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Compassion in Action

Many advocates also argued that kindness to animals distinguished a civilized culture from a barbaric one. Since cruelty to animals often led to cruelty to humans, teaching compassion for animals improved human society. Nearly all the early animal advocates were what we today would call animal “welfarists,” dedicated to alleviating animal suffering without necessarily challenging their use by humans. Animal welfare remains the orientation of a large sector of today’s humane movement.

The 1975 publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation is often credited with launching the modern animal rights movement. Very generally speaking, contemporary animal rights theory holds that non-human animals’ interests should be given equal weight to those of humans; that they should have legal status in themselves; and that they are not ours to eat, to experiment on, or to use for labor or entertainment. (The animal rights purists known as “abolitionists” would abolish all exploitation of animals.) While a welfarist believes in alleviating animals’ suffering without necessarily altering their legal and moral status, a rights advocate challenges our unequal relationship with animals as “speciesism,” a term coined by the British animal-rights activist Richard Ryder.

The distinction between animal welfare and animal rights is sometimes seen as establishing a sharp divide among animal advocacy organizations. The ASPCA, for instance, is considered to be an animal welfare group and PETA, an animal rights group, while HSUS falls somewhere between them, though it is often placed closer to the rights end of the spectrum. But the actual nature of this apparent division can become very slippery to pin down.

Animal-rights advocates themselves approach the issue of rights from various perspectives. Philosophers debate at length about what a philosophy of animal rights might actually entail in both theory and practice. (A useful example is Animal Rights, a collection of essays edited by Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum.) The debate can be fractious, with abolitionists hurling the label “welfarist” at less extreme rights advocates and arguing that policies that fail to overturn animals’ status as property only perpetuate a cruel and unjust system.

However, the majority of rights advocates work both to relieve immediate suffering and to make gradual changes in public opinion, rejecting such all-or-nothing logic. As Voltaire wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.” Singer co-founded the Great Ape Project, for instance, which seeks fundamental rights—life, freedom and protection from torture—for these primates. It could be said that, by singling out certain primates based on their similarity to humans, the project practices speciesism, but it has made significant advances toward the legally acknowledged rights of at least some animals.

When we move from theory to practice, to animal advocacy organizations’ positions on individual issues, the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare becomes even more blurred. Take, for instance, the work on behalf of animals in our industrial agriculture system, arguably the most important issue within the humane movement today. PETA holds that “animals are not ours to eat,” and promotes veganism. HSUS also encourages a vegetarian or vegan diet, and, like PETA, publishes vegetarian/vegan recipes. But both PETA and HSUS adopt strategies of gradual change; both support incremental approaches, encouraging people to begin by replacing some meat meals with vegetable ones, or at least switching to products from less inhumanely treated animals.

When it comes to legislation to reduce animal suffering in our factory farms—such as California’s HSUS-sponsored Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which was on the November ballot, gained bipartisan support, and passed with 63.3 percent of the vote—differences between welfare and rights can virtually disappear. The act outlaws battery cages, veal crates and gestation crates. While abolitionists maintain that working for less inhumane farms actually perpetuates oppression by making animal farming seem more acceptable, PETA supported Proposition 2, as did many other humane organizations of various political stripes.

Kathryn Shevelow, PhD, teaches in the Literature Department at the University of California, San Diego; her most recent book is For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement.

Horse-Drawn Cart Photo
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Dog and Cart Photo
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection

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