The difference between welfarism and abolitionism is one that rises often in debates within the animal rights community, even though it’s not a distinction most of the general public know exists. The differences between these two philosophies are profound however, and understanding them can shed light on where a lot of the disagreements between advocates comes from.
The theory of animal welfarism basically holds that it is okay to exploit and kill animals, so long as they are treated humanely. An animal’s welfare is the primary concern, not their rights, and so advocates of this philosophy generally support animal welfare reforms such as bigger cages, cleaner conditions, CCTV in slaughterhouses and proper stunning procedures. Most people who aren’t vegan are welfarists, though there are many vegans who are as well, as paradoxical as that might seem to many. A good example of an animal welfare organisation is the RSPCA. They support inspections of slaughterhouses, stricter slaughter standards and better conditions, but they are not opposed to killing animals for food, and even host barbecues as fundraising events.
By contrast, abolitionism holds that the issue isn’t how we use animals, but that we use them at all. Abolitionists therefore don’t generally support welfare reforms, since their ultimate goal is a vegan society and for all animal agriculture to be abolished, hence the name. For an abolitionist there is no such thing as humane slaughter, and the act of killing an animal is intrinsically wrong, regardless of how is done or what measures are in place to take care of the welfare of the animal before and during slaughter. Abolitionists will often dismiss campaigns for larger cages or cleaning conditions on the grounds that they are welfarist, and instead see advocating veganism and for a legal change to the property status of animals to be their primary concerns.
A lack of understanding of this distinction is what leads non-vegans to often ask why we aren’t “doing something useful”, like petitioning animal agriculture corporations to treat animals better, or supporting local farming instead of large animal abusing enterprises. It is also the reason people are confused when we tell them that we don’t support eating eggs from backyard hens, or why we won’t join protests which people view to be in the best interests of animals. For many of these people, the concept of abolitionism is almost unthinkable, so they assume that when we say we are advocating for animal rights, we are advocating for their right to good living conditions and a quick death, not for their right to life and bodily autonomy.
Mainstream animal rights is still very driven by welfarism, and all of the larger animal rights charities have campaigned for welfare reforms, even if their mission statement is abolitionist. The reason for this is primarily financial, in order to gain supporters and financial backers animal rights groups need to have wins, so they can inform supporters of where their money is going and advertise the good work they do. So animal rights groups will pressure a company like Tyson to stop using veal crates, Tyson will co-operate and just keep them in slightly larger enclosures so that they’re not called veal crates anymore, the animal rights group sends out an email blast claiming victory and praising Tyson for co-operating, which gets them more supports. Tyson, in turn get to tell everyone that their veal is humane, and it must be because even the animal rights groups support it, and they get to increase their sales by easing the conscience of their consumer. A short time later conditions usually return to normal with little to no fuss, though sometimes they do result in permanent changes, even if they are only small.
The issue with this is that despite almost 70 years of legislative welfare reform, things are worse for animals now than they have ever been. When welfare reforms are won in courts or agreed in boardrooms, like the CCTV in slaughterhouses campaign in the UK, the impact on the animals themselves are small. The real impact is on consumers, since it makes people feel better about consuming animals, which in turn increases demand. Consumers will respond to anyone asking them to give up meat that the animals are treated really well, how could they not be, since CCTV will be in all slaughterhouses in the UK? They won’t know that these CCTV videos aren’t made public, or that they’re monitored by a small number of vets who would have anywhere near enough time to watch even a tiny percentage of the animals being processed, and many have a direct financial incentive not to challenge what they see. Consumers will also not know that almost all the cruelty inflicted on animals in slaughterhouses is perfectly legal, and so a vet seeing it won’t make any practical difference to the procedures themselves, or what animals suffer. All they will know is that their meat is humane, so why should they give it up?
This is why companies like Tyson, who very obviously don’t care about animal welfare will nevertheless still negotiate with animal rights groups, because they know these reforms will make people buy their products. The result is that more animal products are bought, which increases demand, which in turn increases the number of animals being consumed. We saw this start in the 1970′s in the boom of “ethical meat,” when people began to become aware of the cruelty of animal agriculture, and producers realised that they could capitalise on this concern for animals rather than losing profit from it, and so marketed their products as humane alternatives, free range, cage free or humane approved, despite the fact that these labels legally mean very little. This is how consumers can see RSPCA approved sausages and humane certified veal, and never question why a group supposedly devoted to protecting animals would support products which cannot be acquired without their exploitation and death.
Animal welfarism plays into this idea that it is somehow possible to clean up the slaughterhouses and to make the industrialised slaughter of 60 billion land animals humane. Many argue that it is unrealistic that we will ever stop animals from being slaughtered, but the same could be argued of many other cruelties inflicted upon humans and animals. We don’t advocate for people to treat prisoners of conscience more “humanely”, we argue for them to be released. Similarly, westerners don’t generally advocate for dogs to be treated more humanely when they are eaten elsewhere, or when they are used in dog fights, they recognise that a change in living conditions alone would not be enough. In no other context would the idea of reforming exploitation, violence and death be taken seriously, and it seems to me that the only reason it is advocated in the case of animal agriculture is because it’s victims aren’t human.
None of this is to say that animal welfare isn’t important, animals must always be treated well wherever they are kept, but so long as an animal is viewed as property, as a commodity to be bought, sold and killed, then their welfare will never be taken seriously. No matter how “kind” the farmer, the needs and preferences of farmed animals will always come second to profit. If animals are to have any rights, surely the most fundamental of these should be the right to life, not just the right to have their life ended slightly less horrifically, or to live in a better cage before they have their throats slit. Those of us who claim advocate animals must surely defend their right to life as a bare minimum.
(More resources available at Acti-veg.com)