In January of this year, I embarked on what would become (unbeknownst to me) one of the most significant and formative projects of my life: a campaign for 100 percent cage-free eggs in Harvard dining halls. Unsurprisingly, student perception of the campaign was overwhelmingly positive, save for the admonishment of the occasional naysayer. Surprisingly, much of this admonishment came from animal advocates themselves.
Just so that everyone's up to speed, "cage-free" refers to egg production systems in which hens are not confined in cages. The overwhelming majority of eggs consumed in the United States are produced in battery cage facilities, or factory farms in which hens are confined in cages and allotted an area about the size of a sheet of paper on which to live. Hens in battery cage facilities are unable to carry out any of their most basic, natural behaviors, and the technology is so universally admonished that it has been banned in the European Union, Switzerland and three U.S. states.
Why, then, would animal advocates take time out of their day to inform their peers that they should not lend their support to a campaign that would eliminate from Harvard's campus what is largely accepted to be the most horrific abuse perpetrated by the animal agriculture industry? The answer, predictably, is ideological. Some vegans, who refer to themselves to as "abolitionists," are opposed to any and all "welfarist" reforms: reforms such as the elimination of battery cages or veal crates, which improve conditions for farm animals but do not explicitly challenge the existence of animal agriculture. Abolitionists believe that welfarist reforms alleviate the guilt of consumers of animal products by luring them into the belief that the products they are eating are cruelty-free. Consequently, the logic follows, welfarist reforms undercut the vegan movement by allowing the consumption of "humane" animal products to go unchallenged. For the remainder of this post, I will discuss why this philosophy (1) constructs a false and unproductive dichotomy between welfarists and abolitionists, (2) does very little to alleviate the suffering of the billions of victims of animal agriculture, and (3) seems to makes sense in theory, but is quite ineffectual in practice.
First, to set the record straight, I am simultaneously an abolitionist and a welfarist, and I will accept no assertion to the contrary. As a passionate vegan, I engage in abolitionist activism every day of my life: when I explain to people why I make the choices that I make, when I debunk every argument against or myth about veganism imaginable, when I cook and bake vegan foods that show people how delicious a vegan diet can be, and when I exhibit the joy and fulfillment of the vegan lifestyle. To label me or any other cage-free activist a "welfarist" is to assert that it is only possible to engage in one form of activism, and this assertion is dangerously deceptive. I find it both laughable and disconcerting that the vegan movement is plagued by such shortsighted, us-vs.-them infighting.
Second, the philosophy of staunch abolitionists envisions a world that is free of animal exploitation, which is all well and good, but it actively opposes the alleviation of the suffering of animals that are being exploited right now. As I write this, billions--billions!--of animals in factory farms are enduring a hell beyond our wildest nightmare, and staunch abolitionists would have us believe that we should allow these animals to persist in their suffering for the sake of a far-off, utopic future. That, in my mind, is an attitude so stubborn, backwards, and morally unjustifiable that it forestalls the elimination of animal suffering and repels potential allies of the animal movement.
Staunch abolitionists justify prolonging the suffering of animals in factory farms with the claim that, if we reject welfarist reform, animal suffering will ultimately be mitigated by a more rapid realization of a vegan world. This brings me to my final point: the philosophy of unwavering abolitionists, though appealing in that it advances an ideologically consistent approach to vegan activism, is ineffective because it is so divorced from the realities of human psychology. Unwavering abolitionists hope to rely on vegan education alone to change our world, but while vegan education is a crucial element of animal activism, it is just not enough. I cannot think of a single vegan that I know who did not arrive at veganism via his or her support for welfarist reforms. As Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary so incisively puts it, "as people decide that they care about farmed animals, the consistency principle kicks in. If your society doesn't grant animals any respect at all, how are you going to change that society into a vegan one -- people don't care enough about animals to ensure that they can spread their wings; how can they care about eating them?" Indeed, the story of human history is not one of unmediated moral awakenings but of reluctant compromises and incremental reforms. Social change can only occur once we embrace that reality.
As an intellectual dork, I will readily admit that the ideological consistency of the unwavering abolitionist approach is awfully tempting. But if I can swallow my pride to spare the suffering of animals, I'm confident that anyone can.
Photo credit: svilen001