The following is a re-post of a comment by me on September 19, with some additions and modifications, on the Columbia University Press blog, in the comments section following Professor Francione’s response to Professor James McWilliams’s essay, Vegan Feud. I recommend taking the time to read Francione’s excellent response, Irreconcilable Differences.

Francione’s response to McWilliams’s surprisingly naive and confused essay demonstrates exactly why the abolitionist animal rights movement is growing. Abolitionists have no need to “strong arm” anyone into becoming vegan. (This is an absurd and unfair characterisation considering the central focus of Francione and those who support his views on the principle of ahimsa with respect to both humans and non-humans, expressed via advocacy as creative, non-violent vegan education and respectful discussion). It’s the sheer force of coherent, reasoned argument based on incontrovertible facts and penetrating insight gleaned from over thirty years’ involvement in animal rights which Francione delivers that is so irresistibly persuasive to those who are sincerely open to understanding how their moral concern for animals should be translated into meaningful action. And, as Francione makes clear, the most meaningful action, indeed, the only action that will end animal exploitation is to address the problem at the root — take responsibility for our own contribution in sustaining demand as consumers of animal products by becoming vegan and then educating others to do the same. By contrast, welfarism constitutes the greatest obstacle to ending animal exploitation by encouraging people to believe that they can fulfil their moral obligations to animals by maintaining their consumption, switching to so-called “humane” or “happy” animal products, all of which still involve torture and death, leading to complacency and increased demand — a win-win situation for the animal agriculture and animal welfare businesses, but sadly a loss for the animals.

Contrary to the mythology that the large animal welfare organisations peddle, veganism is neither difficult nor daunting; in fact it has never been easier to eat a healthy, satisfying and delicious vegan diet. Moreover, there are many people who are actually interested in doing the right thing morally by animals, who are willing to undergo some minor inconvenience from time to time, if necessary, for the sake of their moral convictions. We owe it to these individuals to provide them with the kind of clear, reasoned argument that Francione advances for veganism as a moral baseline. We ought not to do what welfarist organisations do — take the elitist and patronising attitude that people are either too stupid to understand that argument or too self indulgent to act on it. Welfarists are proven wrong every day by the increasing numbers of people opting to go vegan on being exposed to the abolitionist argument, which is compelling in its logic and can be easily understood by anyone of average intelligence and acted upon by anyone who wants to do the right thing by animals. This is the most effective way of “doing something to help the animals now” since every new vegan represents less animals bred purely for the purpose of exploitation.

Regarding McWilliams’s citing of Melanie Joy’s belief that “the abolitionist approach could attract a lot more supporters if it acknowledged, as HSUS does, that most people are going to embrace veganism on their own”, and that people become vegan “only when they’re personally ready to do so”, as well as McWilliams’s comment that “we all come to Jesus in our own unique little ways” — these are facts that are so obvious that pointing them out is fatuous. Indeed, neither Francione nor any other abolitionist has ever argued otherwise, and these comments constitute, in addition to the reference to “strong-arming” people into veganism, yet another unfair misrepresentation of the abolitionist approach.

Moreover, it’s difficult to see what relevance these observations could possibly have in determining our best strategy for ending animal exploitation, or how they constitute an argument against abolitionism. It’s hardly news to abolitionists or anyone else that adults generally make all their moral decisions “on their own”, “when they’re personally ready to do so”, in the unique contexts of their own personal situations, but they don’t do so in a vacuum. Their moral decision-making is influenced by the information and discourse to which they’re exposed. The whole point of any social justice movement is to effect a change in the thinking of the public, based on the reality that people can and do change their views and practices, when exposed to a persuasive argument offering them new insights. 

Accordingly, our responsibility as animal advocates is to ensure that people are exposed to a clear abolitionist argument for veganism as a moral baseline. If we, as advocates, don’t have the confidence and the conviction that our perspective is powerful enough to profoundly impact people’s attitudes and behaviours, then we’re probably wasting our time. It’s certainly not our role to assume that people are so intellectually and morally poverty stricken that they are only capable of repeating what they’ve always done, albeit in a slightly modified form. We also shouldn’t assume that that everyone will necessarily take a slow, circuitous route to veganism, and then expend energy actually encouraging and reassuring them of the rightness of this!

Firstly, it’s a complete fallacy that everyone transitions to veganism gradually or indirectly. Many people, anxious to act morally, eagerly embrace veganism immediately on finally attaining a clear understanding of the issues. It’s a positive relief for them to totally extricate themselves from culpability in massive injustice. It strikes me as misanthropic of welfarists to completely ignore the existence of these people in their compulsion to reduce us all to the lowest moral common denominator. 

Secondly, for those who choose to make the transition to veganism more gradually, the benefit of abolitionist education means that they do so with their sights clearly set on veganism as the only morally justifiable goal, and not vegetarianism or “happy” meat or some other morally compromised position which involves continued use of animal products. There is absolutely nothing in abolitionist theory, contrary to tired and inaccurate claims by welfarists, that says we expect people to “go vegan overnight”, any more than that we unrealistically nurture an “all or nothing” fantasy of “ending animal exploitation overnight”. Of course abolitionists understand that their message will not resonate with everyone at this time and that not everyone is going to go vegan soon. But, as Francione often advises, let’s deal first with those who are interested in justice for animals; let’s get the message out to them, and experience shows that they are many. That way we can gradually grow a grassroots vegan movement that represents true and secure incremental change for animals and the more it grows, the more socially normalised and acceptable veganism will become.

It’s simply counterproductive to pour our limited time and resources into meaningless and ineffective welfarist measures, of the kind engaged in by HSUS, as suggested by McWilliams, which only perpetuate the speciecist status quo of exploitation, when we have a real and workable solution — veganism and grassroots vegan advocacy and education — which directly and effectively address the problem. The welfarist and abolitionist positions are indeed irreconcilable. The former leads only backwards while the latter is the way forwards. I am personally grateful to Francione for his tireless efforts over decades in advocating for the most vulnerable among us and for sharing his insights in such a clear and accessible fashion.

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