James McWilliams: Vegan Feud

A Revolution in EatingIn an article published recently in Slate, James McWilliams, author of A Revolution in Eating and American Pests, addresses the criticism that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) faces from the “abolitionist wing of the animal rights movement, which views HSUS welfare reforms as craven capitulation to industrial agriculture.” McWilliams believes that the debates that have formed around HSUS are indicative of deep moral divides in the movement: “Does HSUS, in its ceaseless quest to improve living conditions for animals within factory farms, justify and perpetuate the ongoing existence of those farms?”

McWilliams begins his article by laying the groundwork for the debate:

There is little doubt that HSUS is doing something right. A complete citation of their recent accomplishments would be too long to list here, but consider that in one week alone last July, HSUS persuaded Sodexo, Oscar Mayer, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr., and Baja Fresh to eliminate the use of gestation crates, cages that confine pregnant pigs so tightly they cannot turn around. In banning this torture device from their supply chains, these companies joined industry kingpins McDonald’s and Smithfield Foods in yielding to Shapiro’s ceaseless nagging on behalf of a barnyard proletariat numbering in the billions.

Nevertheless, as the abolitionists correctly point out, there’s nothing especially revolutionary about HSUS’s approach to improving the lives of farm animals. HSUS works closely with Big Agriculture, never calls for animal liberation, and never explicitly endorses the habit that most efficiently prevents animals from being killed: veganism. This reticence infuriates abolitionists, who seek the eradication of not only animal agriculture but also all animal ownership and exploitation through ethical veganism.

While McWilliams acknowledges that the arguments of the abolitionists (including CUP author Gary L. Francione) are powerful, but he also cites thinkers who claim that trying to strong-arm people into veganism is not an effective strategy:

Francione’s logic is hard-hitting, but his extreme message is unlikely to resonate widely in a population that’s only 1.4 percent vegan. According to social psychologist and longtime vegan Melanie Joy, the abolitionist approach could attract a lot more supporters if it acknowledged, as HSUS does, that most people are going to embrace veganism on their own—you can’t strong-arm them into it. Joy, author of Why We Eat Pigs, Love Dogs, and Wear Cows, believes that social change—in this case, honoring the intrinsic worth of animals by not eating them—is a complex process requiring both an awakening to the hidden reality of exploitation and the individual will to act upon that awareness. Asking people to stop eating animals, as Joy sees it, is more than asking for a change in behavior; it’s asking for a profound shift in consciousness that people make only when they’re personally ready to do so.

In the end, McWilliams believes that a compromise between these differing approaches to animal rights is possible and highly desirable:

The motivation for animal advocates to compromise should be strong. And compromise is quite possible: There’s no doubt that HSUS reforms have improved the lives of farm animals, but there’s also no reason why the organization couldn’t bolster its small victories with more aggressive campaigns involving the v-word. Similarly, the abolitionists certainly make a compelling case for ending all animal exploitation, but there’s also no reason why they couldn’t tolerate a more personalized approach to change, one premised on the idea that we all come to Jesus in our own unique little ways. “It is better,” Joy often says, “to be effective than to be right.”

In any case, if the movement figures out how to meld these competing approaches to animal advocacy, the meat industry would really have something to complain about. For now, though, as I read the trade literature, it’s hard not to see the industrial producers of animal products as little more than petulant whiners who have no inkling of the real pressure they would face if animal advocates in the United States managed to pull themselves together.

4 Responses

  1. The whole idea that HSUS could possibly aim for veganism through incremental welfare reforms does not take into account their modus operandi. HSUS has carefully forged a relationship with the meat producing industries that is mutually beneficial on a financial basis. HSUS assists industry with marketing their products by actively promoting so-called “humane” animal products. If HSUS were to publicly change its strategy and ask people to go vegan, they would be telling people not to buy those products, which would be detrimental to this relationship.

    Asking animal rights groups to compromise on their mission for the abolition of all stock farming is unrealistic. It is like asking battered wife shelters to compromise the safety of the women seeking their protection. Or of asking peace activists to support certain wars as they are financially beneficial for the country.

    Welfare reforms do not save animals’ lives. They do not end the suffering of animals. They do, however, make consumers feel more comfortable about eating animal products. If you believe that animals are not property and should be classified as moral and legal persons, who have a right not to be tortured or killed, then it is not possible to compromise on these beliefs without betraying animals.

    Vegan education is not about “strong-arming” people into being vegan. It is about offering veganism as the solution to animal suffering and assisting people with the transition by offering advice and information.

    I am extremely disappointed that James McWilliams has now declined to continue this debate with Gary L. Francione on a podcast. He is following in the footsteps of all the welfare organisations who have taken cheap shots at abolitionists in the past and then run for the hills when asked to defend them.

  2. Talk about timing!

    On Friday, September 21, HSUS announced “great news” that three companies would phase out gestation crates over a 10 year period. HSUS asked for animal advocates to show support for these companies.

    I wrote an essay on this: “Eat a Sausage. Do It For the Animals.”


    It remains a puzzle to me as to why James McWilliams thinks that animal advocates in general, or those who advocate the abolitionist or rights view, should support this.

    Gary L. Francione
    Professor, Rutgers University

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