Last week, I received an email from a person whom I will identify, with her permission, only as Johanna. Johanna wrote, in part:
You argue that we ought to put all our time and energy in trying to persuade people to become vegans. I think that is a wonderful idea but what about all of those people who are not at all concerned about animals and are never going to become vegans? What about those who may become vegan eventually but are not willing to do so right away?
Doesn’t it make sense to pursue welfare reform with respect to these people? Isn’t it better to encourage these people to eat foods that are produced in a more humane manner, even if the differences between those foods and foods produced in a conventional way may not be very great?
Johanna’s concerns are quite typical among those who promote welfare reform and the “happy” meat/animal products approach. I am posting my reply to Johanna in the hope that others will find it of use in thinking about these issues.
In the ongoing debate between those who promote the abolitionist approach and those who promote the welfarist approach, some of the welfarists claim that they support veganism so there is, in reality, little difference between the two approaches on the matter of eating and using animal products.
To the extent that welfarists support veganism, it is important to understand that the abolitionist position on veganism is very different from the welfarist position on veganism.
The abolitionist sees veganism as a non-negotiable moral baseline of a movement that maintains that we should abolish all animal use, however “humane” our treatment of animals may be. The abolitionist position maintains that nonhumans have inherent value and that we should never kill and eat them even if they have been raised and killed “humanely.” Abolitionists regard veganism as an end in itself—as an expression of the principle of abolition in the life of the individual.
Abolitionist vegans do not campaign for welfare reforms that supposedly make animal exploitation more “humane.” It is, of course, “better” to inflict less harm than more harm, but we have no moral justification for inflicting any harm on nonhumans in the first place. It is “better” not to beat a rape victim but it does not make rape without beating morally acceptable, or make campaigning for “humane” rape something that we should do.
Abolitionists regard veganism as the most important form of incremental change and spend their time and resources on educating others about veganism and the need to stop using animals altogether, rather than on trying to persuade people to eat “cage-free” eggs or flesh produced from animals who have been confined in larger pens.
In Vivisection, Part One: The “Necessity” of Vivisection, I discussed the problems surrounding the claim that the use of nonhumans in biomedical experiments is, as a factual matter, “necessary” to get data needed for purposes of human health. In this essay, I want to explore briefly the argument that even if animal use is necessary in the sense that we need to use nonhumans to get vital data, we cannot justify using nonhumans for this purpose.
Humans and nonhumans alike have an interest in not being used in biomedical experiments. We accord all humans a right not to be used as non-consenting subjects in such experiments even though it would be more efficient to use humans as this would obviate the difficulties that I discussed in the earlier essay about extrapolating results from nonhumans to humans and the other problems that make animal research problematic and unreliable from a scientific perspective.
When we say that humans have a “right” not to be used for these purposes, this means simply that the interest of humans in not being used as non-consenting subjects in experiments will be protected even if the consequences of using them would be very beneficial for the rest of us. The question, then, is why do we think that it is morally acceptable to use nonhumans in experiments but not to use humans?
I regard the Vegan Freak Forums as one of the most intelligent and lively places on the web to discuss vegan issues. One of the participants posted four questions that were posed to her by someone defending animal use and other participants said that they had received similar questions. These questions are typical and I am offering some short replies that I hope you will find helpful in your advocacy.
1. Turkeys don’t have the brain power to have interests other than breeding or fulfilling basic survival urges, do they?
A fundamental principle of the animal welfare position is that nonhumans are like us in the sense that they can suffer so we have some vague (and meaningless) moral and legal obligation to treat them “humanely,” but because animals are otherwise not like us in that they have minds that are not like ours, they are “inferior” to us and we may, therefore, use them as we want.
We really do not know what goes on in the minds of other humans, let alone what goes on in the minds of nonhumans. My guess is that turkeys have many, many interests and are cognitively very complicated creatures. They certainly do not have many of the interests that humans have but turkeys probably have interests that humans do not have.
But let us assume for the purposes of argument that turkeys have interests that are limited in the way that the question suggests. What does that say about whether it is morally acceptable to kill turkeys and eat them, or otherwise to exploit them?
A number of readers have been asking me to write something that they can download and use as a short response to those animal advocates who promote the welfarist approach and who do not understand why this approach is inconsistent with the rights/abolitionist position.
I hope that this is useful.
There are at least four problems with the welfarist approach to animal ethics.
First, animal welfare measures provide little, if any, significant protection to animal interests. For example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) campaigned to get McDonald’s and other fast-food chains to adopt Temple Grandin’s handling and slaughter methods. But a slaughterhouse that follows Grandin’s guidelines and one that does not, are both hideous places. It borders on delusion to claim otherwise.
A number of animal groups are campaigning for alternatives to the gestation crate for pigs. But, on closer examination, these measures, which involve costly campaigns, really do not amount to very much in that there are considerable loopholes that allow institutional exploiters to do what they want in any event. I wrote a blog essay, A “Triumph” of Animal Welfare?, about the gestation crate campaign in Florida, which illustrates the limits of such reforms.
The same may be said of most animal welfare “improvements.” They may make us feel better but they do very little for the animals.