A House Divided Part II: Abolitionists vs. New Welfarists

As an ethical vegan I steadfastly support the principle that unnecessary animal exploitation should be abolished. As a pragmatist, I believe that this quest will require a halting process of gradual change. It is with these terms—principle and process—that I open my discussion of the abolitionist/new-welfarist division, one that, as I’ve noted in a previous post, ultimately harms the animals whose lives we hope to improve.

Principle is pure. It articulates an ideal (one that we’ll inevitably fail to fully achieve). As an abstract model, as an idea, principle shines. It’s an uncorrupted paragon. Process, by contrast, is messy. It stumbles on the obstacles of tradition, grates against the conventions of humanity, tangles and spars with the powers that be. Its flaws are conspicuous, marked by what critics often dismiss as moral compromise and capitulation.

Different as they are, principle and process are equally necessary in the quest to achieve meaningful change. They comprise the inseparable dialectic of reform. Properly enjoined, they provide a system of checks and balances.  To seek any sort of social change with one and not the other is to doom a movement to history’s dustbin. It’s a lesson to ponder.

Abolitionism is essentially a principle while welfarism is essentially a process. I don’t want to overstate this distinction. I’m well aware that abolitionists promote a process: vegan education. I’m also aware that welfarists (sort of) promote a principle: improving the lives of animals within preexisting systems of oppression.  But these areas are where both abolitionism and welfarism are at their most vulnerable.

Here’s why. Abolitionism’s process–its call for an immediate and complete transition to veganism—has no historical precedent. I see no evidence suggesting that this approach, in its extreme form, will ever work in reaching mainstream consumers. (It’s a perfect being the enemy of the good kind of thing.) By the same token, welfarism’s soft adherence to “principle”—improving the lives of animals (within preexisting confines)—fails to provide an accompanying articulation of the ultimate goal of liberation: the end of animal exploitation. Too often this message gets lost in disingenuous shouts of “victory” (usually made with a donation request) that distract us from the goal of abolitionism.

Compromise minimizes the weaknesses of the compromisers. As it now stands, abolitionism rejects the premise that working to improve the lives of animals within preexisting systems is a critical step toward ending animal exploitation. In fact, they see it as reinforcing the power of the system. One reason for this belief is that welfarists too often fail to frame their efforts, and analyze their accomplishments, in the context of eventual abolitionism. But what if welfarists began to enjoin their work for gradual improvement—piecemeal as it is– with a more aggressive vegan message, one inspired by abolitionism? This strikes me as one place to start seeking common ground.  Should welfarists refuse to embrace more of an eventual abolitionist message (for fear of losing donors?), and should abolitionists fail to find room on the path toward principle for improvements for animals within the system, then factionalism will continue to undermine what we all want: better lives for all animals.

I can already hear the roar of objections. Abolitionists will refuse to abandon principle for a messier, more compromised process, one that demands a gradual approach to change. Welfarists will refuse to embrace the vegan message for fear that it’s too extreme. As my next post will show, however, the only time genuine social change has happened in history has been when leaders arose to chart a path between the thickets of principle and process, a path that ultimately angered the reformers but offered genuine, although never perfect, change for the reformed.

I’ll illustrate my point through the examples of the Constitutional Convention and the abolition of slavery in the United States. Stay tuned.








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.

5 Responses to A House Divided Part II: Abolitionists vs. New Welfarists

  1. Jo Tyler says:

    I look forward to the next installment…

  2. Carolle says:

    Very interesting and I’m looking forward to reading the next post.

  3. Provoked says:

    You’ll hear no roars of objections from me. This “divided house” is a matter that needs to be addressed and settled. Thanks for your efforts.

  4. timgier says:

    I am hopeful that what you write will help us all move beyond the current rancorous and counter-productive debate. Thanks for trying to bring some calm into this storm.

  5. Pingback: A Call for Compromise

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