An Invitation to Professor McWilliams

James McWilliams, professor of history at Texas State University and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, had a provocative essay, Vegan Feud on The subtitle of his essay: “Animal rights activists would accomplish a lot more if they stopped attacking the Humane Society.”

McWilliams states:

No writer makes the abolitionist case more eloquently than Rutgers philosopher Gary Francione. In his books Animals as Persons and Rain Without Thunder, Francione, who is also a lawyer, powerfully argues that the only ethically consistent stance for humans vis-a-vis animals is the complete elimination of all animal ownership. This position leads him to savage HSUS at every turn. When, last year, HSUS agreed to work with United Egg Producers to legislate larger cages for chickens, Francione responded:

That is just plain silly. “Enriched” cages involve torturing hens. Period. The torture may be slightly “better,” just as padded water boards may be slightly “better.” But let’s be clear: the hens will continue to be tortured. And they will continue to end up in a slaughterhouse.

Francione’s logic is hard-hitting, but his extreme message is unlikely to resonate widely in a population that’s only 1.4 percent vegan. According to social psychologist and longtime vegan Melanie Joy, the abolitionist approach could attract a lot more supporters if it acknowledged, as HSUS does, that most people are going to embrace veganism on their own….it’s asking for a profound shift in consciousness that people make only when they’re personally ready to do so.

As his subtitle states, McWilliams thinks that abolitionists should not criticize HSUS.

This is not one of the times that I agree with McWilliams (except that I agree that my logic is “hard hitting”!).

So I posted a comment on

Dear James:

As you might expect, I disagree with this essay on both theoretical and practical grounds. I have some brief comments and an invitation.

As a preface, however, let me be clear that I had no involvement whatsoever in the event that you described at the Animal Rights National Conference–other than my having produced some ideas over the past 20 years or so that these and other “abolitionists” very generously borrow and then regurgitate, often inaccurately. I say that not only because your essay could be misconstrued to say that I was involved, which is wrong, but because you have to be careful not to describe the position generally based on whatever it was that these folks apparently presented at that event.

My Comments: The animal welfare position explicitly accepts that animal life per se has no moral value and that we do not harm animals if we kill them painlessly. That was Bentham’s position; it is Singer’s position; it is the position that most of the large organizations accept. Indeed, it is precisely that position that allows PETA to kill healthy animals that it takes in at its Norfolk facility and to advocate that it’s fine for other shelters to kill animals. That position, in my view, is problematic for a number of fundamental moral reasons.

Moreover, you accept uncritically that animal welfare reforms actually do provide significant improvements for animal welfare. I disagree. At best, the reforms are analogous to padding a water board at Guantanamo Bay. Note that I said “At best.” Most of the time, they do even less.

From an economic standpoint, most of these welfare reforms actually increase production efficiency. For example, you cite the HSUS campaign against gestation crates. Have a look at HSUS’ own literature, which, after surveying the agricultural research, states: “Sow productivity is higher in group housing than in individual crates, as a result of reduced rates of injury and disease, earlier first estrus, faster return to estrus after delivery, lower incidence of stillbirths, and shorter farrowing times. Group systems employing ESF are particularly cost-effective.” In addition, “[c]onversion from gestation crates to group housing with ESF marginally reduces production costs and increases productivity.”

So why does industry fight? Because that is all part of the symbiotic relationship that exists between industry and these large groups. The animal groups identify practices that are economically vulnerable; industry resists; a drama ensues; industry eventually agrees to make what are meaningless and possibly even financially beneficial changes; the animal groups declare victory and fundraise; industry, praised by the groups, reassures the public that it really does “care” about animals. The public feels “compassionate” and continues to consume animals.

You discuss Joy’s view that going vegan is “asking for a profound shift in consciousness that people make only when they’re personally ready to do so.” Has anyone suggested otherwise? The issue is not whether it’s a matter of moral choice. Of course it is. The issue is whether we are going to make the argument that people ought to make that moral choice or reassure them that they can discharge their moral obligations by eating “happy” animal products and consuming “compassionately,” with all that involves, both as a theoretical and a practical matter.

As a general matter, I found it bewildering that you think we are going to make people more receptive to a vegan message by deciding, along with Joy, Cooney, and others that the public simply is not ready to hear a serious argument about animal ethics. I disagree. I think that most people can understand the arguments just fine. The problem is that the animal welfare groups simply don’t want that discussion to take place. They have for many years now done everything possible to stifle it. Indeed, you seem to think that this issue is recent. It isn’t. It’s been a heated topic ever since the early 1990s. I recognize that some advocates have an interest in making it appear that this is something new. It isn’t.

My Invitation: As we are both academics and try to look at “big picture” issues, I think we should discuss these issues. I have a podcast that I do in connection with my website, www., and I would like to cordially invite you to join me for a discussion of these issues.

Best regards,


Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

I expect that Professor McWilliams will enjoy discussing and debating these issues. Further information to follow.

Update September 8, 2012:

I have spoken with Professor McWilliams and we will be doing a podcast in October. More details soon.


If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione