Legal Slavery in the 21st Century

As surely as the abolitionists of the past knew that no man or woman should be the property of any other, the abolitionists of today know that the legal property status of animals stands in the way of their ever receiving any meaningful rights or protection, let alone being granted the freedom to live according to their own needs and desires.

While animal welfare has been a concern of many civilizations throughout world history, its beginnings in modern Western civilization can be traced back to early 19th century Britain with the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and the establishment of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. Since then, there have been thousands of animal welfare organizations created, countless attempts and billions of dollars spent to pass laws and regulations to protect nonhuman animals from “unnecessary cruelty.”

In 1975, act-utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer rejuvenated the 150 year-old animal welfare movement with his book Animal Liberation, which contrasts the stark, and often extreme differences between animal welfare prohibitions against “unnecessary” or “gratuitous” cruelty and the harsh realities of routine, systematic, needless cruelty inflicted on tens of billions of animals annually in agriculture, and millions of animals in experimentation, entertainment, and fashion. Animal Liberation was a call to take animal welfare – the regulation of industrialized animal exploitation — seriously.

In the 35 years that have passed since Animal Liberation was published, organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have sought to diminish this huge gap between animal welfare goals and the reality of “unnecessary and gratuitous” cruelty so ubiquitous in our use of nonhuman animals. Their approach combines campaigns for various welfare measures with attempts to encourage the reduction of animal product consumption. Thus far, the results of these efforts have been devastating. From 1975 to 2007, the consumption of meat in the United States has increased from 178 to 222 pounds per person; an increase of 25%. During these years, no significant new welfare laws have been implemented, much less enforced, and there are countless videos and eyewitness accounts of routine violations of existing laws. We torture and kill more animals in more horrific ways than ever in human history.

The Problem: Animals as Property and Commodities

Nonhuman animals are legal property and economic commodities. As a matter of both legal theory and practice, owners of property are protected by property rights, which are among the strongest of rights in Anglo-American law; while the nonhuman animals owned as economic commodities are ostensibly protected by welfare laws, which are routinely violated and rarely enforced.

In his 1995 book Animals, Property, and the Law, legal scholar and philosopher Gary Francione calls this approach to animal protection legal welfarism, of which Francione identifies four “basic and interrelated components.” (APL, p.26)

  • Legal welfarism maintains that animals are property.
  • Such property status justifies the treatment of animals exclusively as means to human ends.
  • Animal use is deemed “necessary” whenever that use is part of a generally accepted social institution.
  • “Cruelty” is defined exclusively as use that either frustrates, or fails to facilitate, animal exploitation.

Because nonhuman animals are not only human property, but also economic commodities, cost-efficiency in raising and slaughtering them (by the billions) is considered one of the most important factors when determining which practices facilitate exploitation. That is to say, if an industry practice, no matter how cruel, reduces the costs of production, such a practice is fully allowed and protected by the legal property rights of owners.

The upshot of legal welfarism is that we weigh even the slightest economic interests of owners, which we protect with powerful rights, against the crucial interests of nonhuman animals, which are protected with no rights. Considering the enormously competitive economic pressure to deliver the least expensive animal products to an ever-increasing public demand, it is no wonder that our society’s legal welfarism approach to animal protection has failed miserably to protect nonhuman animals from extreme cruelty. And it’s no wonder that the animal welfare movement has been unable to create any meaningful change.

The Solution: Being Honest about the Meaning of “Necessary”

There is only one way to reduce the vast quantity and severity of the cruelty inflicted on animals by human hand, and that is to change our concept of the word “necessary.” In direct opposition to the definition outlined by legal welfarism, this far more honest definition rejects the idea that we need to exploit animals at all, given the alternatives to animal use in all areas, not to mention the benefits of the dietary aspects of veganism for our health and the environment. This crucial foundation – the willingness to accept the fact that we have no need to use animals at all – facilitates a whole new understanding, causing us to:

  • reject the property status of animals and therefore reject the traditional moral status of animals as “things” or economic commodities,
  • see animals as persons within the moral community,
  • demand personal veganism as the moral baseline of any movement that purports to take the interests of animals seriously.

Nonhuman animals are just like the vast majority of us in every morally relevant way. And even in morally irrelevant differences — such as conceptual intelligence — they surpass infants and many mentally disabled humans. As anyone who has been around animals a lot can confirm, they are capable of experiencing terrifying fear, excruciating pain, extreme loneliness, tedious boredom, frustration, pleasure, joy, delight, curiosity, satisfaction, comfort, friendship, and apparently even love.

While it’s true that nonhumans may lack the ability to imagine the concept of death as understood by an adult human of average intelligence, it’s painfully obvious that they have an overwhelming interest in continuing to live, and to live a satisfying life. This is made clear not only by the evidence of their sentience and emotional lives, but by the way that they struggle desperately to avoid death and remain alive, often even being willing to gnaw off their own limbs to escape from a trap.

It is our speciesism that causes us to ignore in nonhuman persons those very characteristics that give rise to the most basic rights of all human persons, including infants and the mentally disabled. Speciesism is an exclusionary prejudice virtually identical to racism and sexism that denies the importance of morally relevant characteristics in order to oppress others. The only way to break free from such speciesism is to take the crucial interests of animals seriously and embrace veganism as a moral imperative.

As surely as the abolitionists of the past knew that no man or woman should be the property of any other, the abolitionists of today know that the legal property status of animals stands in the way of their ever receiving any meaningful rights or protection, let alone being granted the freedom to live according to their own needs and desires.

Embracing veganism is simply the logical response to understanding the fundamental truth that no sentient being – human or not — should be used solely as a means to the pleasure, comfort or convenience of someone else.

Widespread veganism is the only way for animals to achieve basic rights protecting their most crucial interests, and the only way to put an end to the legally-sanctioned slavery that is the foundation of industrialized animal exploitation.



© Gentle World 2023. Gentle World is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) educational organization, helping to build a more peaceful society by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making the transition. EIN: 59-1999433