Underlying much of the animal rights debate regarding whether vegans should promote measures that would support animal welfare, such as bigger cages for chickens, is fundamentally a conflict between a utilitarian and deontological ethics. On the one side we have people like the vegan strategist who believe that promoting veganism is primarily about being able to reduce and eliminating the harm that comes to animals. As such it is the consequences of our actions that matter most, and therefore if any action could support reduction in harm then it should be supported. In response to this on the other side of the argument are the abolitionists like followers of Tom Regan, who would respond with two points, firstly by making a deontological argument and secondly by challenging utilitarians on their own terms.
The Deontological argument
Regarding this first point, abolitionist begin by noting that consequences are only a secondary consideration, and that primarily what matters most is whether an animals intrinsic rights are being violated. Such an approach follows on from Kant’s ethics that persons should not be used as a means to an end, because by doing so we act as if they were things and not persons. For Abolitionists animals are persons in that they have fundamental rights that should not be violated, and therefore the ends of welfarism cannot justify the means if those means involve right violations. It follows from this argument that if one were to campaign for smaller cages, that one is implicitly saying that one can be justified in eating meat as long as the animal has lived a relatively good life. This may reduce the harm animal’s experiences, but because of the fundamental rights being violated in either case, advocating for harm reduction would still be wrong as it animals rights are being violated wither way.
The principle then they support is that all fundamental violations of rights are wrong, and that if one makes an analogy to humans one can see we maintain such a principle for humans. One of the many analogies they make is with domestic violence, that because all domestic violence is wrong one would not advocate for only mild domestic violence even if it reduced harm. Abolitionists would argue that the right of people not to be subjected to any such violence places on us a responsibility to not justify or normalise any such violence whatsoever. If one is to avoid being a speciesist then one must apply the same logic to animals, and not support measures that do not directly oppose fundamental rights violations.
The Utilitarian argument
Secondly, the abolitionist would also argue that even on utilitarian’s own point of view they would still be wrong, because by normalising animal eating such that some forms are seen as humane, this would prolong animal suffering in the long term, as fewer people would be convinced to go vegan comforted as they are by the notion that as long as animals are treated humanely that killing them is ok. As there is no evidence on which to base the utilitarian’s position that welfarism is effective at reducing harm, then there is no basis for utilitarian’s to actually support welfarism.
So it would seem then that the argument comes down to this, firstly does respect for animals as moral persons require one to not campaign for welfarism, and secondly are utilitarian’s even justified using their own ethical approach to say that welfarism reduces harm to animals.
Responding to the deontological argument against animal welfare
In response to the deontological argument, the philosopher Jean Kazez has noted that actually fundamental rights violations do not end with whether a person is used or not. Consider the situation for example of a political prisoner being tortured by despotic government. A human rights organisation would not just campaign for the prisoner’s freedom, but also the prisoner’s welfare, specifically not to be tortured. Kazez notes a number of other historical examples where supporting human rights included supporting welfare. We as humans have many interests, with our rights to freedom from being used being but one. We also value our right not to be tortured or be caused to suffer. By supporting such a right in animals then one is not being speciesist, one is being consistent with how we do treat humans in many situations.
What’s more by supporting such rights one is not supporting other rights to be violated. For example there are charities that exclusively campaign against torture, and one would not criticise such charities if some of those despotic regimes were to mistakenly believe that if they stopped torture they would still be justified in taking political prisoners. Indeed if one were to say that we should not campaign to end torture because it could lead to government continuing to take political prisoners, one would then be using those prisoners who have a right not to be tortured as a means to an end. This is analogous to how the abolitionist explicitly reject welfare rights to prioritise what they see as potentially normalising animal use, ie they are using animals as a means to an end. So even within a deontological framework a welfarist position can be defended. Furthermore to address the analogies between animal welfare and domestic violence, the two situations differ in many important respects. Regarding the latter, domestic violence is illegal and there are many social norms against domestic violence. That is not the case with animal use, where it is completely normalised and there is legislation to support animal use. These different contexts mean that a different approach is justified.
An additional point of contention is with regards to the nature of some welfare campaigning. Many welfare campaigning will seek to promote changes that reduce animal suffering such as reducetarianism. At core reducetarianism is about reducing ones consumption of animal products due to concerns about animal welfare, the environment and health. Abolitionist have criticised reducetarianism because on the reducetarian website it does not state that eating any meat is wrong, and the website provides meat containing recipes where the author says "use as much meat as you want". So it is argued that if being reducetarian requires one to believe that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with eating meat, then it is not compatible with veganism and so vegans should not advocate for reducetarianism. However the question is whether reducetarianism is merely about reducing meat consumption or does it at core also include beliefs that eating meat is not wrong. I would argue that while some reducetarians believe that eating meat is not in itself wrong, other reducetarians believe it is wrong. And indeed it also states on the reducetarian website that they consider vegans to be a type of reducetarian too as they have reduced their animal consumption to zero. As such if a vegan is to be called a reducetarian, at core reducetarianism must be about reducing consumption, with the rightness or wrongness of whether any meat consumption at all is wrong left to each reducetarian to decide for themselves. As such promoting reducetarianism can be consistent with veganism, and as it is a way of reducing the number of animal exposed to the horror of factory farms, it also supports animals welfare rights.
Abolitionists are right about one thing
However, just because I think the abolitionist argument is incorrect with reagrds to animal welfare, does not mean I support the utilitarian argument put forward by people like the vegan strategist. While I think he may be right that welfare does reduce harms, he has no firm evidence basis for this, and the opposing view put forward by abolitionists that by normalising animal use one is causing more harm in the long term is plausible. The vegan strategist may reject such an argument, but in doing so he is not appealing to any firm evidence base, he is merely using his own set of prejudices he developed through the course of debating against abolitionists who can at times be particularly confrontational. It’s a bias on his part, and I think that by taking an animal rights position one would not only be able to argue in favour of many of the approaches he supports through the use of Kazez’s arguments, but it would also enable him to be more honest about the state of the evidence base.
Kazez goes too far
While these are very important arguments by Kazez, I also feel I should say that there are many aspects on which I disagree with her. For example Kazez is not a vegan, but a vegetarian defending this on the grounds that she would find it too inconvenient and she enjoys things like cheese too much to go vegan. Now the argument commonly used against such a justification is that inconvenience and pleasure are not sufficient to justify violating animal rights. To this she argues that one can imagine a situation where one is so inconvenienced and lacking in pleasure that one is no longer able to function. As such pleasure and convenience can form a necessity, just as a vegan’s need for plants, which can involve the killing of some animals during crop harvesting, is a necessity. The problem here is that such a justification could be used to justify any harm to an animal no matter how harsh, just because on enjoys it. Where then is the line over what pleasure and level of inconvenience is a necessity? Kazez has no answer, but I think the only way we can judge this is by looking at people’s behaviour in the population. Are there people who go vegan but can still function in society, and is it realistic to expect someone to give up something and still be able to function. One can do studies on populations and ask does going vegan deprive people to such an extent of pleasure that they start to get increased risk of depression, and experience other health problems as one would predict if veganism really was cause of such asceticism. The answer to that is no, it does not, indeed veganism in general is associated with mental and physical health benefits. So I would say to Kazez, that while her argument is correct about welfare rights, her argument about necessity and inconvenience as a defence for not going vegan is not borne out by the evidence, and indeed would not provide any defence against people who would abuse animals for fun.
One final point about Kazez. In an interview she notes that she does not quite understand why there is a degree of frustration expressed by vegans as to why she is vegetarian, as she is an advocate for animal rights and believes that veganism adheres to our obligations to animals to a greater extent than vegetarianism (though albeit she believes these are supererogatory obligations). She is after all doing a lot more to support animal rights than your average meat eater, so why the frustration. The problem is that she is not just some individual vegetarian, she is a leader in animal rights philosophy, and she is a published author whom others, like it or not, will follow. If even she cannot adhere to a vegan diet because she cannot bear the inconvenience or lack of easy food options, then why should any of the people so inspired by her work to respect animal go vegan either? She therefore has a responsibility to go vegan, and she has a responsibility to recognise where she uses weak arguments to justify her own behaviour. It is this clash of expectation and responsibility that causes many vegans to become frustrated.
In conclusion I think we can take both the deontology of the abolitionists and the concern for welfare from the utilitarians like vegan strategist, and reconcile these views to support animal rights in a way that is both effective and just. We can take the parts of Kazez’s philosophy that is useful and disregard what is not. It is through this approach that I think the animal rights movement can get past the abolitionist/welfarist split, supporting welfare reform through animal rights.