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September 2006
The Odd Logic of Welfarism
By Bob Torres


If a man abuses his spouse, do we ask him to stop, or do we throw our hands up in exasperation, saying that if he’s going to do it, he should at least not hit so damn hard? Similarly, if a person is going to eat meat, do we ask her to stop, or do we throw our hands up in exasperation, saying instead if one is going to eat meat, at least eat free-range?

My comparison probably angers and offends those who have worked tirelessly in what you consider to be in the best interest of billions of suffering animals in the world, but I assure you, angering you is not my intent. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to think seriously about the question of animal welfare activism versus a more abolitionist activism, and I’ve honestly been torn. During this past semester, I helped a few students at my university to get dining services to switch to cage-free eggs. I was secretly conflicted from the start, but I helped despite my reservations.

The moment of cognitive dissonance came when I was actually in the position of relaying information about egg producers to the school, talking about extended shelf life and shipping time. I had a sinking feeling: here I was, actually facilitating the exploitation of hens by encouraging egg consumption. I’d committed myself to the abolition of animal exploitation and to veganism, yet now found myself helping to facilitate the consumption of eggs. I assuaged my conscience by telling myself that this was better for the hens, and perhaps was a step in the right direction for an evolving consciousness on animal exploitation issues. I also thought it important to back the students at my school who were taking tentative steps into animal rights activism. As I gave it more thought, I realized I was wrong and was not being true to what I believed.

Welfarism is accepting defeat before we’ve even begun the battle.

It accepts as a premise, that genuine vegan and abolitionist outreach can’t be and aren’t effective enough, and so trades for measures which (though may decrease suffering in the short-term) actually reify the condition of animals as ours to exploit. In a twisted sense, welfarism encourages the consumption of animal products while doing little to challenge the notion that animals are ours to do with as we please. We end up with groups that have stated abolitionist ideological positions teaming up with the enemy—companies, rms and producers in the business of exploitation. As a movement, it makes us look conicted. It is justifying slavery by asking for longer chains; it is asking the abuser to abuse more gently. Most importantly, it is not true to what we profess to believe.

Critics, of course, will accuse me of putting my ideological purity ahead of the near-term interests that animals be free of suffering. However, if we’re to have a movement that means anything at all, we cannot compromise. We cannot be anti-racist and hope to end racism by telling slightly less offensive racist jokes, just like we cannot hope to be effective anti-speciesists by simultaneously promoting nicer speciesism. The means to the end of abolition matter. If our means don’t look like our ends, we’re only helping to incrementally re-create a world of speciesism.

The Big Picture
I know the world won’t go vegan tomorrow. I know the welfare argument depends on the notion that we need to take small steps towards helping people see that animals should not be exploited. I also know that incrementalism is a natural response to the overwhelming speciesism in our world now, and I understand it. But our incrementalism should be the reduction of meat, eggs, dairy, honey and other products of animal exploitation from our diets. Effective vegan activism could potentially mean more lives saved and greater strides for animals than measures which conne animals to slightly bigger cages, or more airy barns.

Welfarism stalls movement towards veganism. How many of us have met people who respond to our veganism with the hollow “Well, I eat free-range...” argument? How many people actually get stuck there? And can we assume that welfarism actually works to limit the consumption and exploitation of animals? The evidence I have would indicate that it does not.

For at least the last several years, welfarism has formed the backbone of animal advocacy, yet we have witnessed the numbers of animals consumed in that time rise by billions. If welfarism worked, as promised, to limit consumption of animals and spur people into awareness, wouldn’t we have seen that number actually go down? If free-range, cage-free and other welfarist measures actually decreased the consumption of animal products, why would corporations like Whole Foods base so much of their business on the lucrative niche market for “humanely” raised animal products?

In reading Speciesism by Joan Dunayer, I came across an argument that hits at the very heart of my points here, and it helped me to clarify my thinking on this topic tremendously. This quote caught my attention in the chapter about “old speciesist advocacy:”

Some activists who consider themselves advocates of veganism condone eating honey or applaud people for limiting their egg consumption to “free-range eggs” and their cow-esh consumption to “grass-fed” beef. Eating honey, eggs, or cow esh isn’t vegan, so endorsing their consumption isn’t vegan advocacy. Vegan advocates urge people not to eat any honey, eggs, or esh. Nonvegans need to phase out or immediately eliminate animal-derived foods, not substitute some for others. It’s easy to avoid eating honey, eggs, and esh, including as ingredients. Suggesting otherwise impedes, rather than advances, veganism.

Dunayer continues on to talk about how only one group—Friends of Animals—urged Whole Foods to phase out or end its sale of animal products after CEO John Mackey announced that he became vegan. She wondered whether other groups thought the request too unlikely to succeed, or if others were unwilling to speak against the welfarist standards instituted by Whole Foods and its suppliers. Dunayer emphasizes that “such standards don’t advance veganism or nonhuman emancipation. They legitimize enslavement and slaughter. Only veganism respects nonhuman rights and rejects nonhuman enslavement” (emphasis added).

It is that last point that I agree with most heartily. Veganism is living abolition in your daily life. Not only a consumptive practice, veganism is also an overt political act illustrating how the consumption and abuse of animals is unacceptable. Unlike welfarist measures, veganism is not at conict with the ends of our movement: it is living what we want our world to be. On the ip-side, welfarism turns us into advocates for people who would abuse and torture animals for prot, with the exception that these particular abusers are a bit more gentle in their abuse. Nice enslavement is still enslavement, and for all that welfarism has promised, we have little to show but more and more animals being consumed.

Bob Torres is assistant professor of Sociology at St. Lawrence University and co-author of Vegan Freak: Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World. He blogs and co-hosts a weekly radio show at