posted on 16 Jul 2021

This post is part of a series on theory and terminology in animal advocacy:

Possible Resolutions to the Rights/Welfare Debate in Animal Advocacy

Take wisdom as your provision from youth to old age, for it is more dependable than all other possessions.[1]

– Bias of Priene, via Diogenes Laertius

In a post entitled “Welfarists or Abolitionists? Division Hurts Animal Advocacy”, Jon Bockman, at that point the Executive Director at Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), argued that the welfare/rights debate is harmful and misses the point, because, to him, welfarist initiatives (he discusses cage-free eggs[2]) can be useful stepping stones to abolitionism; they can allow organisations to “get their foot in the door with the public or corporations”. In other words, the idea is to first get them to agree with a modest request (e.g. flexitarianism or, in corporations, cage-free eggs), and then, after having established a relationship, gradually increase the demands (to vegetarianism and eventually veganism or, in corporations, to replacing meat with fully plant-based alternatives).

The background here was that Gary Francione had criticised the press release of an ACE-recommended charity, Mercy for Animals (MFA), calling the release “morally repugnant” among other things. Animal rights and welfare advocates are in the unenviable position of wanting billions of people to make rather significant lifestyle changes and also wanting for-profit corporations to facilitate this change. Bockman argues that this is best done incrementally – that you nudge an omnivore to eat a little less meat, and a flexitarian to go vegetarian, and a vegetarian to go vegan, all one step at a time.[3] “[Francione] does not agree”, he writes, “with MFA’s use of conventional marketing tactics to meet people where they are rather than to demand a radical change in perspective, and his viewpoint ignores the gains that can be made be using MFA’s approach. Animal advocates who have been immersed in the advocacy movement for long periods of time tend to forget what it’s like to be on the other side.”

In short:

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.[4]

For an alternative perspective, see Jamie Harris’s article on the histories of various social movements, where he argues that Effective Animal Advocates (EAAs) should focus less on changing individuals’ dietary behaviour than on institutional change, that EAAs should try first and foremost to “[build] a credible, professional movement”, and, most importantly here, that there’s some reason to be cautious of advocating for incremental improvements:

Some incremental social movement tactics seem to have had various other kinds of unintended negative consequences:

  • The American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code seems to have been intended to fundamentally challenge capital punishment, but it was widely used to introduce and defend new state-level death penalty legislation that complied with restrictive laws.
  • Litigation to improve conditions for US prisoners may have encouraged an increase in the number of prisons constructed and an enlargement of the prison administration bureaucracy.
  • The Fair Trade movement’s engagement with mainstream companies seems to have led to a lowering of Fair Trade certification scheme standards.

Another risk is that incremental tactics distract advocates’ attention from more important political and systemic issues. The US prisoners’ rights movement won small palliative welfare reforms for prisoners while doing little to halt the increasing number of prisoners and more punitive treatment of criminals. The Fair Trade movement has made very limited efforts to address the unfavorable tariffs and international trade regulations that are arguably the root cause of the problems it seeks to address. Neglecting these trends may have been a major strategic mistake, though it’s not clear whether advocates could have affected them.

[…] I recommend that advocates […] [a]void presenting incremental steps as a solution to the problem [and m]aintain a strategic focus on the bigger picture and long-term goals of the movement[.]

There are really several empirical questions being contested here:

I do not have the answer to any of these, though I am sure there are a bunch of people in EAA who have thought a lot about them and who have a pretty good idea of how to answer them. I do think that underlying these are the two questions with which I ended the previous post:

I suspect that nearly all EAAs agree with Francione and other animal rights theorists that the abolition of factory farming is desirable as an ultimate end goal. But there will be many disagreements elsewhere. For example, I think that most EAAs would not agree with animal rights theorists that pet-keeping, say, should also be abolished, even if it were a promising cause area otherwise. I also think that most EAAs would prioritise efforts to make supply-side processes more humane, whereas to Francione most if not all effort should go into reducing demand. These all seem like important decisions that are downstream of moral systems, not mere tactics.

“Ultimately”, Bockman concludes, “I ignore ideology and try to do what’s best for animals.” But that seems pretty strange to me because of course the usual way of determining what’s best for animals is to have some system of moral thought and ideals, in other words something like an ideology. I suspect that if Bockman had shared Francione’s rights view of animal ethics, he would have done some things quite differently at ACE. So I don’t think EAA leaders like Bockman (though here I should clarify that Bockman no longer seems to be working for an EAA organisation) can just sidestep the debate, like a Belgium trying to stay out of the War. If they want to remain theory-agnostic, they have to explain how the different theories can be reconciled with EAA philosophy.

