“The Myth” of Humane Animal Use?

It has become very popular to talk about “the myth” of humane animal use. Indeed, a number of animal protection organizations which have sprung up in the last decade have relied on this idea in their marketing and fundraising. Talk of “the myth” is everywhere.

Of course, it’s true that humane animal use is a myth. But there is not only one myth of humane use—there are two. And a failure to be clear about what each of these myths involves, and to distinguish between them, may have serious consequences.

So what are these two myths?

First, there is an empirical myth. It is a myth that we will ever significantly improve the lives of institutionally exploited animals while those animals remain pieces of legal property. Gary Francione’s research over the last few decades has shown, time and time again, that the property status of animals prevents us from meaningfully reforming and improving how animals are treated. “Humane” animal use is a myth, in one sense, because it relies on fantastical and false ideas about how we might regulate the exploitation of nonhuman animal property. We will begin to treat animals better only once there is a widespread, grassroots movement focused on peaceful moral education. A grassroots movement could erode animals’ property status and pave the way for meaningful change.

But there is a second myth, too, and it is no less important. In short, it is a myth that there could ever be such a thing as the humane use and killing of animals in the first place. It wouldn’t matter what our stockyards, fisheries, hatcheries, and slaughterhouses looked like. It wouldn’t matter how much legislation might be passed and how rigorously this legislation might be followed. It wouldn’t matter how “nicely” the animals could be treated, how “rich” we might aim to make their lives, or how “painless” their killings might be. As long as we’re confining, controlling, and killing nonhuman animals, what we’re doing cannot reasonably be considered humane. If animals matter morally at all, it’s ludicrous to say that our systematic manipulation and killing of them might be humane.

This second myth has been as significant a part of Francione’s research as the first. Francione has tirelessly argued that using animals is immoral, full stop, regardless of how we treat them in the process. Each of us is obligated to be vegan precisely because our use of animals cannot be morally justified, no matter how it might be reformed.

These two myths correspond to two equally important parts of the abolitionist project. The second myth—the moral myth—corresponds to our abolitionist goal: because all animal use is immoral, we must bring about a vegan world. The first myth—the empirical myth—corresponds to our abolitionist methodology: our focus must be on engendering grassroots social and moral change. Neither myth tells the full story by itself.

You might wonder: when organizations refer to “the” myth of humane animal use, which myth do they have in mind? Unfortunately, it’s often uncertain that they have either in mind. Sometimes it’s altogether unclear what they’re talking about.

If we’re going to say that humane animal use is a myth, we should be perfectly clear what we mean. If we’re not precise in what we say, a well-meaning reader could take the humane myth claim to be something very different than what the abolitionist has in mind. For instance, an interested new reader might assume that humane animal use is a myth simply because there are no sufficiently rigorous welfare regulations in the law. And this would miss the point—both points!—entirely.