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Animal Rights and Animal Welfare:
Five Frequently Asked Questions
Gary L. Francione

In a recent mailing, Americans for Medical Progress, an alliance of pro-vivisection luminaries including Leon Hirsch from U.S. Surgical, Frederick King from Yerkes, Adrian Morrison from Penn, and Edgar Brenner, who defended Edward Taub, issued a most dire warning to "alert" educators of a "dangerous" and "misguided" idea--the concept of animal rights. According to the AMP, "[t]he concept of animal rights goes beyond legitimate animal welfare issues."

In contrast to the AMP position, it is common among many of those involved in efforts to secure justice for animals to dismiss the distinction between animal welfare and rights as some sort of philosophical distraction. In this matter, I think that we have much to learn from AMP: they recognize, quite correctly, that the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare is central to the debate about the nature and direction of social efforts to eradicate animal exploitation.

We, too, must be prepared to confront this distinction as well and to recognize that animal rights and animal welfare represent very different--and inconsistent--approaches. There is a great deal of confusion about the rights/welfare debate, and this essay is an attempt to present one perspective on trying to ameliorate this confusion.

Question 1: Can the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare be explained simply?

Animal welfare theories all accept that animals have interests, but that these interests may be sacrificed or traded away as long as there are some expected results that are thought to justify that sacrifice. The primary difference among welfare theories is what counts as a justification. Some welfarists will ignore animal interests for the sake of human amusement and financial gain; others require more "serious" benefits.  In addition, all welfare theories insist that any animal exploitation be done "humanely" and that animals not be subjected to "unnecessary" pain.

The central and distinguishing tenet shared by rights theorists is that animals (like humans) have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away simply because good consequences will result. The rights position does not hold that rights are absolute. Indeed, rights must be limited, and they often conflict. For example, I have an interest in my liberty which is protected by a constitutional right, but that right is not absolute. I can forfeit my liberty right if, for example, I commit a crime. We do not, however, allow liberty rights to be abrogated simply because depriving one person of liberty might increase overall social welfare.

Question 2: What difference does the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare make in the real world?

It makes all the difference in the world. Our legal system currently reflects a welfarist approach, and it clearly does not work. The law recognizes that animals have interests in being treated "humanely" or in being kept free from "unnecessary"suffering. These laws require that we "balance" human interests against these animal interests; despite such laws, we still have pigeon shoots, facial branding, castration without anesthesia, circuses, rodeos, etc. These uses of animals are completely "unnecessary" and "inhumane" as these terms are used in ordinary language, but they are all protected under the law.

The reason for this failure to protect animals is found in the legal status of animals as the property of human beings. Animals may have interests, but these interests may be traded away or sacrificed even when the primary reason for sacrificing the interest is a completely trivial "benefit" in the form of human amusement and entertainment. As animals are regarded as property, it is almost always in some human's interest to exploit those animals.

For example, the 1985 amendments to the federal Animal Welfare Act, which created animal care committees to ensure the "humane" treatment of animals used in biomedical experiments, recognize very explicitly that animals have interests, but then permit their use for virtually any purpose as long as experimenters consider it "necessary." The continued use of animals in painful and bizarre experiments indicates that virtually any animal interest provided under the Act can be outweighed by any human interest, including the mere curiosity of the vivisector. Laws such as the Animal Welfare Act and the federal Humane Slaughter Act are generally ineffective, except for convincing those people sitting on the fence that it is all right to exploit animals because we do so thoughtfully.

Question 3: Wouldn't the condition of animals be improved if we simply attached more weight to animal interests within the existing welfarist framework?

Any attempt to balance human and animal interests through the use of laws that prohibit "inhumane" treatment or "unnecessary" suffering will be futile even if more weight is attached to the animal interests.

In our society, property rights are among the most highly valued of all human rights. Most human/animal conflicts occur precisely because a human property owner seeks to exploit his or her animal property. Even if we increase the weight attached to the animal interests, the human property rights cannot be abrogated without a compelling justification. No animal interest is likely to be regarded as supplying that compelling interest as long as animals are regarded as the property of their owners. No form of animal welfare is likely to be successful as long as all animal interests may be sacrificed for consequential reasons alone and there are no absolute prohibitions on at least some forms of animal exploitation.

