Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare


To many, animal rights appears to be a movement that just wants to improve the way animals are treated. More informed people think it is the philosophy that animals should be given the same rights as humans. In reality, it is neither. The real aim of the animal rights movement is to take rights away from humans, or as one writer sarcastically put it, "people should live in cages so animals can be free to roam" (qtd. in Marquardt et al.120). Animal rights is based on the belief that humans are no different than any other species on the planet, and are therefore not entitled to use any other species for our own purposes. This in itself is a gross contradiction, which I will expound on later.

Unfortunately, most people are naive about the differences between animal right and animal welfare. Carl Cohen states in The Animal Rights Debate:

Talk about the rights of animals appears to many to be harmless. It's just a way to encourage the greater protection of innocent animals, many think. To say that animals have rights, they suppose, is no more than a formal recognition of the fact that there are some things we ought not to do to animals. Not so. . .The animal rights movement, as we have seen, explicitly aims for the total abolition of the use of animals in science and the total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture. (24).

What most people think of as "animal rights" is actually animal welfare. Welfarists like myself seek to improve the conditions in which animals are kept, whether they be pets, research aids or livestock. We believe that because animals can feel, consideration ought to be given to their care, which should be made as stress-free and painless as possible (in the case of livestock and research subjects), and as enriched as possible (in the case of pets, breeders and zoo specimens). However, we firmly believe that animals are ours to use.

Animal rightists believe that animals are not ours to use, and that any exploitation of them, be it for food, fur, recreation (zoos, pets, hunting) or research, is morally wrong. Thus animal rights and animal welfare are completely contradictory philosophies. Tom Reagan, one of the key philosophers behind the animal rights movement, has made it very clear that animal welfare is not an option:

Giving farm animals more space, more natural environments, more companions does not right the fundamental wrong, any more than giving lab animals more anesthesia or bigger, cleaner cages would right the fundamental wrong in their case. Nothing less than the total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture will do this, just as . . . morality requires nothing less than the total elimination of hunting and trapping for commercial and sporting ends. The rights view's implications, then, as I have said, are clear and uncompromising. (my emphasis, Bender and Leone 40).

This differs completely from the welfarist view: "People concerned with animal welfare seek to improve laboratory conditions for research animals and reduce the number of animals needed" (Bender and Leone 91). Many animal rights groups will actually try to support animal welfare reforms as a means to eventually phase out the use of animals completely. Reagan is against this, because the two philosophies are so diametrically opposed:

Not only are the philosophies of animal rights and animal welfare separated by irreconcilable differences, and not only are the practical reforms grounded in animal welfare morally at odds with those sanctioned by the philosophy of animal rights, but also the enactment of animal welfare measures actually impedes the achievement of animal rights. (Bender and Leone 195).

Reagan believes that if animal welfare continues to improve, people will reject the idea of animal rights because research, farming, etc. will all be considered humane usage, so there will be nothing for people to get upset about. Take, for instance, the "Peculiar Institution." If southern slave owners had given their slaves large, cozy homes to live in, outlawed the rape of female slaves by their owners, outlawed the splitting up of family units, and maybe even given them a say in how the plantation was run, or incentives to work harder (like a commission), don't you think it would have been much harder for abolitionists to convince regular folk that the slave trade was wrong? This is the basis for Reagan's argument, and I agree completely with his view that animal rights and animal welfare undermine one another.

Most animal rights groups are aware that they need examples of animal cruelty in order to market animal rights to the public, and their entire campaigns hinge on this strategy. For instance, PETA cannot market vegetarianism by claiming outright that it is wrong to eat animals because few people would listen. Instead, PETA runs campaigns like "Kentucky Fried Cruelty," which show abuses within agriculture or even normal practices that could be easily misinterpreted as cruelty by urban audiences. Once the public is horrified by alleged or actual cruelty, PETA offers to send them a free vegetarian starter kit. Without inflammatory acts of cruelty, whether real or staged, the animal rights movement cannot market its philosophy to a mainstream audience. As long as animal use is humane, the public will never accept the animal rights view that animal use is wrong.

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