Yesterday, we posted an article by Professor James McWilliams discussing the debate over the Humane Society of the United States among supporters of animal rights. In particular, McWilliams mentioned “the abolitionist wing of the animal rights movement, which views HSUS welfare reforms as craven capitulation to industrial agriculture.” Today, we have a guest post from Professor Gary Francione, distinguished professor of law and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Scholar of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark, co-editor of the CUP series Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law, author of Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation and coauthor of The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, and one of the most outspoken members of this abolitionist wing.
In his article today, Francione argues that his criticisms of the HSUS are justified and that McWilliams has misunderstood these criticisms. Professors Francione has also written a follow-up article, which he has posted on his blog.
Professor Gary L. Francione
After Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, a number of novels appeared suggesting that slavery protected slaves who were, for the most part, delighted with the institution. These novels attacked abolitionists as “meddling” in the efforts of regulationists to improve slavery. The regulationists maintained that if the abolitionists would just shut up and go away, they, the regulationists, would steadily improve the conditions of slavery until it was no more.
My fellow Columbia University Press author, James McWilliams, argues that those who favor the abolition of animal exploitation and who view veganism as a moral baseline are, in effect, “meddling” in the efforts of regulationists—who, in the McWilliams narrative, are those at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)—to improve the treatment of farm animals as we all march incrementally to that glorious vegan future. McWilliams urges the abolitionists to just shut up and jump on the HSUS bandwagon.
I have a high regard for McWilliams and am often in agreement with the positions he takes on matters of animal ethics, but, unfortunately, this is not one of those times. Putting aside that HSUS, which claims that “[a]bout 95% of our members are not vegetarians,” much less vegans, and explicitly disavows that it is “moving in the direction of eliminating animal agriculture,” McWilliams simply fails to understand the nature of the debate between abolitionists and animal welfare regulationists.
I can’t speak for all of those who identify themselves as abolitionists. Some of them advocate positions with which I do not agree and, on occasion, oppose. But I have been writing about abolition, and the moral and practical problems of animal welfare regulation, for more than 20 years now and McWilliams accepts my work as establishing the fundamentals of abolitionist theory.
As an initial matter, McWilliams ignores that there is a profound moral difference between the abolitionist and the animal welfare positions. The animal welfare position is that animals matter morally and are not just things but that we can still use and kill them for human purposes as long as we treat them in a “humane” way.
According to welfarists, animals are not self aware and do not have an interest in continuing to live. We do not harm them if we kill them painlessly. Animals don’t care that we use them; they care only about how we use them. As long as we provide animals a reasonably pleasant life and a relatively painless death, we have acted morally.
This was the position of Jeremy Bentham, the 19th century founder of the animal welfare movement; it is the position of the “father” of the modern animal movement, Peter Singer; it is the position that most of the large organizations accept. Indeed, it is precisely that position that allows People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to kill healthy animals that it takes in at its Norfolk facility.
The abolitionist position rejects the welfarist view as blatantly speciesist because it arbitrarily privileges a particular sort of self-awareness, namely the sort that we associate with “normal” humans. We cannot justify using animals for human purposes irrespective of whether that treatment is “humane” or not. Yes, it is worse to impose 10 units of suffering than 5 units of suffering. That does not make imposing 5 units of suffering morally right.
McWilliams accepts uncritically that animal welfare reforms actually provide significant improvements for animal welfare. I disagree and, in The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, I discussed at length the problem that, because animals are chattel property, welfare reforms do very little to improve animal welfare and are, at best, analogous to padding a water board at Guantanamo Bay. Note that I said “at best.” That was deliberate. Most of the time, they do even less.
Another consequence of the property status of animals is that we generally protect animal interests only when we get an economic benefit from doing so. Consider the Humane Slaughter Act in the United States, enacted originally in 1958, which requires that large animals slaughtered for food be stunned and not conscious when they are shackled, hoisted, and taken to the killing floor. This law protects the interests that animals have at the moment of slaughter, but does so only because it is economically beneficial to do so. Congress recognized that large animals who are conscious and hanging upside down and thrashing as they are slaughtered will cause injuries to slaughterhouse workers and will incur expensive carcass damage. Of course, these animals have many other interests throughout their lives, but these interests are not protected because it is not economically efficient to do so.
McWilliams argues that various HSUS “victories” demonstrate the success of the regulationist approach. But it’s really just the same old same old. For example, McWilliams points to HSUS persuading various food companies to abandon the use of gestation crates that confine pregnant pigs. But an HSUS Report acknowledges: “Sow productivity is higher in group housing than in individual crates, as a result of reduced rates of injury and disease, earlier first estrus, faster return to estrus after delivery, lower incidence of stillbirths, and shorter farrowing times” and “[c]onversion from gestation crates to group housing . . . marginally reduces production costs and increases productivity.”
McWilliams notes that I objected to the agreement between HSUS and United Egg Producers to promote a national law requiring “enriched” battery cages for laying hens. I plead guilty. These cages do not provide significant welfare benefits. Even the ultra-conservative Compassion in World Farming claims that they “fail to overcome [the] severe welfare problems” of the conventional battery cage. The United Egg Producers are most certainly jumping for joy given that a national law would preempt any more ambitious state legislation regulating factory farming and protect egg producers from state ballot initiatives.
McWilliams thinks that these regulations are meaningful because industry seems to oppose them. But that is all part of the symbiotic relationship that exists between industry and these large regulationist groups. Groups like HSUS identify practices that are economically vulnerable, such as the gestation crate; industry resists; a drama ensues; industry eventually agrees to make what are meaningless and possibly even financially beneficial changes; the animal groups declare victory and fundraise; industry, praised by the groups, reassures the public that it really cares about animals.
In any event, the level of animal welfare protection has been and always will remain very low. Indeed, if we implemented every single one of the reforms that are advocated by the various regulationist groups, animals used for food would still be treated brutally.
McWilliams fails to understand that the animal welfare paradigm has been dominant for more than 200 years now and we are using more animals in more horrific ways than at any time in human history. And he does not recognize that the “happy” exploitation movement he supports is explicitly intended to make consumers feel more comfortable about consuming animals. That is the whole point of all the “humane” labeling schemes.
McWilliams claims that people go vegan gradually. That may be but we shouldn’t modify the ethical end point to accommodate the circuitous route that many of us take to get there.
Finally, McWilliams endorses the notion that abolitionists reject the idea that people will go vegan only “when they’re personally ready to” and that abolitionists favor “strong-arm[ing]” people into going vegan. That is inaccurate and unfair. The abolitionist position, as I have developed it, is clear: we need to have a respectful discussion on the matter of animal ethics. Indeed, the fundamental tenet of the abolitionist approach is that we ought to seek incremental change through creative, nonviolent vegan advocacy.
Let’s decline the invitation to climb aboard the animal welfare bandwagon. It sails right past the moral issue.