Attaching more weight to animal interests in "humane" treatment may sound good in principle, but is wholly meaningless in the context of the current system.

Question 4: Doesn't animal rights require an "all or nothing" attitude in that rights theory can offer no practical strategy short of complete and immediate abolition of animal exploitation?

No. Ironically, there are important opportunities for us to move in a rights direction even within our present legal system.

Currently, regulations of animal exploitation recognize animal interests only in so far as they facilitate the efficient use of animals as determined by human owners of nonhumans. For example, the protection offered by "humane" slaughter regulations for the most part do not go beyond providing regulations that will make it ultimately cheaper to produce meat by reducing costly injuries to animals (whose meat will then fail to conform to USDA regulations) and to workers, who are more likely to be hurt by animals in panic or pain. Such regulations, which require nothing more than the "humane" treatment of animals, recognize no interests that are not subject to being sacrificed or traded away in favor of human property interests.

There are, however, others types of regulations that are much closer to rights, and that can have a real effect on animal suffering and animal death. In order to be effective, such regulations must have three features:

    the regulation must prohibit and not merely attempt to regulate exploitation through the use of the "humane" treatment/"unnecessary" suffering standard;

    the regulation must clearly reflect the recognition of an animal interest that is not subject to being sacrificed or traded away for consequential reasons alone; and

    the interest recognized and prohibited should be consistent with the status of the animal as a sentient being with inherent value and not as human property; that is, the prohibition ends a particular form of exploitation, and does not merely substitute a different, and supposedly more "humane," form of exploitation.

For example, if Congress were to stop funding, thereby effectively stopping, the use of all animals in burn experiments, that would effectively constitute a prohibition. Just as important, however, is the recognition that the prohibition is not imposed in order to facilitate more efficient animal use; it is imposed out of respect for an animal interest that cannot be sacrificed even if it were in the interest of humans to do so.  Finally, the interest that is recognized is consistent with the status of the animal as other than human property. The prohibition does not "substitute" a supposedly more "humane" form of exploitation instead of the burn experiment. Although animals will continue to be used for other types of experiments, this is neither required nor prescribed by the prohibition of burn experiments.

This third feature distinguishes the prohibition on burn experiments from a "prohibition" of, say, more than two hens in a battery cage. The latter may demonstrate features (1) and (2) in that although certain overcrowding is "prohibited" in order to recognize and respect an animal interest, the regulation fails condition (3) because it is consistent with the continued status of the hens as human property that may properly be exploited in a supposedly more "humane" manner. This "prohibition" merely substitutes one form of exploitation for another, which makes it different from the above example concerning burn experiments.

Respect-based prohibitions that satisfy these three criteria move away from the paradigm of animals as property and offer an arguably sensible half-measure between continuing the approach of animal welfare, or beginning to chip away--peacefully and through legal means--at the morally, politically, and economically corrupt edifice that supports animal exploitation. When accompanied by clear and unequivocal calls for ultimate abolition, respect-based prohibitions may be effective in reducing animal suffering and in dismantling the primary mechanism of animal oppression.

Question 5: Isn't animal rights a "terrorist" doctrine?

Of all of the very unfair distortions of truth that pervade the endless media outlets, this characterization is the most unfair. Animal rights originated with the same ancient people for whom Ahimsa, or what has been called "dynamic harmlessness," was a central organizing principle for social, political, and religious relations.

Animal rights is not a movement of violence or terrorism. It is a movement of peace. One of the central tenets linking most animal rights people (i.e. people who reject speciesism and the property status of animals on principled grounds) is their rejection of violence. Working to achieve respect-based prohibitions in the law is consistent with this rejection of violence.

The attempt to pin the "terrorist" label on the animal rights movement is part of the organized backlash against a more progressive vision of animal liberation, and to intimidate people into accepting animal welfarism--a position much more acceptable to the people who profit from animal exploitation and who label those who reject welfarism as "terrorists."

Conclusion

In the past year, the American Meat Industry has adopted the rhetoric of animal welfare. The vivisectors have explicitly endorsed animal welfare and have just as explicitly rejected animal rights for about six years now. When the biggest exploiters of animals recognize that there are important differences between animal rights and animal welfare, that tells us something. When they explicitly embrace the principles of animal welfare, that, too, tells us something. And there should be no misunderstanding the meaning of that message: animal welfare does not work.

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