A House Divided?: Abolitionists vs. New Welfarists


I’m currently reading an interesting book manuscript on the history of vegetarianism in the United States. I was struck, but not terribly surprised, to learn that the earliest promoters of vegetarianism–most of them members of the Bible Christian Church– came to the United States from Great Britain and, upon landing in Philadelphia, descended into vicious infighting. One faction wanted to promote the virtues of a meatless diet from the urban crucible of Philadelphia. The other faction sought the protection of the countryside, where the air was pure and temptations few.  A relative handful of reformers to begin with, this group cleaved themselves in two and, in so doing, undermined their potential influence.

Anyone who follows animal welfare and rights issues will spot an all-too-familiar trend. Today we have “new welfarists,” advocates who generally work within the confines of current systems of animal production to improve the lives of farm animals. New welfarists will spend considerable resources working to force industrial farms to eliminate gestation crates, enlarge cage size, install cameras, or allow more free range time. The driving principle behind these efforts is largely utilitarian, and there’s no denying that, pragmatically speaking, these efforts have improved the lives of billions of farm animals.

Standing in stark opposition to the new welfarists are the abolitionists. Abolitionists, many of whom follow the ideas of the philosopher Gary Francione, advocate the immediate end to all animal exploitation.  Their approach is a moral-rights based one, their arguments are remarkably persuasive, and they have no tolerance for the incremental, issue-based tactics practiced by the new welfarists. In fact, they see such tactics as counterproductive. Many animal advocates have gone vegan and built activists platforms on the basis of an abolitionist ideology.

These groups do not care for each other. Their constant battles, however, are ultimately harmful and, at times, more about themselves than the animals they aim to help. I have contacts and friends in both camps, and what I find most encouraging about the gulf that separates them is that there’s a potential bridge to be built between them. Building that bridge starts with a basic shared premise, one that separates members of both camps from society at large: they both care deeply, and have shown themselves fiercely dedicated, to improving the lives of animals.

This is a strong bond. And it is on this shared premise that I will spend much of the next few weeks trying to hammer out an argument showing that new welfarism and abolitionism can and should be complementary approaches to a shared vision.

I look forward to any suggestions readers might have.



About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

9 Responses to A House Divided?: Abolitionists vs. New Welfarists

  1. James, I’m dying to hear what you have to say about this. I believe strongly that it’s imperative the two camps work together — yes, I’d love to see the whole world turn vegan tomorrow, but since that’s unlikely to happen (this is a slooow revolution), farmed animals need better lives — and deaths — NOW. I really don’t see the two aims as being mutually exclusive. I think they can and must be INclusive.

  2. Carolle says:

    Wonderful thoughts McWilliams. Lots to ponder here, thank you much!

  3. Provoked says:

    I’m not an expert on war strategy… But I believe firmly that battles are won by a series of constant, relentless multi-faceted endeavors.

    The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

  4. veganelder says:

    You correctly point out that :”Their constant battles, however, are ultimately harmful…”. I was rather surprised when I first moved into veganism at the rancor and infighting that sometimes occurs. I shouldn’t have been, I saw the same sort of thing when the civil rights movement was growing and again during the rise of the feminist movement. Hell, anything people are involved in is probably going to include conflict and disagreement.

    Something to remember, while the abolitionists may have purity of goal on their side, they (no more than anyone else) knows what steps or approaches to take to achieve that goal. They argue that such and such hurts the movement yet there is no evidence for them to point to supporting their assertions. Until an omniscient being hands down the revelation of how…I’ll content myself with the notion that anything that reduces suffering and/or saves lives is a worthy path to follow.

  5. emily says:

    I think that what “hurts the movement” is when we confuse the people we are trying to reach, and i suppose that’s what the abolitionists mean when they attack the welfarists. It might be confusing to people (and harmful) to see vegans advocating for better cages — they can then assume that their “cage-free” eggs are vegan-approved, and are as much as they have to do as conscientious consumers. I see that as less of a weakness of the welfarists, than of a messaging issue where vegan is vegan to most people, and vegans are telling them different things. A united front of saying “yes, make it better, with our eyes on the ultimate goal of abolition” would be less ambiguous and easier for the average person to swallow (no matter how necessary or realistic an individual feels abolition is, i assume we can all agree that it is the goal, at least in an idealized world).
    On a day to day level, for example, i am dissappointed when i hear someone say “I just can’t be vegan, I couldn’t give up gouda.” Well, go ahead and give up everything but the gouda, and then we’ll take a good hard look at your weird gouda addiction. Of course i think it’s b.s. that they’ll still eat gouda, but it’s way way better than nothing. So while i think outlawing horse meat is kinda dumb, ’cause what’s the difference between eating a horse and eating a cow? But, if the average American can see that horses don’t deserve to be slaughtered, and that geese and ducks don’t deserve to be force fed, and that (when they’re told about them) that gestation crates and battery cages are hells of jacked up, that gives entree for discussion. Rather than us sitting over here arguing about what is and isn’t effective, let everyone push at the real problem in the way they are passionate about and/or are able to, and the paradigm is shifted.

  6. Keith Akers says:

    This is an interesting and thoughtful column and interesting comments also.

    I do not see this debate as that divisive, or even as that visible. There is something bigger happening here than legislation and propaganda strategies, and to many outsiders this is all going to sound like a tempest in a teapot. I typically (but not always!) ignore legislative battles because they are only marginally relevant in the long run. I just try to promote veganism, kindness to animals, awareness of the environment, and things like that.

    The movement battles are likely more painful to people within the movement, than they are confusing to people outside of it. For example, I know that UPC and HSUS recently put forward differing opinions on how to handle the chicken issue, but that seemed to me to be a basically respectable and respectful debate. It’s something we should pay attention to, but not worry that the movement is about to fall apart because people have differing opinions.

    As an aside, it’s not clear even to me who the “new welfarists” are. Is this a term they call themselves, or is this an epithet applied by their opponents? Who are we calling a “welfarist,” HSUS perhaps, and if so who else? I would think twice about referring to a debate in which one side is not fully engaged, and may not even think of themselves as a distinct group.

    You’re never going to stop differing opinions anyway. It’s the same with every other group I’ve been in or even read about, from the House Republicans, to the Greens, to anyone else. Yes, it could get out of hand, but as far as I know, it hasn’t gotten out of hand thus far, from where I’m sitting. Let a thousand flowers bloom, as long as people don’t trample overmuch on the flower beds.

  7. Pingback: A Call for Compromise

  8. Pingback: NuVegan.com » Blog Archive » A Call For Compromise

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