Animal Rights, Animal Welfare, and the Slavery Analogy

Many vegans become irritated with non-vegans who claim to care morally about animals but who continue to consume them. The former will often invoke an analogy to human slavery. It goes like this: we all agree that the use of humans exclusively as resources—the condition known as human slavery—is morally abhorrent. Similarly, if people think that animals are members of the moral community, then we ought not to be treating them exclusively as resources either and we ought to oppose animal slavery. And if one opposes animal slavery, one adopts and promotes veganism.

Does the analogy work?

Yes and no. The slavery analogy, which I have been using for two decades now, is not particularly compelling if one maintains that nonhumans, unlike human slaves, only have an interest in not suffering and do not have an interest in continued life or in autonomy. And that is a core belief of the welfarist position going back to Bentham—that animals can suffer and have interests in not suffering but are cognitively different from us in that they are not self-aware and do not have an interest in continued existence. To put the matter another way: welfarists maintain that animals do not have an interest in not being slaves per se; they just have an interest in being “happy” slaves. That is the position promoted by Peter Singer, whose neo- or new-welfarist views are derived directly from Bentham. Therefore, it does not matter morally that we use animals but only how we use them. The moral issue is not use but treatment.

Add to this that most welfarists are utilitarians—they maintain that what is right or wrong is determined by what maximizes pleasure or happiness or interest satisfaction for all of those affected—and you end up with the view that as long as an animal does not suffer “too much,” and given that the animal does not have an interest in her life, her having lived a reasonably pleasant life and ended up on human plates is better than her not having lived at all. If we provide a reasonably pleasant life and relatively painless death for animals, we actually confer a benefit on them by bringing them into existence and using them as our resources.

Therefore, it is understandable that, if one is a welfarist, one does not accept the slavery analogy. “Happy” slavery is not only not a problem; it is a good thing. The problem with human slavery is that even “humane” forms of slavery violate fundamental human rights in continued existence, autonomy, etc. But if animals do not have those interests, then “humane” slavery may be just what is needed. And that is precisely the thinking that motivates the “happy” meat/animal products movement and the entire welfarist enterprise of trying to make animal use more “humane,” more “compassionate,” etc.

I have argued that this sort of thinking is problematic in at least two regards:

First, the notion that nonhuman animals do not have an interest in continued existence—that they do not have an interest in their lives—involves relying on a speciesist concept of what sort of self-awareness matters morally. I have argued that every sentient being necessarily has an interest in continued existence—every sentient being values her or his life—and that to say that only those animals (human animals) who have a particular sort of self-awareness have an interest in not being treated as commodities begs the fundamental moral question. Even if, as some maintain, nonhuman animals live in an “eternal present”—and I think that is empirically not the case at the very least for most of the nonhumans we routinely exploit who do have memories of the past and a sense of the future—they have, in each moment, an interest in continuing to exist. To say that this does not count morally is simply speciesist.

Second, even if animals do not have an interest in continuing to live and only have interests in not suffering, the notion that, as a practical matter, we will ever be able to accord those interests the morally required weight is simply fantasy. The notion that we property owners are ever going to accord any sort of significant weight to the interests of property in not suffering is simply unrealistic. Is it possible in theory? Yes. Is it possible as a matter of practicality in the real world. Absolutely not. Welfarists often talk about treating “farmed animals” in the way that we treat dogs and cats whom we love and regard as members of our family. Does anyone really think that is practically possible? The fact that we would not think of eating our dogs and cats is some indication that it is not.

Moreover, a central thesis of my work has been that because animals are chattel property—they are economic commodities—we will generally protect animal interests only when we get an economic benefit from doing so. This means that the standard of animal welfare will always be very low (as it presently and despite all of the “happy” and “compassionate” exploitation nonsense) and welfare reforms will generally increase production efficiency; that is, we will protect animal interests in situations where treatment is economically inefficient and welfare reforms will, for the most part, do little more than correct those inefficiencies. For example, the use of gestation crates for sows is economically inefficient; there are supposedly more “humane” alternatives that actually increase production efficiency. Similarly, “gassing” chickens is more economically efficient than electrical stunning.

So I understand why welfarists have a problem with the slavery analogy. I think that they are wrong in multiple respects but they never really engage the arguments. Instead, they claim that I am “divisive” and “do not care about animals suffering now” because I make these arguments. Some get even more dramatic.

The rights paradigm, which, as I interpret it, morally requires the abolition of animal exploitation and requires veganism as a matter of fundamental justice, is radically different from the welfarist paradigm, which, in theory focuses on reducing suffering, and, in reality, focuses on tidying up animal exploitation at its economically inefficient edges. In science, those who subscribe to one paradigm are often unable to understand and engage those who subscribe to another paradigm precisely because the theoretical language that they use is not compatible.

I think that the situation is similar in the context of the debate between animal rights and animal welfare. And that is why welfarists simply cannot understand or accept the slavery analogy.

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If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. It’s a matter of nonviolence. Being vegan is your statement that you reject violence to other sentient beings, to yourself, and to the environment, on which all sentient beings depend.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione