Animals as Property and the Rape Analogy: A Postscript

Since I posted Veganism: The Fundamental Principle of the Abolitionist Movement yesterday, I have received a number of emails from people who found the analysis helpful to their thinking about the issue. A number of people have asked questions which, although different in their particular aspects, focus generally on two issues—the status of animals as property and the rape analogy. I am offering this to address these two general issues.

Animals as Property

First, some people have asked me to explain in greater detail the point about animal welfare failing because animals are property.

This is an issue about which I have written a great deal. A good place to start learning about the problem is the presentation, Animals as Property, which is on my website.

In an extremely abbreviated nutshell: Animals are property; they are economic commodities. Because animals are property, they are regarded exclusively as means to our ends. Animals have no inherent value; they only have extrinsic or conditional value to the extent that we value them. As far as the law is concerned, nonhuman animals are no different from any other of the things that we own.

There is, of course, a factual difference between animal property and other sorts of property in that unlike our cars, iPods, etc., nonhuman animals are sentient. They have subjective awareness. They have interests. There are things that nonhumans want, desire, or prefer—in particular, they have an interest in not suffering, not experiencing pain, and continuing to live. In this important way, animal property is different from every other sort of property. A cow is a sentient being who is subjectively aware and can suffer; an iPod is not a sentient being and has no subjective awareness. There is nothing that an iPod wants, desires, or prefers.

The problem is that it costs money to give protection to animal interests. For the most part, we only protect those animal interests that we get an economic benefit from protecting.

For example, the slaughtering of cows, particularly on a commercial scale, necessarily involves pain and suffering. We require that cows be rendered unconscious by electrical stunning before being slaughtered (unless the cows are being slaughtered in accordance with kosher or halal procedures) because even though stunning costs money, the expense is justified. Animals who are stunned move less during the slaughtering process and this reduces injuries to the workers and damage to the carcass, thus allowing the meat to be sold for more money.

Cows have many other interests other than those they have the moment before we thrust a knife into their throats and many of those other interests involve pain and suffering. But we do not protect those interests because it would not be justified economically. To protect these other interests would cost money and this cost would have to be passed on, at least in considerable part, to the consumer. Although most people have some vague feeling that animals ought to be treated “humanely,” the reality is that most people eat animals and animal products and if they cared very much about this issue, they would not consume animals in the first place. In other words, most people are not willing to “purchase” more protection.

Therefore, the level of animal welfare remains low and tied to the status of animals as economic commodities. As a general matter, a society that eats nonhumans—a practice that cannot be justified by anything other than human pleasure or convenience—cannot be expected to “purchase” much protection for those animals given that it costs money to do so and any significant increase in protection would result in animal products becoming considerably more expensive.

We can see this notion that animals are economic commodities reflected in animal welfare laws and in the welfarist campaigns of animal organizations.

Animal welfare laws prohibit the infliction of “unnecessary” suffering, but this standard has historically been linked to what industry regards as “necessary” suffering. And industry generally protects animal interests to the extent that it is cost-justified. Why does the law look to industry standards? There are several reasons. One reason is we assume that people who raise nonhumans for slaughter will not inflict pain and suffering on their animal property for no good reason because to do so would result in a decrease in the value of their animal property. Another reason is that many animal welfare laws are criminal laws (e.g., anticruelty statutes) and we must give fair notice to people of what is prohibited conduct. Industry standards provide such notice.

If you look at most animal welfare campaigns, you will see that, for the most part, they link protection for animal interests with economic concerns. Take a look at my blog on the U.S. campaign concerning gestation crates for pigs. This blog discusses how alternatives to the gestation crate are promoted as making pork production more profitable.

The link between animal welfare standards and economic benefit for humans is expressed explicitly by animal welfare experts. Consider some comments by Temple Grandin, a slaughterhouse designer and consultant to the meat industry, declared by PETA to be a “visionary” for her work in slaughterhouse design. PETA describes Grandin as “the world’s leading expert on the welfare of cattle and pigs.” According to Grandin:

Once livestock—cattle, pigs and sheep—arrive at packing plants, proper handling procedures are not only important for the animal’s well-being, they can also mean the difference between profit and loss. Research clearly demonstrates that many meat quality benefits can be obtained with careful, quiet animal handling…. Properly handled animals are not only an important ethical goal, they also keep the meat industry running safely, efficiently and profitably. (see source)

Stunning an animal correctly will provide better meat quality. Improper electric stunning will cause bloodspots in the meat and bone fractures. Good stunning practices are also required so that a plant will be in compliance with the Humane Slaughter Act and for animal welfare. When stunning is done correctly, the animal feels no pain and it becomes instantly unconscious. An animal that is stunned properly will produce a still carcass that is safe for plant workers to work on. (see source)

Gentle handling in well-designed facilities will minimize stress levels, improve efficiency and maintain good meat quality. Rough handling or poorly designed equipment is detrimental to both animal welfare and meat quality. (see source)

The fact that PETA regards Grandin as a “visionary” is one compelling reason among many why no advocate who is serious about abolition should take PETA seriously.

