Before the late 1970s, "animal rights" as a coherent concept didn't exist. All animal advocacy groups were merely concerned with the treatment of animals as they were being used, with animal welfare, and didn't really question whether animal should be used in the first place. Animal welfare groups such as the various Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of course, still exist today, and generally speaking the animal welfare movement has widespread support.
But some people did question whether animals should be used in the first place, and the answer was negative. The animal rights movement, often termed "animal liberation" after Peter Singer's influential book of that title (which ironically did not argue for animal rights), claims that animals have an inherent right not be used as means to ultimately trivial human ends. The most popular animal rights group then and now remains People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, perhaps best known for producing controversial campaigns featuring naked people.
It wasn't until the late 1980s and early 1990s that something broke in the movement. Some animal rights advocates began to question PETA's general strategy of fighting for essentially any and all reform and regulation of animal treatment in the belief that such welfare reform would eventually raise public awareness and lower corporate profitability enough that real rights would become feasible. Gary Francione's excellent book Rain Without Thunder describes the trouble with what he calls "new welfarism." Francione and others are now known as "abolitionists." The abolitionists believe that vegan education is the primary or only form animal rights advocacy should take because veganism is the only stance consistent with respecting animal rights. More importantly, abolitionists believe that animal right advocates should not support welfare reforms of the sort championed by PETA because these do not respect animal rights and will never be able to lead to their establishment. While abolitionists may support some limited incremental changes (outright bans on certain practices, for example), they oppose all so-called "humane" animal regulations.
Abolitionism is the stance that I most closely identify with, but it should be recognized that this is still a fringe element in the animal rights movement. Some abolitionists, as radicals of all stripes are often wont to do, go so far as to declare the millions of people who believe animals should have basic rights but support groups like PETA are not simply mistaken about methods, but are enemies of the "true" animal rights movement: the abolition movement. However, despite my abolitionist leanings I think a case can be made for some welfare reforms and I want to make it here by analogy.
The Prison Book Program and other similar organizations are popular among many typically social-minded animal rights advocates. The group collects donated reading materials and provides them for free to prisoners. Prisons often have limited libraries and other educational opportunities. Prisoners' access to books serves their well-being while in prison, provides education and entertainment, and hopefully allows personal growth that might help prevent a return to prison upon release. It doesn't challenge the notion that many and perhaps most prisoners are only incarcerated due to a malformed and malfunctioning criminal justice system serving the interests of what amounts to a prison-industrial complex.
Interestingly, the abolitionist Francione digressed from animal rights and covered the topic of the Prison Book Program:
On balance, it is my view that advocates of criminal justice system reform should not donate books to the Prison Book Program. I base my view on three reasons:OK, if that was a bit silly, I admit that Francione did not write the above. Or rather, he didn't write it about improving the welfare of prisoners. He did, however, write it about improving the welfare of animals through California's recently approved Proposition 2. I just changed the references.
First, the Prison Book Program will do nothing to actually improve prisoner well-being in the short term. The Program doesn't deliver books to all prisons, not all prisoners have full access to all books, and even if it works as planned it will result in no meaningful reduction in prisoner suffering. They will still be locked behind bars with limited access to the basics of human dignity.
Second, the Prison Book Program will only make the public feel better about the state of the criminal justice system and will result in increased incarceration levels. People, particularly African American men, will continue to be imprisoned for minor offenses; the only difference will be that the imprisonment will carry the stamp of approval from the donors to the Prison Book Program. It is telling that the corporations involved in the prison-industrial complex don't oppose the Prison Book Program. Why do you think that is? The answer is plain. These prison corporations believe that the Prison Book Program will do nothing to prevent increased incarceration rates. And it won't.
Third, it is important for advocates of criminal justice system reform to send a clear message to the Prison Book Program and other groups to stop promoting mere improvements in prisoner welfare. If the Prison Book Program is really concerned about prisoner well-being, then it should perhaps spend a chunk of its resources on educating the public about the abuse and injustice in the prison system. Exposing the racism and absurdity of the criminal justice system helps to shift social attitudes away from the notion that it is morally acceptable to incarcerate millions of black men as long as we give them books to read. Giving them books to read results in nothing but continued incarceration for all but a few. It is time that advocates just said "no" to it.
But the analogy holds. Despite genuinely caring about the suffering of animals, Francione and other abolitionists believe that it is not merely more important to work towards abolishing the property status of animals than to reduce that suffering in the short term (with which I agree), but that it is so much more important that we shouldn't act to reduce that suffering at all, at least not institutionally.
Abolitionist animal rights advocates accuse groups like PETA, in addition to a multitude of ideological sins, of wasting time and resources that could be spent making more vegans—and more vegans are the only way to salvation for animals. Abolitionists state, correctly, that animals have interests other than their welfare, most significantly the interest in not being used as property. But in focusing entirely on this single interest, abolitionists utterly ignore the other frustrated interests that animals do still have.
I am arguing not that abolitionists should support any and all welfare reforms as a means to abolition. I am arguing that abolitionists should support some welfare reforms in spite of the fact that it will do nothing toward abolition. Abolitionists should support some welfare reforms just because they care about the welfare of presently-suffering animals in addition to caring about the rights of all animals more broadly. Put simply, I don't think animal welfare should be confused as part of the "animal rights movement" at all, but I think it should be independently pursued in some cases.
There are still many animal welfare reforms that I would oppose on principle: any that will most likely increase the use of animals as a result. Trading better welfare for more exploitation is even worse than trading present welfare for far-future rights. This actually cuts the number of supportable welfare reforms down quite a bit. The reforms that get the most attention and support are often those that the animal exploitation industries have signed off on, knowing that it will be beneficial to their bottom line to not be perceived as cruel. So welfare reforms that offer little or no actual benefit to the animals but improve "production" of animal products are immediately off the table. However, regulation that prevents certain egregious acts of cruelty and reforms that show some tangible benefit to animals ought to be on the table even if they aren't causally linked to a future in which animal rights are respected.
I suspect that despite their public stance, many abolitionists already agree with this assessment. Their numbers are vanishingly small and thus hard to account for, but I would imagine quite a few self-described Californian abolitionists voted for the welfare reforms of Proposition 2. Now the hardliners can claim that these were never abolitionists to begin with, but then the pursuit of purity is an all too common defect among animal advocates. No matter the claims to the contrary, anyone who believes that animals should not be used as property by humans is ultimately an abolitionist, even if they have short-term goals that they see to in the meantime.
Abolition and welfare are distinct and not mutually exclusive. Blame has to be placed on Francione's "new welfarists" for implying that welfare reforms are stepping stones towards animal rights when they clearly aren't. Blame has to also be placed on the likes of PETA for so often marketing reform as positive to exploitative industries, as with the push for controlled-atmosphere killing. But blame ought not to be placed on anyone for acting on the desire to reduce suffering simply because that reduction won't proximately lead to our shared optimal future. The ability to work towards more than one goal at a time is a positive feature of the human mind, not a flaw.