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Animal rights vs animal welfare

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

Animal rights and animal welfare activists

Animal advocates sometimes disagree about whether they should focus on animal rights vs animal welfare. What’s behind this disagreement? What is the difference between animal rights and animal welfare? And what implications does it have for careers; are there separate animal rights jobs and animal welfare jobs?

Ethical dilemmas

One cause of the disagreement is that people think about human-animal interaction from different philosophical perspectives, with different views about what our ethical priorities should be.

Supporters of rights theories tend to believe that some beings’ should have rights like the right not to be killed. Some rights theorists only think that humans have rights, but there are others who believe that animals have rights too. Well-known modern animal rights theorists include Tom Regan and Gary Francione.

People come to support animal welfare for a number of different reasons, though animal welfare advocates are perhaps most strongly associated with various types of consequentialist theories, e.g. utilitarianism. These theories focus on bringing about the best possible consequences. They tend to imply that you should care about animals unless you don’t believe that it is possible for animals to suffer. Peter Singer is a well-known modern consequentialist who supports animal welfare.

But there is a lot of agreement between these two ethical positions:

  • Both groups think that animals deserve to be considered and protected.

  • Both groups base their views on some of the same sorts of factors, e.g. noting that most animals can have positive or negative experiences.

  • Advocates in both groups often have an identical end goal: the end of animal farming and the protection of animals from other types of animal suffering.

  • Lots of people think that both rights and welfare are important for animal care.

Peter Singer and Gary Francione, one defends animal welfare and another animal rights / animal liberation
Peter Singer (left) and Gary Francione (right)

Strategic dilemmas

Why then, does this debate continue to flare up? It’s probably partly due to tribalism and groupthink; once people come to identify with a particular view or group, it can be hard to move away from that. But there is also some legitimate discussion and disagreement over strategy, which is mostly separate from the ethical dilemmas.

You can prioritise rights but support animal welfare reforms if you see them as a positive step towards a world where animals’ rights are respected. On the other hand, you can focus on the consequences of actions but reject animal welfare reforms if you think that they have bad indirect consequences, such as making people feel complacent that farming has become humane and is no longer cruel to animals.

In most cases, it seems fairly obvious that welfare reforms help the animals that they directly affect. Sometimes, there are tough questions to consider to work out which sorts of changes are more or less promising. For example, moving chickens that are farmed for their eggs from caged to cage-free systems tends to reduce overcrowding and give the hens more space to perform natural behaviours like flapping their wings, although there has been some concern that farmed hens actually die more frequently in cage-free systems. Even though it can be tough to decide which animal welfare reforms would help animals the most, it seems true that in principle, carefully chosen reforms could help the animals affected by the relevant policies.

So the more contentious question is actually about longer-term effects: will animal welfare reforms make further progress that benefits animals more or less likely, i.e. will they generate momentum or complacency for further change?

Sentience Institute has summarised the arguments and evidence on either side of this question. Below, we’ve written a brief summary of their summary; you can check the full article if you’d like more detail and sources for the claims.


Arguments for momentum from animal welfare reforms

When people hear about animal welfare reforms, it might encourage them to support further change because of a social norms effect: they see that other people care about animals, which makes them more likely to support changes that help animals. Indeed, there is evidence that reforms like this sometimes follow closely together.

Some experiments and observational studies have found evidence that when people become more aware of animal welfare reforms, they tend to reduce their consumption of animal products.

Studies find that welfare reforms lead to animal products costing more to produce and sell, which increases the costs of animal farming. Expensive products are less appealing, so people will be more open to alternatives.

Historical evidence from other social movements (antislavery, anti-abortion, environmentalism, and children’s rights) suggests that small reforms do not tend to prevent more radical reforms happening later.

Arguments for complacency from animal welfare reforms

Surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that people often think that conditions are much better for farmed animals than is really the case. It seems possible that animal welfare reforms would worsen this misinformation problem, by making people think that conditions are improving for animals. There isn’t much direct evidence that animal welfare reforms make this problem worse, although there is some weak evidence that a similar effect has happened in some other social movements (anti-death penalty and prisoners’ rights).

Companies could become reluctant to make further reforms after making small ones, or advocates themselves might become overconfident that enough change has been made.

If engaging directly with the animal agriculture industry leads animal advocates to become too close to it (e.g. if they receive donations from it), they might make compromises that are too generous to the industry, without making enough change for animals. This has arguably already happened, and a comparable problem has happened in other social movements like Fair Trade.

Next steps

We currently think that animal welfare leads to more momentum for further change than complacency, but we’re not very confident about this. If you’re still undecided, our top recommendation is to read through the full summary of the arguments and evidence by Sentience Institute; you can dig into the footnotes and linked resources if you want to explore it more fully.

But it’s okay to get started on advocacy and exploring animal advocacy career options if you haven’t yet fully decided:

  • Often, the line between rights- and welfare-focused tactics is pretty blurry.

  • Many people (including us) think that both tactics have their place in the movement.

  • Much of the “career capital” (skills, connections, credentials) that you gain from working on one type of tactic will be relevant to the other.

We encourage everyone seeking to help animals to make a career plan and work out which next steps will be best for them and best for animals. If you could benefit from being supported through this process, we encourage you to sign up for our online course. If you’re slightly further into your planning process already, our career advice, research, job board, and skilled volunteering board may be more helpful.

Animal rights vs animal welfare jobs

In the sections below, we talk about what sorts of job options are available if you take a relatively strong position on the animal welfare vs animal rights debate.

2 people in workplace, to illustrate animal welfare and animal rights jobs

Animal rights jobs

What sorts of animal rights jobs are available?

In our post outlining the types of vegan jobs that people can work in that help animals, we talk about the following categories of work:

  • Work for Food Companies

  • Work for Nonprofits — Direct Care and Advocacy

  • Work in Government and Policy

  • Work in Research

  • Donate to Nonprofits

Almost all of these categories contain some options that would be consistent with an animal rights approach!

Perhaps the only exception is government and policy, where you would likely find it very difficult to pursue an impactful career without being willing to compromise in various ways. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to support reducetarianism as a step towards full veganism (this is a separate strategic debate from animal welfare vs animal rights), you might still be able to find some opportunities that relate to food and nutrition policy.

If working at food companies, your options might be limited to fully vegan or plant-based companies. But there are literally hundreds of such companies! And companies like this represent some of the most promising opportunities in the sector for helping animals anyway, if they have ambitious plans to create products that meat eaters buy instead of animal products.

Many of the largest animal advocacy nonprofits support at least some welfare reforms. However, there are still some options in this space for animal rights activists and advocates:

  • There are some nonprofits that focus primarily on advocating for veganism (e.g. Vegan Outreach), although note that effective animal advocacy researchers tend to agree that we should focus more tactics on advocating for institutional changes (e.g. corporate or governmental reforms) rather than individual dietary changes.

  • Some organisations focus at least in part on corporate and institutional reforms to provide fewer animal products and more vegan products (e.g. Veganuary, ProVeg).

  • Some nonprofits focus on securing legal rights for animals (e.g. the Nonhuman Rights Project). It would be very challenging to secure full animal rights in a single wave of reforms, so organisations like this tend to still pursue incremental changes, like securing rights for only a small number of animal types. If you reject animal welfare because you think that incremental tactics tend to be ineffective, then you might wish to avoid such nonprofits.

We track opportunities at all of the nonprofits in the examples above on Animal Advocacy Careers’ job board!

There are a number of opportunities at other nonprofits, including smaller animal rights groups that focus solely on getting certain types of animal exploitation banned. Again, however, this type of advocacy is incremental if it relies on banning one practice at a time, and the arguments for and against seem similar to the strategic arguments in the animal welfare vs animal rights debate.

You might be able to work at an animal sanctuary, although as we note in our post on vegan jobs, we think that this sort of work tends to be less impactful for animals than the other options discussed here.

When it comes to research and other advocacy opportunities outside of nonprofits (e.g. journalism), there’s not much difference between animal rights jobs and animal welfare jobs. And regarding donating, it is of course your choice which nonprofits you choose to donate to, so you can just pick animal rights nonprofits.

Animal welfare jobs

If you’re supportive of animal welfare tactics, there is a wide range of animal welfare jobs and careers that you could potentially pursue.

Many large animal advocacy nonprofits conduct welfare campaigns. For example, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ($296m per year) and the Humane Society of The United States ($171m) both run farmed animal welfare campaigns. Of course, many smaller nonprofits run such campaigns, too.

Many of the “top” and “standout” charities currently or formerly recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators focus substantially on farmed animal welfare reforms. All of these organisations, as well as numerous other animal welfare nonprofits, are included on Animal Advocacy Careers’ job board.

Food companies do not tend to promote animal welfare per se, but their work can be complementary to the work of more direct animal welfare advocacy, and if you are supportive of animal welfare tactics you should certainly still consider these career opportunities. Similarly, you should consider careers in government and policy, research, advocacy outside of nonprofits, and “earning to give” (i.e. focusing on donations). All of these broad career areas will offer some opportunities with high impact potential and can entail a focus on animal welfare.


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