Reducetarians, Welfarists, Abolitionists: Do We All Want the Same Thing?
Guest Essay by Dr. Frances McCormack and Alan O’Reilly of Grumpy Old Vegans
The Ethical Issues
Most people recognise that animals matter morally. Even nonvegans comprehend that a cow or a chicken has a moral worth where an inanimate object doesn’t. Yet, only vegans have followed through on our recognition that animals are harmed by our use of them by abstaining from treating them as a means to our ends.
Vegans avoid using animals because we recognise that all animal use is wrong. If we thought that better treatment of the animals used for food, clothing, or entertainment was the solution to the problem of exploitation we wouldn’t be vegan; if we believed that some harm were morally acceptable, we wouldn’t be vegan. Veganism stands for our recognition that nonhuman animals ought never be used as a means to our ends.
No one who accepts the moral principles of veganism would dream of drinking a glass of dairy milk or eating a slice of an animal’s flesh. We recognise that we can never justify participating in an action that we acknowledge to be morally wrong: none of us would beat a dog, nor would we advocate beating dogs less often (the reducetarian approach) or with smaller sticks (the welfarist approach). Yet, some among us who are ethically consistent in our own behaviour promote less than veganism as part of a strategy we claim will reduce suffering.
The Reducetarian Foundation, headed by two nonvegans, envisions a world where people eat less meat. This foundation doesn’t claim to advocate for a vegan world, yet many vegans promote their approach, asserting that it will help to shift the paradigm to a vegan planet. There is no evidence that suggests that this will be the case; in fact, the “research” on which many of the vegan proponents of reducetarianism base their claim is derived from market research and pseudo-science, and their data is often misinterpreted.
Since reducetarianism is focussed on decreasing consumption of animal flesh, it creates an artificial moral distinction between flesh and other products of animal exploitation. Yet, knowing what animals used for other forms of industry have to endure, we cannot, with conscience, exclude them from our advocacy. And so, to promote reducetarianism in the hope of bringing people to veganism is not only misguided, but also falls hopelessly short of what we know nonhuman animals deserve by right.
Those who promote reducetarianism often depict veganism as difficult, puritanical, elitist. Yet, what could make veganism appear more difficult than the insistence by vegans that it is? What could be more puritanical than the depiction of veganism as beyond the moral scope of even those who care? What could be more elitist than believing that one’s own ethical principles are too lofty and idealistic for the majority?
While reducetarianism aims to decrease the consumption of “meat,” Welfarism seeks to make treatment more humane. Those vegans who promote it do so in the hopes that it will either encourage others to be vegan or improve the lives of animals suffering now.
To the first point, if we want to encourage others to be vegan, then surely the most logical way to do so would be to talk to them about veganism. Humane animal products make people more comfortable with consuming the products of exploitation by suggesting that they are somehow more “compassionate” for doing so. The burgeoning “happy exploitation” industry is surely proof positive of this.
To the latter point, the animals who are suffering under the current system of exploitation are rarely, if ever, helped by the reform campaigns started during their lifetimes. In 2008, Californian voters passed Proposition 2—a ballot measure requiring that farmed animals raised in California be able to stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs or wings. This measure was to be implemented by 2015, some 7 years later. Yet, there are many egg producers in California who have not converted their facilities to be compliant with this minimal change in welfare standards (welfare reform measures can only ever be minimal in the immense scale of suffering that defines the life of a farmed animal) and so HSUS is now spearheading a campaign to try to persuade animal exploiters to adopt the reforms that they were required to adopt by law. In the meantime, energy and resources that could have been invested in promoting veganism have been squandered to promote changes that continue to facilitate the exploitation of animals.
Gary L. Francione demonstrates that most implemented welfare reforms address inefficiencies in the production process: the requirement that cows be stunned before slaughter, for instance, prevents worker injuries and carcass damage from unstunned, hoisted cows. Francione demonstrates that the vast majority of welfare reforms are not enforced, and that those that are benefit the exploiter by increasing productivity, yield, and therefore profits.
Most welfare reform campaigns are single-issue campaigns: they focus on one animal product such as fur, or one form of treatment such as veal crates, and they characterise these as worse than other products or forms of use. In doing so, they suggest that wearing leather, wool, or silk is morally better than wearing fur, or that eating veal from uncrated calves is morally better eating veal from crated calves, thereby providing a moral salve for participation in some forms of exploitation. Many campaigns characterise some animals as more morally valuable than others, or condemn the practices of another culture. The campaigns against the dog-meat trade in Asia do both.
The longest-running welfare reform campaign is the anti-vivisection campaign, started in the 19th century. After 200 years of campaigning, there are more animals being used in vivisection than at any other point in our history. After almost half a century of anti-fur campaigning by the animal organisations, the fur trade is bigger and more profitable than it has ever been. Welfare reform campaigns just do not work.
The Welfarist and Reducetarian positions are designed to change modes of production or behaviour, but not perception. Without helping people to understand the consequences of their concern for our fellow animals, there is no impetus for them to become vegan and to remain that way. And if one can change people’s perception of the moral worth of nonhuman animals, then persuading them to align their behaviour accordingly is only a small step further. Some advocates may claim that not everyone cares about animals, but the majority do, and our job is to focus on advocating veganism to them rather than to spend precious time promoting less (which necessarily involves promoting exploitation) to those who don’t. They say that the world won’t go vegan overnight, and we acknowledge the truth of this. However, the world won’t go vegan at all if we aren’t prepared to advocate for the end of animal use through veganism. How can we, as vegans, advocate for anything less than what our moral conviction dictates?
Reducetarians and welfarists are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. By framing veganism as idealistic, they are perpetuating the normativity of animal exploitation. By promoting reduced consumption of animal products, they are condoning the consumption of some. By shifting the focus away from the moral principles they accept in their own lives, they are perpetuating the paradigm that limits those principles to being part of a fringe philosophy.
If we wish to end the social injustice inflicted on other sentient beings, we must shift the conversation away from regulation towards abolition, away from reduction towards elimination. Whatever time we have for advocacy, we can only use it once, and we must use it to advocate for the end of animal exploitation through unequivocal education. Because if we, as vegans, don’t do this, who on earth will?
The proceeds for writing this essay will be donated towards local TNR projects.