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  • Writer's pictureClaudia Hirtenfelder

Blurry Lines? Animal Welfare, Animal Rights, and Abolition


Anyone who listens to the show knows that I have long struggled with understanding the lines that divide animal welfare, animal rights, and abolition as concepts. Are laws that promote animal welfare not forms of animal rights? Do they not all contribute toward an overall goal of achieving a better world for animals? Isn’t everyone who is advocating for animal rights also advocating for abolition? For an end to all use of animals? Talking to Gary Francione on the most recent episode of The Animal Turn helped me to better understand the differences between these concepts. Gary provided a simple and coherent overview of some of the biggest shifts in thinking about animals. I chart these in this blog post pulling out some of the key arguments from the interview.


In terms of the history of ideas, Gary notes that the 19th century was unique because the century started with few in the Western world thinking animals were ethically significant and it ended with animal welfare firmly in place as a moral principle. Thinkers, such as Jeremy Bentham, were increasingly concerned with the moral obligation owed to animals. Bentham, famously, argued that because animals suffer, they matter. He rejected the notion that animals were insignificant because they were supposedly not rational. Bentham believed, however, that animals’ cognitive inferiority was a relevant justification for continuing to exploit them. That is, he thought it was alright to continue using animals as long as it was done in a “humane way.” This, according to Gary, was the emergence of what is more commonly referred to as animal welfare today.


By the middle of the 20th century as people started talking more about women’s rights and civil rights people also started to ask questions about animals and whether they had any claims to rights. In 1965 Brigid Brophy wrote an essay called “the Rights of Animals” but her work, despite being very much in line with abolitionist ideas, was eclipsed by scholars such as Peter Singer.  In 1976, Singer wrote Animal Liberation which, according to Gary, is “basically Bentham on steroids.” Like Bentham, Singer believes it may be justifiable to continue using and killing animals and he basis this on the idea that they don’t necessarily have morally significant interests in their lives. Gary explains how when Singer first started to develop his ideas he believed that most animals didn’t have any sort of sense of their future. Nonetheless, Singer did argue that if an animal is self-aware that they may have an interest in continuing to live, and they may have an interest in not being used. However, because of his utilitarian underpinnings, animals’ interest in living and not being used does not necessarily mean that humans should not kill and use animals for our own purposes.


In the 1980s, Tom Regan pushed back against some of Singer’s ideas stating that if an animal is a subject of a life, then that being has a right to be treated respectfully and to not be used as a means to an end. Regan was interested in understanding how you turn animal rights into an activist theory because up to this point the primary concern had been animal welfare. Regan believed in rights and, according to Gary, saw personhood as linked to cognitive capacities beyond sentience. This led to dilemmas about how to value different lives. In the ‘lifeboat dilemma’ Regan concluded that if one had to choose between throwing a dog or a human out of a boat, one would choose the dog every time because they have less capacity for satisfaction. Gary disagrees with this line of reasoning:


“If an animal is sentient then that animal does have a connection with a future self, the self in the next second. In other words, even if the animal is not cognitively sophisticated, even if the animal can’t think about what the animal is going to do on the animal’s sabbatical next year, the animal still has a sense of connection to the next second of consciousness and, as far as I am concerned, anything else is arbitrary. Anything else requires you to draw completely arbitrary lines” – Gary


Gary befriended Regan while working at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s. Up to this point Gary been working as a lawyer often representing activists in legal cases. He was, to use his words, “a law professor doing law stuff.” But after meeting Regan he became increasingly interested in political and moral theory. Like Regan, he was keen on understanding how animal welfare and animal rights were different from one another. For a long time, the two men challenged welfare reform and single-issue campaigns. Gary’s desire to shift the focus to sentience and abolition, however, saw them go separate ways.[1]


Some of Gary’ ideas regarding abolition were shaped by conversations he had with Alan Watson, a colleague at his university who was an expert in slave law.  In essence, if someone is chattel property then any laws seeking to secure their wellbeing are non-sensical because they still operate within a system where people are property, and the interests of property-owners are served. These arguments resonated with Gary who then sought to understand these connections when it came to animals. This became the subject of his first book: “Animals, Property, and Law.” Animal welfare can’t work in the same way slave law couldn’t work because the institutional status requires that the interests of the slave owner or the animal owner are protected. Animal welfare, for Gary, is therefore not coherent with animal rights because if the argument is about how treatment of animals instead of a commitment to non-use, then animals will continue to be exploited. “Animal welfare has nothing to do with morality. It has to do with economics. It has to do with making sure that animals are exploited in an economically efficient way,” says Gary.


