Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare

The debate between animal rights and animal welfare is one that has been a dividing line for activists for decades. It is often argued by those who consume animal products, and even many who don’t, that advocating for animal welfare reforms is more realistic, and therefore more effective, than advocating for the complete abolition of animal agriculture. It cannot be denied that these arguments have valid points, but they do fail to draw distinctions between the desired outcomes of both movements. 

Animal welfare campaigning is characterised by pressuring animal abusing enterprises into making reform into the treatment of the animals they farm, often taking the form of bigger or no cages for egg laying hens, cleaner or more natural environments, and the banning of practices like gestation crates for pigs and chicken de-beaking. These reforms do not acknowledge that animals have any fundamental rights, just that they should be treated better than they currently are. Animal rights campaigning however, focuses on the abolition of the use of animals, for animal rights advocates the issue is not how we use animals, but that we use them at all. The argument that animal welfare campaigning is what vegans should be doing therefore, is misguided at its very core, since both movements seek fundamentally different goals.

Animal welfare reforms have their place and they no doubt have some benefits for farmed animals themselves, but no amount of animal welfare campaigning will ever lead the the abolition of animal agriculture, since you cannot convince an industry to abolish itself. Moreover, the end of animal agriculture is not the goal of welfarism. Welfarists seek to improve the lives of farmed animals, though it must be said, that even at this task it is utterly failing. We have had at least seventy years of so-called “welfare reforms,” yet things are worse for animals now than they have ever been. More animals are being slaughtered per day now than at any time in history, with meat consumption quadrupling in the last fifty years, and the vast majority of these animals are factory farmed. It is highly likely that a farmer of the 1950’s would be utterly horrified at the industrial animal farming practices of today, despite years of supposed successes from animal welfare campaigners. This is not progress, under any reasonable definition of the word.

It can in fact be argued that welfarism increases the demand for animal products, contrary to popular belief. We saw this in the 1970’s in the “golden era” of animal welfare reforms; new freedoms of the press and new mediums allowed the public to become more educated than ever on the plight of farmed animals, and during the “hippie revolution” many people chose to abstain from animal products entirely. Many more people however, were convinced by these welfare reforms that animal products were ethical to eat, since these products were “humane.” The animal agriculture corporations were happy to cash in on this new boom of “ethical consumerism”, and were able to sell their products to these consumers by making fairly meaningless and inexpensive changes to animal welfare.  Those who have done any amount of research into so called “humane” labels know that they legally mean very little, and that free range and factory farm facilities are often virtually indistinguishable. However, consumers are usually more than happy to accept vague terms like “free range,” “cage free” and “happy” with little research because this fits a narrative they want to construct about themselves and their food: That their lifestyle and their consumption is ethical.

Welfare reforms are something of a self-perpetuating phenomenon regardless of the fact that they do not have lasting results. What tends to happen is that a large animal rights group publicly pressures an animal agriculture corporation to make a change, the corporation makes these changes often for financial rather than ethical reasons, and then the animal rights group can publish their success story to receive more donations. This means that the the animal abusing corporation can claim that that their products are ethical since they have gained the approval of an animal rights charity, and gain a boost in sales as a result. They are then free to quietly renounce these reforms once public pressure subsides. This was seen in the case of Whole Foods, when Peter Singer and  seventeen animal advocacy organisations including PETA, Mercy For Animals and The Humane Society published a letter praising Whole Foods new welfare standards for raising farmed animals. This  provided Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, one of the largest meat sellers in the US, with a significant marketing boost. These welfare reforms did not turn out to be quite what they seemed, to the extent that PETA later tried to sue Whole Foods for their deception, by which point it was too late and Whole Foods had already earned a reputation for “humane meat,” which it retains to this day.

All these reforms really achieve then, is making animal exploitation more palpable to the consumer. Even if these reforms were successful, and all farms really did look like the green sunny pastures we see on the packaging, this would still not be a desirable outcome for an abolitionist, since for them the issue is that animals should rights, not that they should be exploited more “kindly.” This approach is often thought of as unreasonable or extreme, since animals will likely always be abused. However, in every other rights based movement this is accepted without question. No one advocates for more “humane” abuse of humans, or that systematic discrimination should be carried out more “kindly,” they advocate for complete abolition despite the fact that this goal will likely never be fully realised, simply because it is understood that the issue isn’t how bad the abuse is, the issue is that it is happening at all. Though different in context to human abuse, the argument against animal abuse need be no different.

This is not to say that vegans and abolitionists need to oppose any welfare reform, or that we should actively discourage them; the argument being presented here is that these should not be the focus of our efforts since the objectives of welfarism do not align with those of abolitionists. Advocating for bigger cages instead of empty ones flies in the face of any belief in animal rights, since it fails to acknowledge what are surely the most basic rights of all: The right to a life, and the right to autonomy whenever it is in our power to give it to them. We do not need to give in to the temptation of the false dichotomy which asserts that we either support “humane” meat or factory farmed meat, since most of us have the option, and therefore the moral obligation, to choose neither.

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