posted on 7 Jul 2021

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

Rights or Welfare for Animals?

And [Bias of Priene] gave this advice: Be slow to undertake any enterprise; but persevere steadfastly in whatever you undertake. […] Prevail by persuasion, not by force.[1]

– Diogenes Laertius

It is a great paradox of our time that we are more aware of and in tune with animals’ concerns than at any point in our history even as we cause more of them to suffer than ever before. Like any paradox, this one too has its explanation, or anyway one that seems likely to me: that animal advocacy grew into a large social movement in response to the staggering growth of factory farming, and that factory farming has kept expanding since then because the forces that drive it are stronger than animal advocacy is, at least so far. For animal advocates to achieve their aims, they will ultimately need to persuade basically all people to make significant lifestyle changes by switching to vegan diets. There might not be any getting around that.[2] This puts them in an interesting and kind of unique position where messaging and public perception are really important.

Terminology seems like something of an unresolved question in the movement. For example, the Sentience Institute asks, “When discussing the plight of farmed animals, should we use terms like ‘rights’ and ‘autonomy’ or ‘welfare’ and ‘suffering’?” Of course there are really two questions being asked here, one about what is correct philosophically – which terms best describe the soundest moral system – and the other about what is the best messaging to adopt tactically, in order to persuade people. This distinction is not always made in debates about animal ethics language, and that has muddied the waters somewhat. In a way, the former seems most important because it is most fundamental. We derive the goals that we strive towards from its answer, and we should probably not let our messaging slide too far from what we take to be the truth, partly because the alternative is dishonest, and partly because it seems like a higher-fidelity way of spreading our ideas.

In this series of posts I will look (1) at the animal rights versus animal welfare debate that consumed the movement during the nineties, (2) at more recent attempts by Effective Animal Advocates (EAAs) at transcending or resolving that debate and finally and tentatively (3) at what word choices the animal advocate can make when communicating or, more narrowly, persuading.

(I do not expect to be able to reach any satisfactory answers on the closely related question of what the most effective messaging is – an empirical question – because I have neither the resources to run large, controlled trials nor much personal experience in in-person animal advocacy; besides, the number of possibilities and variables is huge. So I consider that question to be out of scope in this series.)

So, first the dramatis personæ. Together with Tom Regan, whose Case for Animal Rights was when it was released in 1983 the first comprehensive argument for a deontological animal ethics, Gary Francione was one of the main proponents of the animal rights view of animal ethics – also known as abolitionism, a name they adopted after the movement to end slavery – which stood in contrast to the older animal welfare view of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and the newer animal protectionism view – called by the animal rights theorists new welfarism – which had abolitionism as its ultimate goal but argued for an incremental approach. Francione’s account of this battle makes for an interesting read, partisan though it is. He describes the state of things in the late 80s and early 90s like so:

[Early animal groups’] campaigns, for the most part, concerned animal welfare issues. They focused on “humane” treatment and single issues in which some form of exploitation was being challenged with an implicit message that another type of exploitation was better.

At the time, activists were very careful in public statements to make clear that they were not looking to go beyond what we were seeking in the particular campaign. […] Tom [Regan] and I both recognized that animal rights required the abolition of animal exploitation, and most of those who considered themselves animal rights advocates at that time agreed that abolition was the goal. But how were we abolishing animal exploitation with these sorts of campaigns, which did nothing more than regulate animal exploitation?

At the same time, Tom was understandably feeling frustrated that the movement did not appreciate the theoretical difference between his position and that of Peter Singer. Tom was a rights theorist; Singer was a utilitarian who rejected moral rights. Singer’s position reflected the thinking of nineteenth-century philosopher and lawyer, Jeremy Bentham, who was a chief architect of the animal welfare position. But Singer was celebrated as the “father of the animal rights movement”. There was then no appreciation whatsoever amongst activists of the significant theoretical contributions that Tom had made in his 1983 book, The Case for Animal Rights. […] [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)] sold Animal Liberation, and called it a book about animal rights. The level of confusion was profound. Tom wanted to establish that the difference in philosophical approaches was not just an abstract and largely meaningless academic issue; he wanted to make clear that it had relevance to the strategy that the movement adopted. Like me, Tom was concerned that there was something fundamentally wrong with welfarist campaigns, as well as with single-issue campaigns that substituted one form of exploitation for another, but he was not quite certain of how to translate his thinking into practical terms.[3]

Straight away we find clear and seemingly irreconcilable differences not just in the core moral systems but also in downstream effects on tactics and strategy:

We took the position that being an animal rights advocate meant being crystal clear that we could not justify animal exploitation and that we had to abolish animal exploitation as a matter of justice – of what was owed to nonhuman animals. It was not about compassion, or mercy, or kindness. It was about making a clear and public demand that we stop doing that which was morally unjustifiable.

