Friday 3 November 2006

"Veganism is the most important form of political activism."

(1) Q.: Gary, what is, briefly outlined, the difference between animal welfare and animal rights?

A.: Animal welfare maintains that it is morally acceptable to use nonhuman animals for human purposes as long as we treat animals "humanely" and do not impose "unnecessary" suffering on them. The goal of animal welfare is the regulation of animal use. The animal rights position is that we have no moral justification for exploiting nonhumans, however "humanely" we do so. The goal of animal rights is the abolition of animal use.

There are some animal advocates—I call them "new welfarists" in Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement—who claim to embrace abolition as the long-term goal, but who argue that welfarist regulation in the short term is the only thing that we can, as a practical matter, do now to help animals. Moreover, new welfarists claim that better regulation will lead to abolition eventually.

I regard both tenets of the new welfarist position to be wrong.

(2) Q.: Talking about animal rights, you actually mean one right: the basic, pre-legal right of every sentient being not be treated as property, not to be used as a resource.Treating a sentient being as property is tantamount to using her solely as a means to the property owner‘s end, and doing so is a rights violation, whether the treatment involved is considered to be cruel or kind. Any improvement of the treatment of animals that does not challenge the use of animals, their property status, reinforces this status and is still a rights violation in itself. Is this why you regard animal welfare campaigns that aim at making animal exploitation more "humane" as ethically unsound?

A: Yes. As I have said many times, it is, as a general matter, “better” to do less harm than more harm. It X is going to murder Y, it is certainly better that X not torture Y as well. Similarly, if someone is going to inflict harm on a nonhuman, it is better to inflict less harm than more harm. But just as we would not campaign for murder without torture, we should not campaign for “humane” animal exploitation.

The animal rights position, as I have articulated it, is that animals have the right not to be used as human resources or commodities, however “humanely” we may treat them.

(3) Q.: Are there any other reasons why you reject welfare campaigns?

A.: I do not think that most of these campaigns have resulted or will result in providing significantly greater protection to animal interests.

Campaigns that seek to make animal exploitation more “humane” generally do nothing more than make animal exploitation more efficient. That is, since, as a practical political and economic matter, industry approval is required for any sort of significant change in animal welfare standards, industry generally will accept only those welfare measures that involve an economic benefit for industry.

So, for example, in the United States, we have laws that regulate slaughter in some instances, but these laws were accepted because they resulted on less carcass damage and fewer worker injuries. Animal welfare laws and regulations seldom, if ever, protect animal interests because animal interests don‘t have any sort of inherent value. As I explained in Animals, Property, and the Law, animals are property; that is they are nothing but economic commodities. To the extent that we respect animal interests, there is an economic cost. The result is that animal welfare standards rarely go beyond the level of protection that is necessary to exploit animals in an economically efficient way given particular uses. Any regulation that is not cost-justified merely increases the opportunity cost of animal use and, in a society in which industry seeks maximum profit and most consumers regard animal use as acceptable and are not willing to purchase greater protection for animals, regulation will generally be limited to those measures that result in some economic benefit for producers and consumers.

Moreover, there is no empirical evidence which suggests that making treatment more “humane” will eventually lead to the abolition of use. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that to the extent the public regards the treatment of nonhumans to be more “humane,” the more comfortable the public becomes with continued use. We see this problem being illustrated currently in the United States and Great Britain as more people who once did not consume at least some animal products are starting to consume them again because of supposed “improvements” in treatment.

(4) Q.: Campaigning for better welfare standards for farmed animals instead of unequivocally advocating the end of animal use is contradictory to abolition. Your opposition to animal welfarism refers explicitly to the situation in the USA where many organizations, while claiming to advocate animal rights, "are promoting labels", to quote you from your blog essay, "to assure the public that the corpses and animal products that they purchase have been produced in a 'humane' fashion." In Germany, this labeling phenomenon is not prevalent. However, could we say that campaigning against certain practices of animal use, such as confining laying hens in battery cages, unavoidably sends the message to the public that other, supposedly "better" practices, such as "cage-free" forms of confinement, are more "humane" and morally acceptable?

