HSUS: Hero or Villian?

Nothing divides animal advocates more than the gradualist/abolitionist debate. My report on HSUS’s investigation into a Wyoming pig farm sparked a fierce but mostly civil deabte here at eatingplants.org. What follows are a few of the highlights (with light editing). Personally speaking, this HSUS story did not raise for me the perrennially explosive question about welfare strategies. I think I was too much overcome by the video, which, I think all would agree, could easily drive a behavioral omnivore (note the wording change!) to become a vegan on ethical grounds. In any case, the issue, as you will see below, isn’t easily resolved and, as with every genuine debate, there are serious points to consider on both sides of the divide.


-As despicable as this cruelty is, I don’t think these videos [of abused animals on factory farms] are the answer. HSUS knows full well that no matter what cruelty is exposed, no matter what reforms are in place — even if industrial farming is ended — it is impossible to monitor the breeding, raising, and killing of billions of farm animals. Still, it continues to promote reforms and so-called “humane farms” because truth be told, HSUS would collapse without animal exploitation. These videos embarrass specific farming operations that will probably wind up with no more than a fine, but by singling out one farm, it allows consumers to think other farms are ok, especially if they’re labeled “free-range” or “humane.” That’s good for HSUS since it benefits from animal use.

 -It is seriously misguided to shoot HSUS down, even weakly, for their strategy to effect animal welfare reforms rather than taking a stance to eradicate cages immediately and demand everyone go vegan today. I mean, how well are Francione’s dictates working? What measurable results has he or his followers gotten? Excuse me if my impatience with [abolitionsist Gary] Francione shows. In my opinion, he has done more harm to animals than good by leading well-intentioned animal activists astray . . . Despite the criticisms from a splintered little group of animal activists (abolitionists), HSUS battles on against big, mean, powerful, and moneyed opponents (factory farmers, puppy millers, canned hunters, seal clubbers, would-be horse slaughterers, dog fighters, cock fighters, CCF goons, and others) who hate them BECAUSE they are getting results.

-I think there’s a larger convo here– I don’t follow Francione (I like his ideas and have read his books but frankly I think he presents them in public as a total wing nut and I think his following, at least the hard-core part of it, borders on cultish…) and it’s a shame that he has co-opted and in effect put his peronal Brand on the word “abolition”, which really just means liberation. This is partly why I use the word liberation instead of abolition. I am frustrated about all that too, but just as much as I am frustrated about those who unblinkingly make apologies for reform  . . . Because I think there need to be reasonable discussions about strategy and what works and what doesn’t, I don’t think most AR activists (including Francionites) are well-versed in that, and I think there are good reasons to believe that we need to talk about liberation not reform, and fight for it. I wish there were a better way to talk about this, because I think we all want liberation, and I think there *are* reasonable ways to act on that.

 -It is HSUS, not Francione, who leads activists astray, including myself, until I woke up to the reality that when no one is standing over the animal producer’s shoulder, laws are meaningless! For just one example, some years ago they were amending the Humane Slaughter Act, and I worked with other activists to get this legislation passed. Victory, I thought …. until I learned that many farm animals are being dismembered while they’re still conscious.  . . I support honest advocacy that doesn’t feign victories for animals, that admits we are doing far more harm than good by promoting so-called compassionate farming, as HSUS, Mercy for Animals, Animal Legal Defense and other groups are doing.

-I’m a vegan and I understand [the] dismissal of “humane farming”. . .  I cannot wave my magic wand and make the whole world over into my image of an ideal world. I can’t make the world vegan, today. I must live in the real world. That means that I will work with the HSUS, PETA and humane farmers to alleviate suffering wherever and whenever I can. I believe that I am morally obligated to do so. If I can get a hen out of a battery cage, I will do so. It has been accomplished. If I can get pigs out of gestation crates, I will do so. It has been done. Thanks to groups like the HSUS, PETA, MFA and COK, their advocacy and their undercover videos.

