The basis of the animal welfare movement, stretching from its inception in the 19th century until the present day, is that animal use is itself acceptable because animals do not have an interest in continuing to live. According to welfarists, nonhuman animals are not self-aware and cognitively sophisticated in the way that humans are. This means that the lives of nonhumans are less valuable than the lives of humans. According to Peter Singer:
While self-awareness, the capacity to think ahead and have hopes and aspirations for the future, the capacity for meaningful relations with others and so on are not relevant to the question of inflicting pain . . . these capacities are relevant to the question of taking life. It is not arbitrary to hold that the life of a self-aware being, capable of abstract thought, of planning for the future, of complex acts of communication, and so on, is more valuable than the life of a being without these capacities.
Welfarists distinguish between killing, which is itself not morally objectionable, and the imposition of “unnecessary” suffering, which is morally objectionable. If we give animals a reasonably pleasant life and a relatively painless death, then our exploitation of animals may be morally acceptable. Again, according to Singer:
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.
It is this sort of thinking that has given impetus to the “happy” meat/animal products movement that is promoted by Singer and virtually all of the large animal organizations in the U.S. and Europe. Using animals is not the problem; the problem is animal suffering. If we decrease suffering through welfare reforms, then we make animal exploitation less morally objectionable. The public can continue to consume animals and feel good about being “compassionate.”
We should not be surprised that more and more people feel comfortable about consuming animal products. After all, they are being assured by the “experts” that suffering is being decreased and they can buy “happy” meat, “free-range” eggs, etc.. These products even come with labels approved of by animal organizations. The animal welfare movement is actually encouraging the “compassionate” consumption of animal products.
Animal welfare reforms do very little to increase the protection given to animal interests because of the economics involved: animals are property. They are things that have no intrinsic or moral value. This means that welfare standards, whether for animals used as foods, in experiments, or for any other purpose, will be low and linked to the level of welfare needed to exploit the animal in an economically efficient way for the particular purpose. Put simply, we generally protect animal interests only to the extent we get an economic benefit from doing so. The concept of “unnecessary” suffering is understood as that level of suffering that will frustrate the particular use. And that can be a great deal of suffering.
But the animal welfare position that that it is the suffering of animals and not their killing per se that raises a moral question begs a very important question: it assumes that because animal minds are different from human minds, animals, unlike humans, do not have the sort of self-awareness that translates into having an interest in continuing to live. The welfare position necessarily assumes that animal life has a lesser moral value than does human life. And welfarists explicitly agree with this, as is clear in my book, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?
A major focus of my work has been to challenge that welfarist assumption and to argue that the only non-speciesist position to take is that any sentient being–any being who is perceptually aware and has subjective states of awareness–has an interest in continuing to live. Any other view accords an arbitrary preference to human cognition. It is speciesist to maintain that animal life has a a lesser value than human life. This does not necessarily mean that we must treat nonhumans the way we treat humans for all purposes. It does, however, mean that for the purpose of being treated exclusively as a resource for others, all sentient beings are equal and we cannot justify treating any sentient being as a resource.
If animals have an interest in continuing to live, as I maintain they do simply by virtue of being sentient, and if that interest matters morally, which I argue that it must do, then there is only one plausible conclusion: any use–however “humane”–is unjust.
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.
And please remember: Animal welfare reforms do little, if anything, to reduce animal suffering. But, in any event, the important point is that 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
Professor, Rutgers University
©2011 Gary L. Francione