Gary Francione was the first academic to teach animal rights in a U.S. law school and has since become a central figure in the animal rights movement. In this interview he discusses his new book, Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation.
Q: In your new book, Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, you maintain that we suffer from “moral schizophrenia” when it comes to nonhuman animals. What do you mean by that?
Gary Francione: I mean that our thinking about animals is very confused. On one hand, we claim to regard animals as members of the moral community. We claim to embrace a moral and legal obligation not to inflict “unnecessary” suffering or death on animals. We can, of course, debate the meaning of “necessity,” but whatever it means, it must rule out suffering and death imposed for reasons of human pleasure, amusement, or convenience. If it does not do so, then the exception would completely swallow the moral rule.
The problem is that 99.99% of our animal use cannot be justified by anything but human pleasure, amusement, or convenience. For example, we kill more than 12 billion land animals every year in the United States alone for food. No one maintains that it is necessary to eat animals to lead an optimally healthy lifestyle and an increasing number of mainstream health care professionals tell us that animal foods are detrimental to our health. Animal agriculture is a disaster for the environment because it involves a most inefficient use of natural resources and creates water pollution, soil erosion, and greenhouse gasses. The only justification that we have for the pain, suffering, and death that we impose on these billions of animals is that we enjoy eating animal foods, or that it is convenient to do so, or that it is just plain habit.
We regard some animals—our “pets”—as members of our families. We see them as nonhuman persons. We love them and they love us back. We are not in any way speaking or thinking anthropomorphically when we say that dogs and cats are sentient beings with distinct personalities. That is simply a matter of fact. We have no doubt that they have an interest in avoiding pain, suffering, and death. We grieve when they die. But our dogs and cats are no different from the animals whose bodies we eat or who are used to produce dairy and eggs. We love some animals; we stick forks into others. That is what I mean by “moral schizophrenia.”
Q: You mention dairy and eggs. What is wrong with eating products that do not result in the death of an animal?
GF: Those products do result in animal deaths and tremendous animal suffering. Animals used to produce dairy and eggs generally live longer than “meat” animals, are arguably treated worse, and end up at the same slaughterhouse after which we consume their bodies anyway. There is probably more suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak.
Q: So you advocate veganism?
GF: Absolutely. A theme that runs throughout my work, including Animals as Persons, is that veganism must be the moral baseline of anyone who claims to take animals seriously. Just as someone opposed to human slavery would not own any slaves, someone opposed to animal exploitation should not consume or wear animals.
Q: What about animal experiments? Is that use of animals justifiable?
GF: The use of animals to find cures for serious human illnesses represents the only use of animals in which we engage that is not transparently trivial. But this use is also not morally justifiable. In the first place, there are serious issues concerning whether the use of animals is “necessary” in that the required data cannot be obtained in any way other than through the use of animals. Secondly, even if there are some uses that are really “necessary” in some empirical sense, we cannot justify those uses morally because we rightly regard it as morally unacceptable to use any humans for experiments in which they are harmed or killed. Our only justification for using nonhuman animals in experiments is our species bias, or speciesism, and that prejudice can no more defended than can racism, sexism, or heterosexism.
Q: How are your views different from those of other animal ethicists, such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan?
GF: My views are very different from those of both Regan and Singer. Singer does not see the use or killing animals per se as the primary moral problem; he sees the problem as suffering. For instance, if we are what Singer calls “conscientious omnivores,” who take care to use animals that have been treated more “humanely” than those who are raised in intensive conditions on factory farms, we may allow ourselves the “luxury” of eating animal products. I strongly disagree with that position. I think that the “happy meat” industry promoted by Singer and others, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is nothing but a deception in that there is little, if any, reduction of suffering on the part of animals whose corpses are labeled or marketed as “humanely” produced. Moreover, “happy meat,” “free-range” or “cage-free” eggs and the like all make people feel better about eating animals and that perpetuates the consumption of animal flesh and animal products. The theory that I explore in Animals as Persons is that we have no business exploiting sentient nonhumans irrespective of how we treat them.
My views differ from those of Regan in that his theory requires that animals have certain cognitive or intellectual characteristics in order to be members of the moral community. I argue that as long as an animal is sentient, or perceptually aware, that is all that is required for that animal to have the right not to be treated as a human resource.
Q: So you don’t support the reform of animal use, what is commonly called “animal welfare”?
GF: No. Remember that animals are now viewed as property. They are economic commodities. They have no inherent or intrinsic value. A central theme of Animals as Persons is that putting aside the theoretical issues about whether animal use can be morally justified, animal welfare regulations are simply ineffective from a purely practical perspective. These regulations generally make animal exploitation more economically efficient by increasing the production efficiency of animal use. That is, animal welfare regulations are not based on, and do not promote the idea that animals are not property; they are based on the idea that animals are property and that we ought to exploit that property in a way that maximizes the financial benefits we receive. The result is that animal welfare laws and industry standards—even the standards praised by some animal advocates—provide very little protection for animals.
Q: If we accepted your views, would animals have the same rights as humans?
GF: No, of course not. There are many human rights that have absolutely no meaning for or meaningful application to nonhuman animals. In my work, including Animals as Persons, I focus on one right — the pre-legal, basic right not to be treated exclusively as resources or economic commodities. We should stop treating nonhuman animals as our property.
Q: And if we recognized that right, would we be required to release all domestic animals that we currently hold? Wouldn’t that cause chaos?
GF: Yes, of course it would and we should not do it. We should take good care of the domestic animals we have brought into existence until they die. We should stop bringing more domestic animals into existence.
Q: If we are persuaded by your views and want to abolish animal exploitation, what can we do now—today—to help bring about that abolition?
GF: The most important thing anyone can do is to become vegan and to educate others about why taking animals seriously means being vegan. As more and more people become vegan, demand drops and consciousness about the immoral and unjustifiable nature of animal use is raised. I regard veganism as the most important form of activism for nonhuman animals. Veganism is the principle of abolition applied to the life of the individual.