I don’t give a damn about priniciples. My concern is what works for animals, not activists!  Pigs on “free-range” farms may not be housed in gestation crates, but do you really believe they don’t cry when their babies are taken, that “ceritified humane” producers are always nice to farm animals, or that male chicks will be spared on “cage-free” egg farms? While you gloat in your victories, I’ve talked with numerous consumers who are actually proud of eating “humane food.” Congratulations to HSUS and similar organizations for collaborating with animal producers to invent guilt-free animal products!  Further, there are other animals to consider, as well. The farms HSUS and other groups promote inevitably require more land that will rob the habitats of free-living animals who depend these areas for their own survival. For them, such farms are a death sentence. In good conscience, I am obliged do everything I can to work against HSUS and other groups that ultimately promote animal farming.


The Horrors of Dairy: How “Sustainability” Obscures Suffering

Yesterday I spoke to a Philosophy Dialogue Series on my own campus (Texas State) about food and sustainability. For me, of course, “food and sustainability” means eating plants. As in Berkeley, I hit this message hard, arguing, in part, that we may as well erase the word “sustainable” from our ever-expanding eco-vocabulary if we cannot make the term include the ethical implications of eating. Students seemed receptive. Questions were excellent, smart. It was a nicely structured event, leaving a full 90 minutes for “dialogue.”

After the event a graduate student in “Sustainability Studies” (I didn’t know we had such a degree!) told me that she was a lifelong vegetarian but had never put much thought into the ethical problems of dairy. I quoted Gary Francione’s line that there’s “more suffering in a glass of milk than a pound of steak.” Then I explained to her what happens to a dairy cow–even an organic dairy cow producing milk for “artisanal” cheese. When I told her how the mother cow’s calf is dragged away shortly after birth and, if male, jammed into a veal crate; and when I explained how mother cows wailed and thrashed to have their calves back with them, drinking their milk; and when I explained that this happened repeatedly to milk cows, causing horrible diseases and immeasurable suffering; and when I asked what right humans have to do these things to a sentient being, this woman’s face dropped. She told me she had chills and I could see her eyes water a little.

I’ve since sent this woman a couple of e-mails with links further illuminating the horrors of dairy. Whether or not this women goes vegan is an open question, but I think the chances are good. What I’m especially concerned about, however, is something more structural. How is it that a vegetarian student studying sustainability could have no idea about the cruelty within the dairy industry? This is in no way to criticize this woman–she seemed to be an an extremely bright and dedicated student. My concern is really with how these increasingly popular programs in sustainability (and Food Studies) arrange knowledge–and, in essence, create a reality of ideas worth knowing–in a way that obscures the underlying ethical questions at the core of eating. I see this trend as little more than intellectual laziness. How much easier it is to sing the virtues of “artisanal” cheese production compared to industrial cheese production than it is to engage the deeper philosophical and ethical questions about sentience and suffering.

The trouble with this avoidance is that it’s hard to detect. This is often the case because so often what “environmentalists” or “experts in sustainability” promote comes with a positive message of “improvement” and “empowerment.” These are the good guys taking on the polluters and factory farmers! It’s hard to condemn someone who’s ostensibly working to save the planet as complicit in a world of injustice. But the more I do this the more I’m saying screw it to politeness and tact. We need to hit these prophets of sustainability hard. We need to wake them up.  We need to start asking tougher questions about sustainability–more fundamental questions that cut to the core of animal exploitation. College campuses strike me as a good place to start this effort.


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.

The Slavery Analogy Part II: Gary Francione’s Jan 4 Blog Entry

After I posted yesterday’s piece on slavery and animal liberation, a subscriber alerted me to the fact that the Rutger’s philosopher Gary Francione had posted on the same topic the day before. So, here it is. A different, and quite fascinating, take on the issue:

Francione writes:

Many vegans become irritated with non-vegans who claim to care morally about animals but who continue to consume them. The former will often invoke an analogy to human slavery. It goes like this: we all agree that the use of humans exclusively as resources—the condition known as human slavery—is morally abhorrent. Similarly, if people think that animals are members of the moral community, then we ought not to be treating them exclusively as resources either and we ought to oppose animal slavery. And if one opposes animal slavery, one adopts and promotes veganism.

Does the analogy work?

