A House Divided?: Abolitionists vs. New Welfarists
December 20, 2011 9 Comments
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.