Animal ‘welfare’ is harmful, explained

In a New York Times op-ed, Bob Fischer and James McWilliams visit a question that has, at least as long as I’ve been vegetarian ecofeminist, roiled vegans, the question of abolitionism versus welfarism. Abolitionism entails

the same inference that slavery abolitionists made in the 19th century. They claimed, as many animal activists do now, that it was pointless to call for the reform of an unjust institution. You don’t fix unjust institutions; you dismantle them. Entirely. Now.[1]

Welfarism, by contrast, concedes that the injustice occurs and isn’t stopping anytime soon. It attempts to mitigate the evil, claiming “that we ought to do whatever we can for those least able to plead their own case — even if it’s only providing larger cages for the soon-to-be-slaughtered.”[2] The trouble with this argument is that it becomes marketing. We hear about “humanely” raised meat or “free range” chickens. We pay a little more at Whole Foods to salve our conscience and the slaughter continues unabated. However, there is reason to doubt that the “humane” and “free range” practices in fact amount to any improvement at all. The suffering continues, but omnivores feel relieved of the obligation to relieve that suffering.[3]

Still, there is a sense to the welfarists’ argument that is difficult to ignore.[4] As the president of the Humane Society of the United States remarks on the apparent futility of abolitionism, “For people who want a vegan revolution — that’s too passive for me.”[5] I can’t say I’ve been entirely consistent in my own thinking. I started off firmly in the welfarist camp but have often conceded the abolitionist argument. If there were a way to avoid salving omnivore consciences and if I could be assured that the ending of animal exploitation would be achieved with the welfarist position, I might be able to live with it. Still, I want animals to suffer as little as possible. Now.

It’s a terrible choice to have to make. But here’s what makes it easier: The meat industry is determined to avoid improving its practices. They have successfully lobbied for laws intended to inhibit investigation of those practices and even to label such investigations ‘terrorism.’[6] It is unreasonable to trust this industry with the welfare of animals.

And that ultimately is what makes the welfarist position unreasonable.

  1. [1]Bob Fischer and James McWilliams, “When Vegans Won’t Compromise,” New York Times, August 16, 2015,
  2. [2]Bob Fischer and James Mcwilliams, “When Vegans Won’t Compromise,” New York Times, August 16, 2015,
  3. [3]Erik Marcus, Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money (Boston: Brio, 2005); Erik Marcus, “Gary Francione / Erik Marcus Debate,”, February 25, 2007,; Gary Steiner, “Animal, Vegetable, Miserable,” New York Times, November 21, 2009,
  4. [4]James McWilliams, “HSUS vs. abolitionists vs. the meat industry: Why the infighting should stop,” Slate, September 7, 2012,
  5. [5]Wayne Pacelle, quoted in Maggie Jones, “The Barnyard Strategist,” New York Times, October 24, 2008,
  6. [6]Brennan Browne, “Why (Even If You’re Not for Non-Human Rights) You Should UN-OCCUPY Big-Ag,” IndyBay, November 17, 2011,; Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “Taping of Farm Cruelty Is Becoming the Crime,” New York Times, April 6, 2013,

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