The term “abolitionism” applied in the context of animal ethics is largely meaningless because there are people who describe themselves as “abolitionists” who want to see all animal use abolished, those who want to see some but not all animal use abolished, and those who simply want to end some of the “worst abuses” of animal exploitation but have no inherent objection to animal use. Therefore, there is no generally agreed-upon meaning as to what those who describe themselves as “abolitionists” want to abolish or how they propose to abolish whatever it is that they want to abolish. In this sense, “abolition,” standing on its own, does not describe any particular position any more than does the term “animal rights,” which has now become so meaningless that it is used by animal exploiters who claim to believe in “animal rights.”
This essay describes a particular abolitionist theory, known as the abolitionist theory of animal rights, which was developed as an alternative to the position developed by Australian philosopher Peter Singer. Singer embraces a form of preference utilitarianism, which promotes actions that maximize the satisfaction of the interests or preferences of those beings involved or affected. He gives priority to beings who have human-like self-awareness and can actively contemplate the future. Although he accepts that nonhuman great apes, dolphins, and elephants are self-aware in this way, he expresses doubt about other animals and regards many of the animals we exploit as living in a sort of eternal present. They have an interest in not suffering pain or distress, but they do not have an interest in continuing to live, or, at least, they do not have an interest that leads Singer to accord them the default presumption against use as replaceable resources that he accords to “normal” humans and nonhumans who have human-like self-awareness.
Singer focuses primarily on issues of treatment rather than use and he advocates for welfare reform. For example, in 2005, Singer spearheaded an effort, joined by most large animal organizations, including The Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy For Animals, Vegan Outreach, and Compassion Over Killing, to publicly praise a U.S. based supermarket chain, Whole Foods Market, for adopting what could be called a “happy exploitation” labeling program. Singer might well be described as the primary figure of the “happy exploitation” movement that promotes the “compassionate” consumption of “higher welfare” meat and other animal products as normatively desirable and, along with welfare reforms generally, as the proper subjects of animal advocacy. This “happy exploitation” movement is now the dominant faction of the modern animal movement in North and South America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
The abolitionist approach rejects Singer’s approach and incorporates a deontological element that is characteristic of rights views, such as that of Tom Regan, but has several distinct elements and emphases:
First, the abolitionist approach rejects all animal use. The doctrinal basis for this rejection is that all humans, irrespective of their particular characteristics, have a fundamental, pre-legal moral right not to be treated exclusively as the resources of others. It is this right that rules out the chattel slavery of humans. To have moral worth entails the rejection of status as chattel property that allows the life and fundamental interests of a human to be valued at zero by the slave owner. We cannot justify failing to extend this one right to nonhumans unless we arbitrarily declare that animals have no moral value whatsoever, a position that most people reject. Therefore, if animals matter morally, we cannot treat them exclusively as resources and recognizing the right not to be property would rule out all institutionalized exploitation of animals. Abolitionists (as I use the term) reject domestication and maintain that nonhumans ought not to be brought into existence for human use, however “humanely.”
There is a sense in which we can arrive at largely the same conclusion without invoking the notion of rights. We share a moral intuition that we should not impose “unnecessary” suffering and death on sentient beings; that other things being equal, the fact that an act causes or results directly in the suffering of a sentient being is something that counts against that act as a moral matter. There is, of course, a great deal of disagreement when it comes to what satisfies the necessity element here, but we generally agree that we cannot characterize pleasure, amusement, or convenience alone as involving any necessity or compelling reason. This is why most of us object to, for example, dog fighting or bull fighting, or “crush” videos, which are intended to eroticize the crushing of small animals by a woman’s foot.
The abolitionist perspective is that the overwhelming amount of animal use involves only pleasure, amusement, or convenience. The most significant animal use both in terms of numbers of animals involved and in terms of cultural importance is the use of animals for food. We kill an estimated 58 billion land animals, and an unknown, but certainly not smaller number of aquatic animals, annually for food. Eating animal foods has generally been justified, at least in part, on grounds of human health and sound nutrition. Those grounds have, however, largely been discredited and it is now recognized that a vegan diet is sufficient for health. Moreover, an increasing number of mainstream health-care professionals are claiming that animal foods are detrimental to human health. And there can no longer be any serious question whether animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. The best justification for the staggering amount of suffering and death involved in the use of animals for food is that they taste good, we are used to eating animal foods, and they are convenient. Indeed, 99% of our animal use is transparently frivolous and contravenes a fundamental moral principle that we claim to accept.
Our only use of animals that is not transparently frivolous, and analysis of which requires rights language, involves the use of animals to cure serious human illnesses. Putting aside that there are serious issues about the benefits for human health that are supposedly obtained from vivisection, we cannot morally justify using animals in experiments where we would not be able to justify using similarly situated humans. We regard humans as having a fundamental right not to be used exclusively as resources. We cannot justify failing to extend this right to nonhumans. Continue reading