Does the animal welfare position encourage animal exploitation?

Many people find the animal welfare position towards our use of animals compelling and think it is morally consistent with their values of not causing unnecessary harm to animals. However, does the animal welfare position cause more harm than good to animals?

This issue is well illustrated by a recent interview on The Pat Kenny Show with Pete the Vet, a well-known Vet in the UK. Pete talks about his reasons for participating in Veganuary — a global campaign which encourages people to go vegan for the month of January. However, rather than taking the opportunity to discuss the ideas behind veganism, a rejection of the unnecessary exploitation of all sentient beings, Pete focuses the conversation on animal welfare and not animal rights. Pete says:

they don’t know what is ahead of them because animals don’t have the same forebrain as ourselves so they don’t think about what’s down the road. They enjoy their minute and they don’t contemplate what’s going to happen in 6 months or a year or a year and a half, their brains don’t work like that. So it’s because of that I have been able to justify meat eating over all these years, I haven’t been a vegan up till now, but my issue really is with factory farming — with industrial scale factory farming.

Pete then goes on to promote the virtues of ‘free range’ pigs and ‘humane’ slaughter. In a nutshell Pete claims animals are not like humans as they are not forward looking and so don’t have an interest in continuing to live which means we do not cause animals harm by killing them as long as they are reared and killed in a ‘humane’ way.

The animal welfare position

Pete’s argument reflects the position of the animal welfare movement: that as long as our use of animals is ‘humane’ it is not a problem because animals do not have an interest in their lives like humans do. This argument is speciesist* as it arbitrarily puts more value on the self-awareness of human animals over that of nonhuman animals.

(* Speciesism is a bias in favour of the interests of one species against those of other species.)

Animals have a desire for continuing to live

Pete’s argument for eating meat is based on the assumption that the only way for a being to matter morally — to be treated as a person and not as property — is if they are self-aware in the same way as humans are. However, the idea that animals are not forward looking and do not have an interest in continuing to live seems highly unlikely. If we observe animals’ behaviour in life and death situations, for example when being lined up to be killed in slaughter houses, animals typically express great fear and fight to protect themselves. Even if this behaviour reflects a fear of pain rather than a fear of death, death still harms animals because it takes away future opportunities for them to enjoy the satisfaction of their interests, preferences, and desires for future enjoyment — just as it does when we kill humans.

Does the animal welfare argument hold in the human context?

If we were to agree with the animal welfare position, (that it is morally justifiable to kill a being who lacks the ability to be forward looking) does this mean it is morally justifiable to kill humans who are mentally handicapped? No it does not because we would be depriving these humans of their lives, which have intrinsic value to them. The life of a ‘free range’ pig is as valuable to her as the life of a mentally handicapped person is to her. Taking the argument one step further, would the life of a human who has more hopes, desires and plans for the future, be more valuable than the life of a human who has fewer hopes and desires? Again, no it would not.

Does the animal welfare argument hold for companion animals?

Would it be morally acceptable to ‘humanely’ kill companion animals for the purposes of palate pleasure, fashion or entertainment? Most of us would think this would be unacceptable, but why? On what basis do companion animals have greater moral value than farm animals? They don’t — the only difference is our attitude.

The animal welfare position increases animal exploitation

In reality the welfarist position supports the continued and increased exploitation of animals by promoting ‘happy’ exploitation and ‘humane’ slaughter (an oxymoron if ever there was one). This position does not help animals but rather helps those who use animals for the unnecessary reasons of palate pleasure, fashion and entertainment, to feel better about their choice to participate in animal cruelty.

Animals have the right not be treated as the property of others

When we come to realise that nonhuman animals have intrinsic value beyond the external economic value we give them, for example as a food resource, we realise that animals have the right not to be treated as the property or resources of others. This means all use of animals, however ‘humane’, is really abuse. The question then is not about how well animals are treated or how ‘humanely’ they are slaughtered, but rather what moral justification do we have to use animals at all?

Abolitionist veganism

Veganism is a philosophy which rejects violence and oppression in all its forms. As Gary L. Francione, the founder of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights puts it:

veganism is an act of nonviolent defiance. It is our statement that we reject the notion that animals are things and that we regard sentient nonhumans as moral persons with the fundamental moral right not to be treated as the property or resources of humans.

There can be no going back if this is the point at which you start your vegan journey.

Note: The arguments presented here are based on the work of Gary L. Francione.

  • By Laila Kassam for Veterinary Vegan Network.
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