FAQ for Non-Abolitionist Vegans
Q. What is the abolitionist approach to animal rights?
We abolitionists believe that every sentient being, whether human or nonhuman, has the right not to be used as a mere thing—not to be treated like a piece of property. Accordingly, we believe that we ought to abolish the use of nonhuman animals by humans. This means that we must collectively and individually stop using animals for food, clothing, entertainment, medical experimentation, and all other such purposes. According to abolitionism, we must eradicate nonhuman animals’ status as pieces of legal property and we must respect animals as individuals.
But the abolitionist approach to animal rights is not only a view about what goals to pursue. It is also a view about how we must seek the realization of those goals. We believe not only that we must abolish humans’ use of animals, but also that we must pursue this goal in a specific way. According to abolitionism:
- We must never engage in, accept, or endorse the mere regulation or reform of animal use, both because the regulation of animal use is damaging to abolitionist goals and because the regulation of animal use is immoral on independent grounds.
- We must never engage in, accept, or endorse violence when pursuing the abolition of animal use, both because violence is damaging to abolitionist goals and because violence is immoral on independent grounds.
- Veganism (the personal practice of not using animals for food, clothing, entertainment, etc.) is the minimum standard for one’s involvement in the animal rights movement, as it is the application of abolitionist theory to one’s own life.
- Our advocacy resources must be allocated to creative, nonviolent abolitionist-vegan education and to caring for rescued nonhuman animals.
For much more information on abolitionism, visit http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/about/.
Q. I am a vegan. And I am horrified by humans’ use of animals. And I do a lot of advocacy work. But I think about these matters very differently than you do. Not every animal advocate shares your approach, right?
You are right. Unfortunately, although the abolitionist movement is growing very quickly, most people today—including most people who self-identify as ‘animal advocates’—are not abolitionists. Abolitionism is a comprehensive view about what we owe nonhuman animals and how to fulfil those obligations. If you disagree with the goal of abolition or about how to achieve that goal, then you are not an abolitionist.
Many people believe that although we are currently behaving unjustifiably toward the other animals we are not obligated to stop using them entirely. These people believe that we just need to cause animals less suffering when we are using them. They believe that we should have some concern for animals’ welfare but that animals do not have a right not to be treated as mere things. These individuals support the continued, but regulated, use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and other purposes. These individuals are often called ‘welfarists’.
Other people agree with us that we must entirely stop using the other animals, but they disagree with us about how to pursue that goal. Some such people disagree with us because they think that we should engage in welfare reform, either because they think that it is the best that we can hope to do for animals, or because they think that it will help bring about the abolition of animal use. PeTA, for example, claims to hold that we should not use animals for human purposes, but they engage in welfare reform and regulation. These people are often called ‘new welfarists’.
Some individuals within both of these groups think that we should use violence in pursuing our animal-related goals. Some supporters of violence are welfarists. Others are new welfarists. People who support violence (allegedly ‘on behalf’ of animals) are called ‘militants’.
Abolitionism stands apart from all of these approaches. We believe that welfarists and new welfarists are mistaken. And we believe that violence in animal advocacy is wrong.
Q. So what is it that motivates your position and produces all of those commitments? Why do you think that the other positions are mistaken?
Good question. Let us begin by talking about militants and welfarists.
Militants. Abolitionists reject all violence. We believe that intentionally harming other individuals is immoral and counter-productive. One could only believe that doing violence to researchers or members of the animal-agriculture community was justifiable if one believed that these individuals were especially culpable for the moral crimes that humans’ commit against nonhuman animals. But such individuals are not uniquely responsible. As long as we ‘normal people’ demand that animals be used for food, clothing, entertainment, and research, there will (and must be) individuals and industries that satisfy our demands. Doing violence against those individuals is clearly unjustifiable. And, regardless of the immorality of violence, militant action “on behalf of animals” serves only to marginalize the voices of those who work to end animal use.
For now, that is all that we will say about violence. If you believe that violence toward humans is a good thing, and that it will help save animals or facilitate your goals as an advocate, then it is unlikely that you will be convinced by what we have to say.
Welfarists. To see why we abolitionists are critical of welfarists, it is helpful to consider the notion of humane animal use. Welfarists argue that it is acceptable to use animals as our resources as long as we do so “humanely”. Welfarists say that we should farm animals in a way that causes them no unnecessary suffering and that we should painlessly kill them. But we abolitionists believe that this idea is rooted in two myths: an empirical myth and a moral myth.
The empirical myth is the idea that we could systematically use animals in a way that doesn’t cause them significant suffering and harm while they are alive and that we could then painlessly kill them. While practices could conceivably be made ‘better’ in certain respects, things could not be made significantly better. This is because animals’ property status ensures that they will not, as a general matter, be treated in ways which are incompatible with their being economic commodities. As long as animals are pieces of legal property, we cannot even ensure that their suffering is meaningfully reduced. We certainly cannot ensure that they are raised and killed painlessly!
The moral myth is the idea that it would be justifiable to farm and kill nonhuman animals, were we able to do it in a painless (or near-painless) fashion. Imagine for a moment that the empirical myth were not a myth. Imagine that magical practices were devised, contrary to animals’ status as pieces of property, that allowed animals to live comfortable lives, entirely free from suffering, prior to being painlessly killed. We abolitionists believe that such practices would still be deeply morally wrong. All sentient beings have an interest in living that is far more important than any interest we have in killing them for food, clothing or entertainment. While it is better that animals suffer less rather than more, aiming at reducing suffering causes us to fail in our effort to have the rights of animals genuinely considered and protected. Aiming at the reduction of suffering misidentifies the wrong that is done to animals when they are exploited. The focus should not be on improving treatment of animals, but on eliminating animal use altogether.
Abolitionism focuses on abolishing the use of animals rather than on pursuing “humane” animal use. Animals’ property status ensures that we could not, as a practical matter, raise and kill animals in a way that significantly reduced their suffering. And even if it were somehow possible to raise and kill animals in a more “humane” fashion, doing so would still be wrong.
Q. I agree with you that violence is wrong and counter-productive. I am not a militant. And I also agree with you that all animal exploitation is wrong and that we ought not to be satisfied with so-called “humane” animal use. I am not a welfarist. I agree with the abolitionist goal. But why I can’t engage in reform work? Isn’t reform work a step in the right direction? In other words, what is wrong with new welfarism?
For many reasons, regulationist campaigns are defective, even when they are undertaken by people who want to end all animal use. First, such campaigns fail to significantly protect animal interests. Second, they make the public feel better about animal exploitation and they thereby encourage continued animal use. Third, they do nothing to eradicate the property status of animals, and in fact undermine the project of abolishing use. Finally, time spent on welfare advocacy is time which could have been spent more effectively on abolitionist-vegan education. We will say a bit more about each of these defects.
Failing to Protect Animals’ interests. Animals’ lives are neither protected nor improved through regulationist campaigns. Because animals are property, there are structural limitations on the sorts of campaigns that can “succeed”. The “success” of reform campaigns is generally limited to those reforms that are consistent with the maximally efficient exploitation of animal property. So, unsurprisingly, “successful” reform work is normally work that would be undertaken animal-using industries out of self-interest, without the efforts of those of us who want to end animal use. Although the animal industry normally appears to resist regulationist campaigning, this is not because such campaigns are damaging to those industries; it is because it is in the interests of every industry to resist any form of external regulation. [Example]
It is a waste of time, energy and money to engage in reform work that does nothing to protect animals’ interests and which is likely to be undertaken independently by animal users.
Encouraging animal use. The “successful” pursuit of regulationist campaigns leads to increased animal use. When a campaign against the animal industry “succeeds” in bringing about the desired reform or regulation, the change is praised by whatever animal advocacy organizations were involved in the campaigning. As a result, members of the public can reasonably conclude that the regulated form of animal use is acceptable. For example, the widespread adoption of “humane” “standards” of animal use, which have been supported by PeTA, HSUS, Vegan Outreach, and many other so-called “animal rights” groups, have led many individuals to stop being vegan and to reengage in animal use.
Failing to dismantle animals’ property status. As long as animals are human property, an animal’s interests will only be taken seriously to the extent that her owner has an interest in taking them seriously. So perhaps the most pressing problem with such campaigns is that they do absolutely nothing to change the property status of animals. It is only by ending animals’ property status that we will be able to end animal use. And tinkering within the system of animal use, while giving the impression that animal use ought to be reformed rather than abolished, does nothing to change the fact that animals are property.
A missed opportunity. Given what has just been said, it is clear that we ought not to spend time on regulationist campaigning. Not only are such activities directly problematic and counter-productive, but the time and money spent on these campaigns is time and money which would be better spent on abolitionist-vegan education.
It is only by creating a social revolution consisting of private vegan citizens who reject all uses of animals that we will someday be in a position to change animals’ legal property status. New welfarism is looking in the wrong direction.
Q. I find that all pretty convincing. Engaging in welfare reform or regulation is, at its best, a complete waste of time and resources. And at its worst it harms animals and impedes progress toward abolition. But what about single-issue campaigns that abolish specific animal uses? For example, is there anything wrong with a campaign aimed at the prohibition of fur farming?
As we have just seen, abolitionists reject the regulation of animal use for a variety of reasons. And for many of the same reasons we abolitionists also reject most single-issue campaigns, even when those campaigns seek to abolish, rather than regulate, a particular type of animal use.
Focusing on a single type of animal use at the exclusion of others sends a confusing message. For example, a campaign aimed at the eradication of fur farming sends the message that killing animals so that we can wear fur is wrong. And, of course, killing animals to wear their fur is wrong. But such a campaign is silent on whether it is wrong to kill animals for silk, wool or leather, and silent on whether it is wrong to use animals for food, entertainment, and so on. Within the current social and industrial context of animal use, this silence cannot help but be interpreted as a suggestion that there is something particularly wrong with killing animals for fur. This is, at the very least, misleading. And, in fact, single-issue campaigns can easily be interpreted as condoning other uses of animals.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to communicate the abolitionist message while approaching the problem one issue at a time. The abolitionist approach recommends focusing our energy on creative, nonviolent, abolitionist-vegan education. To the extent that one wants to object to a particular use of animals, we abolitionists believe that one must do so by making it clear that the particular use of animals is wrong because every use of animals is wrong. In this way, even a single-issue message must be carried out as an instance of abolitionist-vegan education.
Q. That sounds pretty plausible. But I am not quite convinced. If what you are saying is true, then shouldn’t it be equally wrong to engage in single-issue campaigns in other advocacy domains? Do you think that single-issue campaigns against specific human rights violations are objectionable?
This is a good question. No, we do not think that single-issue campaigns against specific human rights violations are wrong. That would be silly. There is an important difference between single-issue campaigns in animal rights and human rights contexts.
Humans are not legal property. And although there are many places across the globe where humans are mistreated (even systematically so), it is nearly universally agreed that it is immoral use humans as mere things. For this reason, single-issue campaigns in the human rights context are much less likely to send a confusing message. A member of the public who sees an ad condemning child abuse will not wonder whether spousal abuse is permissible. Someone who hears a radio message about the many wrongs involved in the diamond trade will not infer that there are some cases in which it is acceptable to use humans as mere resources.
Things are much different in the context of animal rights advocacy. Because animals are legal property, and because animals are widely regarded as mere things, targeting specific uses of animals and demanding that they be abolished is likely to confuse members of the public. At the very least, it does nothing to challenge their general belief that animals are ours to use. And, more likely, it actually makes people think that certain uses of animals are better than others and that some animal exploitation is acceptable.
Q. That makes sense. But now I am feeling a bit discouraged. I want to end all animal use. And I agree with welfare reform is harmful. And you have convinced me that single-issue work is, at best, a waste of time. But, then, what does work? The problem is so large. What can I do?
Abolitionists believe that the key to widespread change is moral education. Specifically, we focus our attention on creative, nonviolent, abolitionist-vegan education. We help people to see that it is wrong to use other sentient beings for our purposes, we assist those people in becoming vegan, and we train them to do their own abolitionist-vegan education.
Education is the solution to the problems we have addressed in this document. In order to meaningfully protect animals and their interests, we must eradicate animals’ property status. But we cannot, at this stage, eradicate animals’ status as legal property through legal or institutional reform. Legal change will follow from, and cannot precede, widespread social change. We can dismantle the system of animal property only once there is a society-wide revolution of consciousness, within which a significant portion of the human population commits to stop treating animals as mere things. Once many or most people are vegan, it will finally be possible to eliminate animals’ status as legal property. Accordingly, abolitionists focus their energy on creating and fostering a moral revolution.
There is no shortage of productive and rewarding activities in which to engage as an abolitionist. Abolitionists write and distribute educational literature (like this!), they host vegan food-giveaways, they run reading groups, they give talks in schools and other institutions, they design educational ad campaigns in their cities, they host abolitionist-vegan radio programs on the Internet, they participate in online discussion forums, they engage in public debates, they make educational films, and so on.
So what can you do? The answer is both easy and empowering. You can become vegan and you can educate others about abolitionist veganism. By abolishing the use of animals in your own life, and by educating others to do the same, you will be responsible for bringing about a world in which animals are no longer viewed and treated as mere things.
Q. That sounds a bit more hopeful. But vegan education is a one-plate-at-a-time approach. Won’t progress be too slow?
Certainly, progress will be slower than we would like. After all, we want animal use to end today. Sadly, that will not happen. But we need to be honest and realistic about the current state of affairs and about our options for changing the world.
As things stand, animals are widely regarded as mere things (at the social, legal, and institutional levels), they are brutally raised in killed in the tens of billions each year, and there is no sustained and consistent voice speaking on their behalf. The so-called “animal rights movement”, as it exists today, is doing nothing to make things better. And, for the reasons that we have considered in this document, the movement cannot make things better, as long as it continues to focus on regulation, reform, and confusing single-issue messaging. So although it is tempting to allow one’s sense of urgency to push one toward activities that provide an illusion of immediate change, we need to make responsible choices about how to act. Nonviolent, abolitionist-vegan education is the only way to engender widespread moral change and, ultimately, to abolish animals’ property status.
Remember that vegan education is an exponential process. If there is a widespread and sustained educative effort on behalf of abolitionist veganism, the message will radiate out, reaching more and more people who will, in turn, advocate veganism. A single individual advocating on behalf of abolitionist veganism can influence hundreds or thousands of individuals in the ensuing years.
Q. What about all of the animal suffering going on today? What about today’s animals? Can we do nothing for them?
We absolutely can help many of today’s animals.
Unlike welfare reforms and regulations which help neither today’s nor tomorrow’s animals, working at or donating to a sanctuary for rescued nonhuman animals is a powerful way to assist animals in need. Similarly, you can adopt into your home a cat, dog, bird, rabbit, rat, or other animal that is in need of a caring home.