Rights or Wrongs
“During the past hundred years or so, until the late 1970s, concern about animals had been limited to assuring that they were treated ‘humanely’ and that they were not subjected to ‘unnecessary’ suffering. This position, known as the animal welfare view, assumes the legitimacy of treating animals instrumentally as means to human ends as long as certain ‘safeguards’ are employed… The late 1970s and 1980s marked the emergence of the animal rights movement, which retained the animal welfare tradition’s concern for animals as sentient beings that should be protected from unnecessary cruelty but added a new language of rights as the basis for demanding the end of institutionalized animal exploitation.”
Gary L. Francione Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement
In 2010, at the turn of a new decade, there is a great deal of confusion around the issue of animal rights, especially in regard to the movement’s relationship with a much older and more established institution – animal welfare.
Unfortunately, many advocates are not familiar with the history or basic theory that underlies each of these movements, and perhaps do not completely understand the differences in philosophy between the two. As a result, animal rights and animal welfare tend to be mistakenly perceived as two sides of the same coin; two parallel roads, each leading toward the same goal of ending animal suffering.
While it may appear on the surface that these two approaches can work side by side, they are, in fact, so remarkably divergent in basic philosophy that one must conclude that they are mutually exclusive. To some, that conclusion might seem counter-intuitive, but it is a notion that ought to be examined carefully by any serious animal advocate, as this divergence is the cause of much of the in-fighting that we witness in the movement today. Most important is that this issue should not be brushed off, as it so often is, as simply a matter of ‘divisive commentary’ about tactics or semantics.
Gary L. Francione is a Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers University and a respected philosopher of animal rights law and ethical theory. He is known for his criticism of animal welfare laws and regulations, his abolitionist theory of animal rights, and his promotion of veganism and nonviolence as the baseline principles of the abolitionist movement. As documented in Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, and in subsequent essays published on his website www.AbolitionistApproach.com, Francione makes a powerful case for the necessity of rejecting animal welfare reform efforts, and argues that the confusion that has resulted from the joining of ‘rights’ (and the issue of animal use) with ‘welfare’ (and the issue of animal treatment) has obscured the original message of animal rights and is inhibiting the progression of the movement.
“The need to distinguish animal rights from animal welfare is clear not only because of the theoretical inconsistencies between the two positions but also because the most ardent defenders of institutionalized animal exploitation themselves endorse animal welfare. Almost everyone – including those who use animals in painful experiments or who slaughter them for food – accepts as abstract propositions that animals ought to be treated ‘humanely’ and ought not to be subjected to unnecessary suffering. Animal rights theory explicitly rejects this approach, holding that animals, like humans, have inherent value that must be respected. The rights view reflects a shift from a vague obligation to act ‘humanely’ to a theory of justice that rejects the status of animals as property [emphasis added]… The rights theorist rejects the use of animals in experiments or for human consumption, not simply because these activities cause animals to suffer, but because such use violates fundamental obligations of justice that we owe to nonhumans.”
Despite the fact that all our uses of animals are unnecessary, and many are, in fact, harmful to human health and the environment, animal exploitation enters into almost every aspect of our lives, from what we eat and wear, to our medicines and scientific research, to what we do for entertainment. In a society where extreme violence toward animals is not only widespread, but is considered completely socially acceptable, many advocates perceive animal welfare as the practical application of animal rights theory; the way to bring the lofty ideals of animal rights to the real world. To those who see the end of all animal use as an unattainable ideal, animal welfare reforms, which purport to lessen the suffering of animals currently enslaved, might appear to be a practical solution to the very real problem of the slow pace of social change.
But in his essay, The Four Problems of Animal Welfare: In a Nutshell, Francione argues against the efficacy of welfare reform efforts, for the following reasons:
- First, animal welfare measures provide little, if any, significant protection to animal interests.
- Second, animal welfare measures make the public feel better about animal exploitation and this encourages continued animal use.
- Third, animal welfare does nothing to eradicate the property status of animals.
- Fourth, every second of time and every cent of money spent on making exploitation more “humane” is less money and time spent on vegan/abolition education.
So why has the animal ‘rights’ movement, supposedly born in recognition of the inherent value of animals’ lives and in reaction to the inadequacies of the animal welfare movement, chosen the path of pursuing welfare reform after all? Rain Without Thunder documents the history of the rights movement and its ongoing love-affair with the enviable aspects of the welfare movement – greater public approval, insider status with exploiters and regulatory bodies, the immediate gratification that comes from short-term ‘victories’, and perhaps most enviable of all – an endless stream of funding from the pockets of mainstream donors who will write a check for animal welfare efforts but not for vegan education.
It’s true that in recent years the cause of animal rights has made its way into mainstream consciousness, but it has done so at the expense of its fundamental principles. As a result, the movement has lost sight of its goal and gone wildly off-course, the public has become totally confused as to what the words ‘animal rights’ really stand for, and the animals are suffering in more horrendous ways and in greater numbers than ever before.
Surely, in 2010, it is time for us all to take a step back and look honestly at where we are, how we came to be here, and where we are going in the future. In the decade to come, are we going to continue to sell our ideals in exchange for the illusion of ‘incremental’ change, or are we going to stand up for what we really believe in, embrace veganism as a moral imperative, and demand the recognition of the rights of those we are fighting for?
The confusion and incoherency that permeates the current climate of the animal rights movement is not only discomforting and upsetting, it is also paralyzing, and the best way we can fight against this is to be crystal clear about our position: that all uses of animals are unethical, and that those of us who truly care about the rights of others must renounce our own participation in cruelty of every kind.