Welfarism vs Abolitionsim: a healthy debate

By on July 8, 2012

As the late Rodney King exclaimed, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a blog post about how infighting is the scourge of the animal rights movement and that animals are dying because of our disagreements. Rather, I believe that a healthy debate can and will move us towards more effective strategies and tactics.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy debate. What I don’t appreciate is the vitriol and name-calling in these discussions. Nothing will be accomplished if all we do is dig our heels in and go into attack mode.

Welfarists like to paint abolitionists as unrealistic and often say that abolitionists truly want to see animals continue to suffer because somehow, this will bring about animal liberation sooner. Not only is this a naïve assessment, it’s not even accurate. Abolitionists want better treatment of animals, just not at the expense of the bigger picture, which is that there is no humane way to use and eat animals. Abolitionists feel like campaigns that support a humane treatment message set back the movement’s goal of animal liberation.

Abolitionists like to paint welfarists as cynics who want to keep animal exploitation alive so their campaigns bring in money, keep people who work for animal protection groups employed, and occasionally yell “victory.” This in itself is a cynical belief, and an unfair characterization. Welfarists believe that since we will not see animal liberation any time soon, we should work towards better treatment in the meantime. They believe that they can simultaneously work for better treatment while advocating for liberation.

Both are right and both are wrong. There’s no magical argument or strategy that is going to bring about animal liberation tomorrow. If there were, the world would be vegan.

Again, I don’t pretend that everyone in this movement is going to agree to the same strategies, philosophies and tactics. Nor should they: I don’t think that would be healthy. Differences are what will spur discussions (ideally). I don’t think we need to be holding hands and signing kumbaya, which is also unrealistic.

What I do think we need is a modicum of respect. We need to learn how to have these discussions like adults, like team members. There are very few of us advocating for the end of animal exploitation. We need to have these philosophical, strategic and tactical discussions in a manner where both sides don’t feel like they need to win at the expense of the other side.

We need to step back and figure out how to best serve the cause. I think we can at least start by having respectful discussions, which shouldn’t be regarded as “infighting.” (Pay attention the next time someone accuses you of infighting, because there’s a good chance they’ve been the aggressor in the conversation.)

Aside from these conversations being more about “winning” than exchanging ideas, we regress to playground-level personal attacks. We’re all very passionate, but insulting each other gets us nowhere, nor do I recommend feeling insulted when someone merely disagrees with our positions. There are a few high-profile bullies, to be sure. But it’s also unproductive to feel bullied when it isn’t happening.

We also need to stop positioning the issues as either/or, black/white, “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Too often I see people state that if someone doesn’t agree with their premise, they want to harm animals. If they don’t support a tactic, they reject it as “violent,” or they use the language of the oppressors against their fellow activists. Non-vegans want to categorize vegans as either hypocrites or extremists; we need to stop doing that to each other.

This site was intended to create a space for these kinds of rational and philosophical conversations to take place. The vast majority of the comments on this blog are respectful, and very rarely does someone take the conversation into an unproductive direction or a personal attack (occasionally we do delete comments that are overly antagonistic).

As anyone who reads this blog for more than a minute knows, I believe that the ethical argument for veganism – that is, the animal rights message – is the most rhetorically, logically, and morally sound approach for our outreach. That is my belief. We can disagree. But let’s do it respectfully.


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  1. Aurora Cooney
    July 8, 2012

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    I very much agree. The thing I try to remember is that my own journey has evolved and continues to evolve. I had ideas 7 years ago that I no longer hold to because others have shown a different light on the subject. It is important not to judge, especially if their heart is in the right place.

  2. Gia Campola
    July 8, 2012

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    We are all fighting the good fight for the same reason – animal liberation. ANY advance, ANY hope is welcome and necessary. Working together, with no personal agendas, will benefit the animals to the utmost. Peace to all and freedom to all.

  3. Rebecca
    July 8, 2012

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    A very timely message – thank you! I second Aurora’s observation that ideas continue to evolve over time – thank goodness, or none of us would be vegans now in the first place. Let’s be patient with those who are not yet vegans, and ESPECIALLY patient and understanding of each other.

  4. PythagoreanCrank
    July 9, 2012

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    Thanks for another great post!

    Your last paragraph is the reason this schism is happening in the first place. It’s an issue of veganism vs animal rights. When the goal is an “ethical argument for veganism” rather than an “ethical argument” you will always see the clash between the vegan-ish and the vegan purists. This is not an “in-fight” because vegans and animal rights are not the same movement. For peaceful coexistence we would do well to recognize this and respect the boundaries so we get unstick ourselves from this tired mire.

  5. Dave Rutan
    July 9, 2012

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    The use of straw man arguments – misrepresenting the other sides argument so it can be more easily defeated – is rife in the abolition/welfare debate. As another example (you made a couple), I once heard an abolitionist state that welfarists only want better conditions, they don’t want liberation. There probably are meat eaters who are this type of welfarist, but to make this statement to vegan animal rights activists who believe in the “welfare leading to liberation” approach is disingenuous.

    And to open up the idea of middle ground, I think that sometimes one approach may work better than the other depending on the particular issue. We have lots of tools in our toolbox – no need to always use the hammer.

  6. Animal Impact
    July 10, 2012

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    Bravo on your call for the civilized discussion of what works. More than opinions, we need proof, as in research. Farm Sanctuary, HSUS, FARM, VegFund, and other groups are working with Humane Research Council and other research firms to understand our audiences, test messages, measure results and more. This work needs to be an even greater priority, so that we invest our resources in what we know helps animals rather than just what we think is effective.

  7. lara
    July 10, 2012

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    “Just how happy can a local, sustainable, natural, organic,
    GMO-free, free-range, grass-fed, pasture-raised,
    antibiotic-free, hormone-free, cage-free, free-run,
    free-roaming, home-raised, free-farmed, small-farmed,
    certified-humane animal be, when she’s brutally murdered in
    the prime of her life?” – Rae Sikora

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