Incremental Reform in the Human Context Is Not Analogous to Welfare Reform and Single-Issue Campaigns in the Nonhuman Context

A question we received:

If we think that the prison-industrial complex is wrong and we want to abolish it, we would all think it would be okay to work at the same time for single issue campaigns to improve the lives of the prisoners who are presently stuck in the system, right? So why isn’t it okay in the animal context?

To begin with, this person is confused about basic terminology. The example she is using involves what would be characterized as welfare reform measures in the nonhuman context, not single-issue campaigns. That is, she thinks that her prison campaign is similar to saying that we want to abolish animal exploitation eventually but we want larger cages in the meantime. That is the classic new welfarist position. In any event, here’s an excerpt from Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach which shows that the welfarist claim that in human contexts, we do promote measures that are analogous to animal welfare reform measures and single-issue campaigns is just wrong:

In response to the abolitionist position that it is speciesist to promote more “humane” animal exploitation when we would not support “humane” slavery, “humane” rape, or “humane” violations of other fundamental human rights, welfarists claim that we do support more “humane” violations of fundamental human rights.

The usual example they give is that of Amnesty International. Amnesty International opposes imprisonment for political reasons and they work to get those political prisoners released. But if they cannot get the prisoners released, they will oppose any torture of those prisoners. Welfarists liken their efforts to those of Amnesty International, claiming that they can’t get the animals out of the oppressive conditions but they can fight to stop the torture.

The analogy fails in several ways.

All animal exploitation involves subjecting animals to treatment which would, were humans involved, constitute torture. That is, the entire process of raising animals for food, for instance, involves suffering, fear, and distress from the moment of birth to the moment of death. The welfarists arbitrarily pick practices that are already “low-hanging fruit” because they are economically inefficient and they fail to recognize that the entire process of animal exploitation involves torture. Welfarists are not analogous to Amnesty International, which objects to imprisonment on political grounds and, if release cannot be secured, demands that prisoners not be tortured. Welfarists are working with industry to reform torture; Amnesty International does not do that. When welfarists promote an “enriched” cage or a “cage-free” barn for laying hens, they are not demanding that torture end; they are, instead, promoting alternatives that also result in the torture of the birds. The idea that an “enriched” cage or a “cage-free” barn does not involve torture could only be advanced by someone who knew nothing about these alternatives to conventional battery cages. What animal welfarists do would be analogous to Amnesty International promoting the position that when prisoners receive electrical shocks, the shocks should be administered for no longer than three hours without a one minute break. And Amnesty International does not support such positions because torture involves violating a fundamental human right and should not occur at all.

Moreover, as we saw above, welfare campaigns necessarily promote animal exploitation because they portray the reformed situation as “compassionate” or otherwise describe it in positive normative terms, which is the only way that coalitions can be formed around these reform campaigns. Although this is true of all welfarist campaigns, it is particularly true of the modern welfarist approach where animal groups have entered into explicit partnerships with institutional exploiters and publicly express their “appreciation and support” for supposedly “humane” reforms upon which they put a stamp of approval and give awards and accolades to institutional exploiters. Amnesty International does not give awards to dictators who promise to whip their political prisoners nine times a week rather than ten.

Welfarists also claim that Amnesty International opposes the death penalty but proposes more “humane” methods of execution. That is simply false. Amnesty condemns the death penalty irrespective of method.

Another example relied on by welfarists is civil rights reforms. They argue that animal welfare reforms are similar to civil rights reforms and that, since we supported the latter, we ought to support the former. But, again, the analogy does not hold. Civil rights reforms occur in the context where we are talking about those who are regarded as persons and not things, as are slaves, torture victims, rape victims, or other humans whose fundamental rights are being violated. The question presented by a civil rights reform campaign is whether the reform is necessary to assure equal treatment of equal interests in order to resolve competing claims of persons. To say that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a U.S. law that outlawed racial segregation in theaters, restaurants, and hotels and rejected the claims of property owners that they were free to exclude whom they wished from their property) is analogous to a reform of slavery that prohibits a slave owner from beating his slaves more than ten times a week or a reform that requires a one-minute break in the torture sessions of political prisoners, is absurd. We could not reform our way out of slavery. The institution of slavery had to be abolished before civil rights initiatives could provide greater equality to people who were no longer considered to be property.

Welfarists also note that we pursue SICs in the human context. For example, we may have a campaign that targets genocide in Somalia but does not address genocide in Burundi or any other country. Welfarists claim that if SICs are problematic in the animal context and that if animal advocates should not pursue them, then it follows that SICs are similarly problematic in the human context and human rights advocates ought not to pursue them either.

Once again, welfarists do not recognize that there are important differences that make SICs in the human context relevantly different. When we oppose genocide in Somalia, we are not making any statement that genocide in Burundi or in other places is in any way more morally acceptable, or that the genocide in Burundi is the sort of genocide that Somalia ought to adopt. Our starting position is that genocide as an activity is morally wrong. So a campaign against genocide in one country cannot be understood as giving a green light to genocide in another country. But in the animal context, the starting point is that animal exploitation is morally acceptable (at least as long as it is “humane”), so a campaign against foie gras can only be understood as maintaining that foie gras is morally worse than other animal foods, which, by implication, are morally acceptable. A campaign against fur can only be understood as giving a green light to wool or leather.

A campaign against genocide in Somalia does not require the participation of people who support genocide in another country. On the contrary. Those opposing genocide in Somalia are not likely to want to include in their coalition anyone who supports genocide anywhere. SICs that involve animal uses or products require the participation of those who actively support and participate in relevantly indistinguishable forms of animal exploitation.

Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, at pages 50-52. © 2015 Gary L. Francione & Anna Charlton

There is another essay on this topic here.


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.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Learn more about veganism at

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

Anna Charlton
Adjunct Professor, Rutgers University

©2016 Gary L. Francione and Anna Charlton