Saturday, July 28, 2007

Francione on "Unnecessary Suffering": Not Necessarily So!

(A side-note: I will be up-front.  This blog was started directly in response to Gary Francione's blog and its attack on the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.  Coincidentally, I have recently been writing a critique of Francione's anti-"welfarist" stance which has just been published in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies online, so my blog dwells a lot on Francione's work...for now.)

Traditional animal welfare has subscribed to the idea that in order to be humane, we should avoid “unnecessary suffering.”  This sounds like a noble ideal—why not negate something that seems intrinsically bad?

Gary L. Francione, Professor of Law at Rutgers University, claims to offer a “simplified” account of animal rights on his website. (retrieved in April 2007)  This reminds us of his statement in his Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), p. xxxiv: “I argue that the basic right not to be treated as property may be derived directly from the principle of equal consideration and does not require the complicated rights theory upon which Regan relies.”  Francione points out that we do not “need” to make animals suffer when we use them for food, clothing, or entertainment.  These are merely for amusement and Professor Francione cannot see how any such pleasure-seeking is “necessary.”  He notes that some insist that medical research on animals is “necessary,” but correctly points out that it is difficult to extrapolate predictions for human health treatment based on results for animals of different species.  I will not digress about such experimentation here, since I address this issue elsewhere.  (See, for example, “The Rights of Animal Persons”). 

What I wish to focus on presently is one of Francione’s “simplified” arguments for animal rights as I paraphrase it in standard form here:

  1. Most people in society are animal welfarists who reject “unnecessary suffering.”
  2. Standard animal usage involves unnecessary suffering.
  3. Therefore animal welfarists should reject standard animal usage.

Of course, rejecting standard animal usage is in keeping with animal rights.  He seeks to reinforce this argument by baldly declaring: "most of the suffering that we impose on animals is completely unnecessary however we interpret that notion," (see Introduction to Animal Rights, p. xxiv) and by "that notion," he plainly means "unnecessary."

Francione’s argument is very like that of philosopher Mark Bernstein, in his book, Without a Tear: Our Tragic Relationship with Animals (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004).  Let us critically appraise this argument.  It is indeed worth realizing that we have a choice about whether to use animals, and that it is not necessary to use them in that sense, and also that many people interfere with animals’ needs often merely for human pleasure.  However, I argue that our thoughts cannot rest content with such insights.  We cannot rely on Francione’s argument as a way of justifying one’s own animal rights beliefs or as a means of convincing those who disagree with animal rights.

To simplify matters, the two opposing views here are traditional animal “welfare” (“humane” animal usage) and animal rights (again oversimplifying: not exploiting animals at all).  Francione again claims that animal welfarists cannot say using animals for pleasure is necessary in any sense.   This argument can be refuted if welfarists can show that using animals for pleasure does involve “necessary suffering” in some sense that is consistent with their position.  I believe there is such a sense or indeed more than one sense.

In general, what is “necessary” can mean very different things:

  1. What we are compelled to do or we have no choice about.
  2. What we have a choice about but is concerned with needs such as health needs, legal requirements, etc., as opposed to things that are not required for our needs, such as frivolities or amusements.
  3. What is necessary as a means to an end, e.g., water is needed to grow melons.

Recall that Francione claims that standard animal usages are not “necessary” in any sense.  This is false.  An animal welfarist will say that a certain amount of animal suffering is unavoidable (sense 1.) as a part of eating animals, and also that using animals is necessary as a means to human ends such as meat-eating. (sense 3.)  Actually, it is primarily sense 3. that is at issue since the suffering is unavoidable only as part of a means to an end.  The end itself is avoidable, but that does not affect sense 3. of what is necessarily part of a certain means to an end.  We should not confuse the different senses together.  It is not unavoidable to grow melons, but it is still “necessary” to use water if we do so.  These are what Kant called “hypothetical imperatives,” that is, if, hypothetically you want a certain end, it may be imperative to do X.  E.g., If you want to be well liked, you will have to treat people decently that you wish to like you.

Ironically, Francione claims there is no sense in which necessary suffering is involved in animal welfare, but in fact there are two.  He is quite right that none of it is necessary in sense 2., but that is not the only sense.

Part of the animal welfare view is that animals have no rights, including no right not to be used, even harmfully, by humans.  This yields:

  1. Humans alone have rights, and two of the key ends for human life are freedom and happiness.
  2. Animals do not have rights, so we are not restricted against using them.
  3. Humans are entitled in their freedom and pursuit of happiness to eat meat, since animals do not have a right not to be used.
  4. Therefore humans have a right to cause animals any suffering that is necessary (unavoidably as part of the means involved) as a part of meat-eating.

This yields the sense of “(un)necessary suffering” that the welfarist means.  Is the welfarist right that animals have no rights?  I do not think so, but we cannot settle that animals do have rights by trying to play on the logical implications of “unnecessary suffering.”  To try this begs the question, and also commits the fallacy of equivocation, or confusing together different senses of a key term (in this case “necessary”) in order illicitly to argue in favour of a conclusion.

I do indeed argue elsewhere that animal usage is contrary to moral necessity, as reflected in moral rights and duties, but we need better arguments than this one used by Francione.  We cannot make animal rights true by stipulating one meaning of “unnecessary suffering” and then dogmatically (and mistakenly) denying that there is any other sense.

