Distinguishing Animal Rights from Animal Welfare

David Sztybel PhD

The notion of "animal welfare" dates back far before "animal rights." In fact, "rights" in their modern sense did not enter common usage until the 1700s. It was notably through the publication of Animal Liberation by Australian philosopher Peter Singer in 1975 that the animal liberation movement as we know it coalesced. There were several reasons for the new radical view, all of which directly influenced the content of Singer's important book:

  1. using the liberation movements on behalf of blacks and women as models, the animal liberation movement rejected "speciesism" (arbitrary discrimination on the basis of species membership) as well as racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism;
  2. advances in evolutionary biology blurred species boundaries between humans and other animals;
  3. rebellions occurred within human organizations (e.g., the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' support of hunting - many of its wealthy patrons were fox hunters - led to the formation of the Hunt Saboteurs Association in 1963); and
  4. modern animal cruelties were documented in Ruth Harrison's 1964 book Animal Machines, which exposed factory farming, and in Richard Ryder's 1975 Victims of Science, which revealed horrors in the laboratory.

Technically, "animal rights" can refer to any list of rights for animals, although currently, the term is widely understood to refer to the idea of abolishing all use or exploitation of animals, a view reflected in Tom Regan's The Case for Animal Rights. "Animal welfare" is generally understood as advocating "humane use" of animals, at minimum upholding animal well-being by prohibiting "unnecessary cruelty" (a common legal phrase). In spite of this general meaning, there remains a whole spectrum of alternative views as to what "animal welfare" is:

  1. animal exploiters' "animal welfare," which amounts to the reassurance by those who use animals as commercial or recreational resources that they care for animals well;
  2. commonsense animal welfare, which is the average person's vague concern to avoid cruelty and perhaps to be kind to animals;
  3. humane animal welfare, which is more principled, deep, and disciplined than commonsense animal welfare in opposing cruelty to animals, but does not reject most animal-exploitive industries and practices (fur and hunting are occasional exceptions, along with the worst farming or laboratory abuses);
  4. animal liberationist animal welfare, championed by Peter Singer, which would minimize suffering while accepting, for example, some types of vivisection;
  5. new welfarism (see ANIMAL RIGHTS, Animal Rights and the New Welfarism [by Gary Francione]); and
  6. animal welfare/animal rights views, which do not clearly distinguish the two. Richard Ryder subscribes to both ideas, although he is a complete abolitionist regarding animal use. Both animal welfare and animal rights, he says, "denote a concern for the suffering of others," and he evidently does not see the value of using the term to distinguish abolitionists from nonabolitionists who are still humanitarians.

Selected Bibliography

Carson, Gerald, Men, Beasts, and Gods: A History of Cruelty and Kindness to Animals (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972).

Finsen, Lawrence, and Susan Finsen, The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect (New York: Twayne, 1994).

Jasper, James M., and Dorothy Nelkin, The Animal Rights Crusade: The Growth of a Moral Protest (New York: Free Press, 1992).

Ryder, Richard D. Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes towards Speciesism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,1989).