AR101

Animal Rights 101, part seven: New Welfarism (cont’d)

Introduction[1]

In my previous post, I introduced new welfarism, a term coined by Gary L. Francione to describe an ideology that pervades the work of the modern global animal protection movement, commonly known as the ‘animal rights movement’. New welfarists hold as their goal the abolition of animal exploitation (or animal ‘liberation’) but, understanding that abolition will not occur overnight, they pursue a strategy of welfare reform to incrementally achieve this end while fulfilling our duty to today’s animals.

While it is true that abolition will not occur overnight and that we have a duty to avoid harming today’s animals, new welfarism is a morally and empirically flawed ideology. Though it differs conceptually from traditional welfarism in being ideologically opposed to all institutionalized animal exploitation, in practice new welfarism offers nothing new at all, and so it should be rejected.

New welfarism at work: An example

In order to illustrate this claim, I will refer throughout this post to Proposition 2, a California ballot measure that was heavily promoted and backed by many activists and organizations guided by new welfarist ideology. After a long, costly campaign, voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. 2 last November, and now it is scheduled to become law in 2015.

In brief, the law will require that, for the majority of each day, calves, egg-laying hens, and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow them to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. Note that law will not abolish confinement systems; it will merely regulate how certain animals may be confined. Also note that the regulation includes numerous exemptions, including a seven day period prior to a pregnant pig’s expected date of delivery, as well as the use of animals for 4-H programs, rodeos, fairs, research, veterinary purposes, slaughter, and transportation.

The defects of new welfarism

With the foregoing in mind, let’s critically examine the three key new welfarist beliefs I identified in my previous post, AR101, part six.

1. The new welfarist believes that legal and institutional welfare reform campaigns offer animals increased protection and reduce animal suffering today.

Welfare reform does not lead to meaningful protection for animals’ interests

While it’s conceivable that a given welfare reform could meaningfully protect the interests of nonhuman animals, the record shows that hundreds of years of welfare reform have generally failed to achieve this goal. In Animals, Property, and the Law, Gary L. Francione examines the record in great detail. In short, he concludes that as long as animals are property they will lack any basic legal rights and their interests will count for less than those of their owners. Recalling AR 101, Part 4:

Without legal rights, even an animal’s most significant interests cannot be protected from being traded away in favor of any trivial human interest so long as that human interest is in some recognized end.

For example, a scientist who harms an animal in the recognized institutional end of seeking knowledge is legally justified in doing so, while a sadist who harms an animal for pleasure is not justified.

Some argue that the property status of nonhuman animals cannot prevent us from achieving institutional or legal reforms on animals’ behalf. But as long as animals are property, welfare reform will fail to protect their interests beyond measures which are cost-justified, stymieing attempts to reduce their suffering. As Francione puts it:

[B]ecause animals are property, animal welfare standards will generally only protect the interests of animals to the extent that the protection facilitates economically efficient exploitation.

Example: Prop. 2 fails to meaningfully protect animals’ interests

Prop. 2 was an attempt by advocacy groups to bypass agribusiness interests and lawmakers in order to force various animal-using industries into following regulations that are not cost-justified. Taking their case directly to the public, new welfarist advocates succeeded in passing that bill into law. But despite all the acclaim for this legislation, Prop. 2 does not provide any meaningful protection for animals’ interests.

First of all, despite its language, the measure will have no impact on the interests or welfare of calves and sows. The “veal” and “pork” industries in California were already voluntarily moving away from crate confinement systems before Prop. 2 was approved.[2] This leaves us to examine whether Prop. 2 will meaningfully protect the interests of hens.

Prior to Prop. 2, the egg industry in California had not made any overall shift away from intensive confinement operations. One can point to a variety of reasons for this, but with regard to protecting animals’ interests, the industry generally refers to research that demonstrates certain welfare advantages battery cages have over enriched cage, cage-free, and free-range operations. Indeed, an expose of RSPCA’s Freedom Foods welfare scheme reveals that ‘cage-free’ systems cause hens much suffering.

“Stocking density” in cage-free operations is still rather tight (just over one square foot per bird by the RSPCA’s standards); the rate of injuries are higher than with battery cage systems; hens are more liable to live in the waste that gathers on barn floors, leading to diseases that produce higher mortality rates; and birds may have diminished access to water and food, particularly less aggressive hens who are pecked away by more dominant hens (click through the links in the previous paragraph for specific references).[3]

However, this may all be moot. Rather than converting their facilities to cage-free systems, California operators are generally expected to exit the business. But because “national egg demand [will] not change significantly,” egg ‘production’ will continue. Other states will step up to meet the demand.[4] This means that hens will still find themselves confined to standard battery cages–just not cages located in California.

So, while Prop. 2 was sold as a just “modest measure” to reduce suffering, we can see that it won’t even do that much. In effect, by 2015 Prop. 2 will have at best redistributed the business of the U.S. egg industry.

In the long run, as the human population grows and the demand for eggs grows with it, the number of exploited birds will grow, too. By prolonging animal exploitation rather than curtailing it through vegan campaigns, welfare reform could well be responsible for more animal suffering.

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.

New welfarism misleads the public and it does not reduce animal exploitation

While new welfarists certainly do present the suffering of exploited animals to consumers and voters in their calls for reform, they leverage this awareness in ways that mislead the public. Welfare reform perpetuates the belief that animal use and consumption are morally acceptable. Promoting ‘humane’ animal products and non-vegan vegetarianism further reinforces this belief.

Misleading the public

Welfare reform perpetuates the belief that, though some practices may be unacceptable in the course of exploiting nonhuman animals, there are acceptable ways to exploit them. This reinforces arbitrary moral distinctions between animals and how they are exploited, ignores their right not to be used as property in the first place, and directly conflicts with the rights view-that animal exploitation is morally unjustifiable.

Prop. 2 offers a text book example: Apart from being deliberately misleading[5], the campaign in support of the measure misled the public by suggesting that chicken eggs are acceptable products for human consumption so long as they come from hens who can spread their wings and stretch their necks, that calf flesh is morally acceptable so long as calves are able to turn around during their lifelong confinement, and so on. This is entirely consistent with the traditional welfare review that regards animals as property, not with the rights view.

While it might be ‘better’ not to confine nonhuman animals in cages so small that they can barely move (and it might not), such a debate completely misses the underlying point: we have no moral justification for purpose-breeding nonhumans into lives of mutilation, confinement, and slaughter in the first place.

Welfare reform facilitates acceptance of animal exploitation

When the public is misled into believing that the central moral issue with respect to our relationship with animals is that we should treat them better, it doesn’t hear that exploiting animals is harmful to the animals. It doesn’t hear that nonhuman beings deserve the same moral consideration for their interest in avoiding pain and suffering or that they have a moral right not to be used as property in the first place. The public only hears the vague admonition that it should reduce its contribution to animal suffering, the idea being that “everyone can agree that farmed animals should be treated with kindness.”

Remember that though traditional welfarists believe that the animals who ‘sacrifice’ themselves ‘for’ us deserve ‘better’ treatment, they have no moral issue with using animals as resources. Because traditional welfarists are inclined to change their behavior in ways that fit their current view of nonhumans, and because welfare reform fails to challenge this view, we should not be surprised when most people respond to reform campaigns by continuing to consume animals and their products.

Indeed, welfare reform reassures people that it’s acceptable to consume animals and their products because it creates the impression that pigs, hens, and calves are being treated more ‘humanely’. Is it any wonder that consumers think they are doing animals a favor by voting for welfare reforms like Prop. 2?

‘Humane’ animal products and vegetarianism

Though the abolition of animal exploitation requires at its very basic level that we abolish our personal use and consumption of animals (i.e., we must be vegan), even vegan advocacy organizations pitch veganism merely as “a tool to reduce suffering” rather than the least one can do to respect the moral rights of nonhuman animals. We also commonly find veganism downplayed as difficult, “extreme“, and even optional. ‘Humane’ animal products, non-vegan vegetarianism, and ‘flexitarianism‘ are hailed as “a step in the right direction“, undercutting the essential message that use is the problem and further misleading the public into believing that the use and consumption of animals and their products is morally acceptable (it only has be to done ‘right’).

Under the same misguided belief that these are ‘steps in the right direction’, we find certain animal advocacy organizations partnering or otherwise collaborating with animal-using corporations and slaughterhouse designers. Out of these relationships we’ve seen the emergence of ‘humane certified‘, ‘sustainable and humane certification‘, and ‘Freedom Foods‘ programs, which amount to a sort of ‘greenwashing’ that allows people to feel good (or at least “less bad“) about purchasing and consuming products that are deeply problematic. They obscure the fact that animals exploited under these programs are still molested, artificially inseminated, mutilated, confined, transported, and killed to produce products that serve only our trivial interests, again reinforcing the idea that animals can be used and consumed without causing them harm.

Certainly some people will boycott certain animal exploiters or animal products from time to time, especially when information about specific forms of ‘egregious’ animal cruelty comes to light, but this is not due to any fundamental objection to animal exploitation. Consumers who boycott Pilgrim’s Pride because its workers were caught inflicting “sadistic abuse” on birds still purchase bird flesh from other companies guilty of “routine, standard cruelty,” and they have no reason not to return to Pilgrim’s Pride products after the workers are fired and measures are put into place to supposedly avoid similar incidents occurring in the future. Similarly, they support reforms like Prop. 2 but they continue right on eating eggs, satisfied that they are fulfilling their obligation to treat hens ‘humanely’. We also find that, once reassured that ‘foie gras‘, ‘veal’, and so on are being ‘humanely’ produced, people return to eating these previously taboo ‘foods’, too.

