from [email protected]
What follows is an essay by the co-founder of Vegan
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."
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
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
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
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
Go on to For Better
Health: "Got Milk?" Or "Not Milk!"
Return to 29 April 2001 Issue
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