On Infighting, Welfarism, Rights, and Abolition



Before I get into this, let me preface by saying a few things.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues over the last nine months.  I’ve started two or three posts on the issue and have ended up abandoning them because I didn’t know which direction I was going to go with them.  In fact, I still don’t know.

While I consider myself an animal advocate, I don’t feel like I’ve delved very deeply into the animal rights “movement.”  That is to say, I don’t have a day job at one of the national organizations, I haven’t attended demonstrations, and I don’t spend a lot of time doing letter writing campaigns.  All of these are good things, but based on time constraints and other considerations, I have to choose different ways to advocate for animals (like this blog).  As a result, this means I can still view arguments between national groups and well-known activists with somewhat of an outsider’s eye.

It’s never ceased to surprise me that any group, no matter how small or how niche, will always break down into in-fighting at one point or another.  One cause that I’ve been involved with for years has split into a number of factions because of disagreements and personality conflicts, this despite the fact that the cause is a disease that only affects about 50 people in the entire world.  So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that a lot of people working together for the same core reason — the animals — will often disagree on the best way to help.

I’d like to think that every serious animal advocate is an abolitionist at their core: they want to see animal exploitation go away.  They’d like the world to be vegan and they want animal interests to be considered alongside human interests.  The differences start to arise when the methods to get there come up.

Welfare, Rights, and Abolition

Welfarists believe incremental steps are an important part of the animal rights strategy.  Encourage changes within the system to improve the lives of the animals that are slaughtered, educate people about the conditions at factory farms and hope that if these people move to organic/free range meat and eggs, it’s only the first of many steps they’ll make to ending animal cruelty in their lives.

Pure abolitionists believe that we shouldn’t spend time promoting or fighting for things like removal of gestation crates for sows or cage free eggs on college campuses.  They don’t view these as victories because any marginal gains for the animals are offset by the people that now feel content with eating their humanely-raised meat or cage-free eggs.

Should we spend our resources on welfare reforms?

The primary arguments for spending time and money on these reforms include:

  1. They cost the industry money.
  2. They reduce animal suffering.
  3. They are effective in getting people to give up animal products (which is, presumably, the real end goal).

So, do these hold up?

The first question is the hardest for me to answer, even though it probably can be calculated and stated somewhat definitively.  Yes, the industry spends money to defend against welfare reforms.  Yes, implementing the reforms initially will probably cost them money.  But in literature from national organizations, one of the benefits touted to the industry is that the changes will be cost effective and will, presumably, increase profits.

We also see the industry taking credit for these changes, using them as a way to say, “Hey, look at us.  We care about the animals.  Buy from us, we’re not evil!”

I suspect that it may cost the industry a little money up front, but I have a tough time believing that incremental welfare reforms will cost them much money in the long-run.  The industry has proven itself as extremely adaptable.  If they are forced to comply with one new welfare regulation, they’ll find another loophole to exploit that will make up for it.

Next is the reduction in animal suffering.  Yes, it is better that a sow can turn around rather than being jammed in a gestation crate.  And yes, it may be better that a chicken doesn’t have to stand on wire.  However, from people I know that have been to “free range” or “cage free” farms, they describe these places as every bit as bad as a battery cage operation.  There’s still almost no room to move, the birds are still debeaked, there’s still an unbearable stench, and the birds don’t receive any extra medical care.  I haven’t been to either a battery cage facility or a free range facility, so I’m forced to go on what others have told me.

So, while there are (from my perspective) marginal welfare gains from adoption of cage free or free range eggs, I’m a bit concerned by lauding these as a “victory.”  It reminds me of Chris Rock’s bit about men that brag, “I take care of my children!”  Rock responds, “You’re supposed to take care of your children!  What do you want, a cookie?”  The industry should be treating these animals better.  Do we really want to give them a cookie just because they’re mistreating chickens slightly less?

Do I think pushing for animal welfare is a waste of time and money?  I don’t know.  I mean, in some sense, when there’s all this awful stuff going on, shouldn’t we try and make it better for the animals going through it right now?  On the other hand, would a wrongly trapped prisoner want groups to mobilize their writing campaigns to focus on getting him a bigger cell or would he a want campaign that worked to get him out of jail altogether and keep it from happening again to someone else?

I realize this isn’t the perfect metaphor, but it’s how I’ve thought through this issue thus far.  Take from it what you will.

Lastly, we need to think about whether or not these incremental steps will help encourage people to move to vegetarianism or veganism.  Several years ago, I might have said, “Yeah, going organic/free range is a good first step.”  However, as I’ve talked to more people and read more material, I’m not convinced of this anymore.  One great example: this past Christmas, I had a discussion with a family member who was fully convinced that eating free range eggs was fine because “the birds are treated so well.”  The way I see it, we have enough trouble convincing the average person that eggs aren’t OK even though they “don’t involve killing the chicken.”  People already have to be convinced to not eat eggs.  If we also have to convince them that, no, free range isn’t really OK, it adds an added layer of complexity for animal advocates.

An even more disturbing trend that I noted in an earlier post is that of long-time vegetarians returning to eating meat because now they can feel better about it.  I don’t know the de-conversation rate we’re talking about here, but the fact that anyone went from ethical vegetarianism back to consuming animal products scares the hell out of me.  I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but it’s happening, which means that this idea of “humanely raised meat” may not be having the results originally hoped for in terms of being a stepping stone to veg*nism.

