Abolitionist Animal Rights/Abolitionist Veganism: in a Nutshell

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.


Second, a corollary of the rejection of animal use is that abolitionists do not support campaigns for the reform of animal use. That is, abolitionists do not support campaigns for animal welfare reform that supposedly improve the treatment of animals who are exploited.

As a theoretical matter, if animal exploitation cannot be justified morally, then we should not be promoting campaigns to (supposedly) make such exploitation more “humane.”

As a practical matter, animal welfare reform does not work, largely as a consequence of the status of animals as chattel property. It costs money to protect animal interests and we generally only protect animal interests when there is a resulting benefit, which is almost always economic. The property status of animals has the effect of limiting in a structural way the benefits that may be provided to animals and most reforms do little more than modify practices in ways that may, for example, increase housing costs but lower veterinary costs and have the overall effect of improving production efficiency for institutional users. Even in situations in which production costs are increased, this increase rarely exceeds the elasticities of demand so the market for animal products is not adversely affected. Welfare reform, therefore, does nothing to eradicate the property status of animals. Moreover, animal welfare measures make the public feel better about animal exploitation and this encourages continued animal use.

The abolitionist approach to animal rights, in addition to rejecting animal welfare reform campaigns, rejects single-issue campaigns that seek to prohibit particular animal uses rather than to reform treatment standards. For example, abolitionists do not promote campaigns against fur or foie gras. Such campaigns convey the idea that certain forms of exploitation are worse than other forms and, in a culture in which animal use is morally acceptable as a general matter, that which is not targeted is necessarily seen as morally more acceptable. So fur is seen as bad; leather and wool are seen as the more morally acceptable alternatives. Foie gras is seen as bad; other animal foods are seen as morally better and acceptable. Moreover, as long as people think that eating animal foods is morally acceptable, they will generally fail to reject particular animal uses. There have been single-issue campaigns against fur and various foods (foie gras, veal, etc.) for decades now and these items are still in high demand.


Third, the abolitionist approach regards veganism as the moral baseline and maintains that we cannot draw a morally coherent distinction between flesh and other animal products, such as dairy or eggs, or between animal foods and the use of animals for clothing or other products. If animals matter morally at all, we cannot justify eating, wearing, or using them. If individuals regard themselves as abolitionists, they cannot consume any animal products anymore than an abolitionist with respect to human chattel slavery could own slaves. The abolitionist approach sees veganism as the only rational response to the idea that animals have moral value. That is, if animals have moral value and are not things that exist exclusively as resources for humans, as means to human ends, then we cannot justify eating, wearing, or using them.

The abolitionist approach sees the problem of animal exploitation primarily as one of demand and not supply. That is, the problem is not that there are institutional exploiters who will provide animal products to the public; the primary problem is that the public demands those products. The welfarist sees the solution primarily (and some welfarists see it exclusively) as making the supply more “humanely” produced by improving the regulation of animal treatment. The abolitionist sees the solution primarily as reducing demand by getting people to accept that animal exploitation cannot be morally justified and by consequently embracing veganism.

As a matter of advocacy, an abolitionist should engage in creative, nonviolent vegan advocacy that can take as many forms as the imagination can conceive. Distributing samples of vegan food while tabling at a local market day, distributing educational materials, teaching in primary and secondary schools, colleges, universities, and other places, organizing peaceful demonstrations, and educating one’s family, friends, and neighbors about the issues of animal exploitation and veganism are all things that help to establish veganism as the default position of those who care morally about animals.


Fourth, an important part of the abolitionist approach is that it links the moral status of nonhumans with sentience alone and not with any other cognitive characteristic. Sentience is subjective awareness; there is someone who perceives and experiences the world. A sentient being has interests; that is, preferences, wants, or desires. If a being is sentient, then that is necessary and sufficient for the being to have the right not to be used as a means to human ends, which, correlatively, imposes on humans the moral obligation not to use that being as a resource. It is not a matter of “humanely” using that animal. Although less suffering is better than more suffering, no use can be morally justified.

Although Singer focuses on sentience as necessary and sufficient for moral consideration, he does not think that sentience alone is sufficient to support a presumption against use as a replaceable resource, which benefits all “normal” humans. That is, because humans are self-aware and forward looking, it is a tragedy when they are killed and Singer’s presumption acts in a similar way to a “right to life.” As mentioned above, although Singer thinks that nonhuman great apes, dolphins, and elephants are similar to humans in this regard in terms of having a humanlike awareness of self, there is doubt as to other animals and this leads Singer to reject the notion that veganism is any sort of moral baseline. Singer describes himself as a “flexitarian,” he characterizes being a “conscientious omnivore” as a “defensible ethical position” and describes being a consistent vegan as “fanatical.”

The abolitionist approach rejects this position and maintains that any being who is sentient is self-aware for the purpose of saying that such a being has an interest in continued existence and that humans have an obligation not to treat such a being exclusively as a resource, irrespective of the degree of “humane” treatment. No other cognitive characteristic beyond sentience is necessary and Singer’s position that only those with humanlike self-awareness have a morally significant interest in continued existence is itself speciesist.


Fifth, the abolitionist approach to animal rights rejects speciesism because, like racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism, it uses a morally irrelevant criterion (species) to discount and devalue the interests of sentient beings. But any opposition to speciesism makes sense only as part of a general opposition to all forms of discrimination. That is, we cannot oppose speciesism but claim that, as animal advocates, we do not have a position on these other forms of discrimination. We cannot say that we reject species as a morally objectionable criterion to discount or devalue the interests of nonhumans but we do not have a position on whether race, sex, or sexual orientation/preference are morally objectionable criteria when used to discount or devalue human interests. Our opposition to speciesism requires that we oppose all discrimination.


Sixth, the abolitionist approach incorporates the principle of nonviolence and rejects violence as a means to achieve justice for animals. The abolitionist approach views the problem of animal exploitation as one of violence and does not view more violence as a solution to the problem. Moreover, the abolitionist approach recognizes that any advocacy of violence against institutional animal users would inevitably be arbitrary given that those who consume animal products are not relevantly distinguishable.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

For further reading:

Gary L. Francione and Anna Charlton: Eat Like You Care: An Examination of the Morality of Eating Animals (Exempla Press 2013);

Gary L. Francione and Robert Garner, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? (Columbia University Press 2010)

Gary L. Francione:

—–Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation (Columbia University Press 2008)
—–Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? (Temple University Press 2000)
—–Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (Temple University Press 1996)
—–Animals, Property, and the Law (Temple University Press 1995)

© 2013 Gary L. Francione