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Professor Gary Francione – How True Animal Rights Diverge From Animal Protection

Gary Francione, Distinguished Professor of Law and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Scholar of Law & Philosophy, has written numerous books and articles on animal rights theory and animals and the law. In The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, just published by Columbia University Press, Francione debates Robert Garner, a professor of politics at the University of Leicester who specializes in the philosophy and politics of animal protection.

Francione and dogs   
Gary Francione with Mollie and Katie, who were rescued from a kill shelter.
The book pits Garner’s welfarist approach, which focuses on eliminating animal suffering as a means of achieving animal rights ends, against Francione’s abolitionist approach, which maintains that as long as animals are property, laws of industry practices that require humane treatment will not provide a meaningful level of protection. According to Stephen Clark, associate editor of the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, “The authors debate practical and theoretical issues clearly, honestly, courteously, and with all the appropriate passion. Neither persuades the other, but both together must persuade many that change is needed.”

Francione discusses his work and his animal rights philosophy in the following Q&A:

What prompted your interest in animal rights and your decision to become an academic whose primary scholarly focus is animal rights?

In 1978, I visited a slaughterhouse after which I became a vegetarian immediately. I continued to eat fish for another year or so until I read that fish were sentient, that is, that they were perceptually aware. In 1982, I became a vegan and stopped consuming all animal products, including all dairy. It seemed simple to me then, as it does now, that we cannot justify killing and inflicting any level of suffering on other beings simply because we enjoy it.

Everyone was quite properly upset about Michael Vick’s involvement in dog fighting because Vick found it amusing to watch dogs fight; he enjoyed a violent activity. But how is what he did any different from what we do when we sit around the summer barbecue pit enjoying roasting the flesh of animals who are treated every bit as badly, if not worse, than Vick’s dogs? We do not need to eat meat or animal products; we do it just because we like the taste. From a moral perspective, it makes absolutely no sense.

At the outset of my academic career, which began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, my scholarship was focused on intellectual property and constitutional law and that was the work for which I received tenure at Penn. I was, however, involved heavily at that time in doing pro bono work for various animal organizations and it occurred to me that anti-cruelty laws and other animal welfare laws that I was trying to enforce simply did not work. That got me interested in understanding why they did not work.

My colleague at Penn, Professor Alan Watson, was the leading expert on slave law and I started looking at the cases that involved the “humane” treatment of slaves. I found that they were similar to cases involving animals in that in both contexts, there were standards that were routinely disregarded because in both cases, the beneficiaries of these laws are chattel property. This prompted me to write several articles that eventually became my first book, Animals, Property, and the Law, which was published by Temple University Press in 1995. The central thesis of that book was that because animals are chattel property, we will protect animal interests only in those cases in which it is economically beneficial to do so. Animal welfare laws ensure the economically efficient use of animal property and not much more.

You argue that the animal welfare movement, which advocates the regulation of the treatment of animals, has not only failed to protect animals but is in fact counterproductive. Please elaborate.

As I mentioned in response to the previous question, my theory about animal property leads to the conclusion that animal welfare regulations will not provide a significant level of protection for animal interests. In fact, if animal users were all rational actors, they would, as a matter of self-interest voluntarily provide what the law requires as “humane” treatment. For the most part, not providing what the law determines as “humane” results in conduct that diminishes the economic value of animal property.

But animal welfare laws and regulations do make us feel better about exploiting animals. That is, to the extent that we think that our treatment of animals has improved or is more “humane,” we feel better about engaging in animal use. It is interesting to see that a number of animal producers are marketing what are supposedly higher-welfare products, some of which carry special labels that are supposed to mean that the animals were treated in a way that goes beyond minimal welfare standards. The reality is that the best of these higher-welfare schemes involve treatment that, were humans involved, would be characterized as torture.

So animal welfare standards (including higher-welfare standards to the extent they are even achievable as a practical matter) do little to protect animals but make humans feel better about engaging in animal use.

