In this article, I explain how the narrative of "welfarism vs. abolitionism" missed the mark and created unnecessary conflict among animal advocates. In the second part, I’ll show how, by switching to the vocabulary of "inside game/outside game", animal advocates can shift from infighting to collaboration.
- Animal advocates have been divided over pursuing more or less radical demands, leading to a conflict often framed as welfarism vs. abolitionism.
- This framing obscures the fact that all strategies used by animal advocates are incremental; we merely focus on different increments.
- Existing evidence does not support some of activists’ most common concerns about incremental welfare campaigns.
- A more sophisticated view of the different roles necessary in a movement ecology can resolve these conflicts.
An Innocent Question
When I was in college, around 2016, my campus animal rights club hosted a talk by the local representative of The Humane League1 Throughout this post, I’ll talk about THL as a stand-in for many organizations that pursue similar goals, mostly because of my personal experience with them. (THL). As she stood facing about two dozen college students interested in animal activism, she began her talk with a question:
“What goal should animal activists pursue?”
After several seconds of silence, I threw out an answer that reflected my background as an organizer with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE for short). DxE had a notorious flair for dramatic confrontations with the public, using disruptive protest to demand a complete dismantling of the legal systems abetting the exploitation of other animals for the benefit of humans. My answer, one of DxE’s slogans, was shorthand for that:
“Total animal liberation.”
The THL rep (I’ll call her Kristy since I haven’t asked permission to use her name) endured an awkward silence waiting to see if anyone else would respond. Kristy had been working for THL about as long as I’d been organizing with DxE. Her job was to mobilize volunteers to support THL’s signature tactics: handing out leaflets to the public about meatless diets, and pressuring corporations like Mcdonald's to set animal welfare standards for their supply chains. When she clicked to the next slide, the answer waiting there was, like mine, a reflection of her organization’s ethos:
“Reduce the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number of animals we can.”
Them’s Fightin’ Words
For an outsider to the world of animal advocacy, these two answers would probably seem perfectly compatible. Yet from the moment they were spoken, room 217 of the Hellems Arts & Sciences building was filled with a palpable tension. A conflict much larger than us had asserted itself.
The humans that make up both THL and DxE share the extremely uncommon view that farming animals is a grievous moral harm, and the even less common conviction to dedicate their lives to opposing it. Yet back in 2016, this didn’t seem to be worth much. The relationship between the organizations was racked with mutual distrust, even disdain. And this malaise was merely a microcosm for a larger conflict among animal advocates, one that had been playing out for years in vicious comment threads across social media. To at least one side, this was known as the battle of welfarists vs. abolitionists.
In a moment, I’ll explain why I hope this dichotomy will finally be relegated to the dustbin of history. In fact, I believe it was as useless and misleading back then as it is now. But that’s not what I thought at the time.
As soon as Kristy’s answer appeared on the screen, a familiar narrative was racing through my brain. I had labeled her a welfarist, and as fast as my neurons could fire, this label was joined by a series of harsh judgments. Kristy, I decided, was a sellout who lacked either a strong commitment to creating real change for animals or the imagination to believe it was possible, or both. She must be small-minded, I immediately concluded, if she’s willing to settle for asking corporations to make such tiny changes to the way they torture and exploit animals, rather than demanding an end to that exploitation.
I feel pretty confident that something similar was happening for Kristy. In her view, I was a hopeless naïf, someone more concerned with doing activism that made me feel good than with actually making a difference in the lives of animals. By insisting that animal advocates set our sights on the unattainable, I and my ilk were damaging our ability to make any difference whatsoever, and driving the public further away in the process. Like others before me, I would soon realize that my goals were futile. At that point, I would either come around to her side or burn out and stop advocating for animals altogether.
I wish I could say otherwise, but I never developed a successful collaborative relationship with Kristy after that. For the next few years, we managed to steer clear of each other as we each worked in the same metro area to organize volunteers toward different goals.
Looking back, this was a stupid waste. Our efforts could have synchronized to be greater than their sum; instead, our mutual disregard ensured they were less than.
My purpose for this blog is to explain what I wish both Kristy and I had understood differently at the time, and how I believe that understanding can pave the way to a renaissance of collaboration among animal advocates.
If there was one person responsible for framing this debate as one of abolitionists vs. welfarists, his name was Gary Francione. You can guess which side he was on from the title of his book, The Abolitionist Approach. Indeed, for the law professor and vegan philosopher, welfarist was a dirty word, one many of its targets never identified with (he sometimes deigned to call them regulationists or incrementalists).
Francione more concisely laid out the fault lines as he saw them in an essay titled “Irreconcilable Differences.” (Gotta hand it to him, the guy knows how to get his point across in a title.) Describing the welfarist view as “blatantly speciesist,” Francione rails against the strategy of pushing for incremental improvements in farmed animal welfare regulations, in which he sees a “symbiotic relationship” with the industry itself. Ultimately, he concludes that asking for anything less than veganism (for the individual) and total abolition (for society) sets us up for failure.
When I was first getting involved in animal activism, I found Francione’s perspective appealing. His criticisms of welfare campaigning fit well with my own values, and he wrote about the basic questions of animal ethics with fierce clarity. I still cherish his animal rights philosophy, but I’ve come to see many points of his movement criticism that I don’t agree with. Specifically:
1. Welfarists are abolitionists
I had to contend with the plain fact that the humans working their butts off at organizations like THL are ethical vegans who long just as deeply as I do for an end to violence against animals. This reality came home for me when one of my best friends from college, Zoë Sigle (her real name this time) succeeded Kristy as the local grassroots director for THL. I’d known Zoë for years, and we’d grown into our activism together. I knew her to be a person not only of deep integrity and dedication, but also piercing intellect. It was impossible for me to write her off the way I had done with Kristy, who I didn’t otherwise know. (Not that that was any excuse.)
