The False Message of the New Welfarists

Dear Colleagues:

One of the subscriptions that I have is to a newsletter entitled Farmed Animal Watch that is produced periodically by Farmed Animal Net, which is a joint effort of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Farm Sanctuary, The Humane Society of the United States, and others.

For the most part, Farmed Animal Watch reports on investigations into “abuses” in the meat/animal products industries and various efforts that are undertaken by industry and governmental agencies to “improve” the treatment of these animals. According to its website:

Farmed Animal Net strives to be an objective, trustworthy source of academic and industry information for animal advocates, educators, researchers, the media, legislators, and others.

As an educator, I am all in favor of a source of “objective, trustworthy” information. But I am also concerned with the normative message that is conveyed by many of the stories in Farmed Animal Watch.

For example, in the most recent edition (April 8, 2009), the following story appears:


State police and Maine Department of Agriculture officials raided an egg facility known as Maine Contract Farming and Quality Egg of New England on April 1st, after Mercy for Animals (MFA) filed a complaint for civil and criminal charges to be brought against the facility and workers there. An MFA investigator allegedly documented animal abuse at the facility from mid-December to February. “It really indicated to us that there appeared to be some very deplorable and egregious animal welfare violations over there,” state veterinarian Don Hoenig said of the documentation, which included: supervisors and other workers kicking live hens into manure pits, holes in cage floors large enough for hens to fall into the pits below, hens with body parts stuck in caging including some 150 who were unable to access food or water, cages with decomposed bodies and rotting eggs, inhumanely killed hens and live hens in the garbage (see: ).

The general problem with this sort of recitation is that although it purports to be a statement of facts, it carries an implicit normative message: that there is some difference between the Maine facility, which involves “abuse,” and other intensive egg operations. The reality is that there may be small differences but the treatment of all of the hens in the egg industry is properly characterized as nothing short of torture.

The Farmed Animal Watch story reports that Radlo Foods, a major east coast egg distributor, announced that “it will sever ties with Quality Egg and plans to “‘become an exclusively cage-free company within 10 years,’ which reportedly will make it the first national egg company to do so.” This suggests that there is some significant difference between conventional battery eggs and “cage-free” eggs. But as the excellent educational materials produced by the Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary show quite clearly, any such suggestion is nonsense. Torture is torture. The walls of the torture chamber may be painted a nice color and have a few paintings, but it is still a torture chamber and any “improvements” are primarily to make those inflicting the torture feel better about their surroundings and their conduct toward the victims.

As an abolitionist, it is my view (and I have presented the argument in numerous essays and other materials on this site as well as in my books and articles) that we cannot justify the use of sentient nonhuman animals irrespective of whether the treatment is “humane” or not. That is, even if we could raise animals without any suffering and distress and kill them painlessly, it would still be morally wrong to do so because the life of every sentient being has moral value that precludes our treating that being exclusively as a resource. But the practical reality is that we cannot raise animals without any suffering and distress and kill them painlessly; the practical reality is that every animal product that we consume–whether from a local supermarket or from some upscale vendor of “happy” meat/animal products or from a smaller local farm–is the result of treatment that would clearly and unequivocally be considered as torture were humans the victims. Some places may be less brutal than others but all are terrible; all involve suffering, distress, and deprivation; all involve death.

The new welfarist movement, which promotes the idea that we can make this system of violence and death better or more “humane,” is promoting a message that I believe to be false. I accept that the new welfarists are acting in good faith when they promote “cage-free” eggs, gassing chickens, or measures such as California’s Proposition 2. I just think that they are seriously wrong and I see no evidence that suggests that all of these campaigns are doing anything more than making humans feel more comfortable about consuming nonhumans.

We certainly ought to make clear to the public the nature of the treatment of the animals we consume. But we also should make it clear that this system cannot be fixed in any way that would address the fundamental moral concerns. We should not promote the idea that some of this is “abuse” and some is not. It’s all abuse. It’s all morally unjustifiable. We should never use the word “humane” to describe any component of this machine of violence, torture and death.

Recently, Home Box Office presented a documentary entitled Death on a Factory Farm, which involved the horrors of a pig farm in Ohio. The usual response from those who saw this documentary was: “yes, that was a horrible farm but they’re not all that bad are they?” The short answer is: yes, they are all that bad and to the extent that some are better, they are still horrible. There is a difference between being tortured for 3 hours and being tortured for 3 hours and five minutes. But is the former morally acceptable or “humane” because it involves 5 minutes less torture?

We have got to get away from this fantasy that it is possible ever to produce animal products without torture. It’s impossible. Period. I repeat that I would still regard killing nonhumans to be morally wrong even if this were not the case, but it is the case. Consuming animals necessarily means that we support torture.

There is one response to the recognition that sentient nonhumans are full members of the moral community: we should go vegan and use creative, nonviolent means to educate everyone we can to do the same. We will never shift the moral paradigm if our message is that the problem is “abuse” at some egg factory in Maine or that the “cage-free” egg is anything more than an artifice that makes us feel better about exploiting them.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione