Philosophy > General AR Philosophy
Save One Animal Or Improve The Lives Of Many?

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September 16, 2012

Animal advocates are at war.

With each other.

The issue is how best to protect animals, and while there is a range of opinions, the two primary polarized camps are known as the welfarists and the abolitionists.

The well-known Humane Society of the United States exemplifies the welfarist approach. Its mission is to relieve animal suffering, here and now, as much as possible. That may mean making marginal improvements in the conditions at factory farms, which HSUS has been successful at. They recently played a major role in persuading at least 19 pork suppliers to eliminate gestation crates (eventually -- McDonalds plans to take ten years to make the change). HSUS calls itself "America's mainstream force against cruelty, exploitation and neglect."

Other causes welfarists undertake include better policing of the treatment of animals in zoos, circuses and movies, and sharpening the teeth in laws against animal cruelty.

Abolitionists, on the other hand, want no part in improving the conditions in which humans use animals: they want to end that use, and they are not interested in any in-between efforts. For instance, they want factory farms closed and an end to the consumption of animal products. Represented by Rutgers law professor Gary Francione among others, they consider welfarists' work to be worse than a waste of time -- they consider it counterproductive. Abolitionists argue that by making factory farming slightly less cruel, they make it more palatable to consumers, who will then have less incentive to stop eating meat and other animal products. When animals are mistreated, abolitionists seek to publicize the fact towards the end of recruiting more allies and more vegans.

The debate between these camps has simmered higher and lower for years, but recently came to a head when animal advocate, Texas State University professor and blogger James McWilliams addressed the feud in Slate.

"The rift dividing HSUS from [vocal abolitionists] might seem insignificant, but it's not. In fact, it threatens to weaken the cause from within," he writes.
Francione has previously written that the statement "you're being divisive" "translates as: 'we have nothing to say in reply.'"

The two camps take very different views of the public's role in animal exploitation. Both welfarists and abolitionists want to convert consumers of animal products to animal advocates. For abolitionists, that means nothing short of veganism, which amounts to a complete boycott of animal exploitation. Welfarists will applaud any step towards improving animals' lives, from signing a petition to expand tiny battery cages for egg-laying hens, to observing Meatless Mondays, to becoming vegetarian or vegan.

Some abolitionists consider the general public culpable even as they court it. Francione writes that "the real exploiters are those who create the demand for animal products in the first place. The institutional exploiters are certainly culpable as well but they are responding to the public demand for animal products."

While this war plays out primarily in books, articles and websites read by people who have already chosen a side, it has very real ramifications. Welfarists work sometimes against and sometimes with factory farms to change the facts on the ground for animals today, and they have had success, including the planned reduction in gestation crates noted above. Who knows what more they could do with more allies.

I am vegan. If I could abolish animal exploitation I would do it in a heartbeat. It is my ultimate goal. But that doesn't free me from the moral obligation and the demands of basic decency to help animals who are suffering today. If I abandon them because I think their suffering is more likely to bring down animal exploiters, I am exploiting them for my own purposes.

I couldn't look a calf in the eye who had been stolen from his mother at just a few days of age, was caged in a tiny veal crate that did not let him turn around, was being malnourished on a diet designed to induce anemia, and would be butchered while still a baby, and say "sorry buddy, I don't want to help you. You are worth more to me suffering than you are happily gamboling in a pasture with your mother nearby, so toodles."

That is why I sympathize with activists who break into factory farm facilities and rescue or euthanize the animals trapped and tortured inside, as Jonathan Safran Foer described in Eating Animals. These brave souls face jail for their missions of mercy. They are abolitionists who do not turn a deaf ear to the cries of animals who are in pain right now. If only other animal advocates could find ways to synthesize their views and coordinate their efforts instead of trying to make each other look bad, we might be a step closer to freedom for non-human animals.

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