I reject animal welfare reform and single-issue campaigns because they are not only inconsistent with the claims of justice that we should be making if we really believe that animal exploitation is wrong, but because these approaches cannot work as a practical matter. Animals are property and it costs money to protect their interests; therefore, the level of protection accorded to animal interests will always be low and animals will, under the best of circumstances, still be treated in ways that would constitute torture if applied to humans.
By endorsing welfare reforms that supposedly make exploitation more “compassionate” or single-issue campaigns that falsely suggest that there is a coherent moral distinction between meat and dairy or between fur and wool or between steak and foie gras, we betray the principle of justice that says that all sentient beings are equal for purposes of not being used exclusively as human resources. And, on a practical level, we do nothing more than make people feel better about animal exploitation.
I maintain that those who believe that animals are members of the moral community should, instead, make clear that veganism, defined as not eating, wearing, or using animals, is the non-negotiable, unequivocal moral baseline and should put their labor and resources into grassroots vegan education that may take a myriad of creative forms but should never involve violence.
Those who are critical of my view argue that my position on the need for creative, nonviolent vegan advocacy requires some sort of faith that such an approach will work.
I find that criticism to be ironic in that it would seem that if any position requires faith, defined as a belief that is maintained in the face of all extant empirical evidence, it is that welfare reform and single-issue campaigns will lead anywhere but to more animal exploitation.
Animal Welfare: Why?
Why does anyone believe that welfare reform will lead to abolition? If we look at the history of animal welfare reform, we see that most reforms are minor, most are not even enforced, and most actually increase production efficiency and provide economic benefits to producers. We have had the animal welfare paradigm for 200 years now and we are exploiting more animals now in more horrific ways than at any time in human history.
Why does anyone believe that promoting “happy” exploitation is going to lead to the abolition of exploitation? Use your common sense. “Happy” exploitation won’t lead anywhere but to a public that feels better about particular forms of animal exploitation. If that were not the case, the animal exploitation industries, in partnership with the large animal welfare corporations, would not be investing all the resources that they are investing in “happy” exploitation campaigns and labels.
Why does anyone believe that by continuing to reinforce and strengthen the paradigm that treats animals as property, we will eventually abolish animal exploitation?
Why does anyone believe that single-issue campaigns will lead to the abolition of exploitation? Just take a look at long standing single-issue campaigns, such as the anti-fur campaign. That campaign has been going for decades and the fur industry is stronger than it has ever been. Why? Because there is no principled basis that can serve to distinguish fur from wool or leather, or to distinguish wearing animals from eating them. As long as people do not understand and accept the general moral principle, they will fail to see the problem of specific uses. And it is no answer to say, as many advocates do, that fur represents a gratuitous use of animals. So does eating animals. We eat animals because they taste good. And palate pleasure is no better a justification than is fashion.
As I have written elsewhere, supporters of welfare reform never address these questions; they just declare that any criticism is “divisive” or that any alternative is “too idealistic.” In other words, they have nothing to say.
Veganism as a Moral Baseline: Why Not?
The appeal of creative, nonviolent vegan advocacy is that it challenges people to apply a moral principle that most people already accept and claim to view as important: that it is morally wrong to inflict suffering and death on animals unless it is necessary, and pleasure, amusement, and convenience cannot suffice to demonstrate necessity. When people are confronted with the argument that criticizing Michael Vick for dog fighting does not make sense if we are eating animals or animal products, or with the similarity between the animals whom they love and those they eat or wear, they may not all become vegan immediately, but we have at least gotten them to start thinking about the general issue of animal use in moral terms. And to the extent that the argument resonates–and it will resonate for many–they will begin to assess matters of animal ethics in a different way.
If, as I maintain, we cannot justify the use, however “humane,” of animals, then we ought to be clear about that. We ought to be clear that we cannot justify eating, wearing, or using animals. Period. If those who are concerned about the issue are not yet willing to give up animal use and go vegan, they can take whatever incremental steps they want. But those incremental steps should never be characterized as normatively desirable if we really believe that animal use is unjust. Just as we would never say that “humane” or “happy” sexism or racism is acceptable, we should never characterize “humane” or “happy” meat or dairy or whatever as morally acceptable.
Finally, promoting veganism as a moral baseline is no more a matter of moral “purity” than is promoting justice where humans are concerned. We are told that even if we go vegan, we cannot avoid causing harm to nonhumans. That is true. Living in the world and engaging in any sort of action necessarily has adverse consequences for others, humans and nonhumans alike. We should, of course, endeavor to cause the least amount of harm that we can to all sentient beings. But the fact that we cannot avoid all harm does not mean that we should not at least stop all intentional harm that we inflict on sentient nonhumans just as the fact that we cannot eliminate all violence in the world means that it is morally acceptable for us to murder other humans.
If we are ever to abandon the property paradigm, we need to get people to recognize that animal use, however “humane,” cannot be justified morally. I am confident that creative, nonviolent vegan advocacy is not only consistent with the claim of justice that is entailed, in my view, by the animal rights position, but that it is the best way to achieve the goal of shifting away from the property paradigm and toward the notion of animals as moral persons.
Those grassroots advocates who are engaged in creative, nonviolent vegan education all report that the results are astounding; that people react and react positively.
And I am certain that any belief that welfare reform, single-issue campaigns, “happy” exploitation, etc. will take us anywhere but to a greater level of comfort about animal exploitation requires a particularly blind form of faith.
If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. It’s easy to go vegan; it’s better for your health and for the planet; and, most important, it’s the morally right thing to do.
If you are vegan, educate everyone with whom you come in contact in a creative, nonviolent way about veganism. If we really do regard animals as members of the moral community; if we really believe that we cannot justify unnecessary animal suffering and death, then we cannot justify billions of animal deaths based on palate pleasure.
And please remember: veganism is not just a matter of reducing suffering; it’s a matter of fundamental moral justice. It is what we owe to those who, like us, value their lives and who want to continue to live.
Gary L. Francione
©2011 Gary L. Francione