New Welfarism Fails on its Own Terms

Dear Colleagues:

The abolitionist approach maintains that ethical veganism is a moral baseline; it represents the recognition of the moral personhood of animals and the rejection of the notion that animals are commodities for human use. Ethical veganism is an essential component of a commitment to non-violence.

The new welfarist approach rejects veganism as a moral baseline. Indeed, new welfarists regard it as “fanatical” and as a matter of “personal purity” to maintain that veganism is anything more than a way of reducing suffering. In this sense, veganism is no different than consuming “happy” meat/animal products or being vegetarian and treating animal flesh as morally distinguishable from other animal products.

In my last Commentary and in my writing, including other essays on this site (see, e.g., here), I have explained that new welfarists, like classical welfarists, regard animal suffering as morally relevant but they do not regard nonhuman animals as having an interest in continued existence. Therefore, they do not see the use and killing of animals as per se morally objectionable as long as animals have a reasonably pleasant life and a relatively painless death.

The abolitionist approach maintains that animal advocates should be ethical vegans and should engage in creative, non-violent vegan education. The new welfarist approach maintains that advocates should promote welfare reform that they claim will reduce suffering.

But even on its own terms, the new welfarist approach does not work.

Consider this excerpt from The Animal Activist’s Handbook, by Matt Ball (of Vegan Outreach) and Bruce Friedrich (of PETA):

Every year, the average American consumes about one-tenth of a cow, one-third of a pig, one turkey, thirty-five chickens, and about fifty aquatic animals (mostly shellfish). She or he is also responsible for the output of one laying hen and one-thirtieth of a dairy cow. Based on the raw numbers alone, the best incremental step a meat eater can take for animals is to stop eating birds. And that’s how we talk with people: we focus on cruelty to birds first. Once they’ve seen they can make a step, it’s much easier for them to move on to stop eating pigs, fish (especially farmed fish), eggs, cattle, and then dairy.

Few people adopt a vegetarian diet overnight. If we help more people change by accepting incremental evolution–preferably by no longer eating birds and fish first, then pigs, then cattle–we can help spare many animals tremendous suffering. Since most people will otherwise go about this the other way (giving up cows and pigs first) we do a real service to animals by focusing on cruelty to factory farmed birds first.

Ball and Friedrich argue that welfare campaigns that highlight the “cruelty to factory farmed birds,” will “spare many animals tremendous suffering.”

This position is problematic for at least three reasons.

First, let us talk about the matter of practical psychology. Although it is certainly admirable that Ball and Friedrich want people to take poultry seriously, the notion that people who are eating cows and pigs are going to develop a moral concern about poultry is simply unrealistic. Unfortunately, most people have a pretty low opinion of poultry. Many people are almost hostile toward poultry. If the background of the infamous Sarah Palin interview was a cow being slaughtered and not a turkey, the public reaction would have been far different. So even if you think incremental welfare reform is a good idea, this approach simply misses a very large boat.

Second, let us assume that a person does give up eating poultry completely. She may eat more fish or consume more eggs or other animal products and any offset to suffering will be counterbalanced accordingly. The new welfarist position assumes that for every animal product that is not consumed, those calories will be replaced by plant foods. There is absolutely no reason to assume that.

Of course, in the real world, an incremental welfarist approach will, if anything, lead people to eat less beef and pork and more poultry, eggs, cheese, dairy, etc. And this is precisely why the incremental welfarist approach leads to an increase in overall suffering.

Third, the new welfarists assume that a campaign focused on cruelty to factory farmed birds will result in people stopping eating poultry.

Why on earth would the new welfarists assume this?

Is it not more likely that these welfarist campaigns will result in consumers seeking out one of the “happy” meat alternatives promoted by PETA and Vegan Outreach? Both groups, along with other new welfarist corporations led by Peter Singer, support the Animal Compassionate standard of Whole Foods. We have been told that there are “no differences of opinion about how animals should be treated” between PETA and Kentucky Fried Chicken as long as poultry are gassed and not electrically stunned. Or how about those wonderful animal products that have the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label supported by the Humane Society of the United States, ASPCA, and other groups?

Isn’t the explicit goal of these labeling programs to make consumers feel more comfortable about consuming animal products? That is a rhetorical question. Of course that is the goal.

So why do the new welfarists think that campaigns about factory farmed birds will stop people from eating poultry when the new welfarists are right there offering them a “happy” animal product? Isn’t it more likely that consumers will move into the “happy” meat market that the new welfarists have created?

And anyone who believes that the “happy” meat promoted by these new welfarist organizations really result in reduced suffering probably also believes in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The difference between a conventional battery egg and a cage-free egg is—at most—the difference between being tortured with electrical shocks while strapped into a padded chair rather than a chair without padding.

In sum, the new welfarists reject veganism as a moral baseline because they are concerned primarily with suffering. But their proposals for incremental welfare reform will not achieve a reduction in suffering.

New welfarism fails according to its own terms.

Go vegan. It’s easy; it’s better for you and for the planet; and most importantly, it’s the morally right thing to do.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione