Animal rights activists are sometimes seen as fanatics who break into businesses under the cover of night, releasing all sorts of animals from their barred prisons screaming, “all are free!” While there are a handful of activists that engage in those kinds of acts, the majority of vegans do not. However, many believe that choosing a vegan lifestyle is a powerful form of activism in itself. But there is more than one type of vegan activist.
If you take a closer look at the ethics behind vegan advocacy, you will discover two vastly different schools of thought. They contrast dramatically enough that they sometimes create a rift among vegans. While both sides generally want the same thing- to create a world where animals are free from suffering- the means to that end vary dramatically. Let’s take a look at both, discover their origins and see where their paths diverge. Then, you can see what type of vegan advocate you are!
Animal Welfare Reform Approach
The first approach to vegan advocacy that we’ll discuss is known as welfare reform. This method of advocacy focuses on reducing animal suffering and doing ‘immediate good‘ for animals. Outreach programs such as “Meatless Mondays” embrace the welfarist approach by encouraging people to take small steps towards a more cruelty-free lifestyle, without demanding that everyone go vegan immediately.
This technique is based on the understanding that people who make a small change will be more likely to make bigger changes in the long run. The theory suggests that people who give up meat one day a week are more likely to give it up more frequently (or perhaps all of the time,) versus those who don’t participate in a meatless day at all. This ‘foot in the door’ technique is similar to tricks that salespeople use, and can be beneficial to social change.
Some animal organizations also focus on welfare-reform. For example, the banning of gestation crates would be heralded as a victory. Even though the pigs would still live and die in factory farms, this ban would give mother sows enough space to at least be able to turn around in their stall during their 3-4 month pregnancies. As we will see later, calling this a win would cause abolitionists to balk. However, welfarists think we should embrace these baby steps.
The abolitionist arm of the animal rights movement is based on the teachings of Gary L. Francione. This type of vegan activism is an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Abolitionists advocate for a complete end to animal exploitation. They are against the use of animals for any purpose, regardless of how the animals are treated. In contract to welfarists, abolitionist vegans overtly reject the concept of regulating animal industries. For example, outlawing gestation crates would be seen as a counterproductive strategy.
Abolitionists view welfarist campaigns as a hindrance to the cause of animal liberation for a few reasons. Firstly, such efforts may reduce the guilt that omnivores feel in regards to using animal products, and make them less motivated to go vegan. For example, welfarists would praise friends and family for cutting out red meat as a ‘baby step’ in the right direction. But, abolitionists would say they are not doing enough. Francione explains the danger in letting people think that they can be ‘conscientious omnivores:’
“If you tell her that it is morally acceptable to do less than become a vegan, you can be certain that she is unlikely to see any need to go further.”
Choosing a Side
The two main types of vegan activism create a disunion within the animal rights movement. One side is happy with incremental progress, however tiny the steps, and the other won’t accept anything less than absolute liberation. But does it really matter what side you are on? No, not really. There is no rule that says you must be one type of vegan or another. You can be both, or neigher. We don’t always know how those around us will respond to veganism, so having activists use multiple approaches may actually benefit our cause in the long run.
This introductory article is just the tip of the iceberg, highlighting a few major points where the two approaches diverge. As you delve further into the ethics of animal rights, you will likely ask yourself very weighted questions that will lead you to a greater understanding of the movement and your place in it. Along the journey, keep in mind that we are in this together and must focus on the end goal: a peaceful world for both human and non-human animals alike.