It will be objected that this analysis assumes that the rejection of animal rights is part of animal welfare, and we cannot assume that animal rights is to be ruled out.  This objection though confuses the analysis of animal welfare (the rejection of animal rights is indeed a part of that) with the justification of animal welfare (I agree that animal exploitation cannot ultimately be justified).  Francione claims that standard practice does not conform with an analysis of animal welfare, which includes avoiding unnecessary suffering, but I have shown this inference is a simple case of jumping to conclusions based on an incomplete analysis.  He is trying to employ a “reductio,” or a case that the position that welfarists already embrace logically leads to animal rights.  This is not the case.

I am not operating in philosophical dreamland here.  It is rather Francione who is in the clouds with his "sole" sense of "necessity."  In the real world, many legal experts would be able to see through Francione's argument in less than a second, because it would be immediately contrary to how they already use the concept of necessity.  Take, for example, a case in which the Pacific Meat Company was charged for inflicting "unnecessary pain."  In the case in question, pigs in a slaughterhouse were shackled by the hind leg, swung against a metal wall "with some force," and then a knife was thrust into their throats whether they were conscious or not.  Such cruel treatment of conscious beings is surely unconscionable.  Yet in the case the judge ruled as follows:

Hogs fulfil a purpose of providing food for human beings.  Before the hog can be eaten by mankind they must of necessity be killed, so that the fatal injury that is administered to each hog by the 'sticker' is a necessity and therefore not 'unnecessary'.
This is cited from Regina v. Pacific Meat Company, 1957, BC County Court, which I found in "Anything Goes: An Overview of Canada's Legal Approach to Animals on Factory Farms" by Lesli Bisgould et al, available on the web site of Animal Alliance of Canada.  The judge is using necessity in sense 3., above, or what is necessary as a means to an end.  Now the judge erred.  It is by no means necessary to treat hogs so callously as a part of the practice of meat-eating.  However, animal "welfarists" can argue that many indignities of the slaughterhouse, such as being forced through and being killed, are necessary as a means to the end of meat-eating.

Francione does not rely on this illusory "necessity" argument alone.  For example he claims that the right not to be considered property follows from the principle of equal consideration alone.  But in both his Introduction to Animal Rights and his website he does rely on the “unnecessary suffering” argument, claiming to “simplify” making a case for animal rights.

Simplicity of formulation is a worthy goal in thinking, embodied in the principle of parsimony.  So what approach to simplicity should we take?  Should we strive for simplicity at any cost?  I recommend we aim for the Golden Mean, which is a standard articulated by Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher.  The Golden Mean just means: avoiding the dual extremes of excess and deficiency.  In the case of simplicity, we wish to avoid the extremes of :

(i) Excess: oversimplification (leads to neglecting important considerations, confusion, overgeneralizations, jumping to conclusions, superficiality, a lack of sophistication and a credibility gap, etc.); and

(ii)  Deficiency: overcomplication (leads to confusion, uncertainty, lack of clarity, difficulty in communication, having a harder time interesting people, getting bogged down in irrelevancy or repetition, etc.)

Now addressing different senses of “necessary” is not an overcomplicated model but is the only coherent way of assessing Francione’s claim that animal usage is not necessary in any sense.  By contrast, his reliance on avoiding “unnecessary suffering” is a clear-cut case of oversimplification.  The animal rightist’s sense of unnecessary suffering may one day triumph over the animal welfarist sense of that phrase.  So how can animal rights be justified and animal welfare overturned?  Only by systematically justifying animal rights and refuting the many views in philosophy that permit animal usage.  I seek to provide such arguments in my forthcoming book, since Francione and others, I find, fail to provide crucially needed, convincing arguments.


A Selection of Related Articles

Sztybel, David. "Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism". Journal for Critical Animal Studies 5 (1) (2007): 1-37.

go there

Short version of "Animal Rights Law".

go there

Sztybel, David. "Incrementalist Animal Law: Welcome to the Real World".

go there

Sztybel, David. "Sztybelian Pragmatism versus Francionist Pseudo-Pragmatism".

go there

A Selection of Related Blog Entries

Anti-Cruelty Laws and Non-Violent Approximation

Use Not Treatment: Francione’s Cracked Nutshell

Francione Flees Debate with Me Again, Runs into the “Animal Jury”

The False Dilemma: Veganizing versus Legalizing

Veganism as a Baseline for Animal Rights: Two Different Senses

Francione's Three Feeble Critiques of My Views

Startling Decline in Meat Consumption Proves Francionists Are Wrong Once Again!

The Greatness of the Great Ape Project under Attack!

Francione Totally Misinterprets Singer

Francione's Animal Rights Theory

Francione on Unnecessary Suffering

My Appearance on AR Zone

D-Day for Francionists

Sztybel versus Francione on Animals' Property Status

The Red Carpet

Playing into the Hands of Animal Exploiters

The Abolitionist ApproachES

Francione's Mighty Boomerang

Dr. David Sztybel Home Page


  1. That's very interesting... Although I will need to re-read this a couple of times to completely grasp it! I thought Francione's concept of necessity was simply based on morality, i.e. every pain we inflict to animals for food is unnecessary in the sense that we do not *need* meat (of course we can see meat-eating as a necessity per se, but we don't need to pursue this end because we can live and be healthy without eating animals). I now see that there are more implications around the concept of necessity. It will be interesting to read more.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts here. Yes, he means "unnecessary suffering" in a moral sense. My point is people can use the phrase in a moral sense that does not agree with animal rights.