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Animal Rights Movement Must Shed Its "Animal Welfare" Theory

Animal welfare—the notion that we should treat animals “humanely”—has been around for 200 years. It has gotten nowhere. We are using more animals now in more horrific ways than at any time in human history.

The 19th century founders of animal welfare opposed human slavery but they never opposed the property status of animals because they thought that although animals could suffer, they had no interest in their lives. That is, animals do not care that we use them but only care about how we use them. According to the welfarists, animals are not self-aware and do not have an interest in continuing to live; they only have an interest in not suffering a painful death.

So the welfarists of the 19th century did not advocate the abolition of animal slavery as they advocated the abolition of human slavery. Instead, they advocated that we have laws that require the “humane” treatment of animals.

What the welfarists did not realize, however, was that as long as animals remained property, the level of protection provided by these laws would necessarily remain very low because it costs money to protect animal interests. As a general matter, we will spend that money and protect those interests only when it results in an economic benefit for us.

Nothing has changed.

The welfarists of the 21st century still maintain that animals do not have an interest in their lives and that killing them does not itself raise a moral problem. Peter Singer, who is the modern proponent of the welfarist theory of the 19th century, states this explicitly. This view that animals have no interest in continued life explains why PETA has no problem with killing 90% of the animals it rescues. For the welfarists, death is not itself a “harm.”

And, for the most part, animal welfare regulations only improve the economic efficiency of animal exploitation. In other words, we protect animal interests only when we get an economic benefit. Animal welfare campaigns, such as the campaign for the controlled-atmosphere killing/stunning of poultry, or the elimination of the gestation crate are based explicitly on economic efficiency. That is, these reforms are promoted on the ground that they will improve production efficiency.

After 200 years of a doctrine that is speciesist (nonhuman animal life itself has no moral value) and that has demonstrated that it is useless as a practical matter, it is time for a change.


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