A House Divided: Addenda

Two quick points that touch on the larger debate between abolitionists and welfarists:

a) Both abolitionists and welfarists sometimes take issue with the slavery analogy to animal rights. This objection can assume many forms, but it usually has something to do with the idea that slaveowners knew that slaves were human and thus did not have a species barrier to overcome, as animal rights advocates do today. If this is an opinion that you hold, I would urge you to read a book that I was recently reminded of by a friend. It’s called Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South, by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. In it, you will find powerful evidence that masters treated slave and cattle reproduction with remarkable similarity, thus suggesting that, in the southern mindset (and in many northern minds), the difference between a black slave and a white freeman was as fundamental as that between humans and non-humans today. It’s a point that I believe powerfully supports use of the slavery analogy.



b) Abolitionists routinely make the point that welfarists have been doing their work for decades but have seen scant progress. Today, however, Mark Bittman reported that meat consumption in the United States is on course to drop by 12 percent since 2007. Bittman does not attribute this drop to welfarist pressure per se, but there’s ample reason to link at least some of this decline to the growing mainstream awareness of animal welfare, an awareness for which the efforts of PETA and HSUS can certainly take some (but by no means all) credit. That said, it’s probably a waste of time to try and measure in any quantitative manner the impact of either welfare or abolitionist approaches. Not only is it impossible to link improvement to one or the other with any definitive evidence, but there’s no way to measure what may have happened to the consumption of animal products has efforts not been made at all to raise awareness about animal welfare and animal rights. As I see it, yet another reason to build a bridge between these approaches.



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.


A House Divided Part IV: The Politics of Public Perception

As I’ve been suggesting in previous posts, social movements–or any sort of coordinated reform effort–thrive when they clearly state the ultimate goal. This is what makes the work of Gary Francione (see last post), and all vegan abolitionists, so integral to the cause of animal liberation. The abolitionist approach declares with forthright candor that humans have no right to own and exploit animals. We should stop now. This message is absolute and inspiring, not to mention central to what ethical vegans hope to accomplish.  We’re useless without it.

But, as I’ve also been suggesting, the drumbeat of principle, noble as it may be, is not enough. A process of reform–one that’s pragmatic and accessible to everyday consumers–must accompany and interact with the stated ideal. With billions upon billions of animals unnecessarily exploited every year, and with most consumers rarely giving the matter a moment’s consideration, calling for the immediate abolition of animal exploitation strikes me as unrealistic as an exclusive process of change. Instead, it must be enjoined with a gradualist approach, one that seeks to improve the welfare of animals within preexisting systems while, at the same time, articulating the ultimate goal–the principle–toward which gradual improvements are working.  As I’ve noted, this will require compromise.

There are several issues that need to be clarified in order for my call for compromise to convince anyone of anything. What I want to address now is something that’s also critical for a movement to succeed: a tangible sense of progress. It’s human nature, when working toward a goal, to fuel our fires with concrete accomplishments. We need momentum to keep going. One step builds upon another.  These steps help us avoid despair.

Both welfarism and abolitionism provide such fuel. There’s no doubt that when the conditions of farm animals are improved, no matter how seemingly minor that change may be, the lives of animals are made more comfortable. No one can claim to care about animals and dismiss this fact. Such increased comfort, of course, should never suggest that the battle is over. But I see no reason why, say, the elimination of gestation crates shouldn’t be celebrated as a small step on the road to ultimate abolition. By the same token, every time a vegan abolitionist convinces someone to go vegan, we have rightful cause for a pat on the back. Both examples, as I see it, effectively push us to work harder in seeking the ultimate abolition of animal exploitation.

But–and this is the controversial part–I think welfare improvements might–at least at this point in time– be more effective than vegan education at promoting more people to start thinking seriously about animals as sentient creatures capable of suffering. I will openly admit to being only moderately confident in this assertion. (Which is to say, I very well could be wrong.) Still, here’s my reasoning: with so many omnivores deeply skeptical about any sort of animal rights message–especially, in this country, when one leaves the coasts–the call for personal abolition of all animal exploitation is more vulnerable to the boos and hisses of public opinion than that of welfare reforms.

