Animals Aren’t Commodities

“If Animals Matter Morally, Then We Cannot Treat Them As Commodities”

A conversation with animal rights advocate Gary Francione

Gary L. Francione is a controversial figure in the modern animal rights movement, known for his “abolitionist approach” towards animal rights. A professor of law and philosophy at Rutgers University, Francione believes that we cannot morally justify using animals as mere resources and that we should abolish all animal use. He argues that any being that feels pain has a right to not be used as property and that veganism should be the moral underpinning of the animal rights movement. As he puts it, “To not be a vegan is to participate directly in animal exploitation.”

photo of Gary Francione Photo by Vegano Siempre

Francione was the first person to teach animal rights in an American law school when he began teaching a course on animal rights and law at Rutgers in 1989. He has focused nearly four decades of academic scholarship in forwarding a theory of animal rights that posits that sentience alone (and not just cognitive intelligence as defined by humans) qualifies a being for the fundamental right of not being considered the property of another. He links the struggle for animal rights with other social movements and argues that the animal rights movement is the logical progression of the peace movement.

Francione has written multiple books and countless articles on animal ethics and animal law, and is particularly well known for his critical view of the animal welfare movement, which he says serves primarily to make people feel better about animal exploitation. His latest book, Eat Like You Care: An Examination of the Morality of Eating Animals (2013), co-authored with his partner and fellow Rutgers professor Anna Charlton, answers all the “but” questions that any non-vegan could possibly ask about transitioning to a vegan lifestyle.

I recently spoke with Francione via Skype and email about his latest book, his philosophy on animal rights, and his thoughts on both the animal welfare and animal personhood movements.

What event in your life caused you to become an animal rights activist?

In the late 1970s, I visited a slaughterhouse. It changed my life overnight. It became clear to me that our use of nonhumans as human resources presented a most serious moral question that was, for the most part, being ignored.

What is your philosophy concerning animal rights?

My position is that if animals matter morally at all — and I believe that most people believe that they do matter morally — then they must have at least one right: The right not to be used exclusively as human resources. The right not to be chattel property.

Interests can be protected in one of two ways. We can protect an interest only to the extent that to do so maximizes desirable consequences. Or we can protect that interest irrespective of consequences. The latter way of protecting an interest is what we describe as involving a right. To say that I have a right of free speech is simply to say that my speech will be protected even if other disagree with and think that my speech generates undesirable consequences.

If the interest in not being chattel property is not protected by a right, then that interest will be ignored when it is beneficial to do so. We recognize this where humans are concerned. We protect the interest that humans have in not being slaves with a right. We recognize that if humans are going to be members of the moral community, they must have the right not to be chattel slaves. If they are chattel slaves, they exist outside the moral community. They are things and not persons.

The same analysis holds true where nonhumans are concerned. If they are going to matter morally, they must have the right not to be property. If they are property, they are just things that have only extrinsic or external value, and do not have inherent or intrinsic value.

If we recognize this one right, then we are morally committed to abolishing the institutionalized exploitation of nonhuman animals. It’s not a matter of improving the treatment of animals. It’s a matter of abolishing the use of animals.

One of the key tenets of your philosophy is veganism. Could you explain why you think it’s important?

Veganism means that we do not eat, wear, or otherwise use animals.

I maintain that there is veganism and there is animal exploitation: There is no third choice. To not be a vegan is to participate directly in animal exploitation. That is, if we eat animals or animal products, wear wool, leather, fur, etc., or use products made from animals, we are treating animals as things with no morally significant interests.

As an abolitionist, I promote veganism as a moral baseline or a moral imperative and as the only rational response to the recognition that animals have moral value. If animals matter morally, then we cannot treat them as commodities and eat, wear, or use them. Just as someone who promotes the abolition of slavery should not own slaves, an abolitionist with respect to animal slavery should not consume animal products. As far as I am concerned, veganism is a fundamental matter of justice.

Advocating veganism as a fundamental principle of justice is not something that requires large, wealthy animal charities and “leaders.” It is something that we all can do and must do as a grassroots movement. Each of us must be a leader.

Let me say that there is no difference between meat and other animal products. Animals used for dairy and eggs are also treated horribly and they all end up in the same slaughterhouse as their “meat” counterparts. If you do not eat meat but you eat dairy and eggs, you are still directly responsible for animal suffering and death.