A: Yes, welfarist campaigns send a very clear message to the public--that animal treatment is being improved and that the consumption of animal products is, therefore, more acceptable as a moral matter. This is problematic in at least two respects.

First, it ignores the fact that the real issue is animal use, not animal treatment. We need to be educating people that we have no moral justification for using nonhumans at all. By promoting animal welfare regulation, what we are saying is that our use of animals can somehow be justified if we treat them better. That is wrong as a matter of moral theory.

Second, animal welfare campaigns send the message that regulation will actually result in significant improvement of animal treatment. That is wrong as a matter of empirical fact. As I have long argued, because animals are economic commodities with no intrinsic or inherent value, we protect their interests only to the extent that it benefits us economically to do so. For the most part, animal welfare regulation does nothing more than make animal exploitation more efficient and profitable for producers and consumers.

For example, the campaigns against veal crates and gestation crates for pigs were both based on the fact that alternatives to these confinement systems would result in greater animal productivity and fewer animal illness. In a sense, animal advocates have become advisers to industry with respect to inefficiencies that presently exist in the system. But any changes are minor, and it is simply incorrect as a factual matter to say that these regulations will make a significant difference in animal treatment.

Another good example is the European Commission "ban" on battery cages, which is supposed to take effect in 2012--12 years after being announced. Although conventional battery cages will be prohibited, "enriched" battery cages will be allowed and although many conservative welfarists reject the "enriched" cage, the European and American movements are still very excited about the "ban." This excitement mystifies me. Hens in "enriched" cages, or in "cage-free" situations are still going to suffer horribly. The only difference is that producers will be able to charge a premium and the public will feel better as a moral matter about not consuming conventional battery eggs.

I did want to make a further comment on the matter of "humane" labels that are being promoted in the United States and Britain. For some years, welfarists, or, at least, those to whom I refer as "new welfarists," have argued that they do not really approve of animal use and that regulation is a means to the end of abolition. I reject that position for a number of reasons, including the fact that there is no empirical evidence to link regulation with abolition. But to the extent that these groups are now sponsoring "humane" labels, they can no longer say that they are not approving of use. Labels are explicit endorsements of animal use, and I find that very troubling.

(5) Q.: The abolitionist approach maintains veganism as a moral baseline, a moral imperative. Could you outline what that means? In which way is veganism as a moral imperative, in contrast to a virtue or an ideal, derived from the right not to be treated as a resource?

A.: The abolitionist position maintains that because we cannot justify treating animals as resources, we should abolish animal use and not merely regulate animal treatment. If we accept the abolitionist position, then it only makes sense that we abolish animal use in our individual life. Veganism is the only thing over which we all have control, and it is the one thing that each of us can do right now. Veganism is not merely a matter of diet; it is a moral and political commitment to the abolition of animal exploitation, the abolitionist principle applied on an individual level.

I know many people who regard themselves as “animal rights advocates” but who continue to consume dairy products. I find that as odd as someone who, in 1820, described himself as an “abolitionist” but who owned slaves.

(6) Q.: Which part does vegan education play on the road to abolition? Is veganism a form of political activism?

A.: We are not going to achieve abolition anytime soon. We need to be making incremental change leading toward abolition, and vegan education is the most important activity we can undertake in that regard. We need to create a nonviolent, vegan movement that unequivocally rejects all animal use, and sees species discrimination as no different from racism, sexism, heterosexism, or any other form of discrimination. The only way that this is going to happen is if we put our resources into creative vegan/abolitionist education. And this is not an activity that is reserved only for the few. If we are going to change things, we must all become teachers of vegan philosophy and educate anyone and everyone we can. Never let a day go by when you do not discuss veganism with someone!

