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Welfare Is Not a Dirty Word

Many animal advocates believe it would be optimal if animals were not affected by human activities. Whether their lives under natural conditions are “good” or not, I canít say, but we humans have amply demonstrated that we tend to abuse our dominion over animals, which we have gained primarily by virtue of our distinctive mental powers. Unfortunately, the proliferation of humans and human technology invariably affects many animals. If we care about animals, we have no choice but to try to determine what is best for them when human activity interferes with animalsí lives. This is paternalistic, no doubt, but is often unavoidable.

What criteria should we use? I think that talking about animal rights or animal liberation may be an effective rhetorical strategy or general guide, but such talk seems to miss the mark when it comes to animalsí interests. I recognize that my understanding of animalsí minds is very limited, and any conclusions I draw are very tentative, but as best as I can tell animals donít care much whether they have rights or liberation, per se. Humans feel humiliation and loss of self-esteem when they believe that their freedom has been curtailed, and for this reason (and perhaps others) human slavery is an inherently evil enterprise. On the other hand, it seems that animals generally donít mind assuming a submissive relationship to humans, as long as their biological and behavioral needs are met. They seem much more present-oriented and much less concerned about the symbolic meaning of relationships than humans. Companion dogs, living with caring humans, generally adopt a submissive posture, yet seem quite content. I want to emphasize that human enslavement of animals has been marked by abuse, and there is good reason to push for animal liberation due to the cruelties that repeatedly result from animal exploitation. However, it seems that it is not the hierarchical relationship, per se, that is harmful to animals; it is the tendency of many humans to abuse the hierarchical relationship.

Unfortunately, the term “animal welfare” has been hijacked by industries that brutalize animals and by large “animal-welfare organizations” that have a much narrower notion of animal welfare than I propose. Advocating “animal welfare,” then, may be less effective rhetorically than “animal rights” or “animal liberation.” In my opinion, genuine animal welfare is more than “bigger cages” and “no de-beaking.” It includes not harming animals at all unless absolutely necessary. Killing young, healthy creatures to eat them violates their welfare. So, consuming “humanely raised” chickens remains unacceptable in a culture such as ours, in which healthful alternative foods are readily available.

What about situations in which nonhuman animals must be killed or humans will die? For example, many impoverished coastal people receive essential nutrition from fish and other water-borne animals. I think this presents a moral dilemma, though often creative, nonviolent solutions can be found if there is incentive. When exploitation of animals for food and/or labor is absolutely essential for survival, I think the degree to which animal welfare is violated becomes the central issue. For Americans, this is hardly an issue, because we rarely, if ever, need to choose between animal life and human life. Indeed, we could feed more of the worldís hungry if we didnít serve most of our grains to animals on farms. So, for nearly all Americans, “minimizing suffering” is generally not the key issue. We can usually avoid exploiting animals altogether, which is preferred from an animal welfare standpoint.

In summary, I think the animal welfare/animal rights debate should be about strategy, not ideology. As long as we properly understand animal welfare as the radical concept it should be, we may agree that it is our goal (even if we prefer to talk publicly in terms of “rights” or† “liberation”). Then, we are left with the difficult question of whether incremental strategies promote animal welfare more effectively than abolitionist strategies. While there is no clear answer, we may look to the history of progressive campaigns for humans and nonhumans for insights.