Your view on animal rights, particularly your views on animal welfare, has been criticized by some sections of the animal-protection movement, who say that animal welfare does provide some interim protection to animals until their rights can be established. How do you respond to such criticism?

Animal welfare is problematic for moral and practical reasons.

From a moral perspective, if animal use cannot be morally justified, then it is morally wrong to promote supposedly “humane” exploitation. Think about it in a human context. If slavery is wrong, then promoting “humane” slavery is not the answer. The only morally acceptable solution is to promote the abolition of slavery.

From a practical perspective, because animals are chattel property, and because it costs money to protect their interests, we protect animal interests generally only when we get an economic benefit. For example, we have laws that require animals to be stunned at the moment of slaughter because animals who are not stunned can injure workers and they incur carcass damage. Worker injuries and carcass damage cost money. For the most part, welfare reforms make animal exploitation more efficient. They are measures that, for the most part, industry will take anyway because it is beneficial for industry to do so.

As far as I am concerned, the primary purpose of animal welfare measures is to make humans feel better about continuing to exploit animals.

Do you think human society is at a point where it’s receptive to the idea of animal personhood, which would bestow animals with the basic rights to life and liberty?

Absolutely. I believe that most people already accept the idea that nonhumans are not things and are beings with moral value. Most people accept that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on nonhuman animals. Most people become outraged when they hear about “animal cruelty” cases precisely because they object to the infliction of unnecessary suffering.

The challenge is to get them to see that if they are not vegan, then they are morally no different from the “abusers” they criticize. It is not necessary to eat animal products in order to have optimal health. Indeed, mainstream health care professionals are increasingly recognizing that animal products are detrimental to human health. The best justification we have for inflicting suffering and death on billions of land animals and trillions of sea animals is that they taste good. That is no better a justification than maintaining that the enjoyment of watching a bullfight justifies bullfighting.

I am very optimistic about the future. I think the abolitionist vegan movement — a grassroots movement of people all over the world — is really gathering a great deal of momentum.

Given that you believe that sentience is the only characteristic required for personhood, what are your thoughts on the Nonhuman Rights Projects efforts to get certain animal species like chimpanzees and elephants declared nonhuman persons?

Sentience is subjective awareness. A sentient being is someone who perceives and experiences the world. A sentient being has interests; that is, preferences, wants, or desires. If a being is sentient, then that is necessary and sufficient for the being to have the right not to be used as a means to human ends. The recognition of this right imposes on humans the moral obligation not to use that being as a resource. It is not necessary for a sentient being to have humanlike cognitive characteristics in order to be accorded the right not to be used as property.

Intelligence and humanlike cognition may be relevant for some purposes, but they are not relevant for the basic right not to be used as property. As far as that one right is concerned, there is no difference between a chimpanzee and a mouse. We should not use either exclusively as a human resource.

Again, think about it in the nonhuman context. There are all sorts of differences between a human who is brilliant and a human who is severely mentally disabled. Those differences may be relevant for certain purposes, but we should not use either human as a forced organ donor or as a non-consenting subject of a biomedical experiment.

So if not through incremental efforts, such as getting one species at a time recognized as persons with rights, how do we get around to establishing the abolition of animal exploitation?

We get to the abolition of animal exploitation through creative, nonviolent vegan advocacy. We need to stop the demand for animal exploitation. And we can do that. Assume that we have 1 million vegans in the US. That’s a very low estimate. If every one of those people educated one other person to become vegan in the next year, there would be 2 million vegans. If the process repeated itself every year, the United States would be vegan in eight years.  Each of us can play a role in bringing about a vegan world!

How do you feel about the killing of Harambe the gorilla? Do you think the killing was inevitable, that the zoo had no choice?

A child got into the enclosure. The gorilla was a piece of property. If Harambe had injured the child, the legal liability of the zoo would have been astronomical. So I am not surprised that the zoo had Harambe killed. I object to zoos. And although I thought it was tragic that Harambe was killed, it’s no more tragic than the killing of millions of “food” animals every day. There is no moral difference between Harambe and the nameless chicken that people consumed for dinner last night.

What are you working on at the moment?

Anna Charlton, my co-author on Eat Like You Care, and I are working on a handbook about abolitionist vegan advocacy.

If you had one message to give to all animal lovers, what would it be?

Loving animals is not consistent with harming them. If you love animals — if you believe that animals matter — then stop participating directly in the exploitation of animals. It’s morally wrong. Go vegan!


