Veganism: The Fundamental Principle of the Abolitionist Movement

Many animal welfare advocates claim that the rights position, which seeks the abolition of animal use, is not practical because it rejects incremental change and does not provide any guidance for what we should do now—today—to help nonhumans. These critics of the abolitionist position argue that we have no choice but to pursue more animal-welfare regulations—more attempts to make animal exploitation more “humane”—if we want to do something “practical” to help animals.

The notion that animal welfare regulations provide significant protection for animal interests is about as wrong as wrong gets. As I have discussed in my writing, because animals are property, they are only economic commodities with nothing but extrinsic or conditional value. Their interests have no inherent value. As a result, standards that require their “humane” treatment are interpreted in an economic sense and limit protection to what will provide an economic benefit to humans. Purported improvements in animal welfare do very little, if anything, to increase protection for animal interests; for the most part, they do nothing more than to make animal exploitation more economically efficient and socially acceptable. Moreover, there is no historical evidence that animal welfare regulation leads to abolition.

The welfarists are also mistaken to claim that the rights position does not provide any practical incremental steps that we can take on the road to abolition. There is very clear guidance for incremental change: veganism.

Veganism is not merely a matter of diet; it is a moral and political commitment to abolition on the individual level and extends not only to matters of food, but to clothing, other products, and other personal actions and choices. Becoming a vegan is the one thing that we can all do today—right now—to help animals. It does not require an expensive campaign, the involvement of a large organization, legislation, or anything other than our recognition that if “animal rights” means anything, it means that we cannot justify consuming or using meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or other animal products.

Veganism reduces animal suffering and death by decreasing demand. It represents a rejection of the commodity status of nonhumans and recognition of their inherent value. Veganism is also a commitment to nonviolence and the animal rights movement should be a movement of peace and should reject violence against all animals—nonhuman and human.

Many animal advocates claim to favor animal rights but continue to eat animal products. Indeed, many “leaders” of the animal movement are not vegans. That is no different from someone who claims to be in favor of the abolition of slavery but who continues to own slaves.

There is no meaningful distinction between eating flesh and eating dairy or other animal products. Animals exploited in the dairy industry live longer than those used for meat, but they are treated worse during their lives, and they end up in the same slaughterhouse after which we consume their flesh anyway. There is probably more suffering in a glass of milk or an ice cream cone than there is in a steak. And anyone who thinks that an egg—even a so-called “free range” one—is any less a product of horrible suffering than is meat does not know much about the egg industry.

If someone stops eating flesh but eats more dairy or eggs as a result (as many “vegetarians” do), this may actually increase suffering. In any event, to maintain that there is a moral distinction between eating flesh and eating dairy, eggs, or consuming other animal products, is as silly as maintaining that there is a moral distinction between eating large cows and eating small cows.

Rather than embracing veganism as a clear moral baseline, the animal advocacy movement has instead adopted the notion that we can act ethically and still consume animal products. Consider the following examples (of which there are many):

  • Peter Singer maintains that we can be “conscientious omnivores” and exploit animals ethically if, for example, we choose to eat “free-range” animals who have been raised and killed in a relatively “humane” manner. (The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, at 81-169) Singer praises purveyors of “humanely” exploited animals, such as Whole Foods Markets, Inc. and its CEO, John Mackey, as “ethically responsible” (177-83) and he describes strict veganism as “fanatical” (281).
  • Tom Regan featured Mackey as the keynote speaker for a 2005 conference entitled The Power of One, which focused on the ability of individuals to make meaningful changes for nonhumans. Regan celebrates Mackey and Whole Foods as “a driving force behind higher standards in animal welfare.”
  • PETA gave Whole Foods an award in 2004, claiming that the company “has consistently done more for animal welfare than any retailer in the industry, requiring that its producers adhere to strict standards.” PETA also gave an award in 2004 to slaughterhouse designer Temple Grandin, declaring her—quite remarkably in my view—to be a “visionary.”
  • Humane Farm Animal Care, with its partners the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal People, World Society for the Protection of Animals, and others, promotes the Certified Humane Raised & Handled Label, which it describes as “a consumer certification and labeling program” to give consumers assurance that a labeled “egg, dairy, meat or poultry product has been produced with the welfare of the farm animal in mind.”

It is, of course, as a general matter, always better to do less harm than more once we have decided to inflict harm. If we are going to eat an animal who has been tortured, I suppose that it is “better” to eat the one who has been tortured less. But putting aside the question whether “humanely” raised nonhumans are really tortured less than others, there is a big difference between the position that less suffering is better than more suffering, and the position that causing less suffering makes an action morally acceptable. The notion that the animal movement actively and explicitly promotes the latter position—that doing less harm is a morally acceptable solution to the problem of animal exploitation—is deeply troubling.

If X is going to rape Y, it is “better” that he not beat Y as well. It would, however, be morally repugnant to maintain that we can be “conscientious rapists” by ensuring that we not beat rape victims. Similarly, it is disturbing that animal advocates are promoting the notion that we can be morally “conscientious omnivores” if we eat the supposedly “humanely” produced animal products sold by “ethically responsible” purveyors of suffering and death. Not only is such a position in conflict with the notion that nonhumans have moral significance, but it strongly encourages people to see continued consumption as a morally acceptable alternative to adopting a vegan lifestyle.

Moreover, many of the animal organizations portray veganism as involving a difficult lifestyle that requires considerable self-sacrifice and is only for the “hardcore” advocate. I became a vegan 24 years ago. It was not particularly difficult back then but it is absolutely absurd to characterize it as difficult today. It is easy to be a vegan. Sure, you are more limited in your restaurant choices, particularly if you do not live in or near a large city, but if this inconvenience is significant to you and keeping you from being vegan, then you probably were not serious about the issue anyway.

The animal movement will never have even a hope of shifting the paradigm of speciesist hierarchy as long as it is not absolutely clear as a baseline principle that it is morally wrong to consume meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or any other products made from animals.

If, in the late 1980s—when the animal advocacy community in the United States decided very deliberately to pursue a welfarist agenda—a substantial portion of movement resources had been invested in vegan education and abolitionist education, there would likely be hundreds of thousands more vegans than there are today. This is a very conservative estimate given the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been expended by animal advocacy groups to promote welfarist legislation and initiatives. I maintain that having the increased number of vegans would reduce suffering more by decreasing demand for animal products than have all of the welfarist “successes” put together and multiplied ten-fold. Increasing the number of vegans would also help to build a political and economic base required for the social change that is a necessary predicate for significant legal change.

Given limited time and limited financial resources, it is not clear how anyone who seeks abolition as a long-term goal, or who at least accepts that the property status of animals is a most serious impediment to any significant change and must at least be radically modified, could believe that expansion of traditional animal welfare is a rational and efficient choice—putting aside any considerations about inconsistencies in moral theory.

Assume that tomorrow, you have two hours to spend on animal advocacy. You cannot do everything; you must choose. There is no doubt in my mind that 2 hours of your time spent on passing out literature about veganism is, in a number of ways, a much better use of your time than 2 hours of your time campaigning for bigger battery cages or for more “humane” forms of animal slavery.

In sum, just as someone who says that human slavery is wrong but who continues to own slaves is not really an abolitionist with respect to human slavery, someone who says that animal slavery is wrong but who does not embrace veganism as a way of life is not really an abolitionist with respect to animal slavery. Let those of us who accept the abolitionist approach be clear and unequivocal and promote veganism in our words and our actions.

Gary L. Francione
© 2006 Gary L. Francione