Let us quickly recap the background, via an extract from Broad:

[E]ven those who take seriously the crisis faced by animals who are raised for food can be at odds in terms of how the challenge should be framed and tackled – this internal movement conflict is often characterized as the distinction between animal rights abolitionism and animal welfare advocacy. Animal rights abolitionists like the legal theorist Gary Francione argue that humans have no moral justification for using non-humans at all, and he urges advocates to focus their efforts on strict veganism combined with “creative, nonviolent education” as the primary strategy to build a grassroots political movement. By contrast, animal welfare advocates like the political philosopher Robert Garner concur that traditional animal protection policies have been limited in their impacts, but argue that such policies have the practical potential to be reformulated and used more effectively. The story these welfarists tell is that, even if abolition is a desirable long-term goal, regulation can be an important part of a diverse approach to solving the problem.

In assessing this landscape of animal activism, Munro argued that the animal protection movement is really characterized by not two, but three approaches – animal rights, animal welfare, and animal liberation. Animal liberationists espouse a Peter Singer-inspired consequentialist narrative that seeks “a balance between the interests of humans and other animals by advocating a pragmatic approach to our treatment of animals”. They insist that what is best for the animals is not adherence to any particular ideological approach or strategic commitment – what is best for the animals is what can be proven to be best for the animals, grounded in evidence that suffering has actually been reduced.[5]

This is all rather confusing, because I often see Singer being mentioned as a key advocate of the welfare view, e.g. in Lee:

The dominant and prevailing messages of contemporary animal advocacy efforts have been set by people like Peter Singer and Tom Regan, who represent the competing animal welfare and animal rights approaches, respectively. As the name suggests, a welfare approach to animal advocacy focuses primarily on improving the welfare of animals, without protesting to their (ab)use by humans per se. The utilitarian philosophy underpinning this approach means that, even while advocating for more humane treatment of nonhuman animals, their (ab)use can be justified if it results in greater pleasure for society than pain for the nonhuman animals in question.[6]

Broad continues:

In focus groups and interviews [with prominent EAAs], participants expressed that the long-standing debate between so-called welfarist and abolitionist approaches was little more than a distraction. Many did see value in certain types of welfare reforms, particularly when those reforms have an effect on large-scale practices in the animal production or food service industries. Several conceptualized themselves as abolitionists at heart who see some welfare reforms as a valuable step toward that ultimate goal. “Welfarism does not preclude abolitionism”, Kelly Witwicki, Executive Director of the EA-aligned Sentience Institute, explained to me in an interview. “I think, more than anything, it’s not taking a hard stance on any of these things. It’s saying, hey, here’s the evidence, there’s a reasonable chance that welfare reforms put us more toward the end of animal farming than away from it, so let’s do those.”[7]

Fisher is a pretty nice paper that argues that all that’s needed for the EAA approach to be useful is that we have limited resources, that there are better or worse ways to achieve goals and that one can evaluate the soundness of these ways using evidence and careful reasoning.[8] It defines EAA as (1) using evidence and reason to do the most good for animals, (2) adjusting interventions based on the evidence, (3) preferring measures for which there is solid causal evidence (all else equal) and (4) preferring the most cost-effective measures (all else equal).[9] Basically, much of the welfare/rights debate happens on empirical grounds, and it can be resolved on a case-by-case basis using empirical methods such as those provided by EAA. And for the rest, the chosen animal ethics theory can be “plugged in” and the EAA methodology will output the most promising action.

Overall, that looks to me like a pretty promising path out of this mess, though it does sometimes seem as if Fisher is arguing from a utilitarian perspective. For example, he writes:

A third reason in favour of EAA refers to EAA’s emphasis on cost-effectiveness, and is based on the claim that cost-effectiveness is a moral imperative in the context of animal advocacy. The moral importance of cost-effectiveness arises from the fact that cost-effectiveness varies significantly between different interventions. For (hypothetical) example, an activist who aims to reduce the suffering of chickens might choose to spend an entire budget on the rescue and veterinary care of a few chickens; or to distribute a video that causes many people to consume less chickens, such that a few hundred less chickens are raised on factory farms (and ultimately killed for human consumption).[10]

Of course that already assumes that the goal is to reduce suffering. A cost-benefit analysis is not able to resolve conflicts where there are two different measures of the benefit. So the EAA methodology could be adopted across the board, but it might yield different results depending on who implements it and what assumptions they make. Fisher does suggest one possible means of reconciliation, which is to follow perfect, negative duties (such as “don’t use an animal as a mere means”) whenever they arise, but use EAA methods to find the relative strength of imperfect, positive duties (such as “donate to charity X”). He writes:

