Animal Writes
29 April 2001 Issue
Welfare and Liberation: Mutually Exclusive?

from [email protected] 

What follows is an essay by the co-founder of Vegan Outreach (, a group that is dedicated to reducing animal suffering by promoting a vegan lifestyle. The article discusses the successful McDonald's campaign, among other issues.

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Welfare and Liberation: Mutually Exclusive?
by Matt Ball

Expanding the Floor of the Cage

The Brazilian Landless Farmers movement has a slogan: "Expand the floor of the cage before you try to break out." It is a way of saying that activists should try to improve the status quo in order to have more room in which to work towards a permanent solution. This belief marks one side of the controversial divide within the animal rights movement: the "welfare now, rights later" vs. the "rights now, or nothing at all" position.

In theory, welfare and rights are not mutually exclusive. We can work to improve the welfare of animals while we work towards their liberation. However, it is common for piecemeal reforms, such as 'McDonalds recent agreement to improve the treatment of chickens and possibly other animals, to be criticized as irrelevant or even counter-productive. This article argues, on the contrary, reforms affecting animal welfare should be seen as an essential vehicle on our path toward animal liberation. As Peter Singer said of the McDonald's agreement: it is "perhaps the largest single step forward for the rights of animals since [Animal Liberation] appeared."

Pain Relief
Have you ever gone to the dentist complaining of a cavity and the dentist refuses to give you a pain reliever because it's not a cure? "Let the tooth rot out - that will teach you to treat your teeth better." I hope not.

Doctors are responsible not only for treating our disease, but also for reducing our pain until the disease is cured. I like to imagine the same of animal activists. While our ultimate goal is to end animal agriculture, we try to reduce the suffering of farm animals along the way. Otherwise, billions of animals suffer needlessly while we work for their eventual liberation.

Why do we work for liberation? Our motivation isn't an intellectual, philosophical exercise. We pursue our goals because of the suffering involved in animal agriculture. In what cases would we not try to reduce the suffering of farm animals? Only in instances where reforms would clearly and significantly slow progress toward liberation and thus cause more total suffering. There are certainly examples of stop-gap measures that retard efforts to treat the root cause of a problem: home fires became more
frequent after the introduction of fire insurance; football injuries became more frequent after the introduction of safety equipment. But such "moral hazards" depend on the person benefiting from the reform - homeowners and athletes - becoming overconfident. Will chickens volunteer to be slaughtered because they're in less pain? Animal welfare is clearly not a moral hazard of this kind.

"It must get worse before it gets better"

Could advances in welfare lead to a moral hazard of a different kind? Possibly, if people choose not to go vegan because they learn that animals are being treated "better." But there's more evidence that reforms, instead, draw the attention of non-vegetarians to the issue, persuading many to reconsider their ethics.

European countries -- particularly England -- are a counter-example to the "it must get worse before it gets better" argument. Animals are treated far better there and vegetarianism is more widespread. There are more vegetarian restaurants, and non-vegetarian restaurants have more veg options. The gains made in animal welfare have given both the English welfare and abolition movements confidence and momentum. And the attention paid to animal welfare in business practices and legislation has increased the public's interest in how their food is produced ). 

The same could become true in the U.S. Reforming a company like McDonald's can initiate a domino effect throughout the industry. McDonald's competitors now have a greater incentive to match and exceed McDonald's reforms, thereby forcing industry-wide improvements in the living and dying conditions for all animals; no company wants to be singled out, by a widespread and well-supported campaign, as being the "cruel one." More importantly, when the industries who use animals make it an
issue, the living conditions of the animals will get far more serious treatment by the public than animal advocates and partisans could ever hope to achieve by themselves. If we campaign against companies that in the end fall our way, then what's the purpose of the boycott if we don't support their new path? In the end, by not supporting companies' piecemeal reforms, we're telling these companies we'll attack them no matter what they do. So why should they bother changing their farming practices at all? Or changing their menus to include more vegan alternatives?