We have had animal welfare for about 200 years now and we are using more nonhumans in more horrific ways than at any time in human history. This is not an academic or theoretical matter. The plain fact is that animal welfare does not work. To the extent that animal welfare measures result in some reduction of pain and suffering, this is generally only because it benefits us economically to protect some animal interests. And that minimal level of protection is the only thing we have to show for all of the time, energy, and money that generations of animal advocates have invested since the 19th century. It makes no sense whatsoever to continue to pursue animal welfare regulation if you embrace an abolitionist ethic.

For the most part, animal welfare does little more than make us feel that we are “humane” and “civilized.” We feel better when we sit down to eat animals because there are standards that require the “humane” treatment of animals. It has everything to do with our comfort and nothing to do with the nonhuman animals we exploit.

If you want to understand more about the property issue, take a look at my website presentation on Animals as Property.

The Rape Analogy

Second, people have asked me to go further into explaining the rape analogy. In the essay, I argue that it is “better” for a rapist not to beat a victim in addition to raping the victim, but that does not mean that rape, without beating, is a morally acceptable act or that we should give the rapist an award for being a morally “conscientious rapist” or declare the perpetrator to be a “visionary rapist.” I use this example to help explain why I find it disturbing that at least some prominent advocates sycophantically praise people like John Mackey of Whole Foods, or Temple Grandin. Celebrating such people is no different from giving awards to rapists who do not beat their victims. Abolitionists want to abolish animal use, so it is problematic to support measures that promote the notion that animal exploitation is acceptable as long as certain “safguards” are employed.

I have already commented on Grandin above. Let me say something about Mackey. Singer, Regan, PETA, and others are all terribly excited about Mackey because he is supposedly a vegan who is committed to “strict standards” of animal welfare. Put aside whether these supposed “strict standards” will make any real difference to animals or whether they are meaningless hype. There is a serious question as to who is worse: a vegan who claims to believe that it is morally wrong to consume meat, dairy, and eggs but who sells these products in order to make money, or the meat-eating, dairy-drinking CEO of a regular supermarket chain who has not thought about the issue. At least the latter is not a hypocrite. But to give the former any awards or, as Tom Regan did, to have him be the keynote speaker at a conference about “exemplary individuals who dared to challenge the status quo and take up the cause of the oppressed” is, in my view, nothing short of obscene.

The purpose of the rape analogy is to help us draw a distinction between two very different ideas:

  1. the idea that if we are going to inflict harm, it is always better to inflict less harm than more; and
  2. the idea that by inflicting less harm, we do something that is morally praiseworthy that ought to be promoted as a morally positive action.

These are very different ideas and that is what the analogy was designed to demonstrate.

We can easily think of variations on the theme. If X is a pedophile, it is better to molest five children than it is to molest ten children. But that does not mean that the pedophile who only molests five children is a morally “conscientious pedophile” or “visionary pedophile.” It is “better” not to torture your victim before you kill your victim, but not torturing the victim does not make you a morally “conscientious murderer” or “visionary murderer.” The list is limited only by the range of violent and immoral acts that there are.

The mistake made by Singer, Regan, PETA, and others is that they confuse the idea that it is better to inflict less harm than more with the very different position that to inflict less harm makes the person inflicting the harm a morally “conscientious inflictor of harm.”

It is crucial that we not confuse these two, very different ideas. If a women’s rights group gave an award to a rapist who did not beat his victims, or a children’s rights organization gave an award to a pedophile who molested five children rather than ten, or a victims’ rights organization gave an award to a serial murder because he did not also torture his victims, we would quite rightly be horrified and we would not for a second consider supporting those organizations.

If we really do think that the exploitation of nonhumans is relevantly similar to the exploitation of humans, then we should not regard it as any more acceptable to give an award to someone who exploits nonhumans “humanely” than we would to give an award to a “humane” rapist, pedophile, or murderer. To treat these situations as different would be blatantly speciesist.

If the animal advocacy movement is to have any realistic hope of changing the way we humans think about animal exploitation, we need to be crystal clear: although inflicting less harm is always a better thing to do than inflicting more harm, we have no moral justification for inflicting any harm and we have no business giving awards to, praising, or promoting those whose business it is to sell the “humanely” produced body parts or products of nonhumans, or to ensure that animal property is exploited efficiently so that, in PETA Visionary Temple Grandin’s words, we keep “the meat industry running safely, efficiently and profitably.”

Gary L. Francione
© 2006 Gary L. Francione