Abolitionist vegan Eric Prescott has added a new interview to his documentary series on vegans in North America, this one with his puppet master Gary L. Francione. Francione used the opportunity to rehash all of his usual talking points, but I still found a couple of interesting moments. At one point Francione says:

The predicate for veganism is already set. Most of us already accept all of the moral views that are the predicate for becoming a vegan. We all believe it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals. Alright, so, now the next question becomes ‘what do we mean by necessity?’ Well, whatever it means, whatever abstract meaning it has, if it has any meaning whatsoever, its minimal meaning has to be that it’s wrong to inflict suffering and death on animals for reasons of pleasure, amusement or convenience. Because if it’s alright to inflict suffering and death on animals for reasons of pleasure, amusement or convenience, then you’ve got a loophole that’s now so large you can drive a truck through it. … We have no choice. Veganism is the only rational, logical response to accepting that it is morally wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals.

I like this quote because it is such a classic logical vegan thing to say. The reason to not make animals suffer is to avoid logical errors! But Francione is incorrect if he thinks there are no loopholes in vegan logic. The survival exemption to veganism, for instance, opens the exact same loophole that Francione says we open by allowing animal use for pleasure/amusement/convenience.

It’s also good to know that “we have no choice” but to accept veganism. Does this not render the idea of being a “moral agent” meaningless? How much agency do we moral agents have if our beliefs are pre-determined and inescapable? If a moral agent has no choice but to accept veganism, we don’t have moral free will. And if we don’t have moral free will, how are we any different from animals who are morally permitted to eat other animals because they don’t have a capacity for morality? 

Of course Francione talked about veganism versus humane animal products. That’s his jam:

I’m often asked, what do you do if somebody says, ‘I understand what you’re saying. But I’m not ready to go vegan right away. Should I eat cage free or, you know…’ I say ‘No no no. You can go vegan right away. It’s not difficult. Trust me. It’s not difficult. It’s easy.’ ‘Well, but I’m not sure…’ ‘Okay, look. We’ve had this conversation. You’ve acknowledged that you think that eating animals and animal products is not morally justifiable. Okay. Then that’s your conscience. If you’re going to continue to eat ‘em. That’s a decision you’re making in the face of your assessment that it’s not morally justifiable. However, let me say this to you. If you feel you can’t do it right away, and I would disagree with you — you can. If you feel you can’t, then go vegan in stages. Go vegan for breakfast for three weeks. You’ll see that you’re not going to die. Your arms and legs don’t fall off. You know, you don’t go blind. And then you go vegan for lunch for a couple of weeks. And then you go vegan for dinner. And boom! There you are, you’re a vegan. …

Rather than spending several hours tabling at your local community college about why kids should be eating cage-free eggs, try to explain to those kids why they shouldn’t be eating eggs at all, or any other animal products. Are you going to convince them all? No. But you know what, you’ll convince some… And it will grow. It’s a zero sum game. Every dollar of resource, every minute of labor that we spend focused on welfarist regulation is a dollar less and a minute less of labor than we’re spending on promoting veganism and abolition. ‘Wha, but well what about the people who are never going to become vegan?’ You know what? Let’s worry about those people once we’ve gotten everyone who will become vegan. … Once we do that, then we’ll worry about the people who aren’t going to change.

I’m not sure why Francione thinks it is okay to tell someone to go vegan in increments if they think they can’t do it right away, but it is not okay to suggest they use animal products from small farms while they make the transition. His aversion to admitting a difference between factory farmed and humanely raised animal products is especially perplexing when someone who absolutely refuses to become vegan but would consider consuming humane animal products asks what to do. The way Francione deals with this is to refuse to grant the premise of the question. “I am not going to go vegan, so should I eat humane animal products?” “Just go vegan.” “I’m not going to.” “Go vegan in stages.” “I already said that I don’t want to go vegan. At all. Ever. No matter what. So should I get my raw lamb testicles from a farmers ma…” “GO VEGAN!”

Francione says we will deal with these stubborn lamb testicle addicts later because until every potential vegan is vegan, the opportunity cost of talking to die-hard meat eaters about humane animal products is too great. He gives no indication of what his game plan will be once that day arrives, maybe because thinking about that for even one second would steal a thought that he could have expended on veganism.

Interestingly, this concern with opportunity costs gives strength to the otherwise useless defensive omnivore critique that animal activism detracts from human activism. If Francione can’t say a word in favor of humane animal products no matter the context because that would take time from his vegan work, then holding vegan bake sales for animal shelters or donating to farm sanctuaries really does take financial resources and time from human causes. Why do you love animals and hate humans, vegans?

In the example Francione gives, however, there is zero opportunity cost to recommending humane animal products over factory farmed products. There is no potential vegan behind this person who Francione could be converting to veganism instead. Hypothetical Stubborn Meat-Eating Woman is telling Francione that nothing will stop her from eating animal products, but she would consider buying humanely raised animal products if Francione thinks that’s better. Francione’s abolitionist dogma has him so straight-jacketed that it impossible for him to do anything other than act like a malfunctioning “go vegan” bot who sputters “go vegan” in response to every input.

The reason Francione is so opposed to acknowledging anything even remotely better about animal products from small farms is his focus on animal rights rather than suffering reduction, and his belief that the property status of animals makes it impossible to improve their treatment in significant ways.

Francione is right that the property status of animals and their poor treatment are linked, but his conclusion that there can be no difference between factory farms and small humane farms doesn’t match reality. Since animals do not appear to have a concept of property rights, their property status is relevant to them only as far as it affects how they are treated. So a humane farm would be better for animals if the farmers did manage to treat their unsuspecting herd with kindness even while drooling in anticipation of slaughter day. This isn’t fantasy — there are indeed farms where animals are treated better than in intensive operations.

If property status were all that mattered, beings seen as resources would always be tortured, and beings seen as ends in themselves would never be tortured. But there are counterexamples on both sides. By insisting that property status settles everything and thus there is no moral difference whatsoever between factory farms and humane farms, Francione is implying that treatment of animals never matters as long as they aren’t thought of as resources. This logic would allow Francione to torture his rescue dogs since he calls them companion animals instead of pets. It would also be okay for farm sanctuaries to torture the animals under their care because they don’t see the animals as resources to be killed and used for food.

One response Francione might try is to say that to torture a being is in itself a form of self-gratification, an exploitative use of that being for your own ends. And thus, torture automatically signifies that you think of the victim as property. Let’s say it’s true that punching someone means you think of them as your property. This doesn’t help Francione’s case; all it does is suggest that there can be multiple levels of property status. If torture is an indication of property status, then animals who are made to suffer before dying are treated more like property than those who are treated well before dying. Isn’t the latter still better even though it also includes property status?

In Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or The Dog?, Francione gives permission to a hypothetical guy trapped on a mountain to kill and eat rabbits in order to survive. If using an animal for food means you think of him or her as property, these rabbits now have property status in the eyes of the starving plane crash survivor. In Francione’s view, that puts the mountain’s rabbits in the same position as animals raised for food. Would Francione see no difference between this guy trying to kill the rabbits as painlessly as possible, and intentionally torturing them before killing and eating them? Since Francione has allowed the starving man to eat the rabbits, and since Francione has said there’s no moral difference between varying amounts of suffering when it comes to using animals for food, he then has to be okay with the gratuitous torture of the wild bunnies!

If someone had me cornered and said he could either torture and then kill me or just kill me, would I say, “It makes no difference because either way you are treating me as property”? No! I would say, “I choose painless death!” If someone kidnapped Francione’s dogs and said, “I can either kill your dogs painlessly or I can torture them for days before killing them — which do choose? By the way, if you say, ‘Just don’t kill them,’ I will take that to mean that you want me to torture them first,” would Francione still be incapable of making the distinction between better and worse treatment of animals?