Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare: Which Side Are You On?



By: Abigail Geer

The animal protection movement is divided: animal rights vs. animal welfare.

Although often falling on the same side of an argument, there is a fundamental difference between these two ideologies. But what exactly is it?

This statement, from American philosopher Tom Regan, sums it up perfectly:

“Animal rights advocates are campaigning for no cages, while animal welfarists are campaigning for bigger cages.”

Animal Welfare

Animal welfarists focus on the treatment of nonhuman animals by promoting and supporting welfare reforms in efforts to make animal treatment more humane, single issue campaigns such as foie gras and fur, and compassionate consumption through the endorsement of grass fed beef and cage free eggs. Some animal welfarists believe that these measures will eventually lead to the abolition of animal use, whilst others do not see animal use as inherently wrong as long as suffering of the animals is eliminated or greatly reduced. Animal welfarists’ end goal is to ensure humane treatment.

Animal Rights

Animal rights activists on the other hand reject all forms of animal use and fight in the corner of the abolitionist approach regarding veganism as the moral baseline. They believe that it is morally wrong to use and exploit animals for any means, regardless of how that animal was treated. The animal rights approach is centered around the philosophy that nonhuman animals are conscious beings that have interests of their own and those interests are deserving of our respect. Therefore they should not be treated as machines, objects or economic units, and all institutions that commodify animals for human benefit should be abolished.


Photo Credit: Compassion in World Farming via Compfight cc

Incremental Progress

From a welfarists’ point of view, working towards welfare reforms such as cage free conditions for hens or group housing for sows is making incremental progress for animals. Decreasing suffering for those animals involved is what welfarists strive for. If you put yourself in the animals’ place — for example, suffering from lifelong immobility caused by living in tiny gestation crates and ammonia burns from rubbing against the bars and lying in excrement — you would appreciate better conditions too. Albeit, improved conditions may not be the ideal or optimum answer, but they do decrease suffering and they do make a difference to the animals experiencing this abuse now. Many welfarists welcome each reform as a step towards liberation. With each reform, society will begin to recognize that animals have interests that matter, and in turn may rethink killing, eating and using them.

All Or Nothing

The all or nothing animal rights approach is often categorized as ‘fanatical.’ Those who oppose this standpoint argue that veganism is too extreme and that we can in fact be morally conscious carnivores and still care about animals. For an abolitionist, this is contradictory and the promotion of ‘happy’ animal products and animal welfare measures does little, if anything, to protect animal interests. By pushing for animal welfare measures, continued animal use is encouraged, as the public are made to feel better about their exploitative decisions and discharge their moral obligations with no intent to end animal use in their own lives. Animal rights supporters also reject the notion of single issue campaigns in favor of vegan and abolitionist education. With every passing second and cent spent on advocating the idea that there is a right way to exploit animals or on campaigns that only address single issues, they contest that we are not vying for meaningful change.


Photo Credit: andjohan via Compfight cc

So the question is: which approach is the most effective? Is it possible that one could support both animal rights and animal welfare? That one can strive for abolition whilst still supporting single issue campaigns and welfare reforms?

Should we go for broke with all or nothing campaigns, or should we endorse incremental measures?

Which side are you on..?

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