What is the Abolitionist Movement?
The abolitionist animal rights position, as developed by Gary L. Francione in his 1996 book Rain Without Thunder, takes the philosophical stance that animals are not ours to use as resources in any way and follows it to its logical conclusion: first of all, if we want to abolish animal exploitation, the first thing we must do is abolish it from our own lives by becoming vegan. Then we must persuade others of the moral necessity to end animal exploitation, and in doing so we must not use methods or tactics that go against animal rights or more generally that employ or endorse any form of exploitation or oppression of sentient beings (including humans – sexist PETA ads anyone?).
The abolitionist position rejects actions and campaigns that are inconsistent with animal rights – such as animal welfare reforms. Some groups (or individuals) who pursue welfare reforms subscribe to the “welfarist” philosophy, that there is nothing wrong with using animals as long as they are treated “well” or “humanely” in the process (groups such as Humane Societies, IFAW, Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, and people who claim that we can be “conscientious omnivores” subscribe to this philosophy), while others disagree with animal exploitation and would like to see it abolished, but in the meantime believe that it is necessary or acceptable to pursue welfare reform campaigns, believing that these will lead to eventual abolition or at least “reduce suffering right now”. This latter group (organizations such as PETA, Farm Sanctuary, etc. subscribe to these views) is what Gary Francione has dubbed “new welfarist” – they have a different philosophy or “long-term view”, but they pursue many of the same tactics as the welfarists.
Abolitionism postulates that these tactics cannot in fact lead to abolition, but only to more welfare reforms and to people feeling better about eating animals who have been treated “humanely”. Pursuing and supporting these types of reforms only lends legitimacy to the exploitation (sometimes very explicitly, such as when “animal rights” groups praise companies like Whole Foods, McDonald’s, or Burger King, for pledging to treat the animals they exploit “more humanely”). Industry partnerships like these as well as legislation for new “animal welfare standards” are great PR for the animal exploiters (as well as for the welfarist and new welfarist groups who claim “victory”), and more often than not the welfare reforms change very little if anything concerning the animals’ level of suffering. Welfare reform campaigns take the exploitation of animals as a given, and in doing so, by not speaking out absolutely against this exploitation, they reinforce the perceived legitimacy of animal exploitation in our society.
These campaigns do not challenge the view of animals as economic units, as commodities. They do not challenge the root of the problem – the fact that animals are property. While animals remain legal property, the only reforms that are going to occur are those that, in the end, are accepted as cost-effective by the property owners. The rights of property owners to use their property as they see fit will always trump even the most fundamental interests of the “property”, since property has no rights. Thus, welfare reform campaigns do not actually have anything to do with animal rights; we can’t claim to be giving animals “rights” in attempting to change details about the ways they are exploited, when they don’t even have the most basic right not to be considered the property of humans. In a sense the only right animals need to be accorded is the right not to be considered legal property. Then exploiting them, violating their bodily integrity, killing them merely because we enjoy the taste of their flesh and bodily fluids, will no longer be permissible. The speciesist attitudes of society need to be challenged, to be broken down, for this to occur. It will not occur if we as the animals’ advocates are endorsing or asking for “nicer” ways to continue using sentient beings.
Of course it is better to do less harm than more harm, but pursuing and supporting campaigns that accept any animal use is contradictory and goes against animal rights. There is also the question of finite resources: pursuing welfarist campaigns takes time and resources away from vegan advocacy in addition to undermining this advocacy.
What need to do is to promote veganism, focusing on the inherent harm of any kind of animal exploitation rather than only focusing on blatant abuse and suffering. We need to build a grassroots abolitionist movement: to increase the number of people who commit to going to root of problem by rejecting the property status of animals and living as vegans, as abolitionists.
We need to promote the paradigm shift toward seeing animals as sentient beings worthy of true respect and all that this entails, rather than as property, lesser beings, to dominate, exploit, use, kill for our whims. Without people making that paradigm shift, nothing is ever really going to change.
This change begins with us. Each of us has the power to change our own consumption habits to make them free of animal exploitation. Each of us has the power to speak out against speciesism in a manner that is consistent, uncompromising, and attacks the root of the problem: that is, in an abolitionist manner.