This means that we must all do the work necessary to learn the arguments in favor of veganism. We must become familiar with animal rights theory, and learn about how an animal-based agriculture is destroying the planet and our own well-being.

You ask whether veganism is a form of political activism. In my view, veganism is the most important form of political activism. Veganism is crucial for an abolitionist movement, encourages a nonviolent attitude, and is an ecologically more sound way of feeding ourselves.

(7) Q.: Since animals are property under the law, the law does not and cannot provide significant legal protection for animals; this applies to the USA as much as to other countries. In Germany, strong political efforts have been made for many years to achieve a right granted to acknowledged animal welfare associations to sue on behalf of animals, to represent them before court. If this legal change was achieved, would you consider it a manifestation of animal rights?

A.: No, because all that means is that there will be someone else who is empowered to enforce meaningless laws such as anticruelty statues. If the laws do not provide significant protection, then whether you have one party or ten parties who can enforce such laws is irrelevant.

(8) Q.: Many animal advocates focus on the exploiting industries, on targeting the suppliers of exploitative products. Does this policy make sense? For example, in Germany, a campaign has been launched and supported by many animal advocates against the factory farming of rabbits, putting pressure on supermarket chains to withdraw rabbit flesh from their shelves, and praising those companies which reacted accordingly. Is this a success, a step in the direction to abolition?

A.: I am generally skeptical of what we refer to as “single-issue” campaigns because they often seek to substitute some supposedly more “humane” form of exploitation for some less “humane” form. Even if they seek to prohibit some form of exploitation, they often, at least implicitly, condone other forms of exploitation. For example, we presently have a number of organizations in the U.S. trying to get foie gras banned. But what is the difference between foie gras and other animal foods? The answer is, of course, is that there is no difference (except that foie gras is associated with the French and many Americans do not like the French!). But this campaign explicitly represents foie gras, something that most people do not eat anyway, as more “cruel” than other animal products. The same problem occurs with campaigns against veal.

If a single-issue campaign seeks the prohibition of some significant exploitative activity as part of an explicit programme to ban all animal use in light of the inherent value of nonhumans, that may be different. For example, if a group that actively promoted veganism and the abolition of all exploitation sought a ban on the use of all nonhumans in all circuses, and made it clear that this was only a step toward the abolition of all animal use, I would regard that campaign as different from most single-issue campaigns. Such a campaign would, of course, have very little chance of success precisely for that reason.

Given that the “movement” is presently a welfarist movement, we need to create an abolitionist movement, and we can only do that through creative vegan education. And that is what I think we should focus on. Single-issue campaigns consume a great deal of monetary and labor resources and achieve very little in the end. In fact, they are often counterproductive because they do not increase protection for animals and they make humans feel better about animal exploitation.

(9) Q.: In the light of a principled opposition to animal welfare, can publicly criticizing politicians for being negligent of animal welfare move us toward abolition any more than demanding changes in welfare laws can?

A.: No. Of course not. The problem is animal welfare. Demanding changes in animal welfare laws and criticizing welfarist politicians will not get us closer to abolition. We need to create an abolitionist movement that will be able to elect politicians who are nonviolent vegans. That is the only hope for animals. That is also the only hoper for the planet.

(10) Q.: What is the importance of grassroots acitvism – non-corporate activism -- for the animal rights movement?

A.: It is essential. The only way that an abolitionist movement can develop is as a grassroots phenomenon. The large corporate animal organizations—at least those in the U.S. and U.K.—do little more than package and promote very modest single-issue welfarist campaigns. These organizations, many of which have large budgets and pay significant salaries to their top people, need a steady stream of “victories” to use as fundraising vehicles. Moreover, they do not want to offend any possible donor, so they try to promote those issues that will elicit the least objection. To the extent that they promote veganism, they present it as a lifestyle choice and not as a moral imperative.

Corporate welfarist organizations are hostile to the abolitionist approach to animal rights. The problem was that these groups really controlled communication among animal advocates and they effectively suppressed any discussion of abolition and animal rights. But with the development of the internet, and the marvelous things that can be done with it, we can bypass these large groups and communicate directly.

