A Vegan Argument Against Animal Ownership: Why Ownership is Exploitative & Why “Animal Welfare” is Morally Problematic

As I travel down the rabbit whole of ethics pertaining to relations between human and non-human animals, I’ve noticed several sticking points which separate animal welfarists from animal rights advocates, and which separate vegans (advocates for animal rights) from other vegans. Therefore, this blog post will be an attempt to make clear my own stance as a vegan, and to distinguish my own ethical position from other vegans.

Firstly, I want to discuss the difference between animal use, notions of “animal welfare,” and animal rights. According to PETA’s website, “Animal rights means that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation. Animal welfare allows these rules as long as ‘humane’ guidelines are followed.”

At first glance this seems pretty cut and dry. Animal rights entails not using animals, and animal welfare permits using animals, as long as they are not harmed in the process. However, once we zoom in on what it means to “use” something or someone and on what it means to treat animals “humanely,” this distinction formerly clear-cut distinction becomes rather murky.

Let’s first talk about the idea of “use.” The idea of use, which is distinctly different from the idea of ownership, is morally neutral. That is, the idea of use is only potentially good or bad due to the nature of the relations between sentient creatures. The idea of “use,” at its very core, is therefore a description of how objects and people or people and people relate. These relations may be harmful, or they may not be.

After all, one could argue that human beings use objects and people on a daily basis for a variety of difference purposes. For example, my job “uses” my labor for education, and I “use” that earned money to buy things from other people who, in turn, use that money to make products. I also “use” my friends and family for my social needs and “use” my wife to help fulfill my marital needs.

In all cases this type of “use” necessitates a mutual benefit for all parties involved, whether those relations are social, economic, or martial. In other words, these relationships are all potentially symbiotic and non-parasitic, because both parties are benefiting from the exchange.

However, the caveat to this is that even within the confines of my work, my social life, or my marriage, which are all symbiotic in the sense that both parties benefit, exploitation is still possible due to the relative inequality between the two groups involved in the exchange.

For example, suppose I worked in sweatshop run by billionaires with terrible working conditions, extremely low wages, and inhumanely long hours. Although the relationship is symbiotic in the sense that I am still receiving a net monetary benefit from my labor, the fact is that the company which can clearly afford to pay me a decent wage is exploiting my labor and my humanity in the pursuit of profit. In this case, therefore, we have a relationship in which is mutually beneficial for all parties, but which is also necessarily exploitative.

For another example, let’s turn to marriage. Suppose that instead of a relatively egalitarian relationship between myself and my wife, that I control every aspect of my wife’s life and hold all the power to make financial decisions. Although both my wife and I are equally benefiting from our marriage arrangement, and even though she may have consented to the terms of such an arrangement, it’s clear that she is being exploited whether she recognizes this fact or not, just like the sweatshop worker.

In both cases, therefore, we can see how these would-be healthy, relatively egalitarian, and symbiotic relationships can be warped into toxic, unequal, and exploitative relationships which treat human beings as objects to be used as a means to an end rather than subjects whose well-being should be taken into consideration. In other words, they are relationships in which living beings are objectified and commodified.

The silver lining, of course, is that it is possible also for human beings trapped in exploitative relationships to become aware of their agency and their exploitation, and to eventually free themselves of such relationships once their basic needs are met.

For example, if I become aware that I’m being exploited by the company I work for, if I realize that there are other companies out there which might be better for my well-being, and realize that I possess both the means and the power to pursue other jobs, then I can simply quit my current job and free myself from continual exploitation.

Similarly, if I am in an abusive relationship (all abuse is exploitative), possess the knowledge that I’m being abused, realize that there are other potential partners that could make me happier, and realize that I have the power to divorce my wife, then I can simply divorce my wife and free myself from abuse.

However, it’s important to note that non-human animals, just like most children, exploited sweatshop workers, and battered wives, do not possess the knowledge that they are being exploited, nor do they usually possess the agency or the means to escape the people that are exploiting them.

