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March 2005
Animal Rights “Welfarists”: An Oxymoron
By Joan Dunayer

"Gas the chickens!" An imaginary rally cry, too morally repugnant to be real. Yet, some animal advocacy groups, such as PETA and United Poultry Concerns, have been asking that slaughterhouses gas chickens to death in their transport crates rather than leave them conscious while they’re shackled, electrically paralyzed, and slit at the throat. The mass murder of chickens is unnecessary, unjust, and invariably cruel. Urging that chickens be gassed suggests otherwise. It suggests that the problem is how they’re killed. A campaign for less-cruel slaughter proposes a new way of committing mass murder. Such a campaign is “welfarist.”

“ Welfarist” campaigns foster the notion that enslaved and slaughtered animals can have well-being (welfare). Genuine welfare is incompatible with enslavement, slaughter, and other abuse, so I put quotation marks around welfare when the context is speciesist harm. “Welfarist” campaigns are anti-rights. They advocate different ways of violating nonhumans’ moral rights. So-called humane slaughter campaigns advocate a different way of violating nonhumans’ right to life. Campaigns for less-severe confinement advocate a different way of violating nonhumans’ right to liberty.

PETA pressured McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s to require that their egg and flesh suppliers confine nonhumans less cruelly. These restaurants now have specified, among other things, that their egg suppliers must increase the space allotted to a caged hen from 48 square inches to at least 67. A hen has a moral right not to be confined to either 48 or 67 square inches. Many activists have chanted, “What do we want? Animal rights! When do we want it? Now!” With good reason, no activist ever has chanted, “What do we want? Slightly bigger cages! When do we want them? Whenever McDonald’s or some other massive abuser requires their suppliers to use them!” Any attempt to work with, rather than against, animal-abuse industries should raise a huge red flag. It’s morally wrong to exploit a nonhuman in any amount of space, inside or outside a cage. That’s the message animal advocates should convey.

We don’t need to eat body parts from chickens killed by gassing or any other method. We don’t need to eat eggs from hens held captive in cages or any other way. We don’t need to eat food from any nonhuman animals. Instead of calling for less-cruel slaughter or confinement, we should promote veganism. Simply publicizing the realities of nonhuman exploitation can prompt many people to become vegan. Persuading people to adopt a vegan lifestyle reduces the number of nonhumans who suffer and die. It also decreases public support for the flesh industry, vivisection, and other forms of nonhuman exploitation, hastening the day when they can be banned.

Some activists espouse both “welfarism” and veganism. Their “welfarism” impedes the spread of veganism by implying that nonhuman exploitation is unavoidable and therefore acceptable when “humane.” Our message to the public must be clear and consistent: We don’t need to exploit other animals; exploiting them is unjust and always causes suffering. Just as role models for veganism must adhere to veganism in their lifestyle, spokespeople for veganism must adhere to veganism in their advocacy. It wouldn’t make sense to advocate veganism while wearing cow skin and eating pig flesh. Nor does it make sense to advocate veganism one minute and supposedly more-palatable flesh or egg production the next. To have full power, our opposition to nonhuman exploitation must be unequivocal.

We should persistently advocate nonhuman rights—that is, emancipation. “Welfarists” who call themselves “animal rights” activists undermine the concept of nonhuman rights. They confuse the public into thinking that imprisonment, slaughter, and other speciesist abuse can be consistent with nonhuman rights. “Welfarists” replace nonhumans’ right to life with a “right” to be murdered in less terror and pain. They shrink nonhumans’ right to liberty down to a “right” to be unjustly imprisoned in more space. In reality someone who lacks the most basic rights—to life and liberty—has no rights at all.

While advocating total emancipation, we can accomplish partial emancipations, through abolitionist (emancipationist) bans. All abolitionist bans protect at least some animals from some form of exploitation. They prevent animals from entering the exploitive situation and may also remove current victims from that situation. For example, a ban on elephants in “animal acts” emancipates elephants from circuses and other performance situations. A ban on bear hunting prevents bears from being wounded or killed: prevents, rather than modifies, their abuse. Activists can work for any number of abolitionist bans, including bans on pelt products, fatty bird-liver, the cloning of pets, and marine mammals in aquaprisons. For now, abolitionist bans won’t emancipate most nonhumans, but they’ll emancipate some and move us in the right direction. We can’t ban the most popular speciesist products (such as fish flesh, cow milk, and chicken eggs) until we build public opposition to those products.

When we can’t achieve abolitionist bans, we can engage in abolitionist boycotts. Although they lack the force of law, boycotts can be highly effective. A “Boycott Eggs” campaign would advance chicken emancipation. By convincing more people to stop buying eggs, it would decrease the number of suffering chickens while increasing opposition to the entire egg industry. Similarly, a boycott of body-care products that aren’t cruelty-free would reduce vivisection and boost demand for cruelty-free products. In addition to boycotting particular products, activists can boycott particular speciesist institutions such as horse racing and zoos.

“Welfarists” commonly say, “I support anything that reduces animal suffering.” Over the long term, “welfarist” measures increase suffering because they perpetuate exploitation. Consider the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA). If you’re at all informed about what occurs at slaughterhouses, you know that the HMSA utterly fails to protect nonhuman animals. Primarily it bolsters public support for slaughter by legitimizing the flesh industry and giving the false impression that the victims are killed “humanely.” “Welfarist” measures are largely futile because they leave animals in the hands of their oppressors. Only emancipationist measures, which honor animals’ moral rights, can adequately protect nonhumans. Genuine nonhuman welfare requires freedom from exploitation.

Joan Dunayer is the author of Animal Equality: Language and Liberation (2001) and the newly released Speciesism, both from Ryce Publishing.



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