Animal Rights 101, part six: New Welfarism

Introduction

In order to respect the basic moral rights of nonhuman animals, we must abolish their use. Once we’ve done this in our own lives by becoming vegan, we are left with the question of how to abolish the use of animals in society at large. Given that the use of animals will not end overnight, and that we have a duty to help today’s animals, the question can be more specifically framed as, “What sort of advocacy leads incrementally to abolition?”

Much of the modern global animal protection movement’s advocacy work is grounded in the belief that we can bring about abolition–or at least animal “liberation”–by focusing on how nonhuman animals are treated by humans. Broadly speaking, the idea is that advocating welfare reform and educating the public about animal suffering will incrementally reduce that suffering, eventually leading to the abolition of animal use or to greater consideration for the preferences of nonhuman animals. In his work, professor Gary L. Francione calls this ideology new welfarism.[1]

New welfarism

There are at least two major strands of new welfarism recognizable within the modern global animal protection movement.

The first is comprised of people who consider themselves abolitionists. Their objective is to eliminate animal use. The second strand includes those utilitarians who, like Peter Singer, seek as their objective the equal consideration of interests or preferences, not abolition. Because utilitarianism is not inherently opposed to animal use, this position can be difficult to distinguish from traditional welfarism, which holds that it is acceptable to use nonhuman animals as a means to human ends. But unlike most traditional welfarists, Singer-style new welfarists believe that humans and animals are equal and that their preferences must always be weighed equally.

Regardless of their differences, what all new welfarists share in common is that they focus their efforts primarily on improving the welfare of exploited animals—i.e., their treatment—rather than directly challenging the notion of animal use.[2] They believe that that their objective can be achieved through welfare-based reforms and by educating the public about how animals are treated. Below are some key beliefs characteristic of new welfarist ideology. A new welfarist need not hold all these beliefs, nor should this list be seen as exhaustive.

  1. The new welfarist believes that legal and institutional welfare reform campaigns offer animals increased protection and reduce animal suffering today.
  2. The new welfarist believes that, by raising public awareness of the cruelty caused by institutionalized animal exploitation, reform campaigns will prompt people to reduce or even eliminate their use and consumption of animals and products derived from animals. Under this belief, new welfarists support and promote non-vegan vegetarianism as a way to reduce one’s contribution to animal suffering.
  3. The new welfarist believes that reform campaigns will damage the animal-using industries.

In the next installment of AR101, I will examine these beliefs in more detail to determine whether they are well-founded or whether we should look to another incremental approach to abolition.

Next: A Closer Look at New Welfarism

Previous: Utilitarianism


1. See Chapter 2 of Gary L. Francione’s Rain Without Thunder for a more thorough introduction to new welfarism.
2. For an extended discussion of use versus treatment, read Gary L. Francione’s “Introduction / The Abolition of Animal Use versus the Regulation of Animal Treatment” in Animals as Persons.


I hope you’re finding this series useful. I’ve enjoyed the reading comments I’ve been receiving so far, so please continue to share your thoughts by commenting below.

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Should Animals Have the Same Rights as People?

I was invited to participate as an “Expert” over at Opposing Views, a site that sets up debates on various topics by asking “Experts” to weigh in with their arguments (OV’s About page). I mentioned the site previously in a post on California’s Proposition 2.

The topic I was asked to take on was Should Animals Have the Same Rights as People? As of now, Bob Torres and I represent similar viewpoints, while two other viewpoints are set forth by Tibor Machan and Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J..

I’ve laid out only three arguments at this point, mainly to pick apart the question and to support my views with very basic posts regarding animal rights (you may recognize some of the content from the AR101 series I’m running here). Please take the time to visit and read them:

You may offer your thumbs-up under each argument as a recommendation if you like, or even offer comments in support of or against. Please let me know if you feel there’s something else I ought to be arguing, either here in comments or via email by using the “Contact” link above.

I like to hear from you. Comment below or email me.

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Announcing new abolitionist literature

The Boston Vegan Association:
Respecting animals means going vegan

The BVA’s 8-page abolitionist vegan outreach pamphlet is now ready and available for viewing online and sharing. I have also had a “generic” version prepared so that you can include your own information on the back cover instead of the BVA web address and logo (pictured). If you would like to receive copies for distribution, please get in touch.

I like to hear from you. Comment on this post below or email me.

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Animal Rights 101, part five: Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism

In a nutshell, utilitarianism holds that the consequences of a given action is what determines its moral worth. According to the principle of utility the right action is that which maximizes “utility.” Under hedonistic or classical utilitarianism, utility is defined in terms of pain and pleasure. The morally correct action to take in any given situation, then, is the one that leads to the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of individuals affected by that action.

In counting the pleasures and pains of all those affected, each individual must “count for one and none for more than one.” Because nonhuman animals can also be affected by an action (i.e., an action can cause them pleasure or pain), their pleasures and pains must also be taken into consideration when deciding whether an action is wrong or right.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, probably the most well-known modern proponent of utilitarianism, defines utility in terms of preferences rather than pleasure and pain. Preference utilitarianism holds that what is intrinsically valuable in any given scenario is not pleasure, per se, but the satisfaction of preferences (i.e., desires or interests).[1] Of course, these preferences might include avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, but preference utilitarianism might be seen as a more nuanced or graded approach.

In addition to the principle of utility, Singer advocates even more forcefully for a principle of equal consideration for other beings’ interests. In determining the consequences of our actions, he argues that we must accord equal consideration to equal interests, even going so far as to say that nonhuman animals have a right to this consideration. He describes at length how excluding nonhuman animals from equal consideration (or otherwise disregarding their interests) is speciesist, an arbitary bias in favor of one’s own species membership that is analogous to excluding humans from equal consideration on the basis of their race or sex.[2]

Singer later expressed regret at allowing “the concept of a right to intrude into [his] work so unnecessarily.” Though he is often called “the father of the animal rights movement,” this stance is not all that surprising when you consider that his views do not and cannot lead to a respect-based animal rights view given his adherence to the principle of utility.[3]

Issue: Tension between equal consideration and utility

The principle of utility is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is–under Singer’s view–the tension between considering like interests equally and maximizing utility.

Despite his belief that we ought to determine what will maximize utility on a case-by-case basis, Singer holds that animals’ interests must always be given equal consideration. Though this insistence also informs the egalitarianism of rights theory put forth previously, it creates problems here because taking all interests equally into consideration may well fail to maximize utility, at which point we would no longer operating in the realm of utilitarianism.

The corollary here is that the principle of utility conflicts with the principle of equal consideration when maximizing utility would require us to ignore the interests of some individuals or otherwise allow them to be harmed if doing so serves the “greater good.” In other words, utilitarianism’s emphasis on the consequential benefit of a potential act favors the majority and allows for exploitation of the minority.

As Tom Regan writes, “The modest point being urged here is that, for all its emphasis on equality, utilitarianism would sanction recognizable forms of sexism and racism, if the facts happened to turn out a certain way.”[4]

Issue: Treats interests as tradable

The rights view protects interests even when it would benefit others (or the greater good) to violate or ignore them. “[T]he defining characteristic of a respect-based right is that the interest that it protects cannot be compromised for consequential considerations alone.”[5] Utilitarianism, on the other hand, treats interests as tradable. If ignoring the interests of certain individuals maximizes utility overall, then utilitarianism would say that the right thing to do in that situation is to ignore those interests in favor of the interests of the many, effectively treating interests as tradable, not inviolable. Such a view “is consistent with animal exploitation if the consequences justify that exploitation and if the decision to exploit is not based on species discrimination.”[6]

Indeed, though Singer advocates vegetarianism, it is not certain how he can prescribe this measure on a utilitarian basis. An appeal on consequentialist grounds would suggest that vegetarianism maximizes utility, but the principle of utility could well come down against vegetarianism if the consequences of everyone becoming vegetarian actually turned out to have less utility than if everyone continued to eat at animal products.

Singer thinks that the negative consequences for the animals involved in factory farming outweigh the benefits, but as Regan points out, “[t]he animal industry is big business,” and although “[i]t is uncertain exactly how many people are involved in it, directly or indirectly, . . . the number must easily run into the many tens of thousands.” Those involved in animal agriculture “have a stake in the animal industry as rudimentary and important as having a job, feeding a family, or laying aside money for their children’s education or their own retirement.” . . . The problem is that once the preference satisfaction of everyone involved in factory farming (humans and nonhuman) is deemed relevant and counted equitably, Singer’s assumed result appears to be much more controversial than he recognizes.[7] 

In light of these complications, the utilitarian impact of becoming vegetarian is not at all clear, particularly on the individual level. Because utilitarians must make the moral calculations on a case-by-case basis, they cannot demonstrate that becoming vegetarian will always maximize utility, which means that utilitarianism can make no standing argument for vegetarianism at all, much less veganism.

More consistent with the utilitarian view is his assertion that it may be morally justifiable to eat animals who “have a pleasant existence in a social group suited to their behavioral needs, and are then killed quickly and without pain.”[8]

Issues: Fails to offer normative guidance

The vegetarian question points to a lack of normative guidance (i.e., guidelines for standard, everyday behavior) offered by Singer’s views. In Animal Rights Theory and Utilitarianism: Relative Normative Guidance, Gary L. Francione reveals utilitarianism’s lack of normative guidance by focusing on three components of moral theory that he identifies as the ideal level, the micro-level, and the macro-level.

The ideal level asks what ideal state a theory aims to achieve. The clarity of a theory’s ideal state is important because it helps guide micro- and macro-level components of moral decision-making. The micro-level component of a theory guides our personal behavior. The macro-level component examines whether a theory prescribes how to effect incremental change in order to achieve a theories ideal state of affairs.

Under the rights view, it may be said that the ideal state is the complete abolition of institutionalized animal exploitation, a fairly clear, measurable objective. Knowing that this is our ideal state, it becomes rather plain that our personal obligation on the micro level is to avoid participating in activities that, at the very least, contribute directly to animal exploitation (i.e., we ought to be vegan). On the macro level, a coherent prescription for incremental change guides us to a strategy of spreading rights-based ideology and veganism.

Singer’s ideal is much more vague, requiring as it does that offer nonhuman animals equal consideration for their interests while maximizing utility. How do we describe or measure this objective, much less know when we have reached it (assuming it is a place one could even “reach”)? This view offers no practical guidance for making decisions, ultimately leading us to make best guesses about what is likely to “reduce” suffering to some indeterminable extent.

The calculations required to follow this rule for micro-level decision-making are stunningly complicated. Among our variables are every individual who might be affected by what we choose to do, the preferences those individuals have, and the varying weights of these preferences. Assuming it was possible to gather all this data, we would then have to make comparisons of these preferences between individuals and across species, and we would have to determine which satisfied preferences maximize utility, which don’t, and so on. As if this wasn’t burden enough, we must perform this complex calculus for every considered action, and there’s still a chance our estimates could be wrong due to our lack of perfect knowledge, our inability to predict how other involved parties might behave, much less our general inability to predict the future.

On the macro-level of decision-making, the admonition to do whatever we think might best reduce suffering is equally unhelpful. Already our ideal state is vague, so this sort of guidance makes it hard to know where we’re headed incrementally as a group. Nor do we always know whether and how much our actions will reduce suffering, which is perhaps what leads certain animal advocates to focus on what some new welfare advocates call the “low-hanging fruit.”

This approach to advocacy involves welfare campaigns that are problematic for a number of reasons that I will analyze in my next AR101 installment. Suffice it to say for now that the macro-level component here fails to meaningfully distinguish our incremental actions as a movement from those who exploit animals (none of whom believe we ought to, say, increase suffering). It is hard to see how animals will be liberated if we are merely reinforcing the existing paradigm that it is acceptable to use animals, so long as we minimize their suffering.

Conclusion

Compared to a rights-based approach, which simply tells us that equal consideration means equal protection for those interests that are equal (leading to veganism), utilitarianism is unclear and could possibly even lead to immoral results. In my next installment of AR101, I will examine the new welfare approach of the modern “animal rights movement,” which is informed by utilitarian thought. As we shall see, utilitarianism’s vague, conflicting, and difficult-to-fulfill prescriptions offer little, or worse, confusing guidance for our advocacy.

Next: New Welfarism

Previous: Property


1. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 14.

 

2. ______, Animal Liberation, Ecco paperback, first edition (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 6.

3. Much is made of the influence wrought by Animal Liberation on the “animal rights movement,” though its author distances himself from rights theory, calling his use of the term a concession to popular moral rhetoric (Peter Singer, “The Parable of the Fox and the Unliberated Animals,” Ethics 88, no. 2 {January 1978}, p. 122). Despite this, the utilitarian’s groundbreaking 33 year-old book continues to be recommended by a number of prominent advocates, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as the “animal rights ‘bible’.” PETA’s merchandise catalog states, “If you read only one animal rights book, it has to be this one.”

I want to be clear on a few things. Animal Liberation does raise some important philosophical questions regarding our treatment of animals. It is not a trivial work, and it obviously influenced a new movement on behalf of animals that, in some form, is still around today. However, its own author has disavowed rights, and Animal Liberation does not promote any sort of rights theory whatsoever. It is not an animal rights book. As such, it does not provide any clear guidance for rights advocacy.

If you want to read an animal rights book, and you can read only one for some reason, then allow me to recommend Gary L. Francione’s Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Within that book, you’ll find a concise and easy-to-understand discussion of animal rights theory, along with a coherent prescription for a rights-based approach to abolishing animal exploitation.

4. Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, 1st ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 227-28.

5. Gary L. Francione, “Equal Consideration,” in Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 168.

6. ______, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 49.

7. ______, “Animal Rights Theory and Utilitarianism: Relative Normative Guidance.”

8. Singer, Animal Liberation, 229-30


I hope you’re finding this series useful. I enjoy the reading comments I’ve been receiving so far, so please continue to share your thoughts by commenting below.

 

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Proposition 2 and online debates

California’s Proposition 2 has stirred up plenty of controversy, both between the animal exploitation industries and the animal protection industry, and between animal advocates.

Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that will be voted on this November, is intended to eliminate certain confinement practices used by animal agribusiness, albeit with some exemptions. Basically it would require that, for the majority of each day, calves, egg-laying hens, and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that would allow them to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. In other words, it doesn’t eliminate confinement systems; it merely modifies some of them to be slightly less restrictive (in the case of California, this mainly affects egg production). Exceptions are built in for seven-days prior to a pregnant pig’s expected date of delivery, and for 4-H programs, rodeos, fairs, research, veterinary purposes, slaughter, and transportation. Violations of the regulations would be misdemeanors, restricting the potential fine to $1,000 and/or imprisonment up to 180 days.

Recognizing the disagreement between different types of animal advocates over Proposition 2, Doris Lin, the host of About.com‘s new animal rights topic, is hosting a debate on Proposition 2. Professor Gary L. Francione, author and abolitionist animal rights proponent, represents the con argument, while the the pro argument is offered by animal welfare proponent Paul Shapiro, the Senior Director of the Humane Society of the United States‘ Factory Farming Campaign. Shapiro calls the ballot measure Making History for Animals, while Francione calls it A Losing Proposition. Of course, it’s a strange debate because there’s no real back and forth between the two debaters, not to mention the fact that HSUS’s mission is modifying animal use, not abolishing it.

While you’re off reading online debates, you might be interested in some other topics hosted by Opposing Views. The site asks a lot of controversial questions, not just animal-related issues, and it seems to be fairly well designed and easy to navigate. In addition to calling on “experts” (mostly special interest groups) to debate the subject, Opposing Views invites your comments, involving you directly in the debate. The issue of “pet” ownership finds Francione and HSUS in opposition once again. You can also read their arguments and the arguments of other “experts” on a variety of related topics, including using animals in research, keeping animals in zoos, and “meat”-eating. There’s no debate on Proposition 2 over there as of yet, but they do take suggestions for topics, and maybe Opposing Views would provide a better format for that debate than the statements offered at About.com, seeing as how it allows for counterpoint and objections.

Back to Proposition 2, of course the animal exploiting industries are totally opposed. They don’t want animal advocates making any inroads on regulating how they use animals. They see the measure potentially leading to other regulatory reforms around the country, so they have more or less united in their opposition to it.

Seems intuitive how an animal-friendly person might vote, right? Well, consider that this measure does not come close to questioning animal use; it merely modifies how animals are used in such a way as to make it seem somewhat less objectionable. Also consider the following:

1. Veal crates and gestation crates (for pigs) have already been phased out or are being phased out by the industries in California as this debate goes on. At this time, there is no indication that doing so is harming the industries or reducing consumption of flesh products from calves and pigs.

2. Proposition 2’s regulations apply only to producers in California. It is not a ban on products produced using these methods. Stores seeking less expensive eggs to sell their customers may buy them from out-of-state producers, and egg companies that don’t want to follow the new regulations can move their operations out of state.

3. Proposition 2 does not end the confinement and torture of animals from their artificially-induced births to their untimely killings. If successful, sustained, followed, and enforced, Prop 2 will only allow certain animals a bit more space to move and adjust their position while they are being confined, and for only part of the day. Even then, all bets are off during transport and slaughter. It does not address the myriad other harms caused to animals throughout the production process.

4. Egg production systems in Europe have gone cage-free, and the barn systems they are using there have even received a seal of approval from the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, which leads consumers to believe that the animals’ welfare is being given top priority. The video below shows that there are plenty of problems inherent in cage-free systems.

What do you make of all this debate over Prop 2? What do you make of the proposition itself? Share your comments below

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