Many people confuse the terms “Animal Rights” and “Animal Welfare”. Before I started reading about all of this, I think I just assumed that rights and welfare were the same thing, and I used the terms interchangeably. The truth, however, is that that the two philosophies are strikingly different.
The animal rights philosophy argues that animals should not be used at all for human purposes, (whether for food, clothing, entertainment, or medical testing) because there is no morally justifiable reason why animals should have any less of a right to live free of pain and suffering than humans do. Peter Singer explains it well in his book Animal Liberation. His reasoning was that while we can’t know exactly how animals experience pain, it is safe to say that they do; if we agree on that, and it is generally accepted that humans have a right to be free from pain, then why should we treat animals any differently? Some argue it is because animals don’t have human language or that their brains aren’t as complex as ours, but here we run into another problem: Human infants don’t have language, and they don’t have reasoning abilities or a sense of morality, and yet we say that they deserve to be free from pain and suffering. Furthermore, there are many humans who have such severe disabilities that they will never have language or reasoning or morality, but we know that they can feel pain, and we would probably all agree that they deserve to be free from pain. How, then, can we make a real morally relevant argument that animals – some who are as smart as 3 year old humans – should not also have this right?
Animal welfarists, on the other hand, believe that humans do have the right to use animals for purposes that benefit humans, but that we also have a responsibility to treat those animals with care. The problem here is that differences of opinion will almost surely always exist regarding the definition of “with care”. Does that mean making sure they are well fed? That they have adequate housing? That they can practice normal behaviors for their species? That they are happy? And how can we tell if an animal is happy?
I suppose the fact that I am vegan puts me in the Animal Rights category. I don’t think humans need to eat animals for survival. In fact, I think eating a plant based diet is in our best interest. I also don’t think we need to wear animal derived products like leather and wool with all the great synthetics out there. I think many animal-related medical tests are completely unnecessary, but I confess that I haven’t read quite enough about this yet to determine if I think any are justifiable (though if I say that some are, then I too am guilty of placing more value on a human’s life than an animal’s suffering and am probably not a very good vegan!)
I recognize that most people don’t share my views, and for that reason I am also a strong proponent of working toward better welfare standards for animals used for food, medical tests, etc. I think asking someone to at least consider where their food comes from and how the animals were raised is a much easier sell than asking everyone to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. I suppose in this sense I am something of a welfarist too. I just hate all of the commonly accepted procedures that are done on these farms – debeaking, tail docking, and neutering without anaesthesia to name a few. These practices are so unnecessary, and result in a lot of pain for the animals who endure them. I think it is worth our efforts to eliminate these painful practices. Perhaps the first step in transitioning people to a veg*n diet is to first get them to realize that they have some responsibility to the animals they consume. Unless they understand that, the chances they’ll ever change their eating habits are incredibly unlikely.