Go Vegan or Go Home

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Corey Arnold / www.coreyfishes.com

Gary Francione is the most controversial figure in the modern animal rights movement.

In the 1980s he was an indefatigable and high-powered young attorney who worked on prominent animal rights court cases with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In the early 1990s he broke from PETA and from the organized movement, and in 1996 he wrote the controversial book Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, an incisive critique and reenvisioning of the movement.

Francione’s theory is described as the abolitionist approach. He maintains that we cannot morally justify using animals as human resources, and that we should abolish animal use. He opposes efforts to reform or regulate animal use, arguing that they will necessarily provide limited protection to animal interests, because of the status of animals as property.

Francione is a professor of law at Rutgers University and the author of six books, most recently The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? from Columbia University Press.

Most animal advocates encourage people to become vegetarians, yet you feel that promoting vegetarianism is a step in the wrong direction for reducing animal exploitation. Why?

There is absolutely no morally defensible distinction between flesh and other animal products, such as milk or cheese. Animals used in the dairy industry usually live longer than and are treated as badly as, if not worse than, their meat counterparts, and they all end up in the same slaughterhouse anyway. The meat and dairy industries are inextricably intertwined. As far as I am concerned, there is more suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak, though I would not consume either. Vegetarianism as a moral position is no more coherent than saying that you think it morally wrong to eat meat from a spotted cow but not morally wrong to eat meat from a non-spotted cow. We do not need any animal products for health purposes, and animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. The best justification that we have for killing billions of animals every year is that they taste good. That simply cannot suffice as a moral justification.

Many animal advocates approve of farms that raise animals in humane ways for consumption. Yet I understand you are opposed to these kinds of farms, and even to campaigns to improve the lives of animals on factory farms, such as Proposition 2 in California, which prohibits the use of some kinds of chicken cages. Why are you opposed to campaigns like these?

I think that people who advocate such practices actually do more harm than good by perpetuating the fantasy that we can somehow tidy up the concentration camps and make the institutionalized exploitation of sentient beings morally acceptable. It is always better to do less harm than more. If you are going to murder someone, it’s better not to torture her as well. A concentration camp with comfortable beds is better than one without. But this approach neglects a fundamental question about the moral legitimacy of the underlying activity of treating animals as human resources. For those who support these supposed reforms, the issue is how we use animals; for me, the issue is that we use animals.

I am opposed to animal welfare campaigns for two reasons. First, if animal use cannot be morally justified, then we ought to be clear about that, and advocate for no use. Although rape and child molestation are ubiquitous, we do not have campaigns for “humane” rape or “humane” child molestation. We condemn it all. We should do the same with respect to animal exploitation.

Second, animal welfare reform does not provide significant protection for animal interests. Animals are chattel property; they are economic commodities. Given this status and the reality of markets, the level of protection provided by animal welfare will generally be limited to what promotes efficient exploitation. . . . There are laws that supposedly protect animal interests in being treated “humanely,” but that term is interpreted in large part to mean that we cannot impose “unnecessary” harm on animals, and that is measured by what treatment is considered necessary within particular industries, and according to customs of use, to exploit animals.

The bottom line is that animals do not have any respect-based rights in the way that humans have, because we do not regard animals as having any moral value. They have only economic value. We value their interests economically, and we ignore their interests when it is economically beneficial for us to do so.

At this point, it makes no sense to focus on the law, because as long as we regard animals as things, as a moral matter, the laws will necessarily reflect that absence of moral value and continue to do nothing to protect animals. We need to change social and moral thinking about animals before the law is going to do anything more.

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt, 2011). Excerpted from The Believer (Feb. 2011), a magazine of essays, interviews, and cultural coverage published by McSweeney’s in San Francisco. www.believermag.com

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader

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