Yes and no. The slavery analogy, which I have been using for two decades now, is not particularly compelling if one maintains that nonhumans, unlike human slaves, only have an interest in not suffering and do not have an interest in continued life or in autonomy. And that is a core belief of the welfarist position going back to Bentham—that animals can suffer and have interests in not suffering but are cognitively different from us in that they are not self-aware and do not have an interest in continued existence. To put the matter another way: welfarists maintain that animals do not have an interest in not being slaves per se; they just have an interest in being “happy” slaves. That is the position promoted by Peter Singer, whose neo- or new-welfarist views are derived directly from Bentham. Therefore, it does not matter morally that we use animals but onlyhow we use them. The moral issue is not use but treatment.

Add to this that most welfarists are utilitarians—they maintain that what is right or wrong is determined by what maximizes pleasure or happiness or interest satisfaction for all of those affected—and you end up with the view that as long as an animal does not suffer “too much,” and given that the animal does not have an interest in her life, her having lived a reasonably pleasant life and ended up on human plates is better than her not having lived at all. If we provide a reasonably pleasant life and relatively painless death for animals, we actually confer a benefit on them by bringing them into existence and using them as our resources.

Therefore, it is understandable that, if one is a welfarist, one does not accept the slavery analogy. “Happy” slavery is not only not a problem; it is a good thing. The problem with human slavery is that even “humane” forms of slavery violate fundamental human rights in continued existence, autonomy, etc. But if animals do not have those interests, then “humane” slavery may be just what is needed. And that is precisely the thinking that motivates the “happy” meat/animal products movement and the entire welfarist enterprise of trying to make animal use more “humane,” more “compassionate,” etc.

I have argued that this sort of thinking is problematic in at least two regards:

First, the notion that nonhuman animals do not have an interest in continued existence—that they do not have an interest in their lives—involves relying on a speciesist concept of what sort of self-awareness matters morally. I have argued that every sentient being necessarily has an interest in continued existence—every sentient being values her or his life—and that to say that only those animals (human animals) who have a particular sort of self-awareness have an interest in not being treated as commodities begs the fundamental moral question. Even if, as some maintain, nonhuman animals live in an “eternal present”—and I think that is empirically not the case at the very least for most of the nonhumans we routinely exploit who do have memories of the past and a sense of the future—they have, in each moment, an interest in continuing to exist. To say that this does not count morally is simply speciesist.

Second, even if animals do not have an interest in continuing to live and only have interests in not suffering, the notion that, as a practical matter, we will ever be able to accord those interests the morally required weight is simply fantasy. The notion that we property owners are ever going to accord any sort of significant weight to the interests of property in not suffering is simply unrealistic. Is it possible in theory? Yes. Is it possible as a matter of practicality in the real world. Absolutely not. Welfarists often talk about treating “farmed animals” in the way that we treat dogs and cats whom we love and regard as members of our family. Does anyone really think that is practically possible? The fact that we would not think of eating our dogs and cats is some indication that it is not.

Moreover, a central thesis of my work has been that because animals are chattel property—they are economic commodities—we will generally protect animal interests only when we get an economic benefit from doing so. This means that the standard of animal welfare will always be very low (as it presently and despite all of the “happy” and “compassionate” exploitation nonsense) and welfare reforms will generally increaseproduction efficiency; that is, we will protect animal interests in situations where treatment is economically inefficient and welfare reforms will, for the most part, do little more than correct those inefficiencies. For example, the use of gestation crates for sowsis economically inefficient; there are supposedly more “humane” alternatives that actually increase production efficiency. Similarly, “gassing” chickens is more economically efficient than electrical stunning.

So I understand why welfarists have a problem with the slavery analogy. I think that they are wrong in multiple respects but they never really engage the arguments. Instead, they claim that I am “divisive” and “do not care about animals suffering now” because I make these arguments. Some get even more dramatic.

The rights paradigm, which, as I interpret it, morally requires the abolition of animal exploitation and requires veganism as a matter of fundamental justice, is radically different from the welfarist paradigm, which, in theory focuses on reducing suffering, and, in reality, focuses on tidying up animal exploitation at its economically inefficient edges. In science, those who subscribe to one paradigm are often unable to understand and engage those who subscribe to another paradigm precisely because the theoretical language that they use is not compatible.

I think that the situation is similar in the context of the debate between animal rights and animal welfare. And that is why welfarists simply cannot understand or accept the slavery analogy.


If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. It’s a matter of nonviolence. Being vegan is your statement that you reject violence to other sentient beings, to yourself, and to the environment, on which all sentient beings depend.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

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.