Do you find any common ground with those who advocate the traditional animal welfare approach?

Well, I regard some of them as very nice people and consider them as friends. But as a matter of moral theory, I am afraid the answer is no.

The welfarists focus on reducing suffering. I maintain that the property status of animals effectively limits any reduction of animal suffering but even if that were not the case, and even if welfare standards were really better, there is still a fundamental problem about the morality of animal use. It is better to beat slaves five times a week rather than 10 times a week. But that does not address the fundamental immorality of slavery as a practice.

What is the “abolitionist approach to animal rights” that you have developed over the past two decades?

The abolitionist approach to animal rights: (1) requires the abolition of animal exploitation and rejects the regulation of animal exploitation; (2) is based only on animal sentience and no other cognitive characteristic; (3) regards veganism as the moral baseline of the animal rights position and as the practical means by which the abolition of exploitation will be achieved; and (4) rejects all violence and promotes activism in the form of creative, non-violent vegan education.

   Francione book  
Your new book, your sixth, on the topic of animal rights, is about the tension between your approach and that of welfarists, is it not?

The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?
, which was just published by Columbia University Press, is a debate-style book in which I discuss animal law and ethics with British political theorist, Dr. Robert Garner. In the first part of the book, I defend an abolitionist theory of animal rights. In the second part of the book, Robert defends the regulation of animal use as desirable. In the third part, he and I have a back-and-forth debate in which he promotes, and I criticize, welfare reform.

The book is the inaugural volume in the new multi-disciplinary series, Critical Perspectives on Animals, which is being published by Columbia University Press and edited by me and Professor Gary Steiner, a philosopher at Bucknell University.

The abolitionist movement that you developed advocates “ethical veganism” as a means to achieving its goals. What do you mean by that?

I maintain we will never find our moral compass with respect to animals as long as they are sitting on our plates. And there is no difference between flesh and other animal products. Animals used for dairy are usually alive for a longer time, treated as badly, if not worse, than animals used for meat, and they all end up in the same slaughterhouse anyway. In any event, if we want to move away from the paradigm of animals as property and toward a notion of animals as nonhuman moral and legal persons, we have to stop eating and otherwise consuming or using them as resources.

Now before you say that that is an extreme position, I would suggest it actually follows from what we already claim to accept as a moral matter. We all agree that it is wrong as a moral matter to inflict unnecessary pain, suffering, and death on animals. We can, of course, have an interesting discussion on what constitutes “necessity,” but, thankfully, there is no need to do so. If a moral rule about unnecessary suffering means anything, it means that we cannot justify animal suffering or death for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience.

But the only justification that we have for eating animals and animal products is that they taste good. We do not need to do so for health reasons. Even mainstream health care people are telling us that animal products are detrimental to human health; and, in any event, they are certainly not necessary for optimal health. And animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. Therefore, if we take the moral principle seriously that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals, then we really have no choice but to go vegan.

More and more people are recognizing that we suffer from moral schizophrenia, or confused and deluded thinking, where animals are concerned. For example, there is simply no way to make sense of the fact that we love some animals but stick forks into others. We love our dogs but we eat cows.

Are you optimistic that animals will eventually be recognized not as property but as legal persons?

I am optimistic that social thinking about animal ethics is undergoing a significant change. More and more people are recognizing that we suffer from moral schizophrenia, or confused and deluded thinking, where animals are concerned. For example, there is simply no way to make sense of the fact that we love some animals but stick forks into others. We love our dogs but we eat cows. That simply does not make any sense.

I think that we are undergoing a dramatic transformation in our thinking about animals. My work, which is the most radical in animal ethics, is enjoying enormous popularity. My books are read and translated. My website, www.abolitionistapproach.com, receives more than 20,000 visitors a month and there is a rate of about 4,000 downloads a month on my podcast series. Every day, I get emails from people who have read a book or an essay I have written, or who have listened to a podcast, and are going vegan.

Is it even possible to have a vegan world?