Here’s why: it’s impossible not to live in the world as a human being and avoid some level of animal exploitation. We exploit them when we drive, when we ride a bike, when we walk down the street, even when we eat plants. For many of us, this reality in no way undermines the powerful message at the core of abolitionism. But for most people it does. For your average omnivore currently hostile to any notion of abandoning animal products (again, come to Texas, and you’ll see how pervasive this attitude is), it’s a way of labeling us (however falsely) hypocrites. In essence, the call for immediate abolition of animal exploitation heightens our vulnerability to being ridiculed in a public sphere that knows no nuance.  A welfare improvement on a factory farm, by contrast, not only avoids bogus charges of hypocrisy, but it reminds omnivores what they too often forget–an animal suffers. Who’s to say the next step won’t be veganism?

I make this point–or, really, explore this idea–with an unwavering focus on the abolition of animal ownership and the mass adaptation of ethical veganism.  Again, the principle stays pure. But getting average, everyday omnivores to even begin considering something as foreign to their normative experience as veganism will, for better or worse, require that we celebrate small welfare victories while never allowing the big abolitionist vision to fade.

A House Divided Part III: The Slavery Analogy

In 1790, an elderly Benjamin Franklin, backed by a throng of Quakers, walked into the newly seated Congress and delivered a petition calling for the abolition of slavery. His timing, while ideal for his own reputation (he died a few months later), was potentially disastrous for the first Congress, and thus the new republic as a whole.

With the ink drying on the U. S. Constitution, and with the sectional politics of slavery constantly threatening to undermine the fragile coalition forged in Philadelphia, the “slavery question” was the one that could have easily stopped the Great Experiment dead in its tracks. Fully aware that a debate over the immediate abolition of slavery would implode the federal government he helped design, James Madison ushered Franklin and his Quaker acolytes behind closed doors and convinced them to drop the petition.  Madison agreed to confront the issue.  However, he knew that the abolition of slavery would have to happen gradually, fitfully, and—as the Father of the Constitution understood better than anyone—with compromise.

He was right. It would be an error to interpret the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment as orders that immediately abolished slavery. What really matters is the dialectical process of reform that made them possible.  Slavery slowly turned from a commonly accepted labor system endemic to North and South alike into a morally flawed “peculiar institution” run by an insidious “slave power.”   What made this happen was an instructive convergence of dependent trends, one that parallels our quest to end the systematic enslavement of animals.

First, for economic reasons, Northern states began to outlaw slavery. They did so gradually. New Jersey, for example, passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1804,” but slavery persisted legally until the 1820s. Similarly, most other states kept the current system of slavery in place but ended the importation of slaves while deeming the next generation of slave-born African-Americans (or even their grandchildren) free. The important thing to note for our purposes is that, even though a vocal minority of northerners at the time abhorred slavery on the grounds of moral principle, they accepted a process of change that reluctantly tolerated slavery’s temporary continuance in order to achieve its ultimate abolition.

Second, the gradual abolition of slavery in the north inspired a development that bore heavily on the process of inching toward freedom.  Most notably, the confinement of slavery to the South—and to the Deep South especially—allowed northerners to start stigmatizing slavery after 1820 as a “peculiar institution,” an antiquated and anti-capitalist (yes, this was a tarring label in the 1820s, too!) arrangement better fit for effete manor lords than entrepreneurs and rugged individualists.

Slavery, in essence, was slowly squeezed by a containment policy, one that thrived at characterizing plantation owners as a tribe of glorified rednecks.  This stereotyping had power, turning many ambivalent moderates into anti-slavery zealots.  It was a critical part of a process that played an important role in advancing—but not fully embracing—the principle that all men and women are created equal.

