Getting from A to Z: Why Animal Activists Should Support Incremental Reforms to Help Animals

02/21/2011 10:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At PETA, we unabashedly labor for animals to be treated with basic respect, which demands (at the very least) that we not eat them, wear them, torment them in laboratories, and beat them into submission so they can perform unnatural acts for the purpose of "entertainment." Basically, we work to extend "the golden rule" beyond just the human species.

It won't surprise most readers to learn that we also believe that as long as animals are being eaten, worn, experimented on, and used for entertainment, that it's our responsibility help improve these unfortunate animals' lives and deaths. And when positive steps are taken toward that end, we support them.

But some animal rights activists, who call themselves "abolitionists," argue that we shouldn't work to improve conditions for animals. They argue that anti-slavery abolitionists did not work for "no raping of slaves," but rather supported complete abolition, so we too should only work for a complete end of animals being abused for human purposes. One "abolitionist" recently offered a commentary on slavery by philosopher Slavoj Zizek to support this idea: "Remedies do not cure the disease, they merely prolong it. Indeed, the remedies are part of the disease. ... The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the core of the system being realized by those who suffered from it."

And as another "abolitionist" recently put it to me more bluntly: "If PETA believes that 'animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment,' then how can the organization support certain methods of killing rodents and chickens? It's really that simple!"

But is it? I wish the argument were so black and white. In fact, I'm convinced that welfare reforms deserve our support, both because they are better (or at least much less bad) for the animals involved (the Golden Rule), and because they push the envelope, moving us closer to the compassionate world that all animal rights activists are working toward.

The Golden Rule: Considering the Animals' Point of View
Social justice advocates working for others' rights (as opposed to their own rights) must put themselves in the shoes of those on whose behalf they're working. And when we put ourselves in the animals' place, it is easy to see the importance of welfare reforms: If you were destined to be killed, wouldn't you still have a strong preference to spend your life in a large barn, rather than a tiny wire cage where you couldn't spread one wing for your entire life? Given the choice to have your throat slit open while you were completely conscious, or to be put to sleep first, wouldn't you strongly prefer the latter option? None of us would say, "well, I'm just going to die anyway. Please only fight for my complete release!" And of course, if these were human beings, not one of us would say -- let them suffer; we want complete liberation!

Considering animals' interests is the crux of the animal rights philosophy. But in addition to considering them in philosophical terms by asking what the ideal world looks like (no animals abused or slaughtered), we have a responsibility to also consider their interests in more practical terms. The result of ignoring this responsibility out of a sense of duty to a broader philosophy leads to apathy about animal suffering, which is the opposite of what the animal rights movement should be about. Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer and I wrote about this idea in more detail for Satya Magazine some years back.

Welfare Reforms Bring Us Closer to Animal Liberation
But it's not just that basic respect for animals demands that we support improvements in animals' living and dying conditions: Such reforms also move us toward animal liberation, the ostensible goal of the "abolitionists." Think about the countries with the best animal welfare laws -- they also have the most animal rights activists. And the countries with the least -- they have none.

This makes sense in two ways. First, as people decide that they care about farmed animals, the consistency principle kicks in. If your society doesn't grant animals any respect at all, how are you going to change that society into a vegan one -- people don't care enough about animals to ensure that they can spread their wings; how can they care about eating them? But once society says, "yes, chickens have interests that matter enough to codify them in law," it should be only a matter of time before society also realizes that eating them at all is unjustifiable. That's the consistency principle at work.

Second, meat-eating continues in part because people are divorced from meat as living, breathing animals. On Oprah recently, Michael Pollan commented on the how Oprah's audience cringed to have to watch farmed animals at all, and he pointed out 1) that the scene that upset them was far from the worst they were supporting as meat eaters; and 2) that if they couldn't watch animals being slaughtered, they shouldn't eat meat. Basically, anything that draws attention to the fact that meat is animal corpses, and that these animals have interests, will be good for the animal rights movement.

Recent science backs up these intuitive observations, including a Kansas State study which found that media attention on animal issues in the U.S. has had "significant, negative effects" on meat demand. Vegetarian author and researcher Norm Phelps elaborated on this point in an article for the European Vegetarian and Animal News Alliance:

The Slave Analogy: Why Welfare Reformers are Abolitionists
Of course advocating for better conditions and for the end of an abusive system altogether are not mutually exclusive. In the case of slavery, it was reasonable to argue, "While we ought to abolish slavery altogether, until that happens, we shouldn't allow slave-owners to whip and rape slaves." Any abolitionist who seriously suggested at the time that "the worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves" would have been laughed at (derisively).

Abolitionists (of course) supported education for slaves, better treatment for slaves, and so on -- both because if they were themselves enslaved, they would want those reforms, and because they knew that reform leads to abolition. In The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Douglass states explicitly that his most benign slaveholders were responsible for his eventual freedom. If he had only been subjected to the worst slaveholders, he would never have been free, we would have no Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and abolition would have been delayed.

A recent letter in the Nation magazine, discussing the anti-slavery movement, makes the point that welfare reforms led to abolition (assuming you credit Lincoln with accelerating abolition): "Although immediate abolition was out of the question, they sought out every smaller fight they could find... If a true abolitionist is unelectable, can we at least elect Lincoln, who is a moderate on abolition but is with us at heart?"

It is worth noting that the take-home message for the meat and egg industries is this: Stop handing the animal rights movement such easy wins. The general public does not support cramming chickens and pigs into cages so small that they can do nothing that is natural to them (as is standard for hens and mother pigs today). They don't support slicing the throats of fully conscious chickens and turkeys, as is standard today. When you force us to fight these battles, we win them -- and the public thinks more about the fact that meat is the tortured corpses of animals.

Imagine if the people of Tunisia and Egypt had been denied the tools of modern technology; they would not have had revolution. This small right led to bigger rights. Imagine a political prisoner in solitary confinement who is being beaten every day; do we want that person released? Of course we do, but even if the government won't release her, we also want the beatings to stop; we want her released from solitary. We want welfare reforms for her, and we want freedom. We should, in our fight for animals, apply the Golden Rule: If we were abused animals, what would we want?

Opposing welfare reforms is both speciesist and counterproductive. It's speciesist because it ignores the reality that billions of animals are suffering beyond our worst imagination today, and even goes as far as to suggest that such suffering may somehow help animals in the long term. And it is counterproductive because fighting for welfare reforms helps to reach animal liberation. Saying "all or nothing" might make us feel pure, but it hurts animals.

On the other hand, working toward welfare reforms has the immediate benefit of helping improve animals' lives today and acts as a crucial stepping stone toward animal liberation.

Sir Paul McCartney endorses both vegetarianism and reform of the animal abuse industries. See why:

Am amusing video critique of the "abolitionists" (warning: foul language):

Additional Reading:
A New World, Piece by Piece, from Vegan Outreach:

Science Weighs In, by Norm Phelps (this lays out the history of this controversy, too)

One-Track Activism, by Norm Phelps