As a practical matter, we saw three things in particular as important. First, we thought that, rather than promoting welfare campaigns or conventional single-issue campaigns, advocates should promote campaigns to prohibit particular animal uses – for example, to stop the use of animals in cosmetics or products testing; the use of animals in maternal deprivation studies; or the use of animals for entertainment purposes. But we also believed that animal rights advocates had to be explicitly clear about the goal of the animal rights movement as they pursued such campaigns. That is, we were not just proposing conventional single-issue campaigns repackaged as something else.

[…]

Second, these campaigns had to be conducted against the backdrop of promoting veganism as a moral imperative. […]

Third, we believed that the rights movement should very clearly and very explicitly recognize the relationship between human rights and animal rights. Although Tom and I had different political views with mine being more left and his being more libertarian, we were both concerned that the animal movement was deliberately avoiding the connection with human rights. We believed that animal rights only made sense in the context of an ideology that rejected all discrimination and commodification. We were both unhappy about the “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign that PETA launched in 1989 because of the sexism and misogyny of that campaign, which, by the way, have only intensified over the years.[4]

Francione argues that welfarist single-issue campaigns are inconsistent (they can seem to imply that, while the behaviour in this single issue is wrong, it is not wrong enough to warrant total prohibition) and therefore do not send a clear message.[5] He also argues that there is something underhanded about them.[6] When a new culture war issue flares up, however insignificant in the grand scheme of things, conservatives often argue against it by claiming that it sets us on a slippery slope, after which progressives often accuse them of committing the slippery slope fallacy, after which conservatives correctly point out that social change often happens incrementally, and it always seems to head in a leftward direction, so retreating from every minor battle would amount to capitulating in the war. I think there is something to this, and that we lose something by not being frank about our long-term goals. That said, I also think that most organisations working on animal welfare initiatives today are frank about their ultimate goals; see this interview with Leah Garcés of Mercy for Animals to take just one example.

But more importantly, to Francione, while it is good to reduce suffering, the question really is whether humans are justified in causing any suffering at all by our using animals as property.[7] To him, that is an unconditional wrong.[8] That is the core difference between Francione and the welfarists. The second argument he makes for abolitionism is consequentialist: he argues that welfarism is ineffective in practice.[9] “If animals are property”, he says, “then they have no value beyond that which is accorded to them by their owners. Reform does not work because it seeks to force owners to value their property differently and to incur costs in order to respect animals interests. Our legal and political systems are based on strong concepts of property rights. Thus, there is reluctance to impose the costs of reforms on owners when such costs will significantly decrease the value of animal property as far as the owner is concerned.”[10]

(The welfarist might reply that welfare reform is effective, not only because it helps animals immediately but also because it drives up prices, and price is the most important factor for consumers of meat.[11] Or they might argue that abolitionism fares no better, as Jesse Clifton does: “[W]elfarism did not prevent European countries from eventually adopting rights-like reforms. But has it delayed progress? Would a rights-based approach have produced serious reforms much earlier? I doubt it. Radical antivivisectionism of the late 19th century was the closest thing to a pure animal rights movement at the time, as it called for an end to all animal experimentation and opposed the mainstream animal protectionists who wanted only reform. Though there were bursts of enthusiasm, abolitionist anti-vivisection never caught on with the general public or the animal protection mainstream. And, clearly, they never achieved their goal.” However, an animal rights theorist might counter that we’ve had modest welfare reforms for over a century, but factory farming is a bigger problem than ever.)

Towards the mid 1990s, Francione and Regan began to feel the tide turning against them.

