From utilitarian to abolitionist and back in a month

I’ve made a video version of this article and have expanded on some of the points here.

I’m a utilitarian through and through, so it might be a surprise to you to know that I called myself an abolitionist for about a month. But I’ve stopped, and I think my thought process is potentially quite useful. Regardless of your current position regarding animal activism, I ask you to read this.

If you’re not familiar with the abolitionist (or rights) approach to animals (and its opposite, welfarism), I’ll briefly sum it up here. Welfarism is about focusing on trying to minimise suffering felt by animals. Some welfarists advocate for strategies such as welfare reforms in factory farming, like changing the way animals are slaughtered. They might also advocate for people reducing their meat consumption. Essentially, it’s a utilitarian point of view, or close to.

Abolitionism rejects this approach, and wants to abolish the property status of animals. For example, an abolitionist would say that anything less than advocating for full veganism (e.g. saying vegetarianism is ‘ok’ or ‘good’) is wrong, and anything less than advocating for full abolition of animal use (e.g. by advocating for welfare reform) is also wrong. The abolitionist movement is lead by Gary L. Francione, Rutgers University law and philosophy scholar/professor.

The story

I had loosely heard of the abolitionist point of view and had dismissed it on utilitarian grounds. I was already vegan and opposed animal experimentation for a number of reasons, but I still reasoned that, in some hypothetical where testing on 1 animal could mean that 10 other animals could leave, it would be quite unreasonable to not test on that animal. This point of view attracted a lot of criticism in mainstream vegan circles such as Facebook groups. One particularly emotive and memorable comment (which I paraphrase) was:

“You would put poison in the eyes of a puppy?”

To which I replied:

“To save 10 other puppies? Yes. If you wouldn’t you’re in effect killing 10 puppies to save 1 to save yourself feeling uncomfortable. That doesn’t make sense.”

We got nowhere but I was satisfied I had soundly won that debate on logical grounds. What got me thinking, though, was this video interview with Francione, where he argued that welfare reform is actually just not effective, and that we already had a welfare reform under Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Things did get a little better for exploited animals, but after a while people became complacent and things got worse. That seemed reasonable enough to me. And so while I never dropped the utilitarian stance, I was open to the possibility that, even on utilitarian grounds, an abolitionist approach was just better in the long run.

Perhaps the best way to be a utilitarian is to pretend not to be a utilitarian.

And so I called myself an abolitionist, and started acting like one. I became opposed to the owning of pets, to welfare reform campaigns, and to advocating for anything less than veganism. I began arguing with my non-vegan family more and started to find it harder to function in a society of meat eaters. But I’m no stranger to dealing with adversity for the sake of my goals, and so I pushed on.

The turn

I began questioning Francione’s point of view when I heard him state in a talk that he wouldn’t test on one animal even if it meant curing cancer, which reminded me of the conversation I had had on Facebook. The math just didn’t add up for me.

I read Francione’s Rain Without Thunder (1996), or at least made it halfway before giving up. He had some solid points in that welfare reforms simply were not as effective as people thought they were, and possibly made things worse. He criticised Peter Singer and his utilitarian stance towards animals (who believes that animal use could be acceptable as long as their interests are considered equally to human interests), and praised Tom Regan‘s deontological position of giving all animals rights, although he didn’t spend any time justifying why deontology was better than utilitarianism. The more I read, the less I was convinced.

The tipping point

The final tipping point was when I was reading Brian Tomasik‘s work on wild animal suffering. He argued that a rights approach to animals might actually increase animal suffering in the long run, if we consider wild animals. I directly quote from Wikipedia here:

“The argument is that animal rights leads people to believe that all animals have fundamental rights and should not be exploited or interfered with, regardless of the outcome on wellbeing. This may lead people to be against interfering with nature and wild animals. However, the magnitude of wild animal suffering is potentially immense,[9] and interfering with the wild may be a good way to reduce this suffering.”

I feel that the reason most discussions about abolitionism go nowhere is because people aren’t even valuing the same thing, and so of course they have different answers. If you primarily value the wellbeing of animals and disvalue their suffering, you would probably seek to do whatever max/mins wellbeing/suffering in the long run, which might be an abolitionist-like methodology, and might not. If you want to try and optimise for individual rights instead of wellbeing you’d perhaps take a different approach.

I’m becoming less convinced that I should try and optimise for rights above and beyond how it relates to wellbeing. If it came down to me choosing (all else being equal including flow-on effects, which doesn’t really happen in reality of course) between an animal being happy and an animal being miserable but slightly less exploited, I don’t think I could justify the latter. It seems almost forceful and exploitative itself to choose to consign some animal to misery just so they can be a bit less exploited. Surely what animals fundamentally value themselves is wellbeing, not a lack of exploitation. Humans value not being exploited because it feels bad. Non-human animals only feel bad in factory farmed conditions because such conditions objectively suck for animals. They are abused and are kept in awful conditions. I’m not convinced that ‘humane’ slaughter is possible in reality, and so I still won’t advocate for it, but I won’t pretend that there is some other thing that animals value called ‘rights’.

Final thoughts

As the icing on the cake, I expressed my concerns to Francione on his Facebook page, and he deleted my comment and blocked from liking the page. Well said, Francione.

9 thoughts on “From utilitarian to abolitionist and back in a month”

    1. Hey Josh, thanks for sharing those! It looks like the author has a slightly different definition of objectiveness in morality than I do, but I haven’t been able to devote a lot of time to thinking about that yet. I’d be keen to write about it in the future 🙂

  1. thanks for this post
    i think i never met a “utilitarian through and through” before. i feel more utilitarian than anything else, yet i would still have a lot of difficulty with the rabbit hypothetical you give. not sure if what i’m thinking makes rational sense or not 🙂

    1. Hey Tobias, by ‘utilitarian through and through’ I just mean that I *aspire* to maximise wellbeing and minimise suffering (and nothing else) through my actions. I don’t always achieve this as I spend a fair bit of time on personal enjoyment which I can’t really justify from an ethical point of view.

      I’m not sure what you mean by ‘rabbit hypothetical’, did you mean the puppy hypothetical? It would certainly be uncomfortable and difficult, and to be honest I’m not sure whether I could bring myself to do it in reality. But I really hope I could, because I know it’s the most right thing.

      1. sorry, puppies, not rabbits, but yes.
        like i said, i would normally defend consequentalist reasoning and actions, but at the same time i have a dose of value-based ethics inside of me too, and i would suspect with most people it’s a mix (and then i’m not even talking about other considerations like sanctity and what have you (reading J Haidt right now, maybe that’s why i’m confused (as GLF would say 😉 ).

        1. I would do the puppy tradeoff if it were pretty clear that I’d save more puppies. However, in a situation where it’s unclear what the payoff is of hurting one puppy now, I would probably err on the side of not doing it. It can be rational to be averse to causing short-term harm even from a utilitarian standpoint if this prevents one from becoming callous or overconfident that the ends justify the means in cases where they actually don’t.

  2. Nice post! It’s worth pointing out that welfarism could also backfire for wild animals if most people believe that wild animals experience more happiness than suffering (which seems to be the case among many vegans I talk to). Suffering-focused welfarism is, of course, better in this respect.

  3. on drawing the link between increased ‘rights’ advocates and increased wilderness preservation. To expand on this a little, one of the individuals said that they identified as an abolitionist of the Francione school of thought, but would still intervene in the wild to rescue, say, a stuck or injured animal, and think this is the view most abolitionists would hold. Indeed, the principles of abolitionism don’t seem to discuss conservation (, although this may still result regardless.

    In my experience, this does not seem to be the case (most abolitionists I engage with online are against all forms of intervention in nature). I would advocate for more research on the correlation between rights attitudes and preservation. I would also suggest more research to be sure that increased preservation is bad.

    Also, there is a difference between helping an injured animal and seeking to change entire biomes to reduce wild animal suffering, and so perhaps abolitionists might support one but not the other.

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