This idea, in my opinion, is what traditional notions of “animal welfare” and animal welfarists fail to take into consideration as part of the moral equation when speaking about animal welfare generally. However, before I delve into the specifics of my argument against notions of “animal welfare,” I’d like to first introduce a very important man by the name of Karl Marx who spent his entire life describing the alienation and exploitation which occurred under industrial capitalism.

Karl Marx once argued that industrial capitalism alienated people in several different ways. First was the alienation of people from their labor – that is, their work itself was no longer a meaningful endeavor, but a mindless and meaningless chore. Second, Marx argued that industrial capitalism alienated people from their means of production – that is, workers produced products, but they were products that they did not themselves own, but were produced for and belonged to someone else.

Third, was the alienation of people from themselves and their nature – that is, from their own creative capacity that sprung from being a conscious, self-aware being. And fourth, was the alienation of people from their connection to nature itself, which traditionally meant living alongside nature by subsisting off the land.

However, the fifth and perhaps most disturbing aspect of alienation that Marx described, was that industrial capitalism alienated people from seeing themselves as people existing independently from their alienated labor.

In other words, he argued that industrial capitalism made people unable to understand and perceive themselves as true “subjects” – as beings whose sense of self and self-worth were not dependent on or determined by the dehumanizing act of working for another’s gain: “[man] can exist as a worker, and secondly as a physical subject. The culmination of this slavery is that it is only as a worker that he can maintain himself as a physical subject and only as a physical subject that he is a worker.”

In this way, Marx argued that the industrial capitalist understanding of the world viewed human beings as objects that derived their meaning, subjectivity, and their self-worth through alienated labor – i.e. by becoming a factory worker.

In much the same way Nietzsche argued that the Christianity of his day was a morally abhorrent and life-defeating reversal of values, Marx argued that industrial capitalism was a morally abhorrent and dehumanizing reversal of subject and object. Where Nietzsche saw Christianity as eroding the instinctual and creative aspects of humanity by making people slaves to God and the Church, Marx saw industrial capitalism as eroding the dignity and creativity of the human person by making people slaves to industry.

Given Marx’s analysis of the alienation inherent to industrial capitalism, which was, after all, an analysis of relations between people, we can now apply this analysis in looking at the relations between human and non-human animals pertaining to use, ownership, and welfare.

Returning to our definition of “use” as it pertains to relationships which are relatively equal, mutually beneficial, and non-exploitative, if one accepts the premise that this type “use” is morally acceptable between one human and another, then to be consistent one must also accept that such a relationship of “use” is also acceptable between humans and non-humans. Remember that “use” does not necessarily imply ownership. After all, I don’t own my wife, nor does my work own me as an employee. I have the freedom to quit my job or divorce my wife if these relationships are no longer beneficial for me.

However, in conversations regarding animal welfare as opposed to animal rights, ownership is often introduced as if it was a morally neutral or morally irrelevant aspect of relations between human and non-human animals. Indeed, whenever we talk about animal welfare, we are suddenly restricted to talking only about the consequences related to the pain and suffering of animals as if consequences were the only valid moral criteria worth considering when making moral judgments.

While it’s true on a basic level that we can and should account for consequences related to the pain and pleasure of conscious creatures when making moral judgments since morality arises from relations between conscious creatures, we also need to account for things like intentions – i.e. for what purpose an action is being done – and principles: ideas which should not be violated in the utilitarian pursuit of reducing pain and enhancing pleasure – namely, life, liberty, and equality.

For example, let’s examine the idea of manslaughter versus premeditated murder. In both cases, the same action is done and the same consequences are produced – namely, they both involve pain and the taking of life on the part of the victim, and they both involve the additional suffering of the families, friends, families, and acquaintances whose lives are inextricably bound to the victim of the murder.

