This post is basically a bite-sized summary of Animals, Property, and the Law. To get a more in-depth understanding of what’s discussed below, I’d highly recommend reading the book.
Animals as Objects
In the whole time that we have been domesticating other animals, said animals have been chattel property. Chattel property is moveable property – animals and women (as wives, concubines, sexual slaves etc) have historically fallen into this category. To be chattel property is to be valued and used as an inanimate object (that someone else owns), even while sentient.
Women are no longer legally chattel property (although most of the women in the global sex trade live in conditions that are virtually indistinguishable from slavery, and sexual objectification in general is rampant), but animals still are. The chattel property status of animals is not some kind of historical relic; it is the basis for all of our laws dealing with them. That means that the legal system sees no difference between a cow vs. a chair or a pencil.
But even if the law is whack, people know better, right? Nobody looks at a cow and literally thinks of her as an inanimate object, right? Well, that’s the “valued and used as inanimate object” part comes in. We might acknowledge that they are sentient, but since we see them as resources existing for our use, we actually use them as if they were objects.
That means that, in practice, we only pay attention to what we can get out of an animal for our own use. The animals own interests, however important they may be to the individual animal, simply don’t count. We feed them because it benefits us to keep them alive (for a while); but otherwise, just about everything is up for grabs. We can (and do) deny them personal space, take away their children, mutilate them without anesthetics, deny them sanitary living conditions, kill them as soon as the cost of keeping them alive outweighs their productivity, etc. If it benefits (or at least, doesn’t harm) our interests, there is no plausible reason to forgo a particular practice, even if it happens to be cruel to the animal. As property owners, only what is at stake for us matters.
By definition, property cannot have rights. In a situation of conflict between human (property owner) and non-human (property) interests, the animals will always lose.
What’s animal welfare got to do with it?
The pop idea behind animal welfare is that we shouldn’t inflict unnecessary suffering or death on the animals we use. The problem is that none of our use of animals is “necessary” to begin with – we literally do not need to eat, wear, or use animals for our purposes, and we do so largely out of tradition and expediency:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planne … vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle.”
Since the law obviously lets us use them anyway, it is clear that our laws don’t actually prohibit gratuitous animal use and/or cruelty. In reality, animal welfare laws are there to make sure that we use animals in the most economically efficient way.
That is, institutional exploiters (such as farmers and slaughterhouse owners) have an interest in making the most amount of money possible from animals. Animal welfare laws help them do that by making sure they don’t torture their animals more than they need to. Just as it would be dumb for a taxi driver to take a hammer and smash a good car for no reason, it would be equally dumb for a dairy farmer to treat his cows so badly that they all die when they’re 3 days old. You want to be able to use your property as best as possible, and in the case of animals, that means that they need to stay alive long enough. Other than that, everything goes.
That, by the way, is the reason why it’s legal to do all sorts of cruel things to animals that seem unnecessary. For example, de-beaking (searing off the beaks of baby chicks without anesthetics) is something that you would think would be prohibited by animal welfare laws. But if AW laws actually prohibited unnecessary suffering and death, we wouldn’t be using birds as our resources, period. In reality, practices like de-beaking are allowed because they’re economically beneficial – in this case, it makes it difficult for birds to peck each other to the point of injury or death, thereby reducing the rate of pre-mature death and allowing farmers to get more birds to slaughter.
In short, animal welfare laws don’t prevent unnecessary harm towards animals; they just make sure that we don’t torture animals more than we need to in order to get the most out of them economically.
By reducing the per-capita cost of using each animal, AW laws make it easier (cheaper) to use a larger number of animals. That is why, despite having more animal welfare laws than any other point in human history, we are using more animals, in more brutal ways, than at any other point in human history.
Opiate of the masses
There is another way in which animal welfare harms animals – and that’s by fooling people into thinking that these laws having anything to do with helping animals per se. It makes people think that animal interests really are protected, and that our basic relationship with animals (using them as our resources) isn’t fundamentally screwed up.
Although there are enough examples of this to fill
encyclopedias several libraries, one textbook example comes to mind: KFC Canada agreeing to use gas chickens rather than stun them electrically.
PeTA campaigned for KFC to adopt this change for several years, claiming that gassing chickens is more humane than stunning them electrically (an exaggerated claim at best, given that gassing chickens still involves torture). By their own admission, PeTA claimed that this was the economically better thing to do and that KFC would be able to slaughter and sell more chicken corpses this way. Needless to say, this (and not some sentimental concern about animals) is the reason why KFC did it. If KFC really cared about animals, it wouldn’t take very much to realize that they ought to stop profiting from the unnecessary slaughter and torment of animals. KFC is a business; their concern is the bottom line.
So what happened when KFC adopted this change? Did PeTA come out and say “this is a stepping stone towards ending all animal use”? Did they even say (or do) anything that could vaguely imply that that is what they want to work towards? No. They called off their boycott of KFC Canada (implying that it’s OK to eat there) and basically gave them a free PR coup. In fact, Steve Langford, president of KFC Canada, was quoted in the media as saying:
“Once I got involved and we actually met face to face, we found out that we have no differences of opinion about how animals should be treated.”
So let’s briefly recap, from the point-of-view of your average omnivore. PeTA, who you associate with being concerned about animals, has an-going campaign saying that KFC is doing something wrong. Suddenly, when KFC agrees to slaughter chickens in a different way, PeTA calls off the boycott and publicly lauds KFC. As someone who wants to do the right thing but who probably hasn’t had any reason to seriously think about animal rights, what are you going to be thinking when you see this? That you need to go vegan? No – you’re going to think that it must be OK to eat at KFC.
Again, there are more examples of this than I could ever possibly list in a blog post, but I thought I post just one more example. From Whole Foods’ 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards:
“…I am willing to pay so that the chickens can have a better life and I can enjoy the eggs guilt free.” (Judy Harris)
“Excellent! My moral questioning goes out the window when I smell and anticipate eating chicken fresh off the spit; the least I hope for is the chicken experienced a good life.” (Ned)
“i and my family have recently gone vegetarian due to much exposure in the media about the cruelty towards animals. poultry has been the hardest to give up but now i don’t feel i have to. i will purchase ‘step-5’ chickens… thank you for all the products in your store that are ‘humane’… “ (Linda)
Animal welfare is a masturbation-fest for non-vegans who want reassure themselves about the legitimacy of their animal use. It does nothing in the short or long-term to help animals and in fact, it positively harms them by making the exploitation cheaper and more socially acceptable.
Living property / things-plus?
Acknowledging that animals can never have significant protection as long as they remain property, some people advocate pushing animals into “living property” or “things-plus” category.
For better or for worse, however, no such category exists. The legal system (just about everywhere) is based on a person-property dichotomy, and only legal persons (not property) can have rights – fundamental interests that must be protected. As long as Sentient Group X (whether it’s non-human animals, women, children, etc etc) are in the “property” category, any and all of their interests can and will be traded away at the slightest whim of their owners.
Coincidentally, creating a “things-plus” category was something that was attempted with race-based slavery in the US, when human beings were chattel property. It didn’t work then, either, and for the same reason: because it is impossible, given the structure of the law, to grant rights to property.
What we owe other animals
Most people agree that it’s wrong to inflict “unnecessary suffering and death” on animals. Presumably, that would rule out killing or harming animals because we enjoy it, because it’s convenient, because it’s a tradition, etc. After all, pleasure, convenience, and tradition ≠ necessity.
But by that standard, none of our conventional uses of animals (for food, for clothing, for entertainment, etc) are necessary. We don’t need to use animals to live or to be healthy. The idea that it’s wrong to inflict “unnecessary suffering and death” on animals logically requires veganism.
The abolitionist approach to animal rights – which promotes veganism and does not promote “better” or more “humane” alternatives – often upsets many pro-welfare animal advocates. This approach, more than anything else, forces us to confront the multiple layers of confusion that our society has in its relationship with other animals. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned animal advocates carry this confusion with them even as they become ethical vegans themselves. At best, it can be said that the modern animal protection movement is muddying the waters, further confusing the public by constantly moving the goal-post. At worst, it can be said that the “movement” has allowed bourgeois charities like PeTA to sell the animals out.
As the wonderful feminist writer and activist Andrea Dworkin once wrote (albeit in a different context):
“No liberation movement can accept the degredation of those whom it seeks to liberate by accepting a different definition of dignity for them and stay a movement for their freedom at the same time.”
It is way past time for those of us who really care about the animal issue – and most people do care – to confront the fact that animals are not objects. It is way past time to stop pretending that we can inflict violence on those we claim to love. And it is time to do away with the delusion that painting a smiley-faced sticker on the exploitation of other animals will end that exploitation.
Since other animals are not exactly like humans, and don’t have the same needs and abilities that we do, placing non-human animals into the “person” category (of a property-person dichotomy) does not mean that we would have to treat non-humans exactly as we would treat humans, giving them the “right” to vote or go to school. It would, quite simply, grant them one right: the right not to be the property of humans, which would mean that we no longer use them as our resources. It is in this sense that the abolitionist movement seeks egalitarianism – by making real the promise that no sentient being, irrespective of species, is treated as an object for someone else’s pleasure or gain.
Ethical veganism, as part of a moral and political commitment to ending animal use, is the radical notion that every sentient being deserves her life simply because, as a sentient being, her life has inherent value to her that cannot be comprehended or replaced by anyone else. In our post-modern, quasi-nihilistic world in which senseless and barbaric violence occurs every second of every day, ethical veganism is one of the simplest and most profound affirmations of life that anyone can make.
It is time for the animal advocates to stop selling ourselves and (more importantly) the animals short.