The False Choice Between Mercy and Animal Rights

Updated: Mar 23

Note, the author has been Vegan since 2009 and fully supports ending the exploitation and suffering of animals in all contexts. An admirable practice among doctors is that they provide care to sex workers, politicians, and soldiers impartially. They are not endorsing sex for payment, particular political views, or war by helping these patients. Similarly, those who reduce the suffering of exploited animals are not endorsing that exploitation. A volunteer at a dog shelter is not endorsing puppy mills. An activist giving water to overheated cattle is not complicitly perpetuating factory farming; quite the opposite is true.

This may seem obvious, but I have witnessed many productive conversations about how to best help domestic animals stuck in exploitative contexts derailed by somebody interjecting "but... wouldn't it be better to abolish animal use?" Of course, but animals are used, and will continue to be used for the foreseeable future, despite our opposition. The relevant question is, what can be done to help them now? We have a positive ethical duty to minimize their pain and suffering using all available tools, even if we disagree with animal use at large. Such tools might even include advanced technologies. For the same reason that we should support low-tech forms of welfare, such as the provision of adequate food, water, space, and environmental stimulation, we should support high-tech forms of welfare as well. One who believes that animals deserve full liberation is perfectly justified in promoting the use of anesthetics and analgesics among animals. This is true regardless of whether pain relief is administered exogenously or endogenously expressed by the animal. It’s true regardless of whether relief is attained via gene-therapies which do not permanently change DNA (e.g. dCas), or gene therapies that do. Relieving suffering in no way endorses or infringes upon animal rights.

Why then do many behave as though alleviating suffering in exploitative conditions perpetuates exploitation itself? Few animal-use abolitionists would admit this explicitly. However, there remains an underlying anxiety and ideological rigidity which clouds the judgment of many of my fellow animal activists. The implicit view held, to varying degrees, among nearly all animal activists is that anything which improves welfare could also undermine animal rights. Such individuals are often well intentioned, but these attitudes are neither an accurate reflection of reality nor a means for guiding effective action. There is an inconsistency in how most animal activists consider the issue. The provision of water for cattle on trucks, the use of analgesia for guinea pigs in labs, these are considered basic standards of care. However, if one is considering the use of new technologies for minimizing suffering, these are deemed an exception which somehow perpetuates animal rights abuse in ways that other basic standards of care do not. The real distinction here, however, is not that one type of intervention perpetuates rights abuses and one doesn't, but that new things are automatically labeled as bad. Thus, opposition to new interventions is more of a reflection of status quo bias, not principled rights-based opposition. Conservatism is rationalized as and conflated with a concern for rights. If one truly prioritizes rights over welfare and believes that improving welfare must come at the cost of rights, by the same logic, this person should also support eliminating the use of painkillers among animals. They might argue that animals should be fed and watered less, given smaller stalls, and beaten, to publicly highlight the consequences of violating rights. To be consistent, they must actively strive to make things worse before they get better (Cf. Accelerationism). Obviously, this is an abhorrent position, but we should also seek to distance ourselves from more prevalent, albeit milder, versions of the same argument, which insidiously creep into the debate about how to best help domestic animals.

Animal rights and welfare are highly compatible. There is no reason for infighting or delaying more sophisticated forms of pain relief for domestic animals. The rest of society may not yet fully agree with the goal of emancipating animals from the status of property, but we still have a duty to minimize their suffering in the meantime. Thus, everybody who cares about animals, under the direct care of humans, should rethink lingering prejudices they have against relieving suffering, regardless of whether such relief comes from advanced technologies, such as gene therapies.

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