And yet, even though the actions and consequences produced the same result, we hold the person guilty of murder as being morally worse, and thus deserving of more punishment than the person guilty of manslaughter. If the consequences regarding the pain and pleasure of the victim and the victim’s loved ones was the only thing that mattered, however, we should expect sentences and the respective punishments for both criminals to be the same, not different.

We could also apply this same logic to a case a neglectful mother who accidentally drowns her child versus a lucid mother who intentionally drowns her children. In other words, these cases point to the fact that intentions and principles matter and should be considered when making moral judgments alongside consequences related to the pain and pleasure of conscious beings.

Moreover, by condemning premeditated murder and by recognizing that premeditated murder is qualitatively worse than manslaughter, we are not only condemning the consequences of murder itself (i.e. that suffering and death occurred), but are also condemning a certain way of thinking about other human beings – namely, the idea that we can exploit, abuse, and destroy the bodies and lives of other beings as means to achieve our own selfish ends. Additionally, in condemning murder we are also combating the view that human beings are disposable objects and are reaffirming the principles of life, liberty, and equality as they pertain to conscious beings.

Now that we have established a solid basis for why intentions and principles should be considered as valid moral criteria alongside consequences related to pain and pleasure, we can now understand how notions of “animal welfare” are morally problematic since the very definition excludes consideration of the intentions of humans and non-human animals, and ignores the principle of liberty – a principle which I argue is necessary for any rational discussion of welfare, whether that welfare is human or non-human.

Since the animal welfarist position traditionally accepts ownership of sentient beings as morally acceptable, I will do my best to show why animal ownership – that is, ownership of sentient life – is not only not acceptable, but is morally abhorrent and indefensible. To do so, I’d like to introduce another influential thinker, though much less influential than Marx.

Joseph-Pierre Proudhon, a 19th Century anarchist and a former friend of Marx, once asserted that “slavery is murder.” In making this statement, Proudhon implied that to deprive a person of their liberty was essentially a death sentence because it deprived them of the means to live life freely according to their own conscious desires. For Proudhon, slavery was therefore an act of violence – an act which I argue we are still perpetuating against non-human animals in the form of ownership.

If a human being becomes a slave, but is treated well by their master, we could not reasonably say that we are looking after that human being’s welfare by allowing them to be kept in a perpetual state of slavery. However, suppose that one argues that keeping non-human animals captive is different than owning humans because they do not realize that they are captives, therefore making their captivity morally justifiable.

Here again, I will respond to this objection about captivity in the same way I addressed objections regarding exploitation – namely, that one’s lack of knowledge about their own captivity, just like one’s lack of knowledge about their exploitation, is not a moral justification for allowing it. The ability to be intelligent enough to possess knowledge of one’s exploitation or captivity is only relevant to the extent that it adds or fails to add an extra layer of cruelty to the act itself.

Furthermore, ignoring for a moment the question of how we could possibly know whether non-human animals are aware that they are being held captive, let’s think of the same scenario in human terms. If we enslave someone who is so cognitively impaired so that they do not realize they are being made a slave, is this now morally okay?

I would argue that no, it is not for two reasons. Firstly, their enslavement is not morally justified because the relationship is one which is essentially exploitative in that it unfairly exercises power over another sentient being by treating it as a means to an end – as an object instead of a subject.

Secondly, their enslavement is also morally problematic because it deprives the person of liberty through force. At the end of the day, ownership of sentient beings – human or non-human – necessitates the exercise of power and control over the will, desires, and body of another.

Pet ownership is therefore nothing but an act of exploitation, objectification, commodification, and dehumanization because we are depriving that being being of a life that would have been lived differently, freely, and in accordance with its desires.

Moreover, by perpetuating the idea that animal exploitation and animal ownership (which is a certain kind of exploitation) is a good thing, we contribute to (1) the alienation of non-human animals from their natural habitat, (2) the alienation of non-human animals from their natural desires and urges, (3) the alienation of non-human animals from other non-human animals of the same species, (4) the alienation of non-human animals from their connection with the rest of nature, and (5) to the alienation of non-human animals from their true status as naturally free subjects.

