Some long drives in the past week gave me time to think about animal welfare regulation just a little more. In my past posts, I attempted to think about the ethics of welfare regulation "ad hominem" -- in the technical sense (see sense #2, here). That is, starting from my opponent's premises. My opponent draws a very sharp line between rights and welfare. Being raised as food violates a pig's rights, and then there is the separate question of the pig's welfare--how miserable or happy is the pig, hour to hour? My opponent is bothered by over-attention to welfare issues, because the rights violation is the underlying problem.
Now, I think even with this sharp dichotomy, there's a good case for welfare regulations, as I initially argued here (before I saw the Francione-Friedrich debate), but that post was, as I say, "ad hominem" (in the technical sense!) -- I was going along with an approach to animal ethics that isn't actually my own, and thinking about where it leads (and doesn't lead). But what about how these issues look from my own standpoint?
The primary thing we owe to animals (I argue, in my book Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals), is respect. Animals in extreme captivity are disrespected because they can't be themselves--pigs can't be pigs, fish can't be fish. A calf who can't so much as turn around is treated not as an animal but as a meat machine (to use Ruth Harrison's excellent phrase). We may need to supplement respect-talk with compassion-talk, but I think respect is primary. And it's appropriate even when we are uncertain what an animal is feeling. Do animals habituate to horrible environments and stop feeling or caring? Even if they did, that wouldn't make those environments OK -- they're still disrespectful.
Suppose a zoo gives the animals more space, or an animal farm releases a pig to a group pen or pasture. On my view, this isn't a superficial change-- a change to mere welfare, as opposed to rights -- it's a change to what really matters. It's more respectful. The animal is now at least more able to exercise his or her natural capacities. Now, very small changes aren't worth huge amounts of effort or money, so on this respect account, we can still debate how to focus animal advocacy. But an increase in liberty is a meaningful change, not a surface change.
Now, imagine we gradually make life better for a pig. We respectfully increase the size of the pen, then we respectfully allow the pig out doors, and we respectfully allow herd behavior, etc. We don't clip ears or dock tails, and so on. Nevertheless, the day comes when the animal is slaughtered and turned into barbecue (aside: Dear Michael Pollan, I am not enjoying the description of a pig barbecue in part I of your new book Cooked). How can any of the previous improvements be respectful if the last stage is so disrespectful?
You could try to make a case that killing animals doesn't harm them, but I think that's false (see Animalkind, p. 128-31). No, it's clearly harmful and disrespectful to kill an animal for the pleasure of a good barbecue (even assuming this pleasure runs pretty deep -- and we should allow that it does). But respect comes in degrees--you have done far more of what you should, if you allow an animal to exercise his or her natural capacities prior to death. I don't think the purpose of the whole system (using animals for our benefit) annuls all the apparent progress. And in any case, the whole system doesn't have to be completely brought down, in the name of respect. I'm prepared to countenance situations in which respectful people will pursue their own good at the expense of animals--i.e. situations in which harming or killing is a necessary evil. (Animalkind embraces this "necessity" standard and gives examples of justifiable use.)
Anyhow, the point is that on some views in animal ethics, we can help animals in two radically different, incommensurable ways--by securing their rights and by improving their welfare -- with one way running deeper than the other. But on other views, there's just one basic parameter--such as respect. So we do better by animals on the very same parameter, whether we give them more liberty or go much further and save them from all exploitation. This sort of "one parameter not two" approach can take many forms. The respect approach in my book is one; the capacities approach in Martha Nussbaum's book Frontiers of Justice also eschews any sharp rights/welfare distinction; and of course utilitarians take a one parameter approach, with that one parameter being well-being (rights, they say, are "nonsense upon stilts").
Because I think in terms of respect, I don't really feel at home with the whole welfare vs. rights debate -- it's not really my debate. For that reason, this could very well be my last post on the subject. Time to get back to ... well, all sorts of philosophy-stuff on my desk, but mostly packing.