9 thoughts on “Animals Aren’t Commodities

  1. “….there is no difference between meat and other animal products. Animals used for dairy and eggs are also treated horribly and they all end up in the same slaughterhouse as their “meat” counterparts.”
    Someone once told me there was no difference between serving horse meat and eggs on the same buffet table in terms of animal abuse. I don’t eat either, and most Americans certainly don’t eat horse meat. However, horses suffer much more greatly than chickens do in the slaughter house even though they both feel pain.

    To resolve one side of the problem, some in my neighborhood have their own chicken coops where their chickens lay infertile eggs for the better part of the year and stop when they are too old. To which a vegan person told me that eating eggs was still immoral, because these chickens had baby rooster bros who were disposed of as soon as they hatched, so it was still immoral to eat any eggs even if they were home grown.

    I agree that the dairy industry is savage and have avoided dairy for a long time. Americans consume way too much cheese for their own good.

    Gary Francione says we need to look at animal sentience to make moral judgements. But Pete Singer says, “we have come to admit that there is a scale of sentience: some animals are more sentient than others. We have also established the criterion of “sentience” as the one to decide on the moral value of beings. From there, it can be argued that humans deserve of special consideration because we have a special kind of sentience that no other animal has….. The key issue is that we have sufficiently established that speciesism is unavoidable”,

    As such, it seems we still can’t seem to shake the grand hierarchy our world is set up with. So does a chicken = a human?

    But I do know Gary Francione doesn’t care about the African giraffe, because they are long past saving them.

    So we can try to be purists, but will fail from time to time.

  2. I think everything we do nowadays, because our population is so high – impacts other life on earth. Mr. Francione is one of my favorite animal rights people, and I agree with him for the most part, but I don’t agree that everyone contributes to animal abuse in the same way – it’s a process to break away from these institutionalized beliefs – having kids, eating meat, economic growth, etc. Some people are further along in the process than others, and certainly factory farming and factory slaughter is not what even many meat-eaters would consider as acceptable. Certainly someone who is an ovo-lacto vegetarian or pesco vegetarian, or someone who cuts back on meat consumption, is further along in the process than a fur-wearer and 7-day a week beef eater who has no plans to change and doesn’t care about animal suffering! I had no one event that made me give up pork and red meat, and I certainly don’t use frivolous animal products like fur and leather, or in cosmetics. I have always felt bad about how animals are treated. I have loved them since childhood. Never went to a zoo either until I was a young adult. Every creature regardless of ‘brain power’ was put here by a power greater than human, and deserves to live.

    I was reading somewhere the other day that our population was believed to ‘stabilize’ at 9 billion, and of course most of us were skeptical about that years ago. Now they admit they are ‘not so sure’ our population will stabilize.

  3. I agree with Mr. Francione and am glad he didn’t get into the whole intersectionality movement in this discussion.

    However, I did find his answer to the question on Harambe interesting. He thought his death was tragic but noted there was no moral difference between Harambe and the nameless chicken that people consume for dinner. Apparently he was implying a moral (and certainly a legal) difference between the child and the gorilla.

    The whole issue of Harambe’s sad fate made me think more about what we really mean by vegan ethics or morality. I read hundreds of comments about Harambe in the many articles in newspapers here and around the world. They ran the usual gamut on this kind of story. There were those who said Harambe was “just an animal” and complained about all the attention he was getting. Others were truly horrified and sad at what had happened at the Cincinnati Zoo. Most thought his death was sad but said he had to die to save the child, and that was what was important.

    So, did Harambe have to die? We talk about animal rights, but do we mean by that any kind of moral equivalence? Or do we mean that we should simply recognize nonhumans as sentient creatures whom we should not harm but still maintain that unbridgeable chasm between them and Homo sapiens, keeping them a lower level of importance to avoid making difficult decisions?
    Hypothetically, what about this? When the child propelled himself into Harambe’s enclosure, suppose the zoo did everything possible to save the child without killing Harambe? Suppose when it was over, only Harambe was still alive. The outcome would have been tragic, of course. What then?

    Well, the zoo would be inundated with criminal and civil liability. The staff would probably have to guard the other gorillas to avoid retaliation and probably have to find sanctuaries for them. The zoo would probably be sued out of existence (a good thing?)

    This might be hypothetical, but perhaps Harambe provides a litmus test for what at least some of us mean by vegan morality. If we truly believe all animals have value, will we grant them moral equivalence, at least in our own minds? Will we grant their lives real value or will we satisfied if they are elevated from property status alone? Something to think about.

