and don’t ask people to make fundamental changes in their behavior, i.e. going vegan. But rather than helping animals, the donations are recycled into bloated upper-tier management salaries and still more sexist and speciesist campaigns that don’t target the root problem.
These are just the more blatant examples of confusing positions that open these organizations and the overall movement to well-deserved accusations of hypocrisy, and divert attention away from meaningful discussions about the legitimacy of animal use.
Even if you believe in the welfare model, its benefit to animals will remain minimal in the best of circumstances as long as animals remain property. The costs of their “humane” treatment will always be limited by our property-valuing market system to that which still allows owners to make a reasonable profit and consumers to have an affordable product. In the economic equation animals, as mere commodities, will always lose out. Indeed, even if you believe people will never go vegan, welfarist theory simply doesn’t work. Historically, big progressive social changes came about not from big, wealthy organizations seeking small, isolated improvements, but from the bottom up with visionary individuals taking strong, straightforward positions that were radical for their time. Every day welfarism continues to be promoted delays the shift away from the animals-as-property paradigm and the arrival of abolition.
So while some of us may not like theory, it’s vital to any advocacy movement. We avoid it at our peril.
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The six principles of the Abolitionist Approach to animal rights may be read here.