Who Is an “Animal Abuser”?

If you eat animal products, especially “higher welfare” products approved by the RSPCA, you are not an “animal abuser” — according to RSPCA (source: this essay)

An interesting feature of the animal welfare approach is that it depends on arbitrarily labeling some conduct affecting animals as “abuse” so that the vast majority of people who participate directly in other animal exploitation can feel good about themselves as they eat, wear, and otherwise use animals while condemning the “abuser.”

A recent example of this is found in the new bill pending before Parliament in Britain that will impose “tougher prison sentences for the worst animal abusers” and impose sentences of “up to five years in prison, a significant increase from the current maximum sentence of six months.” This will, we are told, strengthen “the UK’s position as a global leader on animal welfare.” The bill is being praised by none other than the RSPCA’s Chief Executive, Chris Sherwood, who is quoted as saying:

This reform is long overdue. Those responsible for extreme cruelty towards animals or those criminal gangs involved in organised animal crime will now face the tough justice they deserve.

We need to better protect our animals and the RSPCA hopes that this new Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill will give courts the powers they need to punish those responsible for the most unimaginable cruelty to animals.

We also believe this will act as a much stronger deterrent to others and help us stamp out animal cruelty once and for all.

Think about this for a minute.

The reality is that the treatment that is accorded to farm animals across the U.K and in the hideous slaughterhouses where virtually all of these animals end their lives, is just as bad if not worse than the treatment that the RSPCA has in mind for prosecution under the proposed new law.

The RSPCA has its own line of “higher welfare” animal products — the RSPCA Assured label — that takes the place of its previous “happy exploitation” label, “Freedom Food.” According to the RSPCA, its RSPCA Assured program guarantees that farm animals have a “good life” and are “treated with compassion and respect.”

The RSPCA charges producers to use the “RSPCA Assured” certification:

“Happy exploitation” is good business.

So the government tells people that by focusing on “abusers,” the U.K. can strengthen its position “as a global leader on animal welfare” while people continue to participate in animal exploitation. The RSPCA actually promotes the consumption of supposedly “happy” animal products and expresses delight that the “abusers” will finally be brought to justice.

The reality is that all animal exploitation is abuse. The idea that we criminalize some exploitation and consider other exploitation as acceptable — and even as indicating a virtuous character — should trouble anyone who cares about animals, morality, and justice.

And where there is no moral dilemma involved — where we are imposing suffering and death on animals simply because we enjoy the taste of animal products — our using and killing animals exposes our hypocrisy in saying that we believe that animals have moral value.

We do not need to eat animal products for optimal health. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that vegan diets “are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The UK National Health Service says that a sensible vegan diet can be “very healthy.” Mainstream health care professionals all over the world are increasingly taking the position that animal products are detrimental to human health. Even large insurance companies are promoting veganism. And animal agriculture is destroying the planet. Our continued consumption of animal products is not only a moral obscenity; it is completely irrational.

Why can’t we just be honest and acknowledge what is really going on here? By focusing on the exploitation of animals engaged in by a very small number of people and labeling it as “abuse,” we get to pat ourselves on the back for being “good” people as we engage in conduct that is every bit as bad — if not worse — than what the “abusers” do.

If animals matter morally, the only rational response is to stop eating, wearing, and using them. If we are not vegan, then we are participating directly in the exploitation and abuse of animals. There is no way that animal products got to our plate or into our closet without the abuse for which the RSPCA would send others to prison. A law that designates someone else as an “abuser” can’t change that fact.

If we care about animals and believe that they matter morally, we should not fall for the ruse that animal welfare laws represent. We should be stopping the use of animals as commodities, not attempting to tidy up the industries that produce animal products, or giving ourselves a pass because we think of others as “abusers.”

Gary L. Francione is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers University and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lincoln.

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