Of course, one could object at this point and claim that the non-human animals being enslaved are happier and have a better quality of life than if they were free, but firstly, how can one possibly know this to be true? And secondly, even if it were true, the fact that a slave loves their chains has no bearing on the morality of the matter. Whether the freely-lived life of a sentient being pursuing their own desires becomes one which is tragic or blissful is simply not for others to decide for it. Rather, the free being should be have full control of their own body and their own decisions, whether than being is human or not.

Furthermore, there is another variable that complicates the idea of animal ownership which has to do with the social and environmental impact. Just like you would be depriving a village, a family, a community, or a town of a member of society by owning a slave, owning animals in order to keep them for our own selfish purposes is necessarily removing a would-be member of a community, or depriving an already existing community of one of its valuable members.

Here too, people will object. After all, isn’t taking an animal out of its (dangerous) natural environment in order to keep it safe from predators and disease the ethical thing to do? Besides animals in captivity tend to live longer, experience less stress, and be happier. While at first this might sound like a reasonable and humanitarian objection, one only needs to ask the same questions regarding other human beings.

For example, in dangerous inner cities or in war-torn third world countries where there is a high degree of crime, poverty, and disease, would it be ethical to kidnap individuals and families against their will to put them in a safer environment? Even if we were doing this for their own benefit (which isn’t the case for most non-human animals) this would still be an immoral act – not to mention a criminal one – because it infringes on the liberty of others and harms the communities that depend on their existence.

Furthermore, in addition to the loss of liberty and potential damage to the community, when non-human animals are taken from their natural habitats and placed into a community of humans, we are potentially robbing other sentient beings of a necessary food source. For example, by taking zebra from the African Savannah to protect them, we are depriving lions and other predators of a food source that they depend on for their survival.

In the human world, this would be the equivalent abducting people and then robbing others who are left behind of their property, their food, or their money. If we take enough zebras, not only will there be no zebra community, but there will no food source for predators, and eventually the ecosystem itself will collapse. If we abduct enough humans and resources from a community, there will be no community either, but the surrounding ecosystem will not collapse.

In conclusion, without the consideration of animal liberty, it simply doesn’t make sense to talk about animal welfare, as liberty is inextricably linked to welfare. A non-human animal that is not free to pursue its own interests and desires is an incomplete being, just like an enslaved human or an alienated worker is not a complete human.

Moreover, the notion that “might makes right” – that we human beings are entitled to take what we want from nature by force, no matter how much death and destruction it causes to “lesser” beings was also the basis and rationalization for the European conquest, genocide, and enslavement of native peoples throughout history.

The idea that the natural world and the non-human animals in it are simply background scenery or tools whose purpose is to serve our interests is due to egocentrism and speciesism just like European conquest of native peoples was due to ethnocentrism and racism. If we don’t accept the behaviors or justifications of our European ancestors as morally enlightened, how can we possibly hope to defend our treatment of non-human animals? The answer is that we can’t.

At this point in time, the only morally justifiable reason for infringing upon the liberty and lives of non-human animals is to prevent an already-crumbling ecosystem from being destroyed due to human action, or to prevent an overpopulated group of animals from starving due to overbreeding – again, a negative result of human action.

This is why spaying and neutering cats and dogs, though a violation of their liberty, is an act of compassion which saves lives, whereas owning them – that is, reducing them to objects which can be bought and sold – is never a compassionate act, but a selfish and violent act which puts the desires of human beings above the needs and desires of non-human animals.

Of course, in calling for the elimination of animal ownership, I am not saying that human beings should not live with or alongside non-human animals, or that they shouldn’t share space or food with each other. Rather, I am suggesting that this is exactly what we should be doing, but in a way which is consistent with our values.

As long as the relationships between human and non-human animals do not involve objectification, exploitation, dehumanization, and commodification, and as long as these relationships do not precipitate greater net harm to conscious creatures – human or non-human – then there is no ethical problem.

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