A House Divided: Distilled

Having read through the responses to my series of posts on welfarism and abolitionism, I’m deeply appreciative of their thoughtfulness, humbled by their erudition, and more eager than ever to keep this conversation alive. For now, here are my distilled thoughts on the issue in general:

a) Billions of animals currently suffer immensely on factory farms. There are people and organizations fiercely dedicated to improving the lives of these animals. I simply cannot accept the claim that these efforts, while surely flawed in many, many ways, are fundamentally misguided, as many responses to my pieces insist they are.

b) Welfarists might very well fail to properly frame their ameliorative efforts–in fact, as I argue, they do–but that does not negate the basic fact that improved conditions on factory farms lead to improved (albeit still miserably exploited) lives for the animal therein. Why should we discount this tangible reduction in suffering? Aren’t there great risks to marginalizing those gains, however qualified and provisional they are? If I were wrongly imprisoned, I would want advocates to both seek improvements for my prison conditions AND seek to end wrongful imprisonment.

c) To dismiss such improvements–rather than critique them as inadequate–because they do not fundamentally challenge the ultimate problem of animal ownership strikes me as placing a human interest in moral consistency ahead of the short-term interests of non-human animals locked into a system that, at least in our lifetimes, is going nowhere. Pragmatically speaking, I see no reason why we cannot pursue abolition while, at the same time, helping the currently exploited animals who will in no way–at least in the here and now–benefit from an exclusive abolitionist approach.

d) I have yet to hear a convincing explanation for why these incremental improvements are essentially inconsistent with the ultimate quest for ending animal exploitation. The fact that more animals are exploited now than when welfarist efforts began is not especially convincing, for reasons that one responder aptly notes. (I may address this issue in a future post.) For now, as a result, I will continue to think about ways to build a bridge between abolitionism and welfarism.

As always, I will also continue to appreciate your thoughtful and intelligent remarks, for which I’m very grateful.



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.

3 Responses to A House Divided: Distilled

  1. Keith Akers says:

    There are two interesting issues in this distillation. One is the theme of gradual versus sudden change, the other is the idea that welfarism is a waste of time.

    While I’m not sure the abolitionists would put it this way, I feel that whether welfarism is a waste of time is not the ultimate issue. It is the effects of welfarism on the movement which is the crux of the problem. The more attention the bigger and more established welfare groups attract by their “victories,” the more other activists tend to gravitate towards them, and thus the amount of activist hours wasted actually increases. An activist gained by the welfarists is an activist lost to the radicals. In order to stop this hemorrhage of activists to less effective activities, it is necessary to engage in public criticism. I am not sure I completely buy this argument, but I think that’s how a lot of people feel about it.

    The issue of whether change will occur in a succession of small increments, or in a single dramatic crisis, could be debated either way. I tend to side with the abolitionists in expecting a single dramatic change rather than multiple small changes simply because that is what happened in the case of slavery. The ethics of slavery was debated endlessly for decades, but it took a few short and extremely traumatic years for the crisis to be brought to a head.

    However (and here I part company with many vegans) I don’t see this big crisis as being something that will take place decades from now. It’s something which is already underway. America faces major environmental issues revolving around peak oil and climate change. Any vegan who wants an audience for their views would do well to understand these issues and frame their vegan arguments with these environmental considerations in mind.

  2. Pingback: A Call for Compromise

  3. VitalVeda says:

    “Welfare” is simply a marketing tool to bewilder (cognitive dissonance) our human herd. Left PETA and GreenPeace over 25 years ago because they could/would not see this. These welfare campaigns are doing EXACTLY what they were designed to do – keep us in a constant state of consumption (addiction to fat, salt, and sugar) and dis-ease! I never underestimate the power of profiteers and our herds denial!

    BTW, Thank you for all your wonderful books and articles!

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