Animal Rights and Slavery/Rape Analogies

Ever since the early 1990s, I have been arguing that the regulation of animal exploitation is not only immoral (if it is morally wrong to exploit animals, it is wrong to promote the supposedly “humane” exploitation of animals), but is, as a practical matter, doomed to failure because the property status of animals means that animal interests can never prevail over the interests of human owners. I have argued that the regulation of animal exploitation fails for the same reason that the regulation of slavery failed.

Some “animal advocates” seem to think that discourse of this sort presents a problem of “appropriation” because only Black people can properly talk about slavery.

But the position that Black people have some sort of proprietary interest in discourse about slavery ignores that the race-based slavery that existed in the United States (or the West generally) in the 1600s-1800s was not the only slavery that has ever existed. Chattel slavery existed before that time and it exists now. And most of that chattel slavery has not been along lines of race but along lines of tribe and religion.

Moreover, even in the case of race-based slavery in the United States, I make it clear that it is the legal, political, and social mechanisms of slavery that are analogous to the use of animals as chattel property. It is that discussion that reveals the requirements of abolition rather than welfare reform. The analogy is most sharply focused on the mechanisms of oppression—not just the resulting suffering. That focuses on the analogy with animal rights rather than animal welfare. The essentialist vegans think the slavery analogy is all about the suffering of the slaves. That is incorrect.

I have always been critical of welfarist/new welfarist groups that juxtapose images of lynched Black people with pictures or other depictions of animals hanging in slaughterhouses in the same way that I object to comparing animal exploitation to the Holocaust. Comparing evils in this way does nothing to advance understanding and has a great potential for misunderstanding and offense. But the fact—and it is a fact—remains that there are important parallels between the regulation of chattel slavery and the regulation of animal exploitation.

African-Americans have experienced-based expertise in the legacy of slavery, but we must all understand the mechanisms and supporting principles of slavery—human and nonhuman—if we are going to rid the world of this evil.

The regulation of animal exploitation fails for the exact same reasons that the regulation of chattel slavery failed. If a sentient being is chattel property, the interests of that being will always count for less than the interests of the owners of that property. In substantially all of the conflict situations, the property must lose and the owner must prevail or else there is no institution of property in beings of that sort (whether human or nonhuman). In both chattel slavery and animal exploitation, beings are treated as having only an extrinsic or external value; they have no inherent or intrinsic value. They are merely things. Chattel slavery (race- based and non-race-based) and animals as property are completely analogous in legal and economic ways.

If there is any dis-analogy as a conceptual matter, it is not between chattel slavery and animal exploitation. There, the analogical fit is perfect and inescapable. Many welfarists/new welfarists compare the regulation of animal exploitation, which they promote, to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. The latter involved—and continues to involve because equality is a very long ways away—the issue of how to treat persons fairly. Animals are still chattel property. They do not have moral personhood. We cannot talk about how to treat things in a “fair” way.

When I talk about “abolition,” I am not using that term to refer to the experience of slaves. I am talking about the mechanism that has been used in the past and must be used now to dismantle any institution of property that establishes and perpetuates the status of sentient beings used exclusively as resources for others.

In any event, to say that such an analysis “appropriates” discourse that is properly that of Black people alone is, I am afraid, transparently absurd. I am not using the slavery analogy to denigrate the experience of slaves. I am using it because the analogy helps us to understand the legal, jurisprudential, and economic reasons why the regulation of sentient beings who are considered as property cannot work.

Other “animal advocates” declare that men cannot discuss rape in the context of talking about animal exploitation. That is, they cannot draw an analogy between the violation of fundamental rights that occurs in the context of rape and the violation of fundamental rights that occurs when we kill and eat animals.

As in the case of slavery, when I use rape as an analogical concept, I am not using it to denigrate the experience of rape victims. I am using the analogy because I believe it fits and it can help us to understand the deep structure of animal exploitation.

In my view, the use of words and concepts in contexts like this is a matter of analogy. Our experiences shape how we understand things but, in the end, the only relevant question is whether the analogy fits. Having been on dairy farms and seen the way that cows are impregnated and the way that they have to be secured because they don’t like what’s happening, I believe that it is analogous to rape as do many women I know who have actually seen what goes on in dairy farms, including women who have been rape victims. It is a sexual battery; the cows do not consent.

Rape is a violation of a fundamental human right. It is different from non-fundamental rights violations. It is analogous to the violations of fundamental rights that constitute domesticated animal use. The analogy holds. If someone is offended by the analogy and objects to its use, we need to know why the analogy does not hold and in many years of doing this work, I have yet to hear anything other than some version of “human women matter more morally.”

I was recently at an academic conference at which animal ethics were discussed but only as a part of the event. I argued that talking about “happy” exploitation was analogous to talking about “happy” rape or “happy” child molestation. A woman who identified herself as a feminist objected to my analogy. I asked her why. All she could say was that she did not think that exploiting animals was as “serious” as rape. I am not sure what she meant by that and she had no reply when I asked her what she meant. There is no non-speciesist response to that question.

And if we cannot talk about matters even as relevant analogies if we have not experienced them, then none of us can talk about the exploitation of nonhuman animals.


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.

If animals matter morally, veganism is not an option — it is a necessity. Anything that claims to be an animal rights movement must make clear that veganism is a moral imperative.

Embracing veganism as a moral imperative and advocating for veganism as a moral imperative are, along with caring for nonhuman refugees, the most important acts of activism that you can undertake.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Learn more about veganism at

Gary L. Francione
Board of Governors Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University

©2016 Gary L. Francione