This piece has been a long time coming. My position as a vegan is often misunderstood. When I argue for abolition the retorts I receive are welfarist in nature. My peers can’t quite grasp the fact that I want to see the end of all animal use rather than give them bigger cages. Subsequently, I get called an extremist.
My position as an abolitionist is roughly guided by the animal rights philosophy of legal scholar, Gary Franicone. At first I went vegetarian after reading Peter Singer’s brilliant though subdued “Animal Liberation”. I could have stopped there and remained a user of dairy cows and lay hens but it didn’t seem right. I read further. I stumbled upon Francione through his great “Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach” website and community. The more I read the more I was convinced that veganism was the baseline. As much as vegetarianism had more mainstream appeal it didn’t see to go far enough.
Since the beginning, some 4-odd years ago, my position has been refined. However, it still has its feet in the works of Singer and Francione. I suggest if you want for this piece to be elaborated on, check out “Animal Liberation” (especially the chapter, “All Animals Are Equal”) and “Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach“. Here I shall give only of an overview of my position. For posts hereafter will all contain elements of my philosophy in a more practical context. Already I have written about outreach and the environmental and health aspects of animal usage, all touched by my position as an abolitionist. There is a common thread: veganism is the baseline if you genuinely believe that animals deserve moral consideration.
One thing I would like to get straight first. I write from the position of a non-subservient person in an affluent country. I don’t believe for a moment that my plights are the same as somebody in Mali or who has found themselves lost in the jungle with only a waterhole full of arapaima for sustenance. I live in a society of choice. As does the audience for whom this post is intended.
The animal welfarism movement–“new welfarism” it is often called by abolitionists–wants a world in which the least amount of harm is imposed on non-human animals. This world is starting to come into effect. Wander through your supermarket and you will see “humane” this, “free range” that, “sow-stall free” pork and “sustainable” seafood. The welfarism movement–often called the “animal rights” movement–has its central focus on the regulation of animal exploitation. Animal exploitation is okay, provided it is regulated to cause the least amount of suffering.
Consider two worlds. In one world children are molested and beaten. In the other they are only molested. Which of the two worlds is better? The world in which the least amount of suffering is imposed is always better. This is a moral intuition most of us will possess. It is true, too, of welfarism. A world in which the suffering of animals is reduced is the aim. However, this thesis asks nothing of the use of animals. Animals are allowed to be used, provided they suffer less.
According to Wikipedia, “The abolitionists’ objective is to secure a moral and legal paradigm shift, whereby animals are no longer regarded as things to be owned and used“. The basis for this is the fact that animals like cows, pigs and sheep are all sentient. They have the capacity for subjective experience. The axiom which Francione’s version of abolitionism seeks to postulate is that “all sentient beings should have at least one right—the right not to be treated as property”.
Why should this be true? Why should animals have this right? Sentience.
It is without question that some animals–including the ones that end up on our plate–are sentient. This sentience ought to stand for something. In the welfarists view, sentience equates to the way in which we ought to treat an animal. Because an animal is sentient means that it should experience the least amount of suffering that is practicable. It’s okay to kill the animal provided it lives a good, stress-free life. This view is flawed. The way in which animals are treated, regardless of our best intentions, would be considered torture if a human were involved. Animals are bred for the table. Sure, they may get to stand in a lush field all day and gnaw on grass. But well before the end of their natural life they are crammed into the back of a truck, marched down a concrete corridor to waiting captive bolt pistol. They will the be chained up and pulled to pieces. Before being wrapped in plastic and sold to you on the premise of being “humanely raised”. So why a cow but not a human?
The answer is speciesism. Wikipedia defines speciesism as the “assignment of different values, rights, or special consideration to individuals solely on the basis of their species membership“. Should a man treat a woman differently to the way that he wishes to be treated on the basis that she is a woman? The same for skin colour, age or sexuality. Few open-minded people would tolerate such behaviour. Yet speciesism is culturally and institutionally condoned. It is okay to treat an animal in a way in which for a human it would be considered torture because they are an animal–they belong to a different species. Like most conscientious people don’t accept racism, abolitionists don’t accept speciesism.
So we agree animals are sentient, right? We agree that if humans were treated the same way as even “humanely raised” animals, it would be considered torture, right? We agree that speciesism defines this attitude pretty well, right? Then what are we left with? We are left in the same position as we were when confronted with sexism or racism in the past, and homophobia more recently. Would have incremental change been an acceptable tactic during the civil rights movement? Or a more daring example: would it be acceptable to regulate murder so that murders kill only less rather than not at all? We seem to consider these matters differently. I get told regularly that “You can’t compare the two” or “It’s not the same”. The worst thing I can do, it seems, is use slavery as an example. This is the thing, though, I am not trying to compare the two. I am merely showing the similarities in how things ought to change and provide a critique of welfarism.
From all this, for me at least, it follows that veganism is the moral baseline. No ands, ifs or buts. I will not entertain any other position in order to be polite. Welfarism doesn’t work. Abolitionism, as it was for slavery, is the only way. Unless, you can convince me otherwise. 😛