But what of non-vegan vegetarianism? Why isn’t that ‘a step in the right direction’? Veganism and vegetarianism represent two entirely different ideologies. Veganism holds that all animal exploitation is unjustifiable while non-vegan vegetarianism holds that using animals is acceptable (e.g., for their eggs and milk). Far from being a step in the right direction, vegetarianism perpetuates a morally arbitrary distinction between consuming the flesh of animals and consuming their eggs and milk, which are produced in ways that arguably cause more suffering than flesh products[6]. Even a vegetarian who consumes the smallest amounts of animal products accepts the belief that it is acceptable to exploit (and thus harm) animals for trivial purposes, which is consistent with the traditional welfare view, but not at all consistent with the rights view. We should not be so stunned, then, to find that vegetarians are returning to eating animal products. Selling veganism as a tool to “boycott cruelty” is problematic for similar reasons. Given that cruel treatment was regarded as the fundamental problem all along, and not use, we meet “cheating” vegans, “flexible” vegans, and even those that have slid back into full-blown carnism.[7]

Demand for animal products will not end as long as advocates keep asking the public to replace one form of exploitation with another, perpetuating the belief that animal exploitation is morally acceptable. Abolition will not come as long as advocates continue to focus on how animals are treated and leave the discourse over use off the table, as long as ovo-lacto-vegetarianism, “cage-free” eggs, and “humane meat” are regarded as morally viable options, and as long as adherence to veganism is presented as being extreme, unnecessary, too difficult, or even “fanatical.” Animal rights advocates need to ask themselves what they are doing perpetuating any of these views.

3. The new welfarist believes that reform campaigns will damage the animal-using industries.

Welfare reform causes little financial impact, if any

Though it is quite easy to find industry complaints about the cost of complying with new regulations-and, in some cases, smaller operators do indeed have trouble staying in business-welfare reform campaigns fail to fiscally damage agribusiness overall and, in certain cases, may even immunize exploiters from financial harm (the foie gras ‘ban’ in California is one example of the latter[8]).

Let’s return to California’s Proposition 2 to understand how welfare reform fails to damage animal exploiting industries. First of all, though touted as a “monumental victory for farm animals,” this particular measure will not have any impact on the ‘veal’ and ‘pork’ industries, despite how the bill is worded (as previously discussed). But what about the egg industry? Prop. 2 will effectively bar California’s $336 million egg industry from confining hens in battery cages as of 2015.

Assuming there is no reversal or delay before then, Prop 2 will no doubt have some fiscal impact on California’s egg industry, the 6th largest in the United States, which relies primarily on battery cage systems and would be forced into costly retooling or shutting down their operations entirely. Though it might be tempting to view this as an example of an industry being forced to accept a measure that is not cost-justified[9], the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) itself, the main proponent behind Prop. 2, released an economic report suggesting that California’s egg industry could well survive Prop. 2 to become the “nation’s prime producer of cage-free eggs.” As it was, California’s egg industry had been in decline (54% since 1970), so this sort of move could actually have a positive long-term impact if California’s new “humane” egg industry finds itself the go-to source for ‘cage-free’ or ‘free range’ eggs.

Even if this is not the case, the national egg industry will absorb California’s demand for cheap, battery-caged eggs, and so we will see no meaningful impact on the institution of egg production (or on consumption) as a whole. Thirty percent of shelled eggs (non-liquid egg product) sold in California are already produced in the Midwest, for example, and businesses outside the state will continue to meet California’s demand for eggs.[10] We should therefore expect “little, if any, cost increase and no substantial impact on prices to California consumers.”[11]

One might argue that, if bills like Prop. 2 are enacted all over the United States, it would destroy the national egg industry, too, but that is short-sighted. If laws like Prop. 2 pass were enacted in all 50 states, the U.S. egg industry would of course incur the costs of re-equipping in the short run, but rather than destroying the industry as a whole, we should instead expect increased corporate consolidation as deeper-pocketed egg producers survive and smaller egg ‘farms’ are bought up or shut down. Further, unless legislation is passed banning the importation of eggs from other countries, there would still remain the possibility of obtaining eggs from battery caged hens.

There is simply no reason to believe that welfare reform will impact the demand for eggs in the long run, since the consumption of eggs has not itself been challenged.[12] A slight increase in the price of eggs will at best cause only a short-term impact on purchasing habits, and this is to say nothing about whether some people will eat more eggs or return to eating eggs because now they think doing so is less harmful to hens. And of course the U.S. population continues to grow, growing the U.S. egg industry along with it as people continue to demand eggs.

Welfare reform economically enhances exploitation

I noted above that despite the widespread belief (and message) that Prop. 2 would fiscally harm the egg industry, HSUS identified the potential for Prop. 2 legislation to economically enhance hen exploitation. We don’t have to look far to find additional corroboration for the notion that welfare reform economically enhances exploitation. Ironically, that evidence is often provided by the new welfarist animal advocacy organizations themselves, including the world’s largest ‘animal rights’ group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

These organizations work directly with corporations pitching various reforms as economic enhancements. In support of the controlled atmosphere killing of chickens, for example, PETA prepared a report for the industry that stated, “CAK increases product quality and yield.” HSUS also produced a report, concluding that “a plant processing 1 million broilers per week with an average dressed carcass weight of 4.5 pounds and wholesale price of mce_marker.80 per pound would increase annual revenue by $1.87 million after adopting CAK.” One look at the long list of industry endorsements for CAK and CAS (Controlled Atmosphere Stunning) reveals that PETA and HSUS’s ‘adversaries’ agree with them.

Because welfare reforms like these are “cost-justified’, they are accepted by the industry, resulting in ‘victories’ for both advocates and corporate animal exploiters. For example, last year KFC Canada’s president, recognizing that he and PETA “had no differences of opinion about how animals should be treated” and not wanting anything “negative attached to [KFC Canada’s] brand,” agreed to “[p]hase in purchases of 100% of its chickens from suppliers that use controlled-atmosphere killing (CAK)”[13] In exchange for this ‘concession’, PETA dropped a 5 year-long pressure campaign against the chain.

The failure of welfare reform to damage the animal-using industries reveals the fundamental flaw of attempting to effect social change through legal and institutional reform: trying to eliminate demand by reforming the supply is completely backward. California’s Proposition 2 exemplifies the problem with this approach. When it comes into effect in 2015, Californians will not suddenly stop eating eggs, nor will they suddenly start paying more for eggs laid by hens confined in cage-free facilities. They will still be consuming cheap eggs sold by companies based outside of California, because nothing will have fundamentally changed.

Conclusion: We can’t march toward abolition by walking away from it

The abolition of institutionalized animal exploitation is a revolutionary goal that depends on a sweeping societal shift away from the traditional welfare view-that animals are mere resources-toward a view that regards animals as right-holders. Of course, no one expects abolition to occur overnight, but new welfarism takes this observation to the extreme and untenable conclusion that abolition is an “all-or-nothing” “hypothetical future goal” devoid of incremental possibilities.

New welfarists seek to “ease the suffering” of animals, in large part by reforming the ‘low-hanging fruit‘ of animal agribusiness (a direct critique of which can be found here). Though this strategy derives from the reasonable belief that we ought to try to help today’s animals, it also relies on the unfounded belief that reform campaigns will systematically eradicate the animal-using industries’ ‘worst’ abuses one by one, protecting animals’ interests to a greater and greater degree until there are no more ‘worst’ abuses to eradicate.

But because welfare reform obscures (and even contradicts) the message that using nonhuman animals as mere resources is the fundamental problem, it is incapable of bringing about abolition. Rather, welfare reform is fully consistent with the traditional welfare view we’ve had for hundreds of years. It is incoherent to suggest that we can precipitate a shift away from the traditional welfare view by reinforcing that view. And support for the back-up claim that welfare reform helps today’s animals consistently fails to materialize.

What about the claim that welfare reform fosters a climate that is conducive to abolition? It’s hard to see how reinforcing traditional welfarism could be conducive to abolition, but ‘evidence’ is usually presented in the form of vegetarians who later become vegan or those new welfarist vegans like myself who eventually became abolitionists. It’s suggested that surely this is a path to abolition offered by new welfarism. But this is no ‘proof’. There’s no doubt that vegans have taken this path. Many have. But it is not the path, or even the best path, stategically.

In effect, those ‘converts’ that new welfarism does win over to veganism amount to a collateral, sometimes even ephemeral, win. As I described above, there are serious problems with promoting veganism as ‘merely a tool to reduce suffering’. It perpetuates the traditional welfare mindset-that cruel treatment is the problem-and runs the very real risk of even vegans ‘cheating’ or sliding back into consuming animals and animal products. I don’t mean to suggest that all vegans are at risk of going back to using and consuming animals, but we know of highly prominent ‘vegans’ who see no problem with “indulging” in the “luxury” of animal products (some of them are more discreet about it, such as the noted animal advocate who asked me how ‘strict’ I am in my veganism before going on to eat animal products in front of me).

There is no empirical evidence to support the belief that non-vegans are less willing to listen accept an abolitionist view than a welfarist view, and there is no evidence that vegans who are never exposed to the rights view will come around to this view on their own. So it’s wrong to suggest that new welfarism leads to abolitionism. Rather, abolitionism leads to abolitionism. So, as people who are supposedly hoping to build a social movement capable of shifting the dominant paradigm to one that respects animals’ moral right not to be treated as property, shouldn’t we stop misleading people about what’s at stake? Shouldn’t we stop perpetuating use? Shouldn’t we as animal rights advocates be encouraging people to go vegan for abolitionist reasons?

Taking the rights view seriously means rejecting new welfarism in favor of an incremental approach that is morally and logically consistent with the end goal of abolition, and I will discuss just such an approach in the next installment of AR101.

Next: Abolitionism

Previous: New Welfarism

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] For more on the defects of new welfarism, read Gary L. Francione’s blog entry, The Four Problems of Animal Welfare: In a Nutshell at Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach.

[2] Egg producers at odds over Proposition 2, San Diego Union Tribune by way of San Diego Farm Bureau (September 28, 2008).

[3] We should also not forget that whether a hen is confined to a battery cages or another system of confinement, her life before and after those 18 months of captivity are pretty much the same. She is still bred to produce eggs at the debilitating rate of 300 per year, her bones are still depleted of calcium (leading to breaks that prevent her from accessing food and water), and she is still captured and killed if she survives all of that long enough to be ground into food.

[4] Economic Effects of Proposed Restrictions on Egg-laying Hen Housing in California, University of California Agricultural Issues Center (July 2008).

[5]A few quick examples:

  • As mentioned above, California’s small “pork” industry was already phasing out gestation crates. Still, images of pigs (both confined and “happy“) were used to mislead activists, donors, and voters into believing that Prop. 2 would have a direct impact on the well-being of sows.
  • Likewise, campaigners asserted that calves would be treated better if the measure passed (images of calf confinement were also utilized), though California’s even smaller “veal” industry was already phasing out crating systems under the American Veal Association’s resolution to convert the entire industry to ‘group housing’ methodology by December 31, 2017.
  • The one California industry that Prop. 2 has the potential to affect is its egg industry. Prop. 2 supports were misled into believing that they would improve the wellbeing of hens even though eggs will still come from the same sorts of operations as before when the measure goes into effect in 2015 (examined in response to Belief 3).
  • Furthermore, the campaign conveniently left out that the Prop. 2 does not explicitly ban all confinement systems (such as enriched cage systems), and the campaign ignores the welfare problems veterinarians observe in other sorts of operations, including ‘cage-free’ operations.

[6] Unlike steers bred for their flesh, for example, cows purpose-bred for their milk spend their entire lives in confinement and are exploited intensively until they are ‘spent’, at which time they too are sent to slaughter to become ground ‘beef’. Adding to the suffering, despite the toll it takes on their bodies (calcium depletion, infections, and more), ‘dairy cows’ are kept continuously impregnated in order to maintain a high volume of milk production. Calves are a natural byproduct of this artificial insemination, and those that are not retained to become ‘dairy cows’ are shipped off to become ‘veal’. The vegetarian’s demand for eggs also ignores the 260 million one day-old male chicks that are discarded, ground up, or suffocated at hatcheries in the U.S. every year [Metheringham J. Disposal of day-old chicks-the way forward. World Poultry 16(11):25, p. 27 (2000)], along with the inevitable “depopulation” of “spent” hens, who are by that point best suited to be processed into animal feed.

[7] See this AAFL entry regarding a Good Magazine article that highlighted a former PETA-supporting vegan who delights in the benefits of “humanely raised” beef, calling the transition from activist for the animals to someone who cares for then kills her own animals a ‘transformative experience.’

[8] The California ‘foie gras’ ‘ban’, which wasn’t a ban on ‘foie gras’ at all. It merely regulated how birds may be fed. In terms of immunizing exploiters against fiscal damage, it nullified any pending lawsuits against ‘foie gras’ producers. Sonoma Foie Gras, California’s only ‘foie gras’ producer, hailed the new law as a victory. The company’s president, Guillermo Gonzales, said the interval before the law goes into effect would be used “to demonstrate that foie gras production is safe and proper.” Even if this research and lobbying effort fails to cause the law to be repealed, Sonoma could adopt a ‘humane’ process for producing ‘foie gras’ that would meet the standards set by the law. This would in effect shield the ‘foie gras’ industry in California and protect its continued profitability.

The case studies go on and on. For example, another strong precedent is the Animal Welfare Act. The act did not end vivisection, of course, nor did it meaningfully protect animals from harm. It has allowed researchers to use the AWA as ‘proof’ that animals are well cared for even as it shields them from legal action. For more details on this and other welfare reform failures, see Animals, Property, and the Law (Part III), by Gary L. Francione.

[9] Among other financial advantages, battery cages offer the industry greater “stocking density” and reduced feed costs over other confinement methods.

[10] Following Proposition 2: Where do we go from here?, wattpoultry.com (Nov. 17, 2008).

[11] Economic Effects of Proposed Restrictions on Egg-laying Hen Housing in California, University of California Agricultural Issues Center (July 2008).

[12] For example, in May of 2004, Austria banned battery cage systems (battery cage operations were to have been shuttered by January 1, 2009), but there the production of eggs between 2004 and 2007 has actually gone up. There is no empirical evidence to indicate that it will go down.

[13] KFC Canada and PETA reach agreement, WorldPoultry.net (June 2, 2008).

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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.


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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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Animal Rights 101, part four: Property Status

Property status

Humans have long dominated animals, including wild (or “free-living”) animals, treating them as if they were our property since well before our laws formally defined them as such. Over time, our sense of entitlement to use animals as things for our benefit became firmly embedded in our culture. Indeed, it was animals’ de facto property status that led to them being legally classified as property to begin with.

This deeply entrenched property status is the key obstacle to securing legal rights for nonhuman animals because, as long as humans perceive nonhumans to be property, we will be unable to abolish their legal property status. As mentioned in my previous post, property cannot possess legal rights, only persons can.

Persons are the humans, corporations, and other institutions endowed with rights by law, including the right to own and use property as a means to some recognized end. For instance, a person’s bicycle is a means for her to travel from one place to another. That bicycle belongs to her, and she may use or not use it as she sees fit. Because the bicycle is an inanimate object, it is not sentient, and therefore it has no interests for her to take into consideration.

Unlike bicycles and all other inanimate objects, sentient animals do have interests that merit consideration, and this presents us with our problem: Because they are legally classified as property that humans may use as a means to any recognized end, just like inanimate objects such as bicycles, they are prevented from possessing any legal rights that would protect their interests.

Legal welfarism

In lieu of legal rights, numerous welfare laws and anticruelty statutes have been enacted over the past 200 years or so, with the intent of protecting at least one very important animal interest that humans have recognized as significant enough to be given our consideration: that of not being made to suffer. To avoid causing animals “unnecessary” suffering in the course of our using them as means to our ends, welfare laws seek to ensure that persons treat animals “humanely.” “Necessity” is evaluated by balancing human interests against the interests of animals in a given scenario.

Gary L. Francione identifies the futility of this balancing act in Animals, Property, and the Law:

…although the law prohibits the infliction of “unnecessary” pain and suffering on animals and requires that they be treated “humanely,” these terms are interpreted in light of the legal status of animals as property, the importance of property in our culture, and the general tendency of legal doctrine to protect and to maximize the value of property. (p. 4)

In other words, as long as animals are regarded as the property of humans, their interests will never count for as much as legally protected human interests, and so the scale will be rigged in favor of humans before the balancing has even begun. Despite the existence of myriad animal welfare laws and cruelty statutes intended to protect animals from suffering, then, animals’ interests remain more or less unprotected. Without legal rights, even an animal’s most significant interests cannot be protected from being traded away in favor of any trivial human interest so long as that human interest is in some recognized end (see Legal welfarism illustrated, below, for an example).

Francione calls this entire framework “legal welfarism.” Unlike rights theory, which regards every animal as an end, legal welfarism regards nonhuman animals solely as a means to some end (“food animals,” “lab animals,” “game animals,” “fur animals,” “companion animals,” “animal actors,” etc.). Presuming from the outset that animals are property for us to use, legal welfarism asks only that we determine whether or not an animal is being treated “humanely” in the course of being exploited–and provides them with only that level of protection that facilitates humans using them as a means to their recognized ends, e.g., advancing scientific knowledge, producing food, and so on. As Francione suggests, “The only activities that remain to be prohibited by such statutes are those where no socially recognized benefit can be traced to the animal killing or suffering.” (p. 129)

Legal welfarism illustrated

To illustrate legal welfarism in effect, let’s examine a couple of hypothetical scenarios involving the use of a cow. Bear in mind throughout that the cow has an interest in not being used as property precisely to avoid being the victim in either of these hypothical scenarios in the first place.

Now, to determine whether or not an activity would be prohibited by an anticruelty statute, we must break the question of “necessary” suffering into two parts (See Figure 1, below). Part 1 asks whether the end is recognized, i.e., whether or not using the cow provides some recognized human benefit. If the end is, say, “satisfying a teenager’s sadistic interests,” the answer for Scenario 1 is “No.” The law does not recognize the end of satisfying one’s sadistic intersts as providing some human benefit–quite the contrary. Regardless of the teenager’s exact plans for the cow, any suffering he causes the cow in the end of satisfying his sadistic interests will be considered “unnecessary,” and is thus prohibited.

Case closed. On to Scenario 2.

If the end in question is “using a cow for the purpose of food, clothing (or some other recognized end),” then the answer to Part 1 under the legal welfarism paradigm would be “Yes.” While the cow has the exact same interest in not suffering as in Scenario 1, the law recognizes that producing food and clothing provides a human benefit, and so it is determined that this activity or end is “necessary.” The cow’s interest is effectively trumped, and so we move on to Part 2.

Part 2 asks whether the means the cow’s owner employs to the end of using a cow to produce food or clothing is consistent with that end. If the cow’s owner lets her starve due to neglect, then the owner will have caused “unnecessary” suffering. Neglect is therefore prohibited. Starving one’s cow is not consistent with the end of using that cow to produce food or clothing. It’s a pointless “waste.”

On the other hand, if a cow experiences suffering in the course of being used as a means to the end of producing food and clothing for human benefit, that suffering is considered “necessary” so long as the suffering is the result of a standard industry practice. Of course, the law also recognizes as “necessary” the death of the cow as a means to achieving the recognized end of feeding and clothing humans, despite the cow’s demonstrable interest in staying alive.

The law will rule as “unnecessary” only that suffering which does not conflict with the animal owner’s ability to exploit an animal efficiently. Generally, however, the law will defer to property owners when determining whether or not a certain activity is necessary.

It’s generally assumed under the legal welfarism paradigm that a property owner wouldn’t intentionally devalue his property by causing that property “unnecessary” suffering. Therefore, whatever suffering the owner does incur must be “necessary” to increase the value of the property or maximize the benefits of that use for humans.

What about “wild” animals?

Though many nonhuman animals are born free in nature, as non-persons they still do not have a legal right not to be property. Though they may not technically be property, they are still regarded as if they are property (e.g., as mere things, or potential property), and our laws allow humans to “convert” certain wild animals into their personal property through the act of hunting and capturing or killing those animals.

All animals’ interests may be traded away in favor of human interests as long as they are not protected by legal rights. And, even though some animals aren’t technically personal property, their property status always tips the scale in favor of human interests, as if they were in fact property.

Conclusion

As long as animals are regarded as property, the balancing of animal and human interests is futile. The only way to balance the scales–to honestly give the like interests of humans and nonhumans equal consideration–is to give animals legal rights that protect their interests, too. Then we’ll be on a level playing field. But if we ever want to see this happen, we must first abolish their property status–starting with the very perception that it is acceptable to use animals as if they were property.

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Animal Rights 101, part three: Animal Rights

Introduction

As with the term “rights,” there is a great deal of confusion about the term “animal rights.” Much of this confusion has been caused not just by the media and the industries that exploit nonhuman animals, but also by activists and animal advocacy groups using the term to loosely describe any actions purported to improve the conditions of animals used by humans. In other words, rather than promoting the moral or legal rights of animals, some so-called “animal rights activists” focus on regulating animal welfare–how animals are treated.

Further confusing the issue, some animal rights activists seek legal rights for only a select category of sentient nonhuman animals (such as great apes), based on characteristics such as higher-order cognitive abilities. The rights theory I put forth here–laid out in far greater detail in Gary L. Francione’s highly recommended Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?–holds that any sentient being has at least one basic moral right simply by virtue of that being’s sentience: The right not be treated merely as a means to another’s end.

Sentience

To be sentient is to be conscious or self-aware, capable of perception or feeling. Sentient humans and nonhumans feel sensations of pain, pleasure and so on. When a being is sentient, s/he will naturally have interests. For instance, the capacity for sentient beings to feel pain provides them with a clear interest in not feeling pain.

In recognition of this particular interest, we generally consider it unacceptable to inflict pain on another sentient being unless there is an extraordinarily good reason. Take the example of a boy who harms a nonhuman simply to satisfy his morbid curiosity. He straps an ordinary dog down on a table and cuts her open to have a look inside. As he does this, the dog yelps, howls, and struggles, but the boy keeps cutting, ignoring her cries.

I think it’s safe to assume we all find the boy’s behavior objectionable. Various reasons may be offered for this, from our concern that the boy has psychological problems–and that these problems could lead to him harm other humans some day–to our concern that the dog might belong to another human who has an emotional attachment to her. But these are not the fundamental reasons for our objection. We are upset by the example because we recognize that the boy is causing the dog unnecessary pain.

If the dog was not sentient, then she wouldn’t have an interest in not being caused pain (because non-sentient beings are unable to sense pain), and so there would be no harm done. But, of course, we know that the dog is sentient, and we know that the boy’s actions cause her much pain.

Now, if we were to agree that the pain was for some justifiable reason necessary, we might be distressed by what is being done to the dog, but we would not object to it as a moral matter. For instance, if the boy was attacked by the dog and killed her to protect himself from a similar fate, we might be saddened by her death, but we would say that it was justified in this particular situation. However, it cannot be reasonably held that the boy needs to harm the dog merely to satisfy his curiosity.

This example illustrates how, as long as a being is sentient, we recognize–as a moral matter–that the being has an interest in not being harmed, which cannot be ignored or overridden unless it is truly necessary to do so. This belief is based on no other characteristic than the being’s ability to feel that pain. No other characteristics beyond sentience are necessary to merit moral consideration.

Equal Consideration

The principle of equal consideration holds that, as a basic moral matter, we ought to treat like cases alike. Viewed in terms of interests, the principle requires that the like interests of various beings must be given equal consideration. As described above, nonhumans and humans are alike in at least one important, morally relevant respect: they are sentient and, as such, they have interests that must be considered. Extending the principle of equal consideration to all sentient beings requires that we give nonhumans’ interests equal weight to humans’ interests. Where our interests are the same, we must weigh them equally.

So how does this work?

Let’s examine a simple case involving humans. Morally, we disapprove of killing other humans without justification (e.g., self defense). This is because we recognize that human beings have an interest in not being killed. We take this interest very seriously, protecting it with a legal right. A person’s interest in not being killed does not derive from skin color, sex, or cognitive abilities. When we give equal weight to the interests of white and black people, people of any sex or intelligence level, we recognize that they all have an equal interest in continued existence, and we accept that we might protect this interest equally.

Species is not the basis for an interest in continued existence, either. Humans do not have an interest in continued existence because they are human, but because they are sentient. As previously discussed, all sentient beings have interests, including a fundamental interest in staying alive.1 According to the principle of equal consideration, to whatever extent we respect a human’s interest in not being killed, then we must also respect a nonhuman’s interest in not being killed. If we accept that a human’s interest in continued existence cannot be outweighed by another human’s interest in pleasure, then we must accept that a nonhuman’s interest in continued existence cannot by outweighed by a human’s interest in pleasure.

There is simply no non-arbitrary difference between humans and other animals that justifies treating their like interests differently.2 Remember, we accord equal consideration where our interests are alike. Because there is no characteristic possessed by sentient nonhumans that justifies giving their like interests less consideration than our own, they ought to be protected equally. This brings us to animal rights.