One of these points [where non-consequentialist considerations become relevant] might be where a particular measure involves the sacrifice of some animals for the greater good of animals overall. If so, it could plausibly be argued that advocates should generally “do the most good” for animals, but not use any measures that are likely to directly result in new animals being raised and killed for food, even if such measures yield the best overall benefits for such animals. Specifically, it would follow that EAAs should not promote “humane” meat or “conscientious omnivorism” as an alternative to factory-farmed meat, even if doing so yields significant net benefits to animals. I would be happy with this conclusion, since I think that raising and killing even “happy” animals is wrong and should not be promoted.[11]

But utilitarian EAAs may well feel morally required to advocate for those kinds of (hypothetical) measures. They do, after all, maximise utility. So foregoing those would amount to a kind of compromise. But this, argues Fisher, is probably not too bad, because most of the time the different moral theories agree with one another:

I think it is plausible that EAA can give practical guidance to activists without first settling the moral framework question. This is because I think EAA will often recommend similar methods regardless of the moral framework to which it is attached. Although there would of course be some differences, there would be sufficient overlap in practical recommendations to provide useful guidance.[12]

I think this might be true, at least when it comes to factory farming. In fact, given that I am a deontologist and not a utilitarian, I would have a hard time donating to any EAA charity if it weren’t true, given that most of them are (implicitly if not explicitly) utilitiarian. And other differences, such as whether insects have moral worth or not, may not be important in this sense because they may not lead to contentious interventions in practice – non-believers in insects’ moral standing may not care much about what believers do to reduce insect suffering. But I am somewhat uncertain about what I have written in this paragraph. Francione would probably disagree …

From reading and thinking about this (though not too deeply, I admit), my feeling is that it would make sense for EAA as a whole to remain agnostic with regard to moral theories, and maybe even to evaluate organisations based on their own stated moral frameworks, so long as those frameworks are plausible and supported by sound enough arguments. Jesse Clifton thinks that disagreement in EAA could even be a good thing. I do think that there are a great number of situations where the different theories agree, and also that many of the questions being debated are empirical ones, meaning they can be resolved using EAA methodology. But I do not think it is possible to completely avoid conflict between the different theories; it seems to me that there are times when EAA individuals, charities and meta-charities need to privilege one moral theory over others, and in those cases it is probably good to make those choices explicit.

But this is supposed to be a series about terminology in animal advocacy. And now I feel less optimistic than ever about reaching any solid conclusions about that. Here are some open questions that I don’t think I will be able to answer:

If you, dear reader, have thoughts about or information relevant to any of these, I would be happy to hear from you. More generally, I don’t think I can provide a satisfactory answer to the question of what terminology such-and-such organisation or individual should adopt, because, as I mentioned in the previous post, I have neither an inside view nor the resources to run controlled trials or anything of that sort. But what I can do, at least, is to try to tease apart some salient dimensions in animal advocacy terminology, and so that is what I will try to do in the final post in this series.


  1. Laertius, D., Mensch, P. & Miller, J. (2018). Lives of the eminent philosophers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ↩︎

  2. In fact, cage-free reforms seem to significantly reduce suffering for egg-laying hens, chiefly because being unable to select and sit in a quiet and secluded nest is significantly distressing for them, as is being barred from normal foraging and roosting. ↩︎

  3. Bockman supports his argument that incrementalist messaging is more effective by pointing to a survey of vegans, where 45% became vegan gradually versus 27% who made the switch in one go, but I don’t find this convincing evidence, because it’s not clear from the survey whether the gradual switchers had encountered incrementalist or absolutist messages. ↩︎

  4. “In his writings, a wise Italian / says that the best is the enemy of the good.” This is an Italian proverb famously quoted by Voltaire. ↩︎

  5. Broad, G. M. (2018). Effective animal advocacy: effective altruism, the social economy, and the animal protection movement. Agriculture and Human Values, 35(4), 777-789. ↩︎

  6. Lee, A. (2016). Telling Tails: The Promises and Pitfalls of Language and Narratives in Animal Advocacy Efforts. Animal L., 23, 241. ↩︎

  7. Broad, G. M. (2018). Effective animal advocacy: effective altruism, the social economy, and the animal protection movement. Agriculture and Human Values, 35(4), 777-789. ↩︎

  8. Fisher, A. (2017). Theory-neutral arguments for “effective animal advocacy”. Essays in Philosophy, 18(1), 30-43. ↩︎

  9. ibid. ↩︎

  10. ibid. ↩︎

  11. ibid. ↩︎

  12. ibid. ↩︎