Finally, capitalizing on these trends, several charismatic figures—sensing that public opinion in the 1840s and 1850s was primed for a more emotional critique—hit the nation with a morally charged anti-slavery message. The time was now ripe for principle to take center stage. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the virtuous ravings of William Lloyd Garrison and his Liberator reminded observers that slavery was not just a political and economic issue, but a deeply moral one that should not be tolerated for an instant longer.

Then the dominoes fell.

But, as history confirms, those dominoes had been lining up for decades. It would be easy to look at the abolitionist movement alone—followed by the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and Thirteenth Amendment—and portray the abolition of slavery as an example of principle trumping process, immediate change eschewing gradualism, and ideals triumphing over pragmatism.

The truth is something more complex. And it has something to do with the fact that the dialect of change—a dynamic blend of principle and process—fueled a process that, after decades and decades of tolerating what many abhorred, eventually reached the purity of principle. Had the Garrisons of the world not had their Madisons, and vice-versa, both process and principle would have floundered, allowing slavery to spread into the American West .

Similarly, had Franklin had his way, had Congress debated the abolition of slavery in 1790, it’s very likely the north and south would have bifurcated during Washington’s first term. Given the persistence of Jim Crow legislation in the South after the Civil War, it’s equally likely that slavery would have persisted much longer than decent Americans—Americans who knew in their heart that it was wrong for one sentient being to own another—could have ever imagined.


The Atlantic.com, a mainstream publication with the guts to publish my animal-rights pieces, specializes in cutting to the core of the issues that define modern life.  Very few contradictions make it through the site’s discerning filters. Read it.

That said, I was deeply frustrated to read the following opening paragraph about Iberico pigs:

I had never seen pigs run. Which was why, I realized, it looked so ridiculous when more than a dozen of them crested a hill, heading straight toward me at an ear-flapping porcine gallop. Before this, my experience with swine was mostly limited to watching them grunt in dusty pens on New England farms. Until I got chased down the driveway of a Spanish farm by a pack of them, I had no idea that they were natural runners—and that I should care. It turns out what makes a pig happy will make it taste that much better.

Wow. Are we so chauvinistic that we can recognize (and praise) a non-human animal’s happiness while, in the same breath, promote that animal’s death? I plan to do some serious thinking about this paradox because, frankly, it demeans humanity to allow its persistence.

Here is the full article:


I urge you to respond to it on the Atlantic’s website.

“don’t mess with my steak!”

Below you will find an e-mail I got this morning from a guy identifying himself as an “Animal Welfare Specialist” from Brenham Texas. He was responding to this piece: http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/08/the-dangerous-psychology-of-factory-farming/244063/. I was actually going to write a serious response to the letter but then my head began to spin and I found myself craving some tofu and spinach. . . . Enjoy:

I understand the reason you feel pain for farm animals, but you have to back up a step and consider that if it were not for their food value they would not live at all.  These ranchers have bred their cows to produce steers which are fed for about 14 months before being marketed.  Those cows you make reference to in your article are out eating and having sex for 14 or 15 years ( which is the average lifetime of a bovine ) and are actually a lot like the poor and downtrodden Americans you liberals are so worried about.  They don’t do a damn thing but eat and reproduce and the rancher has to make sure they have enough to eat.  Those cows aren’t raised to be food, they are raised to beget steers, who are then treated to the best foodstuffs available, to produce the most tasteful and tenderest red meat possible for humans to eat.  The old longhorns raised in the 1850’s when you claim agriculture was a perfect touchey/feely enterprise were wilder then deer and meaner then bear and killed a lot of early ranchers- and produced meat which resembled leather more then the meat you are used to eating today.  You need to look around and see the light, or move your stupid butt to California so you and the rest of your tree hugging budies can starve to death slowly eating your tofu and spinach- but don’t mess with my steak!