The reality is that literally billions of animals annually are treated in ways that would shock most consumers of animal products. Animal welfare laws as they pertain to animal agriculture have no connection to the common public conception of “animal welfare” as it applies to e.g. dogs and cats. Rather, welfare laws covering animals exploited for food, experimentation, and entertainment are intentionally designed to support “customary and accepted practices” through categorical exemptions of treatment, most of which would normally be considered felony cruelty if inflicted on, say, a Golden Retriever.
We might be tempted then, as welfarist organizations like HSUS and Animal Legal Defense Fund do, to suggest that we tighten up and enforce these welfare laws to “really” protect animals. There are several reasons why enforcing stronger welfare laws cannot work. The biggest reason such laws cannot work is strong economic consumer demand combined with the fact that it is economically, practically, and logistically impossible to breed, raise, feed, transport, and slaughter 10 billion animals annually without confining these beings to live in their waste; debeaking chickens; de-horning and castrating bulls (without expensive anesthetic); using electric prods on large animals; using brute force on chickens; transporting animals in extreme weather conditions that not only cause misery, but are enough to kill some animals before they get to slaughter; and running slaughterhouse lines at high rates of speed causing millions of chicken to miss the neck blade and end up in the boiler alive and many cows to end up alive at the hide-ripping machine. To eliminate these cruel “customary and accepted practices” would be so costly that the prices of animal products would necessarily rise to several multiples of the current prices, and only the very wealthy could afford to purchase the products. Combine the economic impossibility of such major reforms with the sweeping and devastating effect such reforms would have on one of the biggest, wealthiest, and most powerful collective of industries in the world (Big Food: ConAgra, Tyson Foods, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, and suburban corporate chain restaurants, just to name a few of dozens of big businesses), and it is easy to see that attempting to legislate such reforms through welfare laws is plainly absurd.
So admittedly, the situation for animals, particularly any significant improvement in welfare laws, is as bleak as can be imagined. However, the sole driving force of this virtually absolute economic and political power that animal agriculture and Big Food have over animals is consumers, individually and collectively, who support, demand, drive, and are ultimately responsible for the existence of the animal agriculture industry and all of its power. If we are to tackle the problem of the institutional torture of animals, we must directly educate consumers of animal products and challenge the cultural acceptability of animal product consumption. Decent people will have serious moral qualms about the “customary and accepted practices” and the categorical exemptions in animal agriculture if they are exposed to these practices. One significant hurdle to exposing the general public to these practices is the culturally accepted attitude of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the refusal of many people to allow themselves to be exposed even when film footage of the horrific treatment is readily available. Combine this with the industry’s legal right to keep people, including the media (which is biased in favor of industry in the first place), off of their property – a right which they reserve and enforce at least to the full extent of the law – and you can see that educating consumers is a time-consuming and sometimes difficult task. However, educating consumers is the ONLY conceivable way to erode the industry’s immense power and the animals’ only chance for relief from the misfortune of being born into an existence of unimaginable hell.
With that preface, let’s look at an overview of vegan education, both as it is generally practiced now (i.e. welfarist vegan education practiced by large welfarist organizations) and as it ought to be practiced if animals are to have any hope in coming years or decades (i.e. abolitionist vegan education).
Welfarist “Vegan” Education
Not all “vegan” education qualifies as “the core and first stage of the abolitionist approach” mentioned in the last sentence of the first paragraph of this essay. Welfarist “vegan” education – that is, “vegan” education provided by the predominant “animal protection” organizations – is antithetical to the abolitionist approach. Let‘s examine the difference, starting with welfarist “vegan” education:
People exposed to welfarist vegan education may decide to go vegan, but the reasons they give for going vegan are tenuous and conditional. Welfarist vegans believe and say things like “veganism is just a tool to reduce suffering”; or “even if you like meat, you can still help the animals by reducing your meat consumption”, or “it’s a step in the right direction”, and “veganism is a boycott of cruelty.” These statements see veganism merely as a “tool” to “reduce” suffering and perhaps also to persuade animal agribusiness to treat animals better and to go along with welfarist attempts at legislative reforms. Because the abolitionist approach sees the folly in attempting to reform industry, and sees the use and killing of animals as the fundamental problem and the poor treatment as merely an unavoidable symptom of the fundamental use problem, every one of these statements is antithetical to genuine animal rights advocacy and the abolitionist approach. Again, all of these statements see the treatment of animals as the core problem, not the exploitation or killing per se. Indeed, the leading philosopher of the welfarist camp, Peter Singer – also known as the “father of the animal rights movement” – has said that we can be “conscientious omnivores”. But if 300 million of us in America can be “conscientious omnivores”, can animals have any rights or protection by any coherent definition of the word “rights” or “protection”? Of course not. Not only is it practically ridiculous from a welfarist standpoint of a vague claim to “decent treatment” in slaughter, but from a genuine animal rights standpoint, it makes no sense to talk about the right to anything if one has no right to one’s life.
For welfarists, there is nothing wrong with being a “conscientious omnivore” or “demi-vegetarian” (like many welfarists are) and allowing oneself the “luxury” of a little meat or cheese occasionally. This is perfectly consistent with welfarist philosophy and why veganism is looked at by welfarists as some heroic or ascetic thing rather than a moral baseline. If you’re a welfarist, there really is no compelling reason to be vegan; veganism really is nothing more than an optional “tool to reduce suffering.” Since the inception of the welfarist approach in the mid-1970s, per capita meat consumption has risen steadily and the treatment of animals has gotten progressively worse. Additionally, huge populations in other parts of the world that have so far consumed primarily a vegetarian diet are now being introduced to moderate to large quantities of animal products by the gigantic animal agriculture industry, and worldwide per capita meat consumption is expected to at least double during the next few decades. After 30 years of the welfarist approach, the meat industry is stronger than ever and there is no hope on the horizon that anything will change in this regard. Again, the situation and prognosis for animals could not be worse, but if there is any hope, it is only through the abolitionist approach.
Abolitionist Vegan Education: Moral Considerations
In addition to the practical considerations of veganism as the only way of eliminating unnecessary animal cruelty, there are significant moral differences between the abolitionist approach and the welfarist approach. When we consider the genuine meaning and implications of animal rights, as set forth in Gary Francione’s Introduction to Animal Rights, the moral baseline of veganism becomes strikingly clear. Nonhuman beings have inherent value derived from the morally relevant characteristic of their sentience and are therefore deserving of equal consideration.  In recognizing their sentience, inherent value, and equal consideration, we realize that it is a moral imperative to not consume them or exploit them by using them solely as a means to our ends. Animals have important interests beyond merely avoiding pain and suffering. Being vegan is no longer merely a “tool to reduce suffering” or a “boycott of cruelty”, it becomes an internalized moral issue on par with the prohibition of intentionally killing innocent humans or exploiting them solely as a means to our ends. This is why the issue of what message we are sending in vegan education isn’t merely a matter of “tactics”; it has moral and philosophical roots that go much deeper than practical considerations and quibbles over tactics.
Abolitionist Vegan Education: Practical Considerations
Let’s consider slavery 150 years ago: If slave welfare – which was primarily concerned with the treatment rather than the use of slaves – was the dominant philosophy in our society from then until now, virtually nothing would have changed by now because the economic, property, and moral status of slaves would not have changed significantly. However, because abolition of slavery was the dominant philosophy in our society after the Civil War and still is today, much has changed and the descendants of slaves are free of bondage and property status. The same is true of the welfare versus abolition situation with regard to nonhuman beings. The predominant philosophy, welfarism or abolitionism, will entirely determine whether we live in a vegan society in years or decades to come or whether worldwide per capital meat consumption will be at an all-time high in years or decades to come.
This is partly why the reasons people are vegan are so important, and not just that people are vegan for “tool” reasons. As a practical matter, welfarist veganism is completely unnecessary in welfarist philosophy and therefore tenuous. Abolitionist veganism is a moral imperative in animal rights philosophy and therefore rock-solid.
In the next essay of this two-part topic, we’ll examine the abolitionist incremental approach to animal rights and vegan education, specifically looking at Gary Francione’s Five Criteria of an incremental approach to forwarding animal rights in society.
In the meantime, the following links provide good examples of abolitionist educational material: