Lessons from the history of animal rights

by JesseClifton 17th May 201610 comments


I’ve spent the past few weeks researching the history of animal welfare/rights and writing Wikipedia articles on what I’ve learned.  This post is a summary of what I take to be the implications of this information for the effort to reduce animal suffering.  I am not an historian, and my approach has been breadth over depth.  I see this as a starting place for constructive debate about what the history of the movement means for effective animal altruism, rather than a definitive account.  

Much of the material for this post is based on sources for Animal welfare and rights in India, Animal welfare and rights in Japan, and Timeline of animal welfare and rights in Europe.


  • Concern for animals is a fragile meme

  • Incremental welfare reforms do not appear to impede long-term progress

  • Progress for animals is uneven and unprincipled

  • It’s unclear that division within the movement is bad

  • Progress for domesticated animals is not necessarily progress for wild animals

Concern for animals is a fragile meme

Ahimsa - the teaching of nonviolence towards all living things - has been around since at least the early 1st millennium BCE1.  And since mid-first millennium BCE, philosophers and religious thinkers in both India and the Mediterranean advocated vegetarianism on the grounds that animals are worthy of moral concern2.  Official policies protecting animals appear in the third century BCE, when the Indian emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism and issued edicts based on Buddhist principles of compassion toward humans and nonhumans3.  In 675, the Buddhist emperor of Japan Tenmu banned eating meat (except fish) altogether, which remained a policy and taboo off and on until the opening of Japan to the West in the second half of the 19th century4.  

None of these ancient philosophies or reforms has had the success we would expect of a robust meme.  It is true that India, where ahimsa and vegetarianism originated, is the most vegetarian country in the world5.  However, does veganism appear to be rare there6, but the consumption of all animal products - especially chicken - is growing rapidly5,7,8.   And despite the region’s history with ahimsa,  British animal protectionists and anti-vivisectionists found little native Indian support for their causes in the late 19th century.  Native Indian animal protection in that period consisted largely of the Cow Protection movement, which appears to have been at least as concerned with expressing Hindu nationalism as with the welfare of cows9.  

One might see the Japanese bans on eating and, later, killing animals (except fish) lasting hundreds of years as evidence that a whole society can adopt significant lifestyle changes based on concern for animals.  I am not so optimistic about this piece of evidence.  Japan was not a democracy at this time, so there was no mechanism to turn any opposition to the ban into policy change.  Japanese just had to put up with it - or ignore the ban, which seems to have been common.  Japan was also an isolated society during this time, making it easier for vegetarianism to become the norm, given that there were few outside ideas to compete with.  It is telling that both times Japan established contact with the West - first in the 16th century, with the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch missionaries, and then in the 19th century with the “opening of Japan” and the Meiji Restoration - the ban/taboo against meat-eating subsided almost immediately4.  Japanese culture today does not seem particularly friendly to veg*ism10, and Japan’s animal welfare policies lag behind other countries’11.

Serious concern for animals and concomitant lifestyle changes have not had much staying power.  This makes me even less optimistic that we will ever see a vegan word, or even a world of only in vitro animal products.  Maybe concern for animals will wax and wane over time and among cultures.  Maybe enacting welfare reforms wherever possible is quite important, as the sustained collective anti-speciesism necessary for true animal rights around the globe can’t be counted on.  (Of course, nowadays there are mechanisms which might make antispeciesism/animal rights/veganism stickier than before - globalization, general increases in rationality and empathy, etc.  Still, I am not as sanguine as others about extrapolating indefinite global progress in all ethical domains.)  

Incremental welfare reforms do not appear to impede long-term progress

There are those who argue that incremental animal welfare reforms impede progress towards the abolition of animal exploitation by making society more comfortable with the use of animals as property.  An end to massive animal suffering, they say, can only be achieved through major reforms.  Leader of the so-called abolitionists Gary Francione supports only prohibitions (as opposed to regulations) on significant methods of animal exploitation, e.g. bans on battery cages12.  (In practice, though, he appears to oppose even these reforms13,14.)

History does not support this.  The countries with not only the world’s most advanced animal welfare laws, but those that come closest to genuine animal rights positions, began with exactly the kind of “speciesist”, “welfarist”, “single-issue” campaigns which abolitionists charge with impeding long-term progress. Consider England, where the notion of the “Five Freedoms” originated15, the first total ban on fur-farming was enacted, and battery cages, veal crates, gestation crates, and cosmetics testing on animals are banned under EU law16.  I think all but the staunchest abolitionists would call these steps toward animal rights rather than counterproductive half-measures.  They are examples of the prohibitions which are (at least in some places) endorsed by abolitionist leader Francione.

The modern animal protection movement began in England in the early 1800s, and was thoroughly welfarist.  Animal protectionists opposed wanton cruelty but had no interest in ending animal exploitation.  They were not, in general, vegetarians.  In fact, the earliest and most prominent English group - the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - broke with founding member Lewis Gompertz over his veganism and insistence that animals not be used in any way that doesn’t benefit them17.  The story for other European countries, who now have relatively advanced animal laws, is similar.  Not only were their early laws welfarist, they were human-centric: they meant to guard animals as property, avoid damage to public decency, and protect people from the disagreeable sight of cruelty.  Many of these laws banned only public cruelty18,19.

So welfarism did not prevent European countries from eventually adopting rights-like reforms.  But has it delayed progress?  Would a rights-based approach have produced serious reforms much earlier?  I doubt it.  Radical anti-vivisectionism of the late 19th century was the closest thing to a pure animal rights movement at the time, as it called for an end to all animal experimentation and opposed the mainstream animal protectionists who wanted only reform.  Though there were bursts of enthusiasm, abolitionist anti-vivisection never caught on with the general public or the animal protection mainstream18,20,21.  And, clearly, they never achieved their goal.  Now maybe they could have had they been backed by more animal protectionists - though I find this unlikely, given that the public at large was not receptive to their ideas.  It’s also possible that the radicalization of mainstream animal protection would have accelerated the decline of anti-vivisection and prevented even modest reforms from being implemented.  We can’t know.  All we know is that the 19th century abolitionists were not more successful than the welfarists, evidence that welfarism did not delay progress.  

Progress for animals is uneven and unprincipled

Those with highly developed moral philosophies, be they consequentialist EAs or deontological abolitionists in Francione’s style, tend to forget that both public policy and individual worldviews are far more often a haphazard patchwork than the instantiation of a coherent ethical theory.  Attitudes and policies towards animals are no exception.  Animal welfare laws in every country and throughout history have been full of exceptions and inconsistencies: the aforementioned bans on only public cruelty, laws which protect violence towards animals as “folk games” (bullfighting in Spain and many other examples elsewhere), laws which exempt birds and fish from humane slaughter, laws which exempt birds, rats, and mice from animal experimentation regulations, and so on.    

This history suggests that a gestalt shift from speciesism to anti-speciesism is unlikely.  There are some segments of the movement which emphasize sudden, radical changes in individual behavior or attitudes: e.g. abolitionists prioritize conversion to veganism, while Direct Action Everywhere focuses on creating highly-motivated animal rights activists.  They are right to point out the importance of dedicated and principled activists to building and maintaining a serious movement.  But among the general public, we can expect that views on animals will continue to change piecemeal.  So messages advocating animal rights or antispeciesism in general may inspire a small number of hardcore activists, but their usefulness in changing society at large may be limited when not tied to specific policy proposals.

It’s unclear that division within the movement is bad

Many see division in the animal movement as a weakness.  The quality of debate between the various factions could certainly be better.  And there is some evidence that, apart from the nastiness of arguments, a united front would be better for the movement: Martin Balluch says the success of Austria’s extremely successful 2004 campaign (of which he was a leader) was largely due to the unity of the Austrian animal rights movement22.  

However, while unity seems best for short bursts of activity aimed at achieving immediately available goals - which describes the 2004 Austrian campaign - it is not clear that homogeneity of strategies and goals is a good structure for the long-term success of the movement.  

  1. Diversity allows us to learn from experience in a way that does unity does not.  The failure of the radical anti-vivisectionists to gain widespread support while the animal protectionists achieved some modest aims (mainly the UK’s Animal Cruelty Act 187621) is a data point we would not have had if animal activism had been unified in the late 19th century.  This information might be particularly useful in countries whose animal movement is at a similar point to Europe’s in the late 19th century.

  2. Diversity allows us to try high-risk, high-reward strategies without banking the whole movement on them.  Lewis Gompertz’s proto-animal rights approach and hardline anti-vivisectionism were high-risk, high-reward strategies that failed.  But they might not have.  It would have been a considerable setback for the movement to have invested heavily in messages and policies that society just wasn’t ready for.  But by having a group of people working on more radical goals, the movement exposed itself to huge potential upsides had society been ready.  

  3. Diversity allows for the short-term alleviation of suffering without long-term complacency.  Perhaps it is good that there are people who focus on incremental welfare reform, and also that there are people who think incremental reform is unacceptable.  The former will help millions of animals in the near-term, while the latter are positioned to maintain and spread more radical anti-speciesist memes, and shake at least some parts of the movement out of whatever complacency is engendered by short-term gains.  

Progress for domesticated animals is not necessarily progress for wild animals

It’s clear there has been at least some progress for domesticated animals over the past two centuries.  It’s not clear that this should be taken as evidence that humans will eventually intervene on behalf of wild animals, whose suffering is immense.  If societies move towards viewing animals as rights-holding persons, they may come to regard ecosystems as autonomous communities to be interfered with only under extreme circumstances - exactly the position taken by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka in their Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights23.  This may be something to keep in mind when evaluating initiatives like the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is working to get some animals recognized as persons24.

A related danger is (what many consequentialists would call) a misguided understanding of the welfare of wild animals.  (Brian Tomasik has written on this at length, here for example.)  When researching Animal welfare and rights in Brazil I came across an interesting excerpt from the Brazilian constitution (1988), one of the first constitutions to offer basic protections to animals:

“All have the right to an ecologically balanced environment. [sic] which is an asset of common use and essential to a healthy quality of life, and both the Government and the community shall have the duty to defend and preserve it for present and future generations… In order to ensure the effectiveness of this right, it is incumbent upon the Government to: … protect the fauna and the flora, with prohibition, in the manner prescribed by law, of all practices which represent a risk to their ecological function, cause the extinction of species or subject animals to cruelty.”25

Insofar as they support or fail to challenge the equation of wild animal protection with “ecological balance”, animal activists may enable the continuation and extension of wild animal suffering.  When working to reduce both domestic and wild animal suffering we should remember that, as I argued above, antispeciesist progress in one domain does not necessarily transfer to others.  


Thanks very much to Vipul Naik, who’s been funding my writing of Wikipedia articles related to animal welfare/rights.  Here is the page he’s using to keep track of the articles I’ve written - I encourage anyone looking to learn more about animal/welfare rights in different countries and over time to check out the pages listed there.  If you are interested in writing Wikipedia articles yourself, or have any ideas for topics that would benefit animal welfare/rights activism, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Vipul or myself.  

Thanks to Claire Zabel, Harrison Nathan, Carl Shulman, Brian Tomasik, Jacy Reese, Vipul Naik, and Buck Shlegeris for their feedback on the draft of this post.  


  1. E. Szűcs; R Geers; E. N. Sossidou; D. M. Broom (November 2012). "Animal Welfare in Different Human Cultures, Traditions and Religious Faiths". Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Science 25 (11): 1499–1506.

  2. Phelps, Norm (2007). The Longest Struggle. New York: Lantern Books.

  3. Ven. S. Dhammika (1994). "The Edicts of King Asoka".  

  4. Watanabe, Zenjiro. "Removal of the Ban on Meat".

  5. Subramaniam Mohana Devi; Vellingiri Balachandar; Sang In Lee; In Ho Kim. "An Outline of Meat Consumption in the Indian Population - a Pilot Review".

  6. Flock, Elizabeth (September 26, 2009). "Being Vegan in India".

  7. "India's growing appetite for meat challenges traditional values". February 5, 2013.

  8. "USDA International Egg and Poultry: Poultry in India". December 1, 2013.

  9. Chakrabarti, Pratik (June 1, 2010). "Beasts of Burden: Animals and Laboratory Research in Colonial India". History of Science 48 (2).

  10. Brasor, Philip (February 24, 2013). “Japan’s vegetarians stay in the closet”.

  11. World Animal Protection (November 2, 2014). "Japan".

  12. Francione, Gary (1996). Rain Without Thunder.  Temple University Press.

  13. Gary Francione and Bruce Friedrich (2013).  Debate: Vegan vs Vegan (Gary Francione vs Bruce Friedrich).

  14. Gary Francione (April 9, 2008).  A "Very New Approach" or Just More New Welfarism?

  15. Nicholas K. Pedersen. "Detailed Discussion of European Animal Welfare Laws 2003 to Present: Explaining the Downturn".

  16. World Animal Protection (November 2, 2014). "United Kingdom".

  17. Hannah Renier. "An Early Vegan: Lewis Gompertz". London Historians.

  18. Ulrich Trohler; Andreas-Holger Maehle (1990). "Anti-vivisection in 19th century Germany and Switzerland: Motives and Methods". In Nicolaas A. Rupke. Vivisection in Historical Perspective. Beckenham, Kent: Croom Helm, Ltd.

  19. World Animal Protection (November 2, 2014). "France".

  20. "A History of Antivivisection from the 1800s to the Present: Part 1 (mid-1800s to 1914)".

  21. Lawrence Finsen; Susan Finsen (1994). The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect. Twayne Publishers.

  22. Martin Balluch (2005). "Chapter 11: How Austria Achieved a Historic Breakthrough for Animals". In Peter Singer. In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave. Wiley-Blackwell.

  23. Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka (2013).  Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights.  Oxford University Press.

  24. Nonhuman Rights Project. “About Us”.

25. Monika Merkes; Rob Buttrose (July 11, 2014). "Tighter rules mean Brazil is now kicking goals on animal welfare".