Abolitionism And Welfarism: Two Animal Advocacy Perspectives
All animal advocates share a common commitment to end the suffering of animals. However, significant differences exist among advocates in the moral reasons that drive that commitment. In this philosophical paper, the author provides an in-depth examination of two perspectives — abolitionism and welfarism — and addresses something called the “abolitionist’s dilemma.”
In general, “abolitionists” believe that assigning animals the status of property means they have no moral value, only economic value. They argue that animals should not be used as resources and that animal use and consumption is morally unjustified, even if the animals never suffer. According to the author, abolitionists often oppose animal welfare reforms because they don’t eliminate the property status of animals. Abolitionists also tend to claim that such laws do not meaningfully reduce animal suffering and instead cause greater suffering by delaying total abolition and making it more comfortable for people to continue eating animals. For most abolitionists, only veganism is morally acceptable.
Meanwhile, “welfarists” also believe that animal suffering is morally relevant. Different from abolitionists, however, they tend to be more accepting of animal use as long as animal suffering is minimized as much as possible. According to the author, welfarists typically support all measures that reduce the pain and suffering of animals, even if those measures do not eliminate animal use altogether. Stated differently, welfarists oppose the unnecessary infliction of pain onto animals, rather than their status as property.
Throughout the paper the author discusses abolitionist and welfarist positions on topics such as their moral foundations, the value of human vs. animal lives, the moral relevance of pain that humans and animals can feel, and whether priority should be given to someone based on their species membership or their individual capacity for self-awareness. Although welfarists have been historically labeled as speciesist, the author notes that many contemporary welfarists share the view of abolitionists that humans shouldn’t automatically be prioritized over animals based on species membership alone.
The author then shifts the focus to welfare reforms, such as banning gestation crates and cages for chickens and hens. They describe an inner conflict of the abolitionist position, also called the “abolitionist’s dilemma.” In the author’s view, by rejecting animal welfare regulations because they don’t go far enough to end the exploitation of animals, abolitionists seem willing to allow animal suffering to continue indefinitely until total abolition occurs. Yet, if they instead support such regulations, the author argues that abolitionists would be contradicting the basis of their position (i.e., it may imply acceptance of animals as property).
The author goes on to argue that if abolitionists claim welfare laws do not significantly reduce animal suffering or that they will lead to more suffering in the future, the onus is on them to prove this with empirical evidence. Thus far, the author says, abolitionists have not provided reasonable evidence to support their claims. On the contrary, at least one study exists to support welfarists’ claims, suggesting that media attention to animal welfare issues may reduce animal suffering by decreasing meat demand.
The author also points out that abolitionists don’t need to bring up animal suffering at all. Because animal welfare reforms continue to treat animals as property, these regulations automatically conflict with the abolitionist philosophy. In other words, whether welfare laws are effective or not in reducing animal suffering does nothing to change animals’ property status — the moral basis and consequences of the two issues are different. However, by rejecting animal welfare reforms on this basis, the author points out that abolitionists would likely be seen as extreme, callous, or insensitive by the public.
A reasonable position for abolitionists, the author suggests, would be to oppose laws designed to reduce animal suffering that do not also change their property status, and at the same time be indifferent to whether the laws actually reduce animal suffering. Again, however, rejecting a law that may improve animal lives simply because it goes against a general philosophy may present ethical concerns. Furthermore, the author points out that abolitionism is more of a political movement than a philosophy. As such, in the author’s view, abolitionists need to provide more evidence to support their claims if they want to successfully influence consumers and policymakers away from welfare reforms. In the meantime, countless animal lives hang in the balance.
This paper provides an insightful and thought-provoking assessment of the welfarist and abolitionist positions. All animal advocates would benefit from learning more about different perspectives in the movement. Furthermore, as we move toward a shared goal of ending animal suffering, it’s important for advocates from all perspectives to work together and find common ground.