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Animal Welfare vs. Animal Rights: A False Dichotomy
Conservative MP Simon Hart has recently accused the RSPCA of becoming an ‘animal rights group’ which is now a ‘shadow of its welfare origins’. While the reasons behind this accusation are interesting (if predictable), it is the nature of the accusation that intrigues me the most: the assumption that there is a basic difference and conflict between ‘animal rights’ on the one hand and ‘animal welfare’ on the other.
Of course, this assumption is not the sole preserve of this Tory MP. In fact, the idea that the dichotomy between animal rights and animal welfare is a meaningful and useful way of characterising those who strive to afford better protection for animals is commonplace.
However, I want to claim that the dichotomy is false – and that its prevalence in the discourse and thinking about animal protection is unhelpful. I believe that there is no fundamental distinction between animal welfare and animal rights, and that the animal protection movement should not divide itself in this way, nor let itself be divided in this way by others.
So how are animal welfare and animal rights usually distinguished? It is normally stated that each holds a different view about the human use of animals. According to the established analysis, an animal welfare position sees nothing wrong with the human use of animals, so long as the animals are not caused unnecessary suffering by that use. An animal rights position, by contrast, objects to all human use and exploitation of animals irrespective of the suffering that it causes.
It is strange that these positions have come to be regarded as the two defining ideas of the animal protection movement. After all, neither has much plausibility as a coherent view about how we ought to treat animals. Furthermore, it is hard to find many individuals or groups campaigning for better animal protection who subscribe to either of these positions: for example, groups who describe themselves as rights based are, in reality, often active against the infliction of suffering.
In actual fact, most such individuals and groups hold the much more sensible view that some human uses of animals are perfectly legitimate, and some are totally unacceptable.
For example, most people think that keeping a domesticated cat as a pet is a perfectly permissible use of an animal. They also feel the same way about using dogs to guide the blind and assist the disabled. At the same time, most of us also think that using an elephant to demonstrate our prowess with a shotgun is a totally unacceptable use of an animal. We feel the same way about using rats and mice in harmful cosmetic tests.
My point is not that everyone is in agreement about every aspect of the human use of animals. That would be absurd. Clearly animal protection campaigners hold differing views about all sorts of aspects of animal use. Such diversity is to be expected and is a welcome feature of any thriving social movement. My point is simply that there is not one group of campaigners whose activities reflect the belief that all uses of animals are illegitimate, and another who believes all are legitimate. The positions of animal protection thinkers and activists are far more nuanced.
Furthermore, these more nuanced and sophisticated positions are only sensible, and should really be of little surprise. After all, when it comes to the use of other humans, again the only plausible view is not black and white, but subtle and alive to context. For example, using a plumber to fix a radiator is clearly permissible, while locking him in the cellar so that he is available to use immediately for all our plumbing emergencies clearly is not!
As such, animal welfare and animal rights as traditionally understood, are neither coherent positions, nor a meaningful basis on which to divide up different thinkers and activists who campaign for better animal protection. So is there any place for these terms within the movement?
I believe that there is. But I believe that they are terms that can be used to demonstrate commonalities and unity amongst those fighting for animals.
For one, all of us who are interested in the plight and protection of animals are welfarists. That is to say, what motivates those of us who fight for the cause of animals is the welfare of animals themselves. It is the fact that these creatures have lives of their own, which they can enjoy or endure, which makes us concerned for their plight. This concern for the suffering of all sentient, conscious, experiencing creatures distinguishes and unites the animal protection movement – and fundamentally it makes us all welfarists.
Furthermore, all of us within the movement are also committed to animal rights. We all share the view that some uses and treatments of animals are totally unacceptable and ought to be outlawed. This necessarily entails a commitment to animal rights. Of course, we will have disagreements about what practices involving animals ought and ought not to be outlawed; and thus different views about the precise content of animal rights. But as discussed above, such disagreements are an inevitable part of any healthy movement. If we agree that there are some practices which are impermissible, and which ought to be prevented by the force of law for the sake of animals themselves, then we are all thereby committed to animal rights.
In sum, then, I want to suggest that the animal protection movement should not divide itself – or let itself be divided – by the labels of ‘welfare’ or ‘rights’. Rather, we must recognise that animal welfare and animal rights are worthy and compatible ideas. Crucially, they are also the core beliefs which unite all those who strive for the better protection of our fellow animals.
Dr Alasdair Cochrane is Lecturer in Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield and a member of the CASJ’s research committee. He has recently published a book entitled ‘Animal Rights without Liberation’ (Columbia University Press).