Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Welfare v. Rights mark 3

As I've argued in earlier posts, treating animal welfare and animal rights as though they represented opposites is at best a mistake, and at worst an example of "bad faith" claims aimed at intentionally confusing people.

Animal rights is a theory about the ethics of the way we should treat animals, but it's more helpful to treat it as one of a number of possible theories about the moral status of animals and avoid using it as a slogan. Ethical theory is essentially about clarifying what we believe about our obligations and helping us to think about this in a clear and logical fashion. It's not primarily about practical outcomes, although most theories of ethics incorporate some requirements to assess whether the outcomes of following a theory are likely to be good or bad.

If pressed, I think I'd plump for Erskine's definition of rights as a legal term (so animals have some rights in the UK as the law protects them against sadistic cruelty and neglect).

Animal welfare is usually defined in terms such as "physical and psychological well-being" and animal welfare science is the corpus of evidence-based knowledge about how this may be achieved.

So, someone who has been convinced that animal suffering matters should be interested in knowing more about the practicalities of animal welfare in order to be successful in putting their beliefs into practice.

Someone who already cares about animals may well take an interest in animal ethics to clarify their thinking when difficult choices need to be made (for example whether it can be right to use vaccines which have been tested on animals in order to protect other animals from fatal diseases).

If you're interested in pursuing this, I suggest taking a look at the exercises and case studies on the free, interactive Animal Ethics Dilemma site. You might also read, Putting the Horse before Descartes by the philosopher Bernard Rollin.

What's gone wrong?

  1. Bernard Rollin argues part of the problem is that good animal welfare and high productivity were at one time inextricably linked, simply because agricultural animals would die if their basic needs were not met. However, the advent of factory farming meant that animals could be kept in very poor conditions (overcrowded, dirty etc.) and remain productive through the use of technological aids like antibiotics. When animal protection organisations became concerned that animals were suffering in these systems, it was natural for the producers to counter this by claiming welfare must be good because productivity was still high. Gradually, through abuse of language, "welfare" became a term used by the animal industry to oppose better treatment.
  2. Advocates of a strong version of animal rights are opposed to "welfarism" because it's seen as a way of justifying keeping animals to be killed for meat and excusing systems which are only a little better than the worst excesses of factory farming.
  3. Fox hunting! Opponents of a ban on hunting find it a useful tactic to claim the RSPCA has been taken over by people who don't care about animal welfare because they want to destroy the RSPCA's credibility with ordinary people. (In fact this tactic tends to be used by any group that feels threatened by the RSPCA's campaigning activities—for example groups promoting exotic pets.)

"Bad Faith"

The problem with all this is that it makes it very hard to have a rational discussion about what needs doing in order to save more animals. It is absurd that an organisation whose supporters shoot around 10 million pheasants each year (Lees, A. C., Newton, I. and Balmford, A. (2013), Pheasants, buzzards, and trophic cascades. Conservation Letters, 6: 141–144. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2012.00301.x) gets a respectful hearing when it claims that "the Hunting Act has not saved a single fox" or exclaims with faux indignation about the euthanasia of sick animals.

Incidentally pheasants make up a startling 30% of the total land bird biomass of the British Isles (presumably chickens are not included).

What is news?

The 90-odd percent of the RSPCA's activities which don't involve startling cruelty, heroic rescues or very cute/unusual animals are not "news".

Unfortunately this means that:
  1. The public see quite a lot of the isolated newsworthy items but never really get a larger picture of what's going on.
  2. It's easy to claim that only the photogenic incidents are being dealt with—the public don't get to view inspectors driving round collecting small, injured animals and ferrying them to vets, or all the help given by arranging treatment via the telephone because there's not really anything much to see. Confidentiality issues normally mean it's not possible to film situations where the inspectors are negotiating with owners who aren't irresponsible enough to be prosecuted and any film of prosecutions can only be released after any court case has concluded. This means they have no real way to judge what's actually happening unless they go to the trouble of reading the public Annual Reports.
  3. Anything that can be made to look like a scandal of some sort is news, and modern newspapers are strapped for cash and very short of investigative journalists. This means it's easy for organisations opposed to animal welfare to write articles misrepresenting the RSPCA, then issue them as press releases or feed them as news to individual journalists and get them published pretty well verbatim as though they were news actually discovered by the paper.
  4. Muddling  up the distinction between rights and welfare (and why people who care about animals should be interested in both) is just another tool to spread disinformation about the animal protection movement, with the added bonus of helping to divide the movement.

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