    I was disappointed that Francione did not go there even tentatively. I was disappointed that Jane Goodall said that Harambe “had” to die. I wish she would just have remained silent rather than cave-in and assure people that a gorilla’s life is expendable.

    When Jack Hanna and Jane Goodall and other “expects” expressed their agreement with the zoo’s death sentence, it led to one of the saddest elements of the story: The carelessness of the zoo and the carelessness of the mother got lost in the celebration of the one live saved and the diminution of the other life lost. It was just too easy.

    Personally, I just can’t bring myself to say Harambe had to die.

  4. Me neither. The argument could be made that there is no real reason to keep an animal prisoner in a zoo, that food is a necessity (although it doesn’t have to be meat), but keeping an animal in a zoo is not a necessity. We don’t have to see them to learn about them today, and arguments could be made that they are better off without humans knowing anything about them (a sort of benign neglect – shhhh! northeastern forests have quietly returned land along with their wildlife, while humans are going about their idiosyncratic business in cities. There’s no obsessive desire to ‘manage’ out here.). We rationalize that it is to ‘save them from extinction’, but we do very little to directly save them from extinction by creating a market for trophy hunting and trophies, If a kid doesn’t get to see a silverback gorilla because they are only in their protected wild homeland, excuse me while I break out my violin.

    • We are too selfish a species to care for wildlife properly. We have to possess, obsess, control, account for everything we touch. It’s perverse. I personally never went to a zoo as a child, and I am one of the staunchest wildlife advocates and wildlands advocates you could ever hope to find. I don’t care for them, and am proud that I have never set foot in Sea World. If I want the sea world I go down to the seacoast about a half an hour from my house for the real thing, and see marine mammals and birds in their natural habitat. With the millions of children who pass through zoos and national parks, how many find any real meaning in it other than entertainment? It is ‘more important’ (that’s the buzzword these days) for animals and their habitat to be left alone, than for them to be observed in cages in the hopes that some kid will learn something. That hope is getting slimmer every day, I think.

      • It is that old crap about how everything on this earth was made only for us. No life is valuable for itself. If we can use it for something, even just to shoot and kill it (actually him/her), then it is worthwhile. If it isn’t any good for anything as far as we’re concerned or is a nuisance, then it is a trash animal, to be gotten rid of. I’m not sure we’re capable of learning or changing. The planet may not last that long.

    • I agree! Some people were angry about taking elephants out of the circus because their kids wouldn’t get to see one! So the elephants should live miserable unnatural lives to kids could see them perform for a few minutes. That kind of arrogance is just astonishing. As for the zoo, How much did the kids really care about gorillas? Did they care that Harambe was a member of an endangered species? Did they care about how closely he evolved with us? Did they know or care why he was in the zoo in the first place? Making animals live their lives in a cage for people who are really there to gawk is just unethical.

      In Rwanda they are trying to save the gorillas from poachers and hunters through ecotourism. It’s all about us. Let tourists go in, bother the animals, expose them to human diseases, etc., etc., or let the growing and growing and growing population continue poaching and hunting. Dian Fossey tells how a zoo in Germany wanted a baby gorilla for display. They killed 10 members of the baby’s family to get her. She only lived few years in the zoo! Five gorillas were found stoned to death because someone injured a family member who was setting snares to kill them.

      Then to top it al off, when Dian Fossey was murdered, a wildlife researcher named Nina Stoyan said Fossey deserved it because in trying to save gorillas she was putting them ahead of people. Makes me want to reach for a cello as a weapon.

  5. Did anyone see this recently? It’s absurd. What did they think would happen? The woman is lucky she wasn’t severely injured or killed. The male gorilla has his family with him. I hope he wasn’t destroyed because of it. There is the danger of spreading disease to gorillas also, when they are already under pressure from us. How bad can people be? There should not be a demand created for this kind of thing. What’s wrong with viewing African wildlife from a Land Rover?

    • That is an excellent example of what can happen with ecotourism. The animals get used to seeing people around. The tourists tend to want to get closer and closer until they become pests, and then the animals get tired of it. Most of the countries where gorillas live are overpopulated, and there is competition between people and gorillas (and other animals) for land. Ecotourism was designed to get the people to tolerate animals by using those animals to bring in money. However, as shown, ecotourism can be dangerous to animals if people get hurt. The “bad” animals will have to be disposed of to make the tourists safe. And if the populations keep growing, no amount of ecotourism will be enough.

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