“Carnism”? There Is Nothing “Invisible” About The Ideology Of Animal Exploitation

There are some who claim that the ideology that supports animal exploitation is “invisible.” The basic idea is that animal exploitation is something that we are conditioned or caused to engage in because of some hidden or “invisible” ideology or psychological process that needs to be exposed.

Variations of this position have been around for years now. The most recent version of the position is labeled as “carnism.”

I suggest that this position is in error and seriously so.

The ideology that supports animal exploitation is the ideology of animal welfare.

And this ideology is not invisible or hidden in any way: on the contrary, the animal welfare position is an explicit part of our culture. We know about it, think about it, and talk about it. Most people–members of the general public and many “animal advocates” alike–accept some version of it.

Moreover, the “invisibility” position is, in reality, nothing more than an attempt to make invisible what the real problem is. That is, to say that the animal welfare ideology is “invisible” is to encourage us to avoid a hard examination of animal welfare in favor of embracing some fantasy that we exploit animals as the result of some “invisible” conditioning.

That can only have the effect of keeping the welfarist ideology firmly in place. Indeed, an explicit goal of the “invisibility” position is precisely to stifle dissent and debate about the welfarist position. As such, the “invisibility” position is itself nothing more than a version of welfarist ideology.

Further, the “invisibility” position purports to relieve us from moral responsibility for our conduct, claiming that if we participate in animal exploitation, it’s because we are being “victimized” by the “invisible” ideology. So if you eat animal products, that’s not because you are making the wrong moral decisions and victimizing animals; it’s because some “invisible” conditioning is victimizing you.

Imagine if, in the 1950s, someone were to suggest that there was an “invisible” ideology or psychological process that accounted for the burning of crosses on the homes lived in, or churches used by, people of color. Such a suggestion would be just plain wrong. The problem was quite visible: it was (and is) called racism. Any attempt to claim that the Ku Klux Klan was being “victimized” by an “invisible” ideology, apart from being absurd and offensive, would have had been nothing more than an attempt to get us to avoid a hard examination of racism.

There were, of course, many people in the 1950s who had not yet confronted or recognized their own racism. But that was not because some invisible force prevented them from doing so. What prevented them was ignorance, self interest, and the conscious belief that people of color were inferiors.

The same analysis holds for claims about the “invisibility” of why we engage in animal exploitation. We do so because we accept a very visible ideology: the ideology of animal welfare. We need to reject that ideology and the political strategy of welfare reform and “happy” exploitation that implements it.

For over a decade, I have used the expression “moral schizophrenia” to describe the confused way that we think about animal ethics. But to say that our thinking about animals is confused is not to say that animal exploitation is conditioned by an “invisible” force. We treat some animals as family members and others as food, but that is because we very consciously accept an ideology that animals are property and that we can value some animal property more highly we value other animal property.

In order to see the problem, we need to consider very briefly the historical origin of the animal welfare position that characterizes the prevailing paradigm of animal ethics.

A (Very) Brief Historical Survey

Before the 19th century, western thinking regarded animals as outside the moral community altogether. Because animals were supposedly not rational, self-aware, able to use language, etc., they were regarded as having no moral value at all. They were just things.

All of this changed in the 19th century with the appearance and development of the animal welfare movement. The animal welfare position holds that animals do matter morally but we can still use them for human purposes because, although they have an interest in not suffering, they don’t have an interest in their lives. According to welfarists, animals are not self-aware and do not have an interest in continuing to live. As long as we treat them well and kill them in a relatively painless way, animals don’t care that we use them. They only care about how we use them. We can use animals for human purposes but we have a moral obligation to treat animals “humanely.”

See? That was pretty painless as far as history lessons are concerned.

Animal Welfare: Completely Visible and Part of Our Conscious Thought

The animal welfare position developed in the 19th century is the dominant paradigm–the conventional wisdom–that obtains today. That is, it is the view that most people hold. Most people think that it’s fine to use animals because killing them “painlessly” is not harming them. Most people think we should treat animals “humanely.”

Think about it: Do you know anyone (apart from other abolitionist vegans) who disagrees with the notion that it’s morally acceptable to use animals but that we have a moral obligation to treat them “humanely”? You probably don’t. Just about everyone claims to accept the animal welfare position.

And there is not much difference between the animal welfare position and the position of what is commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as the “animal rights movement.” Consider that Peter Singer, the so-called “father of the animal rights movement,” maintains that with the exception of “higher” animals, such as nonhuman great apes, animals live in an “eternal present” and do not have an interest in living. As long as we provide animals a reasonably pleasant life and a relatively painless death, we can discharge our moral obligations to animals. For example, Singer says:

[T]o avoid inflicting suffering on animals—not to mention the environmental costs of intensive animal production—we need to cut down drastically on the animal products we consume. But does that mean a vegan world? That’s one solution, but not necessarily the only one. If it is the infliction of suffering that we are concerned about, rather than killing, then I can also imagine a world in which people mostly eat plant foods, but occasionally treat themselves to the luxury of free range eggs, or possibly even meat from animals who live good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm. (The Vegan, Autumn 2006)

Singer claims:

if someone “really were thorough-going in eating only animals that had had good lives, that could be a defensible ethical position. It’s not my position, but I wouldn’t be critical of someone who was that conscientious about it.

The difference between Singer and the conventional welfarist position is that he thinks that we need to go further to provide “humane” treatment and we should eliminate most aspects of intensive agriculture. But he has no principled opposition to killing and eating animals or animal products and he supports welfare reform campaigns that actually provide little, if any, improvement of animal welfare.

Singer’s position characterizes most of the large “animal protection” groups in the United States and Europe. That is, these groups focus on treatment, not on use.

To the extent that they talk about veganism, they discuss it only as a “tool” to reduce suffering and not as a moral baseline. It’s about suffering; it’s not about death. It’s about treatment; it’s not about use. Animal lives have no moral value per se.

HSUS and other large animal organizations in the United States and Europe are very clear: “happy” exploitation is morally good.

HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle makes it very clear that “happy” meat is a morally good thing:

I don’t think that everyone needs to adopt a vegetarian diet to make a difference. I think that little choices that we make — getting animal products from a farmer who is raising animals in a proper and humane way or reducing consumption by a little bit — all of these things matter. You don’t need to go the full measure in order to have an impact. One thing I don’t want is people to feel paralyzed, that somehow you’ve got to fit some orthodox regimen in order to be a part of this. Absolutely not. Little decisions that all of us make can have an enormous consequences.

You can have an impact by eating meat and animal products “from a farmer who is raising animals in a proper and humane way.”

So Pacelle is not only suggesting that products made “in a proper and humane way” are actually available, but that consuming them is a morally good thing to do. This is how HSUS justifies celebrating a decision by three meat companies to phase out the economically inefficient gestation crate over a period of years and asking animal advocates to publicly praise those companies, thus promoting the “compassionate” consumption of meat and animal products.

HSUS and other large animal organizations in the United States and Britain sponsor various “humane” label schemes that are explicitly intended to make consumers feel more comfortable about continuing to consume animal products.

So what exactly is “invisible” about any of this? Answer: nothing. Absolutely nothing. In fact, it’s pretty obvious.

Those people who argue that we can’t justify using animals at all are described as “extreme” and are reprimanded; they are told to stop being “divisive” and to just shut up about any criticism of the “happy” exploitation movement. They pretend that it’s all really one movement: theirs.

But the conventional wisdom–from the 19th century to right now–is based on the assumption that the only way to be self-aware for moral purposes is to be self-aware in the way that humans are. Because animals are, it is claimed, not self-aware in that way, then they don’t have an interest in continuing to live. We don’t harm them if we kill them, as long as we do so in a relatively painless way.

That position, I have argued, is morally indefensible for a number of reasons, the most relevant being that it is blatantly speciesist in that it arbitrarily privileges a particular sort of self-awareness. A being (human or nonhuman) can have an interest in continuing to live without having the reflective self-awareness that we normally associate with “normal” humans.

