Animal Rights 101, part one: The Need

This is the first in a series of posts I am writing to introduce readers to the most basic fundamentals of the abolitionist approach to animal rights as laid out by Gary L. Francione. I have also read works by Joan Dunayer and Lee Hall but, for my purposes here, Francione’s body of work currently offers the most thorough and original explication of abolitionist animal rights and our duties as animal rights advocates.

Though this blog is obviously not the best forum for me to be completely comprehensive, that is not my goal. If you’re looking for that, you should be reading the following books anyway: Rain Without Thunder, Introduction to Animal Rights, and Animals as Persons. Instead I will attempt to distill in my own words the basics of abolitionist animal rights advocacy that I have learned over the past 18 months or so. I will work through the basics, beginning with an understanding of the term rights, and working through what it means to be an animal rights advocate.

Post One:  The Need

The animal rights “movement” has been diluted by welfare-oriented advocacy to such an extent that the term “animal rights” has come to be widely understood merely as a catch-all label that refers to any activity carried out on behalf of animals, whether the activity is related to the moral or legal rights of animals at all. Most often it is not. 

“Animal rights” advocacy has for years had little to do with the moral rights of animals. Instead advocates have often focused on how animals are treated. In other words, they have concerned themselves with how humans treat their animal property, not whether or not the animals are rightfully considered the property of others in the first place. 

For instance, the media and many activists frequently call efforts to get hens out of battery cages “animal rights” campaigns, but these activities are focused entirely on the treatment of animals (i.e., their welfare), and not on their use (i.e., their right not to be used merely as a means to human ends). Hens in cage-free operations still suffer and are still bred, mutilated, confined, dominated, and killed for the sake of human pleasure and convenience. These are trivial interests when compared to a hen’s rather significant interest in staying alive.

Animal welfare campaigns do not address the underlying premise that allows humans to take the lives of nonhumans at will: hens and other animals belong to humans. Even if these campaigns succeed in regulating a specific activity, like caging animals, many other harms would continue to be permissible, and welfare advocates would continue to push until they found themselves at a point where average people simply didn’t see the harm anymore. After all, by then they will have succeeded in getting rid of the most egregious cruelties, which is all they ever cared about anyway.

Of course, even if reforms succeeded in ending every imaginable physical form of abuse to nonhuman animals and their lives were all terminated through some painless process, every animal on every farm would still be unnecessarily–and thus unjustly–imprisoned and killed, as the co-founder of the Vegan Society observed over 80 years ago after visiting his Uncle George’s farm : 

the idyllic scene was nothing more than Death Row, where every creature’s days were numbered by the point at which it was no longer of service to human beings.

Further, when a supposed “animal rights” group favors one type of confinement or killing over another, it implicitly (and even explicitly) condones using animals for human benefit (so long as it is done less cruelly). This of course runs counter to animal rights advocacy, which seeks to liberate hens and other nonhumans from human oppression altogether.

It is vital that the core of the animal rights movement–the abolitionists–reclaim “animal rights” for what it is. How? By widely and clearly restating the animal rights position, which is what I intend to do over the course of this series. As we come to understand the basis for the human oppression of nonhuman animals and the changes required to liberate those animals from this oppression, the path forward becomes much more focused and even simpler than many would have you believe.

By reclaiming, clarifying, and amplifying the abolitionist position on animal rights, we draw attention to what we specifically mean when we say “animal rights,” defining better for ourselves and others what exactly it is we seek on behalf of nonhuman animals. In returning to our basic mission, we refocus our efforts and the public eye on what is ultimately at stake: the interests of nonhuman animals in not being used exclusively as a means to human ends. That is an animal rights movement. 
After all, if we do not talk in terms of rights, then how can we even call ourselves animal rights activists? By openly, actively, and intelligently promoting animal rights and the abolition of animal exploitation, we have the potential to move the dialogue on animal rights forward in a meaningful way.

With greater clarity, precision, and stronger claims-making, our movement will be more coherent as it strikes at the roots of animal exploitation, rather than spending vast resources on efforts for nonhuman beings that on the surface seem good, but which ultimately do very little for them individually and may well further entrench their status as property for humans to use for the foreseeable future.

The goal of this series of posts, then, is in line with the mission statement at Francione’s own website:

to provide a clear statement of a nonviolent approach to animal rights that (1) requires the abolition of animal exploitation; (2) is based only on sentience and no other cognitive characteristic, and (3) regards veganism as the moral baseline of the abolitionist approach.

Next Post: Rights

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  1. Good post!Another problem I have with welfarism is that by definition it not only patronizes the animals, but also the general human population.They try to get to point A by pretending to go to point B. People are not that stupid — it’s better to be upfront about what we want and what our goals are.10 new vegan abolitionists are much more valuable than 1000 new meat eaters in favor of humane farm regulations.

  2. Quote:“Animal welfare campaigns do not address the underlying premise that allows humans to take the lives of nonhumans at will: hens and other animals belong to humans.”Wouldn’t you agree that P.E.T.A.’s new liberationist campaign, which takes as its premise that “nonhumans aren’t ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or medical experiments,” does challenge the underlying assumption of the property status of animals that you correctly believe some welfarist movements fail to criticize? It seems to me that on our own premises, given certain realities about the extent of the problem that is “farm animals,” legislation that aims to reduce the suffering of these nonhumans framed, as I believe it often is (see, H.S.U.S.), within a liberationist philosophy is valid. It’s consistent, I believe, to believe in animal rights while still supporting welfare campaign’s given the enormity of the problem; indeed, we can challenge circuses, zoos, etc. directly – at their foundation – however, I do believe that welfare/vegan (liberationist) campaign’s are not contradictory in regards to farm animals. They’re necessary.

  3. Alex, after studying this issue for months now, the empirical evidence seems to suggest that your beliefs are unfounded. Welfare campaigns have historically been counterproductive, and they continue to be. Take the cage-free egg campaign, a relatively recent development in the ‘humane’ reform movement. Cage-free welfare reforms seek merely to decrease suffering, and therefore fail to address the belief that animals should never be harmed only to satisfy our trivial interests (the animal rights stance). These campaigns have focused primarily, for example, on hens’ ability to spread their wings. But cage-free eggs are still produced by birds who have had about one-third to to one-half of their beaks amputated without anesthetic. Hens, though ‘free’ from cages, are hardly free: they are usually crammed into large sheds with tens of thousands of other birds, where they live in their own waste and suffer from a variety of painful ailments related to intensive egg laying and confinement, and even from cannibalism. Though healthy hens have a minimum lifespan of 5-7 years, even cage-free hens are ‘spent’ after only one laying year, between 12-18 months of age, at which point they are slaughtered to be incorporated into processed foods. And what happens to male chicks in the egg industry? Because they are not bred for meat and are unable to lay eggs, over 250 million male chicks are ground up alive, gassed, electrocuted, or suffocated each year.I don’t know if I understand the first part of your second paragraph. If you are indeed suggesting that HSUS frames their welfare reform advocacy within a liberationist context, then are completely mistaken. That said, some organizations do state quite clearly their “abolitionist” views. I don’t think any abolitionist states that PETA and other self-proclaimed abolitionist groups don’t hold as their ultimate goal the abolition of human use. However, they do not use abolitionist methodology to achieve those goals, and in many cases this works <>against<> the abolition they claim to seek.While PETA does claim to promote the right for animals not to be used at all by humans (and they have for many years, not just recently), they give no clear guidance on the issue. Veganism, the baseline behavior for any animal rights advocate is a very small part of their advocacy, and it is often obscured by calls to vegetarianism. Further, by engaging in counterproductive and confusing welfare-oriented campaigns, they muddy the waters even more. These organizations have taken the line that, because not everyone is going vegan overnight, they need to promote welfare reforms, but in the process they make veganism seem extreme and unachievable, and they wind up telling people (implicitly and explicitly) that it’s okay to eat animal products so long as they have some sort of seal of approval on them. And, by the way, < HREF="" REL="nofollow">this<> is often how <>that<> works out.I don’t believe husbandry reforms are a necessary part of animal rights activism. If you or others want to feel good about eating animals, then it would seem to make sense for you to engage in such campaigns. But if you do believe that nonhumans have the right not to be used by humans for any purpose, then (apart from sanctuary work) everything we ought to throw all our weight behind abolitionist advocacy, particularly vegan education. Otherwise, we are working at cross-purposes with ourselves, assuming we are all animal rights proponents.If you haven’t read Gary L. Francione’s “Rain Without Thunder”, I highly recommend it as a way of understanding the welfare v. abolition debate more clearly. I obviously can’t go into the same level of depth as a book in this space. You may or may not disagree with his conclusions, but I get the impression from your comment that you would benefit from the read either way.RWT is linked from the Recommended list in my sidebar on the main page.

  4. So your argument is two-fold: The empirical evidence doesn’t support the claim that welfarist campaigns actually decrease suffering; and that welfarist reforms don’t achieve the end of abolition – in fact they run counter to this end. I might add that “humane production” actually improves the profits of these industries as they may very well appeal to a niche market: “Happy Meaters.”I don’t disagree with you – I’ve read Francione. I am an abolitionist; however, my belief is that P.E.T.A. is attempting to clarify their message with their new “Animal Liberation” campaign. I’ve seen their message grow, from campus to campus for example, with an insistence on veganism and abolition. They simply employ various means, including welfare campaigns, to achieve this end. Although the evidence challenging the viability of this method is there, the anicdotal evidence countering this is mountng. Again, I’ve seen it from campus to campus for example. So I don’t know. I don’t claim to know though – I’m not so bold as to damn one portion of this movement. I think this has to do with how the message is constructed as opposed to the message itself. As we always say “less suffering is always better,” and I can’t get beyond that. Again though, the evidence that welfare campaigns don’t reduce suffering is convincing. I advocate veganism within the context of animal rights. However, I also support other campaigns, and direct action.

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