It most certainly is. Think about it. If there are seven billion people in the world and just 1% is vegan, that’s 70 million. If each one of those people convinces one other person to become a vegan in the next year, then we’ll have 140 million. And if the pattern is repeated the next year, we’ll have 280 million. We could have a vegan world in less than a decade if each vegan just convinced one other person per year to go vegan.

I should add that I think it will become more clear to us that a vegan world is not only possible but necessary in that the empirical evidence is increasingly clear that animal products are killing us and that animal agriculture is an ecological nightmare. In many ways, animal agriculture is a profoundly irrational, as well as immoral, institution.

But if the world adopted a vegan diet, that would not mean the end of all animal use, would it?

No, but given that our use of animals for food is, by far, the most significant form of animal use (56 billion animals worldwide, not counting fish, are killed annually), if we stopped eating them, our thinking about animal use in every other context would change as well. By the way, when I use “vegan,” I mean no eating, wearing or consuming of animals as a general matter. So it goes beyond diet.

A central point of your abolitionist approach involves a rejection of violence. Can you comment on that?

I see the animal rights as new sort of peace movement that encompasses all beings, human and nonhuman. But I not only reject violence on moral grounds, I reject it on practical grounds. To put the matter simply, if you burn down 10 slaughterhouses tomorrow, 10 more will be built unless demand changes. Demand is the key. The abolitionist approach rejects all violence, including the sexism that has come to dominate the animal movement.

You are usually mentioned with Peter Singer and Tom Regan as the three leading theorists of animal ethics. Can you differentiate your position from that of Singer and Regan?

That’s not easy in a short space! Singer is a utilitarian who rejects moral rights. Utilitarians believe that what is right or wrong depends on consequences. Moreover, Singer maintains that animals do not have an interest in continuing to live but only have an interest in not suffering. These views lead Singer to claim that animal use may be morally acceptable as long as we are more “humane” in our treatment. For the reasons I discuss in my work and have alluded to here, I do not see Singer’s position as acceptable for theoretical and practical reasons. Regan, like me, is a rights theorist but Regan maintains that animals have a lesser moral value than do humans. I maintain that all sentient beings—human and nonhuman—are equal for the purpose of treating those beings as resources. This is not to say that we have an obligation to treat animals in the same ways as we treat humans for all purposes; it is only to say that if a being is sentient, we cannot justify treating that being as a resource.

You have been teaching animal rights law for more than 25 years. Have you seen changes in the thinking of law students about animal rights over that period? 

Absolutely, and there is no doubt that student interest in this area is growing.

I came to Rutgers from Penn in 1989. In 1990, Adjunct Professor Anna Charlton and I started the Rutgers Animal Rights Law Clinic which was the first and only one of its kind in the country. Students received six academic credits for working on actual cases and matters that dealt with animal issues. We represented students who did not want to dissect or vivisect animals as part of their course work and we worked on stopping suburban hunting, wild horse round-ups, etc. We got former Governor Christine Whitman to “pardon” (it was actually a remission of forfeiture) the dog Taro, who was scheduled to be killed for allegedly biting someone. Our time in the clinic was very exciting and we always had more students apply for the clinic than we could take.

We closed the clinic in 2000 but we continue to teach courses in animal law and ethics. For the past several years, Professor Charlton and I have been teaching a course called Human and Animal Rights, in which we explore the relationship between racism, sexism, heterosexism, and speciesism. We had about 100 students when we taught that last Spring. I have done other courses over the years and next year I will be teaching a course on Animal Law, in which I will discuss with students, from a critical perspective, the legal doctrines that supposedly protect animals. There is a possibility that I will be developing a more extensive and systematic program of offerings in this area.

Any parting thoughts?

Apart from expressing my love of Rutgers Law School and my appreciation of my colleagues and our students, I have one thought: Go vegan. It’s incredibly easy to do; it’s better for your physical health and for the planet. And, most important, it’s the morally right thing to do.