I also reject the conventional position because our treatment of animals we use for food will, as a practical matter, never be “humane” in any practical sense. As I discussed in my 1995 book, Animals, Property, and the Law, because animals are chattel property, animal welfare standards will always be low and we will generally protect animal interests only when it is in our economic benefit to do so. The result is that the welfare reforms that are implemented are those that increase production efficiency. This does not result in moving animals away from being property; it enmeshes them further in that paradigm.

In any event, none of this is invisible. The animal welfare ideology is our conventional wisdom about animal use and it’s supported by the modern “animal protection” movement. It’s out there; we are all quite aware of it; it’s discussed publicly. A day does not go by when there isn’t a new story about “happy” animal products in a major newspaper or on TV.

The Irony of the “Invisibility” Position

To say that we ought to treat the ideology of animal exploitation as “invisible” is, in effect, to say that we ought to ignore the dominant paradigm of animal welfare; we ought to ignore the speciesist ideology that keeps us comfortable about exploiting animals.

It is no surprise that those who promote this “invisibility” position are people who also promote welfare reform as “effective” or who tell us that we don’t need to be worried about any distinction between the abolitionist and welfarist positions. We should just all “work together.” But their hollow calls for “unity” and cohesiveness are nothing more than endorsements of welfare reform and support for “happy” exploitation. They attack and often misrepresent the abolitionist position and, when challenged, they complain that they are being victimized.

The “invisibility” proponents often claim that we should not seek public discourse about animal use because that is ideological and people aren’t ready for it. This is the standard welfarist “veganism is too extreme” argument. And it is nothing more than a blatant attempt to keep from public discourse the very thing that we need to talk about if we are ever going to get past the “happy” exploitation nonsense and have a serious moral discussion about the morality of animal exploitation. The “invisibility” advocates argue that we should, by default, if not by active involvement and support, cede the field to the welfarists and focus on campaigns for “happy” treatment.

The “invisibility” proponents continue to promote the notion that we cannot say that animal exploitation is morally wrong in any “objective” sense. It’s all just a matter of individual opinion. But if there is no moral realism and all moral matters are just matters of opinion, then we cannot say that anything–racism, sexism, child molestation, genocide–is morally wrong in an objective sense. And if we say that human exploitation is morally wrong in an objective sense but that animal exploitation is simply a matter of opinion, then we are just being being speciesist.

The “invisibility” position is intended to make sure we don’t discuss–or even recognize–any of the problems of animal welfare. The “invisibility” position is a blatant attempt to keep us from a hard examination of the fundamental welfarist premise that it is the treatment and not the use of animals that is the relevant issue, and that “happy” use is not morally objectionable. That leaves the welfare paradigm firmly in place.

The “invisibility” position seeks to relieve us of responsibility. It’s not our acceptance of the speciesist ideology of animal welfare and our specieist choices to consume animal products that is responsible; rather, it’s the “invisible” ideology that is “victimizing” us and causing us to participate in harming animals. So if you’re not a vegan, that’s fine. You’re a victim. If you promote “happy” exploitation and your position is criticized, you are a victim.

This is all a disaster for nonhuman animals.

The problem is not “invisibility.”

The problem is the animal welfare position.

The problem is a “movement” that offers “happy” exploitation as the solution to the problem of animal exploitation.

The problem is our failure to focus on the issue of use because for the past 200 years we have clearly and very deliberately bought into the speciesist idea that animals don’t care that we use them but only about how we use them.

The problem is that the “father of the animal rights movement” promotes a blatantly welfarist ideology and talks about the “luxury” of consuming “humane” animal products, along with a “movement” that recognizes veganism as nothing more than a tool to reduce suffering, no different from “enriched” cages, “compassionate” meat or “happy” milk.

The problems are not invisible in any way. They are very visible, as is the solution: an explicit rejection of animal use and a recognition of veganism as a clear and unequivocal moral baseline.

*****

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!

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione