Monthly Archives: June 2009

Abolitionism versus New Welfarism: A Contrast in Theory and Practice

A Contrast in Theory

The abolitionist approach is a rights-based approach that identifies the core issue of violence inflicted on innocent sentient beings as rooted in the fact that these beings are considered property, commodities, and “things” under the law. This property, commodity, and thing status is at the root of our “moral schizophrenia” regarding nonhuman beings. As long as nonhuman beings are considered “things” or commodities that we own instead of beings like us who have important interests in their lives, we will continue to torture and kill them by the tens of billions while we acknowledge that it would be horrific if someone did such things to young, orphaned children (despite the striking similarities in mentality, sentience, and innocence among nonhuman beings and young children). Therefore, the abolitionist approach as currently conceived advocates a single right for innocent sentient nonhumans: the right not to be property. But as long as we continue to consume the flesh and bodily fluids of these beings, this one right can never be achieved. Therefore, the only way we can break the socially-sanctioned perpetual holocaust and moral schizophrenia and work toward achieving the one right for nonhumans is to go vegan and encourage others to do the same. Therefore, as both a moral and practical matter, vegan education is the only activity that makes sense if our goal is to achieve a minimum standard of decency and civilization regarding nonhuman beings.The new welfarist approach, in contrast to the abolitionist approach, is a utilitarian-based approach and a bizarre and confusing hodgepodge of traditional welfarism and “animal liberation” philosophy. On one hand, new welfarists want to “liberate” animals from the tyranny of “factory farms”. On the other hand, new welfarists (amazingly) see regulating the perpetual holocaust as one way to achieve such “liberation” (despite 200 years of welfarism resulting in ever increasing cruelty, both in the severity and the mind-boggling numbers of victims). New welfarists engage in ‘vegan’ education, but because treatment rather than use is the primary issue for them, new welfarists generally see veganism as a (temporary?) “boycott of cruelty” and as merely a(n) (optional?) “tool to reduce suffering” rather than as a minimum standard of decency. The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions and a Permanent Non-profit Business Cycle: Welfarists “Versus” Industry’s Strength

Industry’s strength is its financial wealth and power, which translates into media, advertising, and information power, as well as political and legislative power. Industry’s weakness is that it is morally deplorable and environmentally disastrous (the eco-disaster will become ever more obvious as huge Asian markets increase demand for animal products). We cannot defeat an opponent of industry’s size and power by mostly avoiding their weakness and attempting to take on their strength, yet this is exactly what the new welfarist movement tries to do.With welfare reform campaigns, the new welfarist movement seeks to at least weaken industry through legislation, and more ambitiously, legislate and regulate industry away. Most new welfarists call their approach the “two track” approach, and they believe that regulations are an integral part of ‘dismantling’ the giant. One track for them is ‘vegan’ education (albeit ‘vegan’ being merely a ‘boycott’ or ‘tool’); the other is welfare regulation.

But this approach of making welfare regulation a substantial part of eliminating animal agriculture plays to industry’s strength by 1) taking them on where they’re strong (in politics, legislation, and deal-making; see above), 2) diverting resources from the attack on where they are weak (diverting from vegan education), and 3) reinforcing the legal structure and regulated property rights paradigm that animal exploitation is founded upon.

As long as animals are considered property and commodities, it is impossible to balance their interests fairly against human interests. This is not “merely legal theory”, as some new welfarists claim it is (although even in legal theory alone the property status problem is overwhelmingly supported as insurmountable due to the legal trumping power of property rights over regulations, as a matter of the inherent hierarchy of legal concepts [which have very real consequences]).

Rather, we also have overwhelming empirical evidence that this is the case by observing the endless efforts over centuries to regulate chattel slavery, which remained viciously cruel to its very end. As additional evidence, animal welfare laws have been attempting to regulate use for 200 years now, and animals are treated more cruelly and in greater numbers now than ever.

Although we don’t need a slave history scholar to vouch for the utter failure of slave welfare laws and reforms, there is a preeminent non-vegan slave history legal scholar, Alan Watson, who entirely agrees with Gary Francione 1) on this historical empirical fact and 2) that the property status problem will prevent meaningful change in the use and treatment of animals until it is abolished. To quote Professor Francione in Animals As Persons (p. 162), “The interests of slaves will never be viewed as similar to the interests of slave owners. The interests of animals [who] are property will never be viewed as similar to those of human property owners.”

More and more regulations add a regulating structure to animal exploitation supported eventually by more bureaucracy, more inspector jobs, and more ‘legitimacy’ to the entire enterprise, entrenching animals ever deeper into property and commodity status. It’s true that more regulations put short-term profit margin pressure on industry, but industry is very resilient and has a number of options to restore the profit margins, including moving to less restrictive legal jurisdictions (including other international jurisdictions).

On top of regulations reinforcing the property/commodities paradigm, we should ask, what message do these welfare regulation campaigns send to the public? The message, when the regulations are promoted by so-called animal ‘rights’ organizations, is that animals are here for us to exploit and kill, we just have to do it more ‘humanely’ by regulating it more. Also, once the welfare law, regulation, or agreement is made (but usually not enforced), the false public perception is that we are exploiting and killing more ‘humanely’ (so you can feel a little better; after all, there are ‘inspectors’ looking after every animal as if she were his own daughter). Does it shift the paradigm at all? No, it obviously doesn’t. In fact, people feel better than ever about animals as commodities.

What motivation does a new welfarist organization have to do these campaigns? Victories! And the ‘victories’ lead to more donations, permanently supporting the organization’s basic business cycle. If the campaign is directly ‘against’ a particular exploiter, such as in the case of KFC Canada and PETA, PETA will actually do a public relations campaign on behalf of the exploiter as part of the deal. PETA wins with a ‘victory’ to brag about to their donors, leading to the endless cycle of more donations and campaigns. KFC Canada wins PETA approval. The customers win being happily duped into believing that KFC’s chickens are treated ‘humanely’. The animals? Well, PETA, KFC Canada, and KFC’s customers just struck a great deal; what more do you want?

Consider the case of HSUS (a traditional welfarist organization) and Farm Sanctuary and California’s Proposition 2 in November of 2008. HSUS and Farm Sanctuary bragged about getting Prop 2 passed, which doesn’t come into effect until 2015, and when and if it does, will not result in a significant decrease in suffering (especially compared to the public perception of the decrease). Further, if some exploiters don’t like Prop 2, they will merely relocate to another state or to Mexico and ship the product into California. For more on welfare and single-issue campaigns that are so popular with new welfarist organizations, see Picking the Low Hanging Fruit: What Is Wrong with Single-Issue Campaigns?

It is interesting to note that HSUS and PETA sell their welfare reforms to industry based on how profitable they will be for industry to implement, essentially acting as strategic advisers. Some of the welfare reforms, like “controlled atmosphere killing” and crate elimination, are things industry was planning on doing anyway for profitability. For solid evidence of the industry-welfarist partnership in action, see the various links in Four Problems with Welfare in a Nutshell.

Ultimately, as Gary Francione has said countless times, it is a zero-sum game. Every effort made and every dollar spent by a vegan or a pro-vegan organization on welfarism is effort and a dollar directed away from vegan education. Vegan education efforts are causally connected to welfare concerns, but the reverse is not true. Welfare concerns are not causally connected to vegan education. Only vegan education itself creates new vegans. Currently, far too much money and effort of the animal movement goes toward welfarism (for abolitionists, no resources should go to welfarism).

For more reading on this, the following are some links:

Gary Francione’s analysis of Prop 2

Gary Francione’s reply to new welfarist Martin Balluch

The Great ‘Victory’ of New Welfarism

The Industry-Welfarist Partnership

The Road to Justice Is Paved with Creative, Non-violent Vegan Education: Abolitionists Versus Industry’s Weakness

I stated in the previous section that the animal agriculture industry’s strength is its wealth and size, which results in political, legislative, media, and deal-making power. Its weakness is that it is morally deplorable and environmentally disastrous, and that vegan living is deeply satisfying, delightful, and healthy. Most people, however, are unaware of exactly what industry does; how cruel it is both in intensity and magnitude; what speciesism is and how identical it is to racism, sexism, heterosexism and other prejudices; and how, why, and in what specific ways industry is so disastrous to the environment. Most people are also unaware of how delicious and satisfying vegan food is, especially in 2009, with more options available than ever. The possibilities for education are immense, if only we would direct more resources toward them.

There are three (or four, depending on how you count them) prime areas of vegan education, which combined, would provide overwhelmingly strong, positive reasons for insisting on the permanent elimination of animal agriculture, and to which industry and the general public has no adequate rebuttal (“but they taste good” sounds absurd in light of these three areas of vegan education).

The Moral Issue

Two people of approximately similar intelligence, but of different race or sex should be granted equal consideration regarding their important interest in a university education based solely on their similar intelligence. The irrational cultural prejudice of racism and sexism ignores the morally relevant similarity of intelligence in favor of recognizing the irrelevant difference of race or sex.

In the same way, two beings of approximately equal sentience, but of different species should be granted equal consideration regarding their important interest in not being enslaved, exploited, or slaughtered based solely on their similar sentience. The irrational cultural prejudice of speciesism ignores the morally relevant similarity of similar sentience in favor of recognizing the irrelevant difference of species.

We are not very deep into moral philosophy here. Indeed, a dim-witted 10 year-old should not have any problem comprehending the moral argument above. Why doesn’t the animal rights and vegan movement broadcast this basic and irrefutable argument constantly over years, like a well-known advertisement, until it becomes part of the general public’s collective psyche, as a major component of vegan education? Industry’s only reply would be to restate their irrational prejudice. Granted, in our era, the public generally shares industry’s bigotry on the matter, but over time, it should be increasingly difficult to embrace the prejudice in any serious discussion. Eventually, the truth of the matter will weigh heavily on the conscience of decent people, and change will result, perhaps more rapidly than most of us might think likely today.

The Environmental Issue

As set forth in my blog essay entitled On the Environmental Disaster of Animal Agriculture and the important links therein, it is obvious that animal agriculture is the single worst enemy of the environment and a sustainable future.

As animal agribusiness grows into Asian and other markets, adding three billion or more people as customers and quadrupling the number of animals bred, raised, and slaughtered from the current number of approximately 50 billion annually, it is clear that the long-term effects (perhaps even the short-term effects) will bring the Earth’s biosphere into collapse. We simply cannot afford the gluttonous excesses that the combination of animal agriculture and modern technology has enabled. Our survival as a species depends on waking up to animal agriculture’s impact on the future.

Vegan Food and Nutrition

In addition to most people being completely ignorant of the shocking and horrific details of the lives of ‘food’ animals, speciesism, and the environmental disaster created by animal agriculture, most people have no idea what vegans eat or how nutritious and satisfying vegan diets are or can be. Fortunately, there are a lot of great vegan food blogs on the Net these days, and well-planned vegan diets are endorsed by the American Dietetic Association and similar mainstream, science-based organizations. But there is still tremendous untapped opportunity for vegan culinary and nutrition education, including education on deleterious effects of the standard American diet on public health, which is high in damaging animal fats, including cholesterol. Anybody who makes it easier for non-vegans to go vegan is doing effective vegan education in that respect.

Vegan Education and New Welfarists

As I stated in the previous section, new welfarists engage in what they call “two-track activism”, one track being vegan education and the other being welfare reform. So, as a secondary activity to welfare reform advocacy, new welfarists are already engaged in many activities that fall into the above categories. But to the extent that they spend time and money on welfare reform or single-issue campaigns when the opportunity for vegan education in society is so unimaginably vast, they inflict a severe opportunity cost on genuine societal progress. That’s not even to mention the confused and contradictory message they send that I mentioned above, which acts not merely to forgo opportunity, but is counterproductive and regressive.

For a deeper exploration of the topic of abolitionism versus new welfarism, consider reading the following links:

Gary Francione on vegan education

Gary Francione and Anna Charlton’s abolitionist pamphlet (it’s also available in several other languages)

Boston Vegan Association’s (excellent) pamphlet

In praise of vegan food blogs

Vegan Education – Part 1

Vegan Education – Part 2

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Plant Sentience

Occasionally, vegans encounter the claim that plants are sentient as a kind of objection to going vegan. The uninformed reasoning suggests that since ‘all life’ is sentient, it doesn’t matter what we eat. Vegans have three replies to this: 1) accept the premise that plants are sentient (no matter how offensive to common sense it is) and argue from there; 2) deny that plants are sentient; or 3) reply with both 1) and 2), as I intend to do here.
First Reply: Plants Are Sentient; Therefore, Go Vegan

Let’s put science and common sense on hold for a couple of minutes and assume for argument’s sake that plants are sentient. Not only that, but let’s take it all the way to absurdity and assume that plants are the most sentient life on Earth.Even if it’s true that plants are the most sentient life on Earth, veganism would still be the minimum standard of decency.This follows from the simple fact that animals are reverse protein factories, consuming multiple times the protein in plant food that they produce in protein from their flesh and bodily fluids. Cows consume from 9 to 13 times, and pigs 5 to 7 times, the protein they produce, depending on diet and confinement factors. Chickens consume 2 to 4 times the protein they produce, also depending on diet and confinement factors. So the more we’re concerned about the ‘sentience’ of plants, the less we want to contribute to the staggering inefficiencies of cycling plants through animals, and the more reason we have to go vegan to reduce both animal and plant ‘suffering’.Second Reply: Plants Aren’t Sentient; Therefore, Go Vegan

Let’s now examine the idea that plants are sentient and see why people might believe, contrary to common sense, that plants are sentient, and where they might go wrong.

Equivocation on Sentience

To start with, let’s look at the meaning of the word sentience, because equivocation on the meaning of sentience is often a source of confusion. The definition of sentience in standard usage is an organism’s capacity to experience sensations and emotions. A non-standard definition of sentience, introduced by Robert A. Freitas Jr., and used in the so-called “sentience quotient” (SQ), is the relationship between the estimated information processing rate (measured in bits per second) of each individual processing unit, the weight or size of a single unit, and the total number of processing units. [1]

When a claim is made that plants are ‘sentient’, it is helpful to ask in what sense the claim is being made. Under the SQ definition, plants are ‘sentient’ in that they have an (extremely low) SQ value, but this low SQ value says nothing about sentience under the standard definition. Consciousness sufficient to support experiential sentience almost certainly requires a sufficiently high SQ value in addition to other neuronal properties, neither of which, for example, do computers and plants possess. [2]

Computers have an SQ value that is several orders of magnitude higher than all plants; and animals, including humans, have an SQ value that is up to several orders of magnitude higher than all computers. If computers can’t experience sensations and emotions, then it is almost certainly impossible that plants can, given plants’ extremely low SQ value and a non-neuronal information processing system. As such, it is unreasonable to believe that plants are sentient under the standard (non-SQ) definition.

Plants Are Complex

Another source of confusion regarding plants that leads some people to speculate that they are sentient is that plants are highly evolved and complex organisms that ‘react’ to their environment in surprising ways, especially in larger time scales than we perceive in everyday life. Some plants ‘react’ to insects by releasing deterrent or poisonous chemicals. Some plants release chemicals to deter other plants from growing near them. Some plants are either aggressive or passive in root development depending on whether or not they are around their own species. The Venus Flytrap catches and consumes insects when insects come in contact with tiny hairs that trigger the trap to close.

The confusion arises when the assumption is made that such plant ‘behavior’ is caused by the plants “subjectively experiencing the world through sense data” rather than by insentient hormonal, electrical, mechanical, and chemical processes.

The scientific principle of parsimony strongly suggests that we shouldn’t postulate a complex explanation for phenomena when a simpler explanation will suffice. When autonomic systems in mammals, such as the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and the reproductive system at the level of the ‘behavior’ of sperm in the presence of an egg appear to be reacting ‘subjectively, consciously and intentionally’ to perpetuate either themselves or their host organism, we don’t assume that these systems are sentient independently of their host organism and acting volitionally. We recognize that there are insentient hormonal, electrical, mechanical, and chemical processes that cause various ‘behaviors’ and events to take place. The development of these insentient processes can be explained by tens and hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection, where hundreds of billions of small, genetic mutations and combinations survived or failed to survive based on how adaptive they were. We should apply the principle of parsimony in our assessment of the causes of plant ‘behavior’ similarly.

Sentience and Neurobiology

Neuroscientists have positively confirmed the areas of our neurology (brain stem, limbic system, etc) that serve to provide sentience and complex emotion. All vertebrates and at least some non-vertebrate animals have these nervous system components, providing strong positive, empirical evidence that such beings are sentient, and that most of them have highly subjective, emotional lives. Plants do not have any of these neurological components.

Back to Common Sense

Organisms such as humans, dogs, chickens, pigs, cows, goats, and sheep look, behave, and move in ways that highly suggest sentience defined as the experience of sensation and emotion. Organisms such as plants look, behave, and stay still (unless the wind is blowing) in ways that highly suggest absolutely no sentience (again, defined as the experience of sensation and emotion). Absent an excellent reason to reject such strong appearances we ought to accept them.

If there is any room for debate and legitimate questions on sentience, it is in the biological continuum between insects and bacteria. Insects such as spiders certainly behave and move in a manner that highly suggests at least some degree of experiential sentience. How much sentience comes in degrees, and how sentient certain organisms like spiders are, are difficult questions. But we know beyond any reasonable doubt that vertebrates are sentient; and we know with a very high degree of confidence that plants are not sentient.


As unconscious entities, plants have no subjective, conscious interest that would be morally relevant to whether we kill them for food or other sufficient reasons (e.g. removing/killing them to build a shelter). We should respect plants in the same sense in which we respect the beauty, complexity, and wonder of insentient nature and natural phenomena in general, which entails reducing our impact on them as much as is reasonable, and not destroying them gratuitously. Our moral obligations regarding plants, however, do not compare in kind to our direct moral obligations to vertebrates, whose sentience and conscious, intentional striving for life and survival is obvious to us. Given this eager striving for life and survival of sentient vertebrates, veganism is the minimum standard of decency.



[1] The SQ spectrum ranges from -70 to about +50 and is computed by the formula SQ=log10(I/M), where I is measured in bits/second and M is the mass of the entire processing unit. An SQ of -70 is computed by dividing one bit by the age of the Universe in seconds (10E18 seconds), and dividing that result by the mass of the Universe (10E52 kg). The upper limit of +50 is imposed by the laws of quantum mechanics (see the link to the article below for more information).

Humans have an SQ of +13. The mass of a human neuron is about 10E-10 kg and one neuron can process 1000-3000 bit/s, resulting in +13. Nonhuman animals, from insects to mammals, are said to range from +9 to +13. Computers range from +6 to +9. Plants are said to range from -2 to +1 (the Venus Fly Trap being +1). It is important to note that these are logarithmic values, so that a difference of 5 points is 5 orders of magnitude (i.e. vastly) different.

It should be noted that SQ does not equal sentience under the standard definition of sentience. It’s possible, and even likely, that certain non-human beings could be far more sensitive to certain pain (especially in certain body parts) than humans are, even though they have a lower average SQ. SQ measures only informational processing efficiency, not pain sensitivity, which is dependent on many more factors. We need a sufficiently high SQ to feel pain, which all vertebrates have, but once that high SQ is reached, the other factors affecting pain sensitivity (such as number and sensitivity of nerve endings in certain body areas, etc) have as much or substantially more influence. In some ways, many non-human beings may be far more sensitive to physical and psychological pain than humans are, and that’s one more thing that makes what we do to sentient non-humans so tragic.

The information on SQ came from this article, and if you are interested, there is much more elaboration on SQ in it. Most of the factual details in the above calculations are not source-referenced in the article; however, I did verify the magnitude of the age of the Universe in seconds (quick calculation based on the estimated age of the Universe being about 13.7 billion years) and the mass of the Universe. I also verified the calculations of stated SQ values given the facts presented.

If anyone has good source-references on other facts (or corrections of such facts) presented here regarding SQ (such as the average mass of a human neuron), I’d be glad to update this brief essay with them.

[2] Plants process information via hormones, not neurons. Computers process information via integrated electronic circuitry in semiconductors. Neither hormones nor integrated circuits are known to be capable of producing a subjective experience of sensations. When computer touch screens are activated, for example, the ‘behavior’ of the computer results from programs being objectively and unconsciously carried out via the integrated circuits on the semiconductor devices. The computer is not ‘subjectively aware’ of anything.

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Filed under objections to animal rights, objections to veganism, plant sentience