A current heated controversy among animal advocates is whether they should be – as some describe it – either advocates of “animal welfare” and “welfare reforms,” or advocates for “animal rights” and the “abolition” of harmful animal use or both. These terms are often ill-defined and not carefully thought through. This can lead to needless conflict among animal advocates and an inability to understand what kind of information might help resolve these debates. Thinking about “ends” or “goals” and “means” or “strategies” can help us understand these distinctions and better assess (and perhaps overcome) this debate amongst activists.
First, ends: what would be a morally acceptable end goal for the treatment of animals? What kind of world would we have if all animals were treated in morally permissible ways, where we could say, “We have achieved the moral goal for how animals ought to be treated since none are treated wrongly anymore?”
Regan’s cat case presents two broad options – among many – for such a goal:
C. Seriously harming animals is permissible provided they are housed in comfortable cages, treated gently and killed painlessly.
D. Seriously harming animals is typically morally wrong, even if they are housed in comfortable cages, treated gently and killed painlessly.
Anyone who claims (C) is an acceptable goal or end we can call a “welfarist”: they believe that once certain kinds of harms to animals are minimized or eliminated, it is still usually morally permissible to seriously harm animals, e.g., by killing them. Their view might vary depending on the purposes behind these harms, of course. And there are important details, e.g., about which harms are permissible to cause and which aren’t, that they would need to explain so we fully understand the view. And, most importantly, whether any arguments in favor of welfarism are sound and withstand objections is something we would want to think about very carefully.1
Anyone who believes that (C) is deficient for an ideal goal and that (D) is that ideal we might call a “genuine” animal rights advocate. Or, so that we say what we really mean, we could just say they believe that seriously harming animals is typically morally wrong, even if they are housed in comfortable cages, treated gently and killed painlessly. We would want to understand their reasons for why they think that, and whether any arguments in favor of this kind of view are sound and withstand critical scrutiny is something we would also want to think about very carefully.
Beyond the question of acceptable or ideal final goals or ends for animals is the question of “means”: what sort of actions, policies, strategies, campaigns, and other activist activities will be the most effective means toward the desired end goal for animals? In particular, if the goal is (D), the “animal rights” end, what should be done now to best achieve this, or get us closest to it, as soon as possible?
Here is where the debate begins. Should we now campaign for larger cages, and, once successful with that, then campaign for “no cages” – i.e., argue that animals shouldn’t be used in the first place? (Or should some activists do the former and other activists the latter?) The former might lead to some small improvements now (or it might not), but it also might forestall or prevent greater improvements that might have occurred had the focus been on “empty cages.” On the other hand, campaigns for “empty cages” might fall on too many deaf ears and yield no short term improvements. But perhaps enough ears eventually will hear the message and this will result in widespread abolition of animal use, perhaps incrementally, one industry or sub-industry after another. Or maybe not.
These debates are often divisive, but it’s not clear that they should be. For one, they often involve matters that are largely speculative, such as the long-term effects of some campaign strategy (as compared to another). Here we are dealing with little knowledge and hard data; we are often left with guesswork, hopes and under-informed estimations. This ignorance should result in greater humility and less dogmatism on this topic, and a call for formal training in areas that might bring in some useful information to help us answer these questions about means, such as economics, marketing, consumer psychology, statistics and so forth. We should agree that we don’t know what we need to know to bring about our desired end, and turn our focus towards gaining that knowledge.
A second reason why these debates shouldn’t be divisive is that it is not clear that they are philosophical ones. As suggested above, they are largely empirical and scientific. Our ends do not obviously dictate our means. Suppose we lived a few hundred years ago, came to believe that slavery was wrong and should be abolished, not merely made more “humane.” We have set our ends, but what means should we use to achieve that end ASAP? Back then, there was no obvious answer, for reasons comparable to those mentioned about. These issues were debated then (and are still debated now, since human slavery still exists) and animal advocates can surely learn from studying that debate.
1 Some might observe that, in practice, those who call themselves “welfarists” or “advocates of animal welfare” typically accept just about any use of animals, i.e., they deem just about all harmful uses of animals as “necessary” and/or respecting “animal welfare.” This may be true, but it doesn’t show that welfarism is false. This may, however, suggest that there really is no clearly defined view “welfarism”: it’s just some words that people use but the view really has no implications for animal use because we can’t pin it down in any rigorous way. See Gary Francione’s writings for discussion (Google).