For most of us, the central issue of animal ethics is our treatment of animals. We believe that animals have some moral value but that we are morally justified in using them as long as we treat them “humanely” and do not impose “unnecessary” suffering on them. Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation is a collection of essays that attempts to shift the paradigm from one that focuses on treatment to one that focuses on use. The book argues that we cannot justify using animals as human resources, irrespective of whether our treatment is “humane.” Animals as Persons presents the abolitionist theory of animal rights.
In the opening chapters of the book, I discuss this distinction between treatment and use. We recognize as a non-controversial matter that all humans, irrespective of their particular characteristics, have the right to be treated as persons, which is another way of saying that they have the right not to be treated as property. We cannot justify denying this one right to nonhuman animals; we cannot justify using nonhuman animals for food, clothing, hunting, entertainment, biomedical experiments or for other purposes.
As a historical matter, we have tried to justify our animal use by pointing to the supposed cognitive differences between humans and nonhumans. Any such differences between humans and animals may be relevant for some purposes but are simply not relevant to our treatment of animals as our property, as things that exist exclusively as means to our ends.
I also argue that animal welfare reform has, as a practical matter, failed because animals are chattel property and we generally protect animal interests only to the extent that we derive an economic benefit from doing so. Moreover, these meaningless reforms are characterized as significant by animal protection organizations that promote them in fundraising campaigns; as a result, reforms make the public feel more comfortable about continued animal exploitation.
Animals as Persons presents a theory that goes considerably beyond Peter Singer’s utilitarian view and is highly critical of the animal protection movement. I reject the idea that is currently promoted by all the large animal groups that the solution to the problem of animal exploitation is to develop a market for “happy” meat and animal products that have supposedly been produced “humanely.”
The book also contains a discussion of vivisection, or the use of animals in experiments, which I regard as morally unjustifiable (irrespective of any benefit) but as raising different and more complicated questions than the use of animals for food; an extended response to a critique of my theory by Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School, presently Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs; and a critique of feminist theory as applied to the issue of animal exploitation.
“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.”
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.
If a “just browsing” reader were to pick up Animals as Persons in a bookstore, I would hope that s/he would first encounter pages 26-28, where I first describe the phenomenon I call our “moral schizophrenia” with respect to nonhuman animals.
Our moral thinking about animals is confused to the point of being delusional. We say that we regard as morally wrong the imposition of “unnecessary” suffering and death on animals. Whatever the finer points about the meaning of necessity, if it means anything at all in this context, it must mean that we cannot justify imposing suffering and death on animals for reasons of mere pleasure, amusement, or convenience. We excoriated Michael Vick for participating in dog fighting because the dogs suffered and died only because Vick and his friends derived pleasure from this activity. But how is Vick any different from those of us who eat meat and animal products?
We kill and eat approximately 56 billion animals annually, not including fish. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority—almost all—of these animals have absolutely horrible lives and deaths and are treated in ways that clearly and undisputedly constitute torture. The animal you ate for dinner last night—even if raised in the most “humane” or in “free-range” circumstances—was treated as badly if not worse than Michael Vick’s dogs.
And there is no distinction between meat and other animal products. Animals used for dairy are kept alive longer, treated at least as badly as animals used for meat, and end up in the same slaughterhouse. There is probably more suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak.
No one maintains that it is necessary to eat animals to lead an optimally healthy lifestyle and an increasing number of mainstream health care professionals tell us that animal foods are detrimental to human health. Animal agriculture is a disaster for the environment because it involves a very inefficient use of natural resources and creates water pollution, soil erosion, and greenhouse gases. The only justifications we have for the pain, suffering, and death that we impose on billions of animals are that we enjoy eating animal foods, or that it is convenient to do so, or that it is just plain habit. We treat some nonhumans as members of our family; we stick forks into others.
“The only justifications we have for the pain, suffering, and death that we impose on billions of animals are that we enjoy eating animal foods, or that it is convenient to do so, or that it is just plain habit. We treat some nonhumans as members of our family; we stick forks into others.”
In addition to demonstrating that the animal welfare approach to animal ethics is unsatisfactory both as a moral and practical matter, another significant aspect of Animals as Persons is to make the case for veganism. We should not eat, wear, or consume any animal products.
Most of the current literature on animal ethics—academic as well as commercial—defends the “conscientious omnivore” who is careful to eat only animal products that are produced in a supposedly “humane” way, or, at most, defends vegetarianism, a vague term used to describe a diet that does not include meat, poultry, and, perhaps aquatic animals. But if we take animal interests seriously and regard animals as members of the moral community, we really have no choice other than eliminating the consumption and use of all animal products. What we consume is not a simple matter of choice; there are moral issues involved.
It is my hope that the book makes clear to readers that to talk about animal rights at all when animals are chattel property is similar to talking about the rights of slaves. To be property is the opposite of being a person. A person is an entity with inherent or intrinsic value; property has only external or conditional value. At the present time, we regard only humans as eligible to be natural persons. But we should remember that, at various times, we have excluded from the class of persons certain humans based on irrelevant characteristics, such as race and sex.
Animals as Persons is a call to include all sentient beings in the class of persons and to recognize that the interest of animals in not being used as resources should, like the similar human interest in not being a chattel slave, be protected with a right.
The abolitionist position presented in Animals as Persons does not mean that we release domesticated animals to run wild in the street. If we took animals seriously and recognized our obligation not to treat them as things, we would stop producing and facilitating the production of domestic animals altogether. We would care for the ones whom we have here now, but we would stop breeding more for human consumption.
With respect to non-domesticated nonhumans, we would simply leave them alone.
Gary L. Francione is Distinguished Professor of Law and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Scholar of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University School of Law. In addition to Animals as Persons, he is the author of Animals, Property, and the Law (1995); Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (1996); and Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? (2000). His forthcoming book, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, will be published in March 2010 by Columbia University Press. Francione is also co-editor, with Gary Steiner, of Columbia University Press’s new series, Critical Perspectives on Animals: Philosophy, Politics, Law, and Culture.