Animal Rights

Recall from my previous AR101 post that rights protect one’s interests against those who would disregard those interests. All sentient beings have interests, both human and nonhuman, and so they all belong in the moral community of rightholders. When we say that nonhuman animals have moral rights, we are basically acknowledging that some of their interests are like ours and that these interests must be given equal consideration to our own. So, if we have a moral right not be killed (even if it might benefit someone to kill us), then our understanding of the principle of equal consideration leads us to the conclusion that nonhuman animals have that moral right as well, as they have the exact same underlying interest.

As discussed previously, we expect that, at some point, legally defined rights will reflect the moral rights that we already accept. Moral and legal rights for animals, then, derive from the notion of equal consideration for their basic interests. Saying that animals have rights is the same as saying that animals are rightholders. It doesn’t necessarily say which rights animals have morally, and which they should be granted legally. Moral rights would, of course, become better understood as we begin to give the interests of nonhuman animals equal consideration. The expectation is that legal rights would follow along the same lines.

While we may not agree on all the specific moral rights possessed by sentient nonhuman animals, but there must be at least one fundamental moral right they hold if any other rights are to make sense: The right not be treated as a thing, as merely the means to another’s end. This must also be granted as a legal right if any other legal animal rights are going to mean anything. Nonhuman beings simply have no legal rights as long as they are regarded as property, i.e., a means to the ends of a person. Remember, property cannot have rights, only persons can.

In my next post, part four of AR101, I will discuss in more detail how property status relates to animal rights, along with its implications.

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1. Remember, if one is not sentient, one simply has no interests to speak of.
2. There are certainly some interests sentient beings do not have in common. For instance, nonhumans do not have a demonstrable interest in voting, bearing arms, and so on, and therefore we are not obligated to consider those interests. After all, you cannot give consideration to an interest if it does not exist.

Animal Rights 101, part two: Rights

Rights

The term “rights” is widely misunderstood. It will be helpful here to distinguish between moral and legal rights. These classes of rights are similar in at least one respect: in both cases, a right protects a person’s interest by providing that person with a claim against any party who interferes with the satisfaction of the person’s protected interest.

An example

Let’s look at an example in which a person is protected by both kinds of rights.

Person A is an average human being whose interest in continuing to live we can hopefully agree is important enough that it should not be arbitrarily ignored by any other person. When we say that Person A has “a right to live,” we are more or less stating that Person A’s interest in continued existence is protected by a “claim” against any person and/or actions that would prevent Person A from continuing to live. Another way of looking at this is that the right protecting Person A’s interest in continued existence imposes a duty on other people not to ignore this interest.

Of course, there are limitations on this protection. If Person A attempts to kill another person, then most people would not object to the other party defending herself with lethal force, or to Person A being shot and killed by an officer of the law. Person A’s interest in continuing to live has not evaporated, but his actions have provided appropriate justification for ignoring that interest.

With this example in mind, let’s take a look at the difference between legal and moral rights.

Legal rights

The law identifies that certain interests ought to be protected, even if infringing upon those interests would serve the interests of another person, or the interests of the greater good. When a person’s legal right is violated by another party, then the right provides the person with a justified legal claim against the violating party.

Valid legal claims can lead to various legal sanctions against the violating party, including financial penalties and/or imprisonment. Legal rights are generally codified and enforced by a political institution, such as a government, and they are held by certain entities functioning as legal “persons,” such as humans and corporations.

Moral rights

Moral rights derive from objective morality, not from governmental authority. They can be understood to have approximately the same logical structure as legal rights, but they are not backed up with the same sort of protection offered by legal rights. However, the claim a person has against another party who infringes upon a moral right is no less valid. Consequences for violating moral rights can range from a personal demand for an apology to being ostracized by one’s community.

The relationship between moral and legal rights

Moral rights and legal rights are distinctly different, but they are closely related. We can think of a moral right as an underlying, pre-legal form of a right. Whatever moral rights a being holds will ideally (if not now, at least some day) be reflected in the legal system. For instance, our moral right to liberty is reflected in our legal right to that liberty. As public opinions about right and wrong shift, laws generally evolve along with them. Humans enslaved in the United States before 1865 had the same basic moral rights as every other human, but these moral rights were not reflected in the law until the 13th Amendment was passed.

It is possible for legal rights to clash with moral rights. For example, some animal rights advocates believe that all sentient beings have at least one basic moral right: the right not to be treated exclusively as a resource by others. This moral right conflicts directly with the morally indefensible legal right humans have to own nonhumans.

Other considerations

A right typically does not need to be understood by someone who possesses that right in order to receive its protection. For example, the interests of children and mentally incompetent persons are protected by rights. Claims to these rights can usually be made on their behalf.

Because nonhuman animals are legally classified as property instead of persons, they cannot possess legal rights.

Conclusion

In my next post, I will describe animal rights. It will be helpful to keep in mind the above discussion as we consider what interests nonhuman animals have.

Next post: Animal Rights

Previous post: The Need

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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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