Welfare and Liberation
Originally published in 2000
Does working for or supporting welfare measures harm the longer-term goal of bringing about liberation?
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. Believing that we can support efforts that improve welfare and increase awareness while working for liberation marks one position within the animal liberation movement. Another common position can be summarized as “rights first, rights only, rights uber alles.” Does history give us any indication which position will best serve the animals?
The Lessons of History: If Abolitionists Had Been Absolutists
It's easy to advocate pure adherence to our current personal philosophy. However, the history of successful social movements shows us the importance of learning what we can from the past. Successful social movements – abolitionism, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement – have all pushed for reforming the system while working towards ultimate goals.
For example, take abolitionism and the subsequent civil rights movement in the United States. These efforts built upon successive improvements in the standing of African Americans. Each improvement and each piecemeal reform elevated the status of African Americans. These advances brought greater confidence and experience to organizers, allowing them to fight for further entitlements. 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 cover the border states, or guarantee an end to prejudice or segregation (see When Freedom Would Triumph). Douglass, Lincoln,Thaddeus Stevens (shown here), and others saw that such positions would alienate the majority of the population, condemning abolition to failure (see Lincoln and the First Step).
The same fate awaits any movement that does not seize reforms and strive to gain exposure when opportunities arise. Absolutist movements attract only those already converted to the cause, remaining confined to a small cadre of dedicated but isolated activists. By demanding “nothing short of total liberation,” many groups have condemned themselves to burnout and relative anonymity beyond those already within the movement. They cut themselves off from consideration by potential allies in the public, and do not give the animal industries any incentive to change.
More diverse organizations, on the other hand, have attracted broad memberships of vegetarians and nonvegetarians, allowing individuals to participate and evolve. They achieve results because they can reach out to those who may not currently share every opinion, allowing them to evolve in their outlook and choices, as well as working for changes at an institutional level. These results, in turn, bring in new individuals who gain confidence and experience. Ultimately, history shows that individuals, businesses, and society progress towards a more compassionate ethic gradually, as awareness and reform advance incrementally.
“It Must Get Worse Before It Gets Better”
Some advocates argue that animal liberation is a unique social justice goal, and oppose welfare reforms because they believe people will choose not to go vegan if they learn that animals are being treated “better.” For example, if the public hears McDonald’s might be getting their eggs from producers that keep their laying hens in bigger cages, fewer people will alter their purchasing patterns.
Although this argument may seem to have a certain logic, the evidence indicates that reforms draw the attention of nonvegetarians to the issue of animal exploitation, persuading many to reconsider their ethics and actions; according to the meat industry: “Media attention to animal welfare issues in the past decade has resulted in 'significant, negative effects' on U.S. meat demand. ... This study found increased media attention caused a reallocation of expenditures to nonmeat food rather than reallocating expenditure across competing meat products.” (See this for even more evidence.) Animal groups then use their victories to gain visibility and push for further reforms. In this way, welfare measures tend to be a slippery slope toward abolition, not away from it.
European countries – particularly the United Kingdom – are also a counterexample 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 nonvegetarian restaurants have more vegetarian options. The advances in animal welfare have given both the UK 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 United States. Reforming a company like McDonald’s could initiate a domino effect throughout the industry. Competitors would have a greater incentive to match and exceed McDonald’s reforms, thereby forcing industrywide improvements in the living and dying conditions for all animals. No company wants to be singled out as “cruel.”
More importantly, when the industries that rely on animal exploitation raise the issue of humane treatment, it receives far more serious consideration from the public than animal advocates could ever hope to achieve alone. Once the companies themselves grant that animals have interests, it becomes harder to justify using them for food, regardless of specific conditions.
Of course, I have total sympathy for those who believe McDonald’s is the “enemy,” and believe we have to “destroy them.” But McDonald’s is simply the embodiment of consumer demand. Vilifying a faceless corporation distracts from what should be our core concern – the suffering of animals. More importantly, focusing on a corporation distracts us from addressing the root cause of this suffering – the choices of consumers.
Obviously, McDonald’s is not going to become vegan tomorrow – not until forced to by consumer choices. In the meantime, reforms and consumer education can lessen animal suffering and raise awareness. This does not preclude advocating compassionate choices with our advocacy. Together, these will bring us closer to animal liberation.
Purity or Progress?
Of course, this is absolutely not to say that everyone should focus on welfarist measures. At this point in time, most of us can lessen the most suffering in the most expedient manner by promoting consumer change in our advocacy.
If It Were You
If you were being tortured 24 hours a day in a prison cell, would you want an absolutist on your side? Would you ask that no one on the outside try to stop your torture because it has to be “total freedom or nothing at all”? Would you believe that the worse your treatment and the greater your suffering, the closer you would be to liberation? 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?
In short, would you want your advocate to be a pragmatist, focused on doing their best for you at all levels? Or would you prefer an absolutist, whose dedication is primarily to the purity of their position?
The Longest Journey Begins With a Single Step: Promoting Animal Rights by Promoting Reform
by Peter Singer and Bruce Friedrich