We were […] surprised by the fact that the newer, supposedly “animal rights” groups were also hostile to what we were doing. Although many, if not substantially all, of these groups thought of themselves as rights groups, they, too, were corporate charities and realized that it was much easier to do fundraising if they combined radical rhetoric, which appealed to the group disaffected with the established charities, with the traditional welfare and single-issue campaigns, which appealed to the “animal lovers” who were not much interested in any sort of radical change and could support those campaigns without being challenged to make any changes in their own lives. These were the new welfare groups; they talked about animal rights but they pursued a conventional animal welfare agenda as a supposed means to an abolitionist end. The new welfarist groups – like the old-line welfarist groups – discouraged grassroots efforts. They wanted members who did two things: donated and provided free labor to get others to donate.[12]

By 1995, Francione relates, things had gotten more tense between people like himself and Regan on the one hand, who insisted on the rights/welfare distinction and advocated for an animal rights movement, and new and old welfarist charities on the other.[13] From what I understand, welfarists thought Francione and Regan were inflexible, extreme, divisive and militant movement-destroyers. Francione and Regan thought the welfarists were sacrificing an opportunity for radical change in order not to upset more conservative donors, all the while betraying the animals they were supposed to help.[14]

Things apparently came to a head before the March on Washington in 1996, which Francione and Regan, having felt that they were being marginalised, boycotted.[15] But Regan later relented and agreed to join the March after all, writing to friends: “I am not now, nor have I ever been, someone who believes that everything must be perfect before something is worthy of support. With that stance, none of us could ever support anything. […] The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that though there is not a perfect fit between animal rights and the March, supporting the March is not inconsistent with one’s commitment to animal rights.”[16] To Francione, Regan’s decision was incomprehensible.[17]

I should emphasise here that an animal rights view is not incompatible with incremental change; an obvious example of that is vegan outreach, which converts people one at a time. But it does seem incompatible with one specific kind of incremental change, namely any change in exploitative practices that do not involve eliminating those practices entirely. So, for example, the animal rights activist cannot advocate for treating factory-farmed animals more humanely, because that still involves exploitation. But they can presumably support incremental measures so long as they eliminate a practice entirely, for example banning restaurants from serving foie gras.

The battle between right theorists and welfarists is not quite dead; Francione is still launching broadsides against mainstream animal advocacy, though from the rebel periphery, as it were:

The organized “animal movement” as it now exists in 2018 is an appalling collection of corporate charities that promote “reducetarianism”, “happy exploitation”, and every other form of welfarism. The “movement” hardly ever, if at all, talks about rights or abolition except to regurgitate the baseless – indeed, absurd – new welfarist claim that welfare reform and conventional single-issue campaigns will lead to abolition. The “movement” promotes veganism, if at all, only as one way, among many others, including “free-range eggs”, “crate-free pork”, etc., of reducing suffering, and never promotes veganism as a moral baseline or imperative.[18]

The broader issue here is that there are many different mutually incompatible animal ethics, and that the particular details of the system we think is true should probably influence the language we use when advocating for animals. That leaves EAAs with a couple of open questions that need resolving before we can look at what options there are when choosing terminology:

The next post in this series will examine these questions.


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

  2. I consider the development of new plant-based foods not a way of circumventing this need to persuade, but a way to make persuasion easier. One alternative is of course getting elites to ban factory farming against popular activity, but that seems unlikely to me in the near future. ↩︎

  3. Francione, G. L. (2017). Reflections on Tom Regan and the animal rights movement that once was. Between the Species, 21(1), 1. ↩︎

  4. ibid. ↩︎

  5. ibid. ↩︎

  6. ibid. ↩︎

  7. My source here is an interview at the website of the animal rights group Friends of Animals. ↩︎

  8. ibid. ↩︎

  9. ibid. ↩︎

  10. ibid. ↩︎

  11. My source here is the aforementioned interview with Leah Garcés. ↩︎

  12. Francione, G. L. (2017). Reflections on Tom Regan and the animal rights movement that once was. Between the Species, 21(1), 1. ↩︎

  13. ibid. ↩︎

  14. ibid. ↩︎

  15. ibid. ↩︎

  16. ibid. ↩︎

  17. ibid. ↩︎

  18. ibid. ↩︎