Some time ago I wrote a post explaining why I felt that animal rights advocates ought to support some animal "welfare" reforms, despite the fact that these reforms won't bring us any closer to animal rights. This isn't a particularly controversial position in the movement as a whole; in fact, it is the default position of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as well as most smaller or regional animal rights groups.
However, among a vocal but growing segment of the animal rights movement, any concession to animal "welfare" is seen as complicity with violating animal rights, or even as collaboration. In fact, this segment considers those who do not agree with the specific plan of action they endorse to be opponents in the struggle for animal rights. They call themselves abolitionists, and the rest of the movement new welfarists, two terms that are fraught with problems that will be examined later.
The most prominent proponent of this brand of abolitionism is Gary Francione. It was Francione's book Rain Without Thunder that essentially launched the so-called "abolitionist movement" upon its publication in 1996. In the book, Francione describes the many failures of the animal rights movement, which he attributes primarily to a willingness on the part of many advocates to compromise their position by seeking short-term "welfare" reforms.
The problem is that Francione is wrong.
I was once a Francione acolyte myself. You can find posts to my various blogs, comments on others, and messages on forums defending that position. But times change, opinions grow. I posted a rather basic reason to support some "welfare" reforms in my post referenced above, and David Sztybel essentially demolishes the so-called "abolitionist approach" in a paper called "Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism" (PDF link). I don't necessarily agree with the specific moral formulation of animal rights that Sztybel works from, called "best caring ethics," but I agree with most of his conclusions.
First a note on terminology: Francione and his supporters have self-styled themselves as the abolitionists, the implication being that all other animal rights advocates do not support abolition. This is, of course, patently false. Virtually everyone who supports animal rights supports abolition, they merely disagree on the efficacy of certain tactics in bringing abolition about. Because most animal rights advocates support at least some "welfare" reforms, Francione pejoratively labels them new welfarists. I am going to follow Sztybel in referring to the majority as animal rights pragmatists and those who agree with Francione as animal rights fundamentalists. This is not meant to be insulting, but clarifying -- they believe that the right not to be property is so fundamental as to outweigh all other advocacy concerns.
The problem, to me, seems to be that Francione treats the right not to be property as the end to seek, rather than seeking the actual welfare (in the broadest sense) of actual animals. But rights are abstractions. As Francione correctly states, rights are protections of interests. A right is a tool to protect an interest of an actual sentient being. That is, rights only exist to promote the welfare of rights holders. Promoting the right not to be property is absolutely in the interests of beings currently held as property. But it is not the only thing in their interests, and it is not necessary to ignore all of these other interests in the single-minded pursuit of that one.
In addition to the interest in not being property, animals have an interest in not suffering. And animals continue to suffer now. Francione accuses pragmatists of sacrificing animal rights for short-term "welfare" gains. But there is no sacrifice if the thing allegedly sacrificed is impossible at the time in question. One can actively and loudly promote a full suite of animal rights while always striving for the best of what is actually possible now. If what is actually possible is less than full animal rights it is the fault of those who oppose them, not those who support them.
Let me reiterate: seeking to reduce suffering in exploitation is not the same as exploiting, no matter how many times you say it. If exploitation continues, that is the fault of the exploiters.
Of course, Francione's argument is also that "welfare" reforms do not actually help animals, and that they increase animal exploitation. The former is fairly easy to determine on a case by case basis, and I would certainly never support a welfare reform that was purely cosmetic. The second, however, is really difficult to determine. I have never seen Francione or any other fundamentalist provide any statistical data to support that conclusion (though perhaps I haven't looked hard enough), except for the general observation that despite three decades of animal "welfare" and pragmatist animal rights advocacy, meat eating has increased in that period.
There are two problems with using this as evidence. First, and most obviously, there is no way of knowing if the increase would have been lesser or greater in the absence of that advocacy, or had fundamentalist-style activism been in full swing. Second, the use of that trend as evidence seems to operates under the faulty assumption that "welfare" reform should be sought as a means of reducing the number of animals exploited, rather than as a means of reducing the suffering of them. Pragmatists agree with the fundamentalists that vegan outreach is the way to reduce the numbers of animals suffering, and if meat eating has increased, it is a demonstration of the failure of vegan outreach thus far, not of "welfare" reforms.
Fundamentalists say that by negotiating improvements in animal welfare without abolishing animal exploitation, pragmatists are complicit in that exploitation and even endorsing it. But if improving welfare by 20% is being complicit in exploitation by "accepting" the 80% of suffering still remaining, how complicit is improving welfare by 0% and therefore "accepting" 100% suffering, as the fundamentalists advocate? The word for not seeking improvements that are actually possible is complacency. Pragmatists at their best are actively engaged in doing what is best for actual animals now and in the future, while fundamentalists are the ones truly sacrificing animal interests today in the hope of one day satisfying those of other, luckier animals.
The best example of this thinking in action is Francione's one-time support of the Great Ape Project. The Great Ape Project would recognize the right of great apes to be free from exploitation, but Francione has since rejected it because it is based on these apes' cognitive similarities to humans rather than their ability to suffer as he founds his rights theory upon. In other words, it is more important to Francione that a specific human concept (basing rights on sentience) be realized than actually granting substantive benefits to a whole class of largely endangered animals. Francione would sacrifice all living great apes for a specific language of rights that may or may not be ever realized.
This becomes simple to understand when viewed through the lens I described above: fundamentalists see rights (or even a single right) as the end itself, and therefore anything other than those rights is an obstacle. In their hopefully subconscious refusal to consider the animals themselves as the end to be promoted, they overlook ways of doing the best thing actually possible for actually existing animals. They want only to do the best thing possible for an abstraction that may or may not ever become a reality, and the actually possible is nothing more than a distraction from that presently impossible goal. There are valid ends other than a right not to be property, but Francione and fundamentalists ignore them.
Animal rights fundamentalists fall into the same trap as the radical core of most social and political movements: they mistake the present impossibility of their full program as license to opt-out of achieving the achievable. They would rather remain "pure," and purity is a compelling siren in activism. In the case of animal rights, they mistake grabbing the low-hanging fruit first for refusing to climb the tree.