(11) Q.: Given that animal welfarism and an animal rights position are contradictory, incompatible paradigms, there can be no fruitful cooperation on the road to abolition. Does this imply that abolitionists refuse to actively take part in welfarist events and to use welfarist literature for public outreach?

A.: I think that the primary problem that we face is confusion amongst the public as to what “animal rights” means. The welfarists have appropriated that term and, as a result, the public regards “animal rights” as synonymous with “regulation.” So promoting “cage-free” eggs is considered as an “animal rights” measure. We need to change that perception. And we are not going to do so as long as we support welfarist campaigns and distribute welfarist literature.

There was once a time when, just as we could not easily communicate outside the confines of large groups, we could not print materials inexpensively. But just as the internet has facilitated communication, computers have made it possible to print literature inexpensively. There is no need to distribute welfarist literature.

Let me say that I do not think that we should be hostile toward welfarists. Indeed, I am opposed to this. I think we should try to educate the welfarists as well. Remember, most of them came into the “movement” through the large corporate welfarist groups which shaped their views about the issues. Many welfarists think that welfare will lead to abolition–which, of course, is nonsense. We should try to help our welfarist colleagues to see that welfare is morally inconsistent with a rights approach and welfare does not work anyway. It is, however, a waste of time in my view to try to change the large groups. They are businesses and they have a vested interest in a status quo approach, which is precisely what welfare is.

(12) Q.: Why does the right not to be treated as a resource not apply to the relationships that nonhuman animals have with each other in the wild as “predator”/“prey”?

A.: Nonhumans in the wild do not domesticate other nonhumans and treat them as commodities.

If you are asking why I have a moral obligation not to kill and eat an animal and a lion does not, then I would reply by saying that I do not know whether nonhumans think in moral terms. I do not know whether a lion has a choice as to what she eats. I do. There are some humans—sociopaths—who are not capable of moral decisions. So what? A serial killer may, as an empirical matter, be incapable of making a moral decision. That does not mean that it is acceptable for me to kill other humans.

What fascinates me is that when we are challenged as to our use of nonhumans, we claim to have some special attribute, such as rationality or reflective self-awareness, which makes us “special.” When we are confronted with the argument that such empirical characteristics do not carry a normative license that allows us to exploit nonhumans, we fall back on the notion that humans and nonhumans are all animals and we are entitled to act as would any animal.

Finally, I think that there is a great deal more cooperation in nature than we like to believe. We have a vested interest in portraying nature as involving only conflict. That is not, as a factual matter, the case.

(13) Q.: An active animal advocate once said to me: “I don‘t need animal rights philosophy/theory to know what I have to do. My conscience, my morality tells me what to do.“ Would you comment?

A.: I disagree with that view. We absolutely need a theory to know what action is appropriate. I am not sure that the person who said this to you would necessarily disagree. She said that she consults her “morality.” But what does that mean except that she has a moral theory that guides her action?

In any event, the notion that we do not need a theory is a fantasy promoted by the corporate welfarist movement, which has long sought to make sure that there is no hard, critical thinking among animal advocates. So they have promoted this view that “as long as we’re working for the animals,” that is all that matters. And that is precisely the sort of non-thinking that is required in order to get advocates to promote “cage-free” eggs or “free-range” meat or whatever. Remember that the large groups do not want to take controversial positions, and they want to maximize donations by achieving, or seeming to achieve, welfarist “victories” for fundraising purposes. Critical thought and theory are merely opportunity costs that these groups cannot afford to incur.

We need to understand that there is a very significant difference between animal rights/abolition and animal welfare. We need to understand how these two different approaches require very different actions on the parts of advocates.
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Gary, thank you very much for this interview. A brief and general introduction to the abolitionist theory of animal rights and the animal rights movement as developed by you can be found in several languages, among which is German, on your website.

January 2008