Gary L. Francione


On his book Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation

Cover Interview of January 31, 2010

The wide angle

Animals as Persons can be understood as a reaction to and rejection of the paradigm of animal welfare that has dominated our thinking about the moral status of nonhuman animals for the past 200 years.  This paradigm, which maintains that it is acceptable for humans to use nonhumans in ways that no one would regard as acceptable to use any humans as long as we treat nonhumans “humanely” and do not impose “unnecessary” suffering on them, is problematic in at least two respects.

The first problem is that we purport to justify using nonhuman animals on the ground that they are cognitively different from humans; that nonhumans have different and inferior sorts of minds.  Welfarists—from Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century to Peter Singer today—maintain that animals, unlike humans, are not reflectively self-aware and they have no interest per se in continuing to live.  They have no future plans or desires that would be frustrated by their death.  Animals do not care about whether we use them, but only about how we use them.  The cow does not care about whether we kill and eat her; she cares only about how we treat her while she is alive and how we kill her.

In Animals as Persons, I reject the notion that, as an empirical matter, animals do not have an interest in whether or not they continue to exist but only have an interest in being treated well.  Nonhumans may have a different sense of what it means to have a life than normal human adults do.  But this does not mean that they have no interest in continuing to exist, or that they are not self-aware, or that they are indifferent to whether we use them and kill them for our purposes, or that death is any less a harm for them than it is for us.

The position that nonhumans must have minds that are humanlike in order to be morally significant begs the question from the outset.  Why is the ability to do calculus morally better than the ability to fly with your wings?  Why is the ability to recognize yourself in a mirror morally better than your ability to recognize yourself in a scent that you left on a bush?

Moreover, there is no logical relationship between differences in cognitive characteristics and the issue of animal use, although these differences may be relevant for some purposes.  Consider the case of a severely mentally disabled human.  We may not want to give such a person a driver’s license because of her inability to drive.  But is her impairment relevant to whether we use her as an unwilling subject in a biomedical experiment or force her to become an organ donor?  Many of us would argue that her particular disability means that we have a greater moral obligation to her; it certainly does not mean that we have a lesser one.  Similarly, the fact that a dog’s mind is different from ours means that we do not give the dog a driver’s license, but it does not mean that we can use the dog for purposes for which we would not use any humans.  I conclude that we cannot rely on any cognitive differences between humans and nonhumans as a basis for using animals at all, however “humanely” we do so.

Second, the welfarist position assumes that we can exploit animals in a “humane” way.  I argue that this is not the case and, under the very best of real-world circumstances, animals will be treated in ways that could never coherently be described as “humane.”  Animals are property—they are economic commodities with only extrinsic or conditional value—and the level of “humane” treatment required under animal welfare laws will, for the most part, be limited to what is required to exploit animals in an efficient manner.

We generally protect animal interests only to the extent that we also derive an economic benefit from doing so.  Although there are laws that require “humane” treatment, courts often defer to those who engage in the animal use because we assume that animal users are rational economic actors who would not impose more pain and suffering than is required for a particular use. The result is that even the most “humane” nations treat animals used for food in ways that would be considered torture if humans were so treated.

In certain respects, the regulation of animal exploitation is similar to the regulation of human slavery in North America. Although many laws supposedly required the “humane” treatment of slaves and prohibited the infliction of “unnecessary” punishment, these laws offered almost no protection for slaves.  In conflicts between slave owners and slaves, the latter almost always lost.

Although I have been an academic for 25 years, I have also been involved as a lawyer in a variety of legal cases and administrative matters concerning animals.  Observing the legal system as an insider, I learned that animal welfare simply does not work.