Abolitionism and Welfare Reform: A Debate


Spencer Lo

Professor Gary Francione and Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary recently had a short, substantive exchange on abolitionism and welfare reform, consisting of two opening statements and a response to each. Below is my summary of the exchange. Obviously, nothing can be settled in a short debate, but I hope to highlight and sharpen the areas of disagreements between the two. 

Francione’s Opening Statement

Differences between regulationists and abolitionists

A. Regulationists focus primarily on animal treatment. They generally support: (1) welfare reform, such as “enriched” cages for hens; (2) single-issue campaigns; and (3) the consumption of “happy” animal products. Moreover, regulationists promote veganism only as a way to reduce suffering, not as a moral baseline.

B. Abolitionists reject all animal use on moral grounds, and in addition to rejecting (1)-(3) above, they promote veganism as a moral imperative. Further, abolitionists reject regulationism for three practical reasons:

  • (i). Animal welfare measures do little to protect animal interests. Animals are property, and since protecting their interests requires money, welfare standards will always remain low. Rather than impose significant costs, many welfare reforms increase production efficiency. Example: controlled-atmosphere killing.
  • (ii). Welfare measures encourage continued animal use by making the public feel better about animal exploitation. This occurs when groups like PETA give praise and awards to McDonalds for improved animal treatment.
  • (iii). Single issue campaigns inaccurately characterize some forms of exploitation as worse than others. Example: Fur is not worse than leather or wool.

C. Abolitionists view animal advocacy as a zero-sum game. The more time and money spent on welfare reforms, the less can be spent on vegan/abolitionist education; advocates should focus only on the latter. Doing both sends contradictory and hopelessly confusing messages.

Friedrich’s Response

(B) is false: abolitionists can promote veganism as a moral baseline in addition to welfare reforms and single-issue campaigns (examples: Mercy for Animals, Vegan Outreach, PETA, COK, the Humane League, Farm Sanctuary). Welfare reforms reduce suffering, reduce meat consumption, and bring us closer to animal liberation.

I. Welfare reforms reduce suffering

B(i) is false. For pregnant sows, there is a meaningful difference between gestation crates and group housing. Similarly, for chickens who have their throats slit while conscious, painless deaths are meaningfully better. Because reforms lessen animal suffering, when the only alternatives are more suffering or less, that alone justifies supporting them.

II. Welfare reforms reduce meat consumption and move us toward animal liberation.

Egg-consumption declined in EU countries that independently banned battery cages. Moreover, according to the Journal of Agricultural Economics, media coverage of certain welfare campaigns have led to reduced consumption in all animal products.

Animal agriculture spends millions fighting welfare reforms, which refutes the notion that they increase the overall profits of regulated industries. Example: the pork and egg industries spent $10 million trying (unsuccessfully) to defeat Proposition 2.

Friedrich’s Opening Statement

Welfare reforms are good for animals and animal liberation

A. Welfare reforms significantly reduce suffering. Cage-free conditions are significantly less bad than battery cages, and group housing conditions are significantly less bad than gestation crates. Consider the situation from the animals’ pov.

  • (i) Imagine pigs in gestation crates. If they were human beings, human rights activists would fight for improved conditions even if release wasn’t possible. The ACLU and Amnesty International do this for prisoners who should not be jailed but won’t be freed, by demanding the cessation of torture and less abuse.
  • (ii) Civil and women’s rights advocates supported incremental improvements–each reform a welcomed step toward complete equality. Similarly, for animal advocates, immediate and complete liberation is not the only thing worth fighting for.

B. Welfare reforms reduce meat consumption; they help activists make the point to society that farm animals have interests which ethically prohibits killing and eating them.

C. Welfare measures, by reducing meat consumption in the short term, help the long-term goal of abolition. They raise public consciousness and persuade many nonvegetarians to reconsider their ethics and actions, and victories prompt animal groups to push for further reforms, which in turn raises the public consciousness again–thus a slippery slope toward abolition.

Francione’s Response

(B) and (C) are false. There is no credible evidence that reforms reduce meat consumption or lead to abolition. Animal rights advocates should clearly oppose all animal exploitation and clearly promote the message that no animal use is morally justifiable. The one focus should be on decreasing demand. When animal groups promote or praise industry standards, that only perpetuates demand and makes people feel better about consuming animal products.

(A) is false; welfare reforms do little to help animals. “Enriched” cages do not overcome the severe problems of conventional cages, and certain alternatives to gestation creates – which industry will adopt anyway – lower production costs.

  • Friedrich failed to note, in his mention of Amnesty International, that they do not praise exploiters who torture less. Animal rights organizations should not either.


Related links

[1] Gary Francione’s podcast debate with Robert Garner. See also this piece, which relates to (A) in Francione’s opening statement.

[2] Bruce Friedrich and Alex Hershaft debate the value of welfare reforms here. Moreover, in this piece, Friedrich explains why activists should support incremental reforms.

[3] For an in depth and critical treatment of Francione’s abolitionist position, see these articles by philosopher David Sztybel.

[4] In Friedrich’s response, he mentioned a presentation by Nick Cooney and an essay by Vegan Outreach. See these two responses to Cooney’s presentation, the first by James LaVeck and Jenny Stein, and the second by Leslie Armstrong (Cooney replies to the latter in comments).

7 Responses

  1. As a vegan, I’d like to see the whole world go vegan overnight. Tonight. Heck, I’d settle for just America. Actually, I’d be happy if it were all the people I’ve ever known. But I’m not holding my breath.

    I guess philosophers are born to philosophize about these things, and maybe the most important result is that it helps others of us clarify our own thinking–even without arriving at irrefutable conclusions. In my heart, I’m with Francione. In my head, I don’t see how anything but an incremental approach will work. Some research has shown that people who make incremental change–take Meatless Monday as an example–will be more willing to make further changes. The following is from the Humane Research Council:

    “The challenge for vegetarian and vegan advocates is to find ways to encourage people to make small changes relative to where they are now, and then to continue encouraging additional small changes over time. Currently, however, most approaches to vegetarian/vegan advocacy appear to involve trying to persuade people to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets directly, without identifying interim steps to achieve that desired end goal. But HRC’s research showed that there are three times as many people who are willing to cut their meat consumption in half when compared with those who are willing to eliminate meat entirely.” http://www.humanespot.org/content/research-popularity-meatless-mondays

    I had an opportunity to protest battery cages at McD’s. I didn’t go because it felt (to me) like condoning factory farming *with conditions.* But I applaud the people who did protest–it’s likely they raised awareness that, hey, there’s an actual living being on the front end of that egg McSuffrin’. Is it possible that our movement is broad enough for both approaches? (Yes, Francione says that’s contradictory, but so are humans.) Or that humans are diverse enough so that those who shut down any notion of an abolitionist approach might still be susceptible to an incremental approach? Overcoming speciesism is a long-haul proposition–longer even than the civil and women’s rights movements (and those groups still haven’t achieved full parity).

  2. Thanks, Spencer, for another characteristically concise and interesting post.

    Not having studied this vital issue in sufficient depth, I’m still resolutely non-committal on the great divide between proponents of abolition and welfare. It does increasingly seem to me, however, that there is another , far more important question which completely overshadows this and other fissures in the an-lib movement, but one which cannot be too openly discussed by AR groups or leaders, as open discussion would be PR suicide. I refer to the moral impermissibility of human procreation. For anyone concerned with the rights of human and nonhuman animals, which is to say with animal rights in the broadest sense, non-procreation appears to me greatly to outweigh even such morally weighty decisions as the kind of diet one chooses. Better, in my view, a non-breeding carnivore than a philoprogenitive vegan. The best, if unwitting, promoters of animal rights may not be its overt champions, but those writers whose genius presents a vision of unmitigated nihilism. Get enough exposure to Flaubert, Beckett, Ionesco etc at the right age and the withering inanity of the human condition will become burningly clear. The Beckettian nihilist, enlightened by an ethically hygienic intimacy with cosmic desolation, is not particularly likely to go out and breed–or, it should be added, to commit any of the loathsome deeds to the perpetration of which humans are drawn by their tawdry, vanity-born illusions

  3. Hey Kathleen and Joe,

    Thanks for your great comments. I just updated my post to include some relevant links under “Related Links” that might be of interest. And Joe: you might be interested in philosopher David Benatar’s book, “Better Never to Have Been.” There are many excellent reviews of it online, one by Peter Singer in NYT.

  4. I respectfully diasgaree with both commentators. Critically Animal Liberation is not represented here. Both argiments abve may be decnstructed. Wlefarism with no more is little other than a synnymn for collaboration. Abolitonism in praxis is little more than a hold your nose intellectual joke without activism.

  5. Spencer,

    ‘Anti-natalism!’ Who’da thunk it? I feel like the idiot bourgeois in Moliere’s play who’s delighted to discover that he’s been speaking ‘prose’ for years without even knowing it. It sounds like a fascinating book. I’ve set about getting a copy..

  6. Philosopher Jean Kazez has blogged a bit about Benatar’s book and ideas. http://kazez.blogspot.com/2010/03/david-benatar-interviewed.html

  7. […] intra-movement critique happening in regards to our tactics of animal activism – such as the infamous liberation vs. welfare debate or the recent backlash against HSUS’ sponsorship of a meat-eating festival – I see much […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: