A Short Essay on the Meaning of “New Welfarism”

Many of those who are new to thinking about animal ethics get very upset when I say that a group or individual is “new welfarist.” Part of the problem is that these people do not know the history of the animal movement or understand the various ideologies involved. Indeed, many of them reject out of hand any need for theory. But that is silly and most ill-advised. One needs a theory to understand what action to take. Action without theory is, at best, chaotic and confused. And, in a culture where animal exploitation is both pervasive and accepted, action in the absence of theory almost always reinforces the prevailing paradigm.

The classical welfarist position is that animal use is morally acceptable as long as we seek to treat animals in a “humane” manner. The focus of the classical welfare movement is on welfare reforms. Classical welfarists also traditionally promoted certain single-issue campaigns, such as the campaign against fur.

In the 1990s, many groups that claimed to reject classical welfarism–the so-called “animal rights” groups that arose in the 1980s–decided to promote the same old donation-generating welfarist campaigns and single-issue campaigns but claimed that they were doing so as a means to the end of achieving “animal rights.” I identified that position as “new welfarism” and argued that it was morally problematic because it was speciesist. We would never promote “humane [fill in the blank with any sort of fundamental human rights violation]” as a supposed means of achieving recognition of human rights. Welfare campaigns were also problematic from a practical point of view: not only would they not lead to abolishing animal use, they would actually make people more comfortable about continuing to exploit nonhuman animals. People who think that exploitation has been made more “humane” feel better about, and are encouraged to continue, participating in animal exploitation. Moreover, because animals are chattel property, any welfare reforms are likely to be very minor, make animal exploitation more economically efficient, and be the sorts of things that rational institutional exploiters would adopt anyway.

Single-issue campaigns are problematic because, by targeting a particular animal use, particularly in the absence of a clear, unequivocal, and consistent condemnation of all animal use, they necessarily promote the idea that some forms of exploitation are worse than others and, by implication, that other forms of exploitation are morally better or morally acceptable. Single-issue campaigns substitute one form of exploitation for another. A good example of the problem is the anti-fur campaign, which has been going on for decades now and, in addition to being relentlessly sexist and misogynistic, has conveyed the notion that fur is worse than, say, wool. It is not uncommon to see people at anti-fur demos wearing wool. People who protest foie gras eat steak, chicken, and fish, and think that they are acting in a morally better way.

I wrote about these topics in the 1990s in my books, Animals, Property, and the Law (1995), and Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (1996). More recently, the book I co-authored with Anna Charlton, Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach 2015, discusses these issues.

More recently, some who claim to be “Abolitionist” have gotten upset when I say that their position or the position of the group in which they are involved, is “new welfarist.” They reply: “But I don’t promote welfare reforms.” That may be true in one sense, but statements like:

* “I am an Abolitionist and do not promote welfare reform myself but I don’t want to be divisive and I don’t criticize groups that promote welfare reform,” or
* “I don’t promote welfare reform but I seek to build bridges with the groups that promote welfare reform,” or
* “I don’t promote the consumption of cage-free eggs but I have respect for those who do because I think they sincerely want all egg consumption to end”
* “I don’t promote welfare reforms but I work with groups that do and we do projects together”

are new welfarist positions because these statements acknowledge the validity of welfare reform as a supposed means toward Abolition. These positions promote animal exploitation.

If someone says, “I am opposed to all animal use but I ask people to sign petitions to companies so that they stop ‘abusive’ practices and comply with various regulations,” that is new welfarist. Campaigns against “abusive” practices and demands to comply with regulations send a very clear message: animal use can be morally acceptable under the right circumstances irrespective of what the speaker intends.

Advocates who promote single-issue campaigns are promoting new welfarism because they are necessarily substituting one form of exploitation for another. Moreover, many single-issue campaigns rely on various sorts of human discrimination: sexism, racism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism.

Finally, many people do not understand that Abolitionism, at least as I have developed that idea, involves Six Principles: Every sentient being has a right not to be used as property (Principle 1); Abolitionists should never promote welfare reform campaigns or single-issue campaigns (Principle 2); Abolitionists should promote veganism as a moral imperative (Principle 3); Sentience and no other cognitive characteristic is necessary to have the moral right not to be used exclusively as a resource (Principle 4); Abolitionists should reject all forms of discrimination–human and nonhuman (Principle 5); and Abolitionists should reject violence and promote nonviolence (Principle 6).

I understand that we live in a time of video games and Twitter, and many people cannot be bothered to learn anything. They don’t care about what has happened in the past. They don’t care about ideology. They think that reading is a waste of time. They just want to be “activists.” Indeed, they often say things like, “You are putting philosophy ahead of action.” Anyone who would say such a thing knows nothing about how social movements function and is more interested in entertainment than in social change. We live in a world of limited time and resources. One cannot identify what actions one should choose in the absence of a theory that identifies those actions that are consistent with the moral basis of the movement.

It is terribly troubling that so many “animal advocates” know nothing about the history of the movement. All I can say is to repeat what philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


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.

Embracing veganism as a moral imperative and advocating for veganism as a moral imperative are, along with caring for nonhuman refugees, the most important acts of activism that you can undertake.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Learn more about veganism at www.HowDoIGoVegan.com.

Gary L. Francione
Board of Governors Professor of Law, Rutgers University
Honorary Professor (Philosophy) University of East Anglia

©2018 Gary L. Francione