In addition to recognizing sentience and resisting the property status of animals, Gary also believes that veganism is central to achieving animal rights. “If animals matter, we cannot eat them, wear them or use them. It’s that simple.” For Gary, if you can’t convince someone that not eating animals is morally significant it becomes hard to achieve anything else:


“The bottom line is we are never going to change anything as long as people are eating them. As long as people think animals are things to eat, nothing is ever going to change. All we are going to be doing is sitting around having mental masturbation fests about how we make it better and that’s never going to work because they are economic commodities. So, there are limits on what we can do. So, the bottom line is, we need to make a vegan world.” – Gary


The connection between abolition and veganism is also the subject of Gary’s most recent book: Why Veganism matters: The Moral Value of Animals which he quoted from during the interview, reading:


“An Abolitionist world, which would be far less alienating than the world in which we presently live, would be anything but bleak. And although I have not discussed other reasons that militate in favor of veganism, a vegan world, or a largely vegan world, may be the only way we will avoid a climate catastrophe. And a vegan world would make possible the eradication of human hunger, as well as the elimination of the specter of more pandemics and other zoonotic diseases” – Gary Francione (2020), 172.


Gary argues that despite animal welfare having been in existence for over 200 years there is little evidence to suggest that it works. Animals are, rather, being exploited at greater scales and in more ways than at any other point in history. To bring about a different world nothing short of a paradigm shift is necessary and Gary argues that the abolitionist approach, with its six principles is essential to achieving meaningful animal rights. Those principles, as taken from the website the abolitionist approach to animal rights are, as follows:

  1. all sentient beings, human or nonhuman, have one right—the basic right not to be treated as the property of others.

  2. recognition of this one basic right means that we must abolish, and not merely regulate, institutionalized animal exploitation, and that abolitionists should not support welfare reform campaigns or single-issue campaigns.

  3. veganism is a moral baseline and that creative, nonviolent vegan education must be the cornerstone of rational animal rights advocacy.

  4. the moral status of nonhumans is linked with sentience alone and not with any other cognitive characteristic; all sentient beings are equal for the purpose of not being used exclusively as a resource.

  5. reject all forms of human discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and classism—just as they reject speciesism.

  6. recognize the principle of nonviolence as a core principle of the animal rights movement.


Following this conversation I have a much clearer sense of how animal welfare, animal rights, and abolition are historically connected and some of the tensions with their underlying logics. Like Gary I am committed to non-use of animals but I am also excited by the work of scholars like Sue Donaldson, Will Kymlicka, Steve Cooke, Josh Milburn, Dinesh Wadiwel and others who ask how – once animals are no longer property – we can better account for them with positive rights.


Gary Francione is a published author and frequent guest on radio and television shows for his theory of animal rights, criticism of animal welfare law and the property status of nonhuman animals. He has degrees in philosophy and clerked for U.S. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He is the author of numerous books and articles on animal rights theory and animals and the law. His most recent book is the 2020 publication Why Veganism matters: The Moral Value of Animals and other titles include The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? (Columbia University Press, 2010) and Animals, Property, and the Law (Temple University Press, 1995). He is also the editor of Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science and Law, a series published by Columbia University Press. Gary has been teaching animal rights for more than 25 years and, together with Professor Ana Charlton, started and operated the Rutgers Animal Rights Law Clinic from 1990-2000, making Rutgers the first university in the U.S. to have animal rights law as part of the regular academic curriculum and to award students academic credit, not only for classroom work, but also for work on actual cases involving animal issues. Gary Francione is Board of Governors Professor of Law at Rutgers University. He is also a Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lincoln (U.K.) and an Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia.


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[1] When Regan died, Gary wrote an essay titled Reflections on Tom Regan and the Animal Rights Movement That Once Was where he outlines how he believes the animal rights movement fell apart.  

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