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It’s time to reconsider the meaning of ‘animal welfare’

Current standards simply make us feel better about the continued exploitation of animals.

Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/horse-pure-arab-blood-eye-look-1843081/. CC0

At the end of 2017 British Prime Minister Theresa May abandoned the Tory manifesto pledge to hold a free vote on repealing the legal ban on using dogs to hunt foxes. May’s decision followed complaints from Tory MPs that support for repealing the ban, while popular in some rural communities, had cost them votes during the 2017 general election. The pro-hunting position is very unpopular.

Polling released in May 2017 showed that almost 70 per cent of British voters were opposed to fox hunting, and half were less likely to vote for a pro-hunting candidate in the general election. Opposition is not limited to fox hunting. A 2016 poll indicated that, in addition to the 84 per cent opposed to fox hunting, significant numbers of people in the UK were opposed to deer hunting (88 per cent), hare hunting and coursing (91 per cent), dog fighting (98 per cent), and badger baiting (94 per cent).

Why is there such opposition to these activities?

The answer is simple: we care about animals. We believe that they matter morally. We reject the position which prevailed before the 19th century that animals are merely things to whom we have no moral or legal obligations. Instead, most people embrace the animal welfare position which has two key components.

The first component is that—although animals can be used for human purposes—we should not impose unnecessary suffering or death on them. The second is that when we do use animals, we have an obligation to treat them ‘humanely.’

The activities to which most of the British public objects involve imposing suffering and death on animals where there is no necessity or compulsion to do so; it is wrong to make animals suffer or to kill them when the only purported justification is that humans derive some sort of pleasure or amusement. The use of animals for frivolous purposes is tantamount to denying their moral value. Most people reject that.  

The problem is that, although most people regard the imposition of unnecessary suffering and death on animals as immoral, their actual behavior is not consistent with their moral position. They participate in imposing suffering and death on animals in situations where there is no necessity, and in which the treatment of animals is anything but ‘humane.’

‘Unnecessary’ suffering and death.

Most people eat animals and products made from animals, and both involve a great deal of cruelty. In the UK alone, more than one billion animals are killed every year for food. Many animals are raised in intensive conditions that constitute torture. Even those who are raised in supposedly more ‘humane’ circumstances suffer distress throughout and at the end of their lives.

This is not just a matter of meat. The cows used to produce milk are repeatedly impregnated and have their calves taken away from them shortly after birth. And all animals, whether used for meat, dairy, or eggs, are subjected to terror and distress at the abattoir.

Is any of this suffering and death ‘necessary?’ Is there any compulsion involved?  The answer is no.

No one maintains that it is necessary to consume animal products to be optimally healthy. The UK National Health Service says that a sensible vegan diet can be “very healthy,” while mainstream health care professionals all over the world are increasingly taking the position that animal products are detrimental to human health.

We don’t have to settle the debate about whether it is more healthy to live on a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. The point is that a vegan diet is certainly no less healthy than a diet of decomposing flesh, cow secretions and chicken ova. And that’s the only point relevant to the issue of whether suffering and death are necessary or not.

Moreover, animal agriculture constitutes an ecological disaster. It is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the burning of fossil fuel for transportation, and results in deforestation, soil erosion and water pollution. The grain fed to animals in the United States alone could feed 800 million people. Against this background, what is the best justification we have for inflicting suffering and death on animals?

The answer is simple: we think they taste good. We derive pleasure from eating them. Eating animals and animal products is a tradition, and we have been following it for a very long time.

But how is that position any different from the justification offered for animal uses to which most of us object? How is palate pleasure any different from the pleasure that some people derive from participating in blood sports? There is no difference. Fox hunting, badger baiting and dog fighting are all traditions. Indeed, almost every practice to which we object—whether involving animals or humans—involves a tradition valued by someone. Patriarchy is also a tradition that has existed for a very long time, but that says nothing about its moral status.

Many people oppose hunting foxes because they can see no morally significant distinction between the dog they love and the fox who is chased and killed. But what is the difference between the animals we love and those into whom we stick a fork and a knife? There is no difference. The dogs and cats we love are sentient—just as are the chickens, cows, pigs, fish, and other animals we exploit. They all feel pain and experience distress; they all have an interest in continuing to live.

‘Humane’ treatment.

If most of our animal use cannot plausibly be characterized as ‘necessary,’ what about the second component of the animal welfare position—that we have an obligation to use animals ‘humanely?’ This is also a fantasy.

Animals are property. They are chattel. They are things that are bought and sold. It costs money to protect animal interests, and the property status of animals ensures that, as a general matter, standards of animal welfare (whether mandated by law or adopted by industry) will always be very low. We will protect animal interests when we get a financial benefit of some sort from doing so. Most of the time, welfare standards will be linked to the level of protection that is needed to exploit animals in an economically efficient way, so these standards will (to the extent that they are even enforced) prohibit nothing more than gratuitous suffering.

Animal welfare standards in Britain are claimed to be amongst the highest in the world, but the treatment accorded to British animals is still appalling. To say that animals in the UK are ‘humanely’ treated would be false using any plausible understanding of that word.

On some level we all know this. That is why we have seen the rise of a niche market in Britain and elsewhere that purports to provide ‘higher-welfare’ meat and animal products. But as various exposes of this niche market have shown, the promise of ‘humane’ treatment is never realised. We may give animals a bit more space; we may allow them to see a bit of sunlight; we may allow cows to spend a bit more time with their calves before they are taken away from them. But these changes are minor in their effects even when they are implemented.

Animal welfare organizations campaign against the ‘abuse’ of animals. But even if all of these abuses stopped and all animals were treated in perfect accordance with applicable laws and regulations, the situation would still be terrible. Animals would still be killed without there being any necessity to do so, and even if we transformed animal agriculture in the direction of family farms there would still be a huge amount of morally-unjustified suffering and death.

In fact, standards of animal welfare are not about animals at all; they are about us. These standards make us feel better about continuing to exploit animals. They were formulated at a time when most people thought that killing and eating animals was necessary for human health. No one can reasonably believe that any longer.

Therefore, it is time to examine the moral justification for using animals. As someone who maintains an animal rights position rather than an animal welfare position, it is my view that we cannot justify exploiting animals for any purpose, including biomedical research aimed at finding cures for serious human illnesses, any more than we can justify using humans whom we believe are cognitively ‘inferior’ for such a purpose.

But even if you do not accept the rights position, the position that you probably do accept—that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals—makes it impossible for you to avoid the conclusion that the use of animals for any purpose that does not involve true compulsion or necessity, including the use of animals for food, clothing, and entertainment, must be ruled out. Any other position relegates animals to the category of things that have no moral value. We see this where fox hunting and other blood sports are involved; it’s time that we see it in other contexts too.     

About the author

Gary L. Francione is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Law and Katzenbach Scholar of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University and is Honorary Professor (Philosophy) at the University of East Anglia. He focuses on animal ethics and animals and the law, and has developed what is known as the Abolitionist position on animal rights.


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