Of course, Francione insists the intentions of “welfarists” don’t matter. So let’s look at their impact.
2. Welfare campaigns aren’t responsible for the humane myth
The logic behind Francione’s accusation of a “symbiotic relationship” is that by pursuing incremental reforms, advocates are sending a message to the public that farming animals is a basically acceptable practice that just needs to be reformed:
Groups… identify practices that are economically vulnerable, such as the gestation crate; industry resists; a drama ensues; industry eventually agrees to make what are meaningless and possibly even financially beneficial changes; the animal groups declare victory and fundraise; industry, praised by the groups, reassures the public that it really cares about animals.
It makes sense that welfare campaigns might lead members of the public to think that farming animals is no problem after all. But is that actually what happens? It turns out, we don’t have to guess.
Two research teams have recently investigated this exact question. The first study (n=1,520), published this April, measured people’s opposition to animal farming (AFO) after being shown three different readings: one about current animal farming practices, one describing welfare reforms, and a control about an unrelated topic. The welfare group reported slightly lower AFO than the current practice group, but greater AFO than the control group.
The differences were too small for statistical confidence, but to address Francione’s accusation, we only need to show that welfare reforms don’t reduce AFO. The purpose of welfare reforms is not to change public opinion; we have other tactics for that, as long as they aren’t making it worse. (Another team led by Pax Fauna’s own Zoe Griffiths reached similar findings in a study soon to be published.)
Now, it’s certainly true that the humane myth is a key idea propping up the slaughter industry. But the available evidence suggests that welfare campaigns by animal advocates aren’t to blame. Indeed, meat corporations seem perfectly capable of spreading that lie themselves, even in countries with the fewest protections for farm animals. And inversely, when we look at countries with relatively higher protections (such as Germany, Sweden, and the UK) it appears they go hand-in-hand with stronger energy for animal-free foods and animal liberation activism.2I am not aware of anyone studying this rigorously, and it seems worthwhile. If it has been studied, I’d love to see it so please share! That is, higher welfare protections don’t seem to stifle abolitionist impulses in a society.
3. No strategy is without limitations
The final thing that turned me off Francione’s argument was asking: well, what are you offering instead? Instead of welfare campaigns (and just about everything else) Francione believes we should all be focusing on vegan education: convincing people to embrace a vegan lifestyle, one-by-one or lecture-hall-by-lecture-hall. He used to point out that if every vegan in the UK would convert just one other person to veganism each year, the whole country would be converted in just 7 years. This is mathematically correct3If 1% are currently vegan, 1% x 27 = 128% just as surely as it is not remotely happening (the number of vegans is growing very slowly or not at all), and Francione offers no credible strategy to make it start happening.
I don’t think that someone needs to have a solution to a problem in order to point one out. But it bothered me for Francione to spend so much time criticizing others when his own strategy was so full of holes. And ultimately, it led to a shift in my perspective.
Everyone’s an Incrementalist
Incrementalism is just another word for strategy, especially following on Paolo Freire’s definition in Pedagogy of Hope:
What can we do now in order to be able to do tomorrow what we are unable to do today?
Unless you have a plan for how we’re all going to wake up tomorrow in a vegan world, you are an incrementalist. The thing that differentiates us is not the purity of our desire to end violence against animals; it is merely the incremental steps we are each focusing on to get there. Every animal advocate I know is in basic agreement about the world we’d like to see (at least insofar as it concerns humans’ relationship to other animals). We’re just focusing on different increments to get there:
- Converting more and more people to veganism until veganism becomes normal.
- Banning more and more specific practices in animal farming until meat is prohibitively expensive or commercial farming is economically infeasible.
- Pushing the overton window further and further until abolishing animal farming is a mainstream political position.
- Convincing more and more cities and companies to adopt default veg practices until animal-free food becomes the dominant norm.
- Emptying cages at fur farm after fur farm until the entire fur industry can no longer afford the massive insurance premiums.
- Engineering better and better animal-free foods until they are tastier, healthier, and more affordable than animal-based food.
I’m guessing that if most people reading this were to isolate any one of the strategies listed above, we’d have a hard time seeing how that strategy alone can get us all the way from the world we have today to a radically different relationship to other animals.
Fortunately, all of these strategies and more are being pursued in parallel in a diverse movement ecology. And if we play our cards right, each strategy can make up for the deficiencies of another.
Alright, so now we can all hold hands and sing as we march towards a glorious vegan future, right?
It probably isn’t a very controversial idea to say that the movement will need a diverse, multistrategic approach to win real change for animals. But needing a variety of strategies doesn’t mean any one of them should be above criticism.
The conflict that existed between DxE and THL back in my college days may have gotten out of hand, but it was based on real, substantive disagreements about strategy. It wouldn’t work to paper them over by throwing around terms like multistrategic and movement ecology.
Rather, it is precisely by examining those disagreements up close that my own views changed. I have come to believe that the strategic disagreements between DxE and THL were based on fundamental misunderstandings because we each only saw things from our particular position in a complex movement. It has taken me years to realize, but the different demands we were pursuing were a reflection of the different roles we were playing in the movement and the needs of those roles. This is something more subtle than the diverse incremental strategies listed above.
Fortunately, DxE and THL each provide great case studies. No two strategies divided the movement more back in those days than the corporate cage-free campaigns pursued by groups like THL and the signature restaurant disruptions of DxE. In the sequel to this blog, I try to convince my skeptical 21-year-old self that there was a depth of wisdom to cage-free campaigns, and convince Kristy of the same thing about DxE’s antics. I’ll recruit the help of a new, more collaborative frame for thinking about this old division in the movement: inside game and outside game.