Marcus v.s. Francione

This weekend, I listened to the lengthy debate between Erik Marcus and Gary Francione.  I was looking forward to this because both men are passionate about animal rights, have a lot of common ground, and state their positions well.  I’ve got to be honest, though… listening to this “debate” (not really a debate since there were no time restrictions or moderators) was difficult.  Uncomfortable, even.

Reading reaction to the debate, I wasn’t surprised to see a wide variety of responses.  Some felt that Erik came across as ill-prepared for Gary’s onslaught.  Others felt Gary was rude by frequently interrupting and dismissing what Erik had to say.  Still others thought that Erik was the rude one by calling Francione a “fundamentalist” without having read his books.

Part of the reason I felt very ill-at-ease while listening to the debate was that I really wanted this debate to go well.  I’m friends with Erik and he was a big influence on me throughout my veg* journey, but at the same time, I find Gary to be an engaging speaker with very solid ideals.  And man, he’s a freakin’ fireball.  I’d love to see him go up against someone like Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity.  Or someone from the CCF.

Nevertheless, I found myself getting frustrated by the interruptions, the flow of the discussion, and the general tone from both of them.  And I think both participants felt the same way, as they sounded completely exasperated with each other by the end.

That said, while it wasn’t easy to listen to the debate, I encourage everyone to do so (if you don’t have time for the whole thing, listen to the first part — the second part involves a lot of going around in circles).  I think that even though these discussions may be uncomfortable and bring up a lot of strong emotions, it’s crucial that we talk.

One thing that’s baffled me has been the fact we have two very similar AR conferences: Animal Rights and Taking Action for Animals.  In recent years, national organizations have refused to participate in one of the conferences because SHAC supporters were on the same agenda.  Not the same panel, necessarily, but just at the same conference.  They didn’t want to be associated with the “extremists.”

As far as I’m concerned, we need to mobilize all corners of the AR movement.  Of course there are going to be disagreements and arguments, but for heaven’s sake, let’s talk about it.  Let’s take a look at things from all angles and honestly consider tactics, techniques, and ways that we spend our money.  Long-time activists need to hear new ideas and newcomers need to pay attention and learn from those that have come before them.

I realize I’m saying this as a relative newcomer to the movement that is very much still an outsider.  I know I’ve got a lot to learn and that my perspectives will change with time, but I get this feeling that we’re at a very important crossroads in the movement.  We need to respectfully sit down and discuss things on a level that doesn’t get personal.  One side shouldn’t say (or even imply) that the other is wasting their time.  Or dismiss the other’s opinions out of hand because it’s different.  Or ignore another viewpoint because it may seem too extreme or fundamentalist on the surface.  If we can form a real, honest dialogue that leaves egos and personal conflicts at the door, perhaps we can figure out where we really go from here.  I suspect there isn’t a simple answer.


Here’s some more stuff to read/listen to, primarily with regards to the debate.  I haven’t gone through all of these, so this is as much a list for me as it is for you:

5 Responses to “On Infighting, Welfarism, Rights, and Abolition”

  1. Nicole

    Bravo! Thank you for a well-articulated and non-confrontational article, Ryan.

    I too have been struggling with this same issue for the past several months. At times I have wondered if I was being too rigid in my abolitionist beliefs, especially when I have been viewed by people in my life as inflexible and too argumentative. But I can’t deny that I simply don’t see “improvements” such as slightly larger battery cages and the banning of gestation crates as successes. This is especially because I fear that such so-called successes create complacency amongst some people and corporations who think these “changes” mean that is all they have to do to get AR activists off their backs. As well, I worry that these “improvements” are used by others to placate their consciences with the idea that exploitation is acceptable as long as they can somehow feel good about continuing to torture and mutilate other beings.

    It has been a belief of mine that individuals and organizations (welfarists) that support “improvements” in the factory farming of animals are supporting measures that make the movement to abolish all animal exploitation a more difficult and drawn-out process. I believe this because while these baby steps, as some like to refer to them, might seem like positive accomplishments, they actually delay the process of the abolition of exploitation by encouraging the view that it is okay to exploit animals.

    At the same time, I believe that as long as we all continue to fight amongst ourselves about who is right, pitting welfarist and abolitionist arguments against each other to determine whose argument is more valid, our focus has less to do with the plight of the creatures we claim to care about and more to do with our egos. For those of us who truly want an end to all animal exploitation, it is time to put aside the the egos and really come together by creating dialogues that result in a happy end to our means. It might take a little time, but if we believe animals have a right to live their own existences free of harm, we need to look past our hangups, share our experiences and views and take effective action that results in real, complete successes in the abolishment of exploitation. We can’t create peace if we can’t have peace amongst ourselves.

  2. Marleigh

    “At the same time, I believe that as long as we all continue to fight amongst ourselves about who is right, pitting welfarist and abolitionist arguments against each other to determine whose argument is more valid, our focus has less to do with the plight of the creatures we claim to care about and more to do with our egos.”

    Excellent. This is my exact problem with debates like this—in-fighting isn’t going to accomplish anything.

    As much as I respect Erik Marcus, having an author and activist debate a philosophy professor is a doomed experiment. Further, I know most people don’t have degrees in philosophy, but Francione’s work is riddled with fallacious reasoning. A much better debate would be to pit Francione against Peter Singer, who could more effectively rebut Francione’s rhetoric and circular reasoning.

  3. RollingDoughnut.com

    On Buying Absolution…

    From Kip I learned of this brief essay by Michael Dorf. Here are the first two of its three paragraphs:In my FindLaw column yesterday, I argued that Al Gore undermines his ability to act as a spokesman for combating global……

  4. Jane

    Marleigh, could you please state where Gary’s work is ‘riddled with fallacious reasoning’.

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