I have sympathy for those who claim we have to "destroy" McDonald's. Of course I would love it if vegan fast-food chains spread across the country and put McDonald's out of business. I would also love it if everyone were to adopt the ethics I hold. But this is not going to happen. The question then becomes: am I going to spend my time bitter and critical, demanding that I get my way absolutely and immediately regardless of the consequences? Or am I going to work to help lessen suffering as best I can, in the world as it is?

If Abolitionists had been Absolutists

While we all understand the desire to embrace and advocate pure-vegan ideals, this shouldn't stop us from studying the history of social movements and re-evaluating our tactics. Successful social movements - abolitionism, the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights
movement - have pushed for reforming the current system while working towards ultimate goals.

Take abolition and subsequent civil rights work in the U.S. They were built through successive improvements in the standing of black Americans. Each improvement brought greater confidence and experience to organizers. If the movement had rejected all reforms, it's unlikely that it ever could have built enough momentum to succeed. Imagine if Frederick Douglass had argued "Equal voting rights or no rights at all. Equal representation in government and business, or no representation at all." Imagine if Lincoln had refused to issue the Emancipation Proclamation because it didn't guarantee an end to prejudice or segregation. Douglass, Lincoln, and others were all cognizant enough of political realities to realize that such positions would alienate the mass of the population, condemning abolition to failure.

I would predict the same fate for any movement that did not seize reforms when given the opportunity. Absolutist movements attract only those already converted to the cause, and remain confined to a small cadre of dedicated but isolated activists. This is essentially the state of most animal rights groups in the U.S. By settling for "nothing short of total liberation," many groups have condemned themselves to anonymous acrimony and burnout. They cut themselves off from the non-absolutist public, and do not provide any incentive for change within the animal industries.

Non-absolutist organizations, on the other hand, have attracted a broad membership of vegetarians and non-vegetarians. They achieve results because they can reach out to those who may not share all their opinions, and are willing to work with businesses. These results, in turn, bring in new activists who gain confidence and experience. We should recognize, then, that individuals, businesses, and society progress towards a more compassionate ethic gradually, through successive stages of increased
concern for animals. As much as we want to believe otherwise, results will not be achieved all at once.

Purity or Progress

Why else would we not try to reduce the suffering of farm animals? Perhaps because we do not want to compromise our principles. But do reforms in animal welfare force us to compromise our principles? Not unless our guiding principle is "Never, under any circumstances, cooperate with cruel people or businesses." Such a principle is at odds with another that seems more fundamental and defensible: "Work to reduce animal suffering." Even ignoring the examples of previous social movements and the situation for animals in England, it would be bizarre to prefer that chickens continue to be force-molted and crammed in tinier cages just so the case of veganism is more "clear-cut." It's not just worse for the animals, it's not just indefensible ethically, but it is also poor strategy.

Of course, this is not to say that everyone should spend their limited resources pursuing welfarist measures. I still believe that the way to lessen the most suffering in the most expedient and efficacious manner is to promote vegetarianism and veganism. Yet spending one's time and resources attacking other's efforts as not being "enough" (e.g., "PETA's collusion with McDonald's is further proof that PETA has become nothing but an organizational pimp for major corporate exploiters." FoA's ActionLine, Winter 2000-2001) cannot be expected to accomplish anything positive, for the animals at any level.


It is logically false to claim that change must come about in toto and immediately. More people publicly concerned with the treatment of other animals, as well as the increased convenience of being a veg, can serve to help decrease suffering now, as well as hasten liberation. If you were suffering in a prison, would you want an absolutist on your side? Would you want your suffering to be as bad as possible to give more justification to the absolutists on the outside? Or would you prefer that someone bring to light your circumstances and enact reforms that could significantly reduce your suffering, while also working toward your liberation?

As activists, our first question - in every situation must be: "What is in the best interest of the animals?" We should support any action that will help animals, even if all it does is make their lives a bit less miserable or their death a bit less cruel. We don't stop there, of course, but we can't pass up the chance to make improvements for animals simply because it's not enough.

Bruce G. Friedrich
Vegan Campaign Coordinator 

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