Appreciating Nuance: The Difference between Animal Rights and Animal Welfare

This is not a repudiation of animal rights. The purpose of this discussion is not to diminish the history of the animal rights movement or demonize its proponents.

We sometimes see the conservation movement as a linear thread through history on which we trace the growth of ideas and key figures in a neat and tidy narrative.

In reality, the story of the conservation movement is as beautifully tangled and intricately complex as the issues it works to address. Conservation has always involved alliances and collaborations between a wide variety of actors with diverse motivations and priorities. It is the cross-pollination of ideas brought on by the creative interaction of diverse perspectives that have achieved the many monumental conservation successes we celebrate.

Therefore, it is from deep affection and pride for the conservation movement that I celebrate the diversity of ideas, opinions, and voices that comprise the conversation. However, it is difficult to appreciate the perspectives of others, especially when they differ from our own, without understanding the history of those perspectives.

Appreciating Nuance

To appreciate nuances in the perspectives that comprise the wider conservation community, it is important to understand the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare. Distinguishing between these related but different concepts helps us more precisely understand where we can find common ground between different subsets of the conservation community.

We hear a great deal of rhetoric in the hunting community about our opposition to animal rights groups. Public discourse often exacerbates the apparent dichotomy between hunters and animal rights activists, in part because bridging perspectives is difficult and in part because controversy sells.

To understand the differences between animal rights and animal welfare, we need to consider the philosophical and social origins of what became the animal rights movement. While our end goals may differ drastically from animal rights organizations, hunters may very well find that we are some of the strongest proponents of animal welfare.

“Rights versus welfare: there is a difference”

Animal rights and animal welfare are not synonymous. Hunters might find additional opportunities for collaboration by better understanding the nuances between these two concepts. We might further find a philosophical home in the concept of animal welfare for some of our ethics.

In his poignant book Heartsblood, David Petersen explores the two concepts of animal rights and animal welfare, and notes, “there is a difference”.

Petersen quotes the research organization Responsive Management’s distinction between animal rights and animal welfare: “Animal welfare supports the humane treatment and responsible care of animals that ensures comfort and freedom from unnecessary pain and suffering. By contrast, the animal rights movement dictates that the use of animals for any human benefit is wrong”.

The Origins of a Philosophy

While there are key philosophical differences between animal rights and animal welfare supporters, we most commonly hear about animal rights in the context of the organized and coordinated social movement and political advocacy campaigns. However, the philosophical foundations of animal rights go back farther than the organized movement.

In his 1987 book, Second Nature: The Animal-Rights Controversy, Alan Herscovici suggests that “[a]fter biblical times, the first glimmers of concern for animals appear in the work of certain Greek and Roman writers, who questioned the central role of man in creation”.

In a paper on animal ethics published in the journal Essays in Philosophy, professors David Fraser and Rod Preece identify the philosopher Pythagoras, who lived from 570-495 BC, as perhaps one of the first to apply the concept of justice to human treatment of animals, which would lay the groundwork to consider the application of rights. Pythagoras believed that humans have a “fellowship” with animals, and so, “if we kill them and eat their flesh, we commit injustice and impiety, inasmuch as we are killing our kin”.

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Herscovici, the senior researcher at Truth About Fur, also finds an early discussion of what we might recognize as a consideration of animal rights among philosophers such as Plutarch and Porphyry, who both lived between 46-305 AD.

The modern Western philosophical underpinnings of the animal rights movement are rooted in 18th-century legal concepts of the rights of humans. Texts such as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) explored the emerging legal concept of rights. Academics then explored the application of these concepts to animals.

The debate about the identity of animals and our corresponding responsibilities to them has been ongoing for many hundreds of years. As Fraser and Preece summarize, throughout the debate, philosophers generally fell into two groups, “some attributing characteristics to animals that make them appear similar to humans in the possession of beliefs, desires, consciousness, self-awareness and other features, which are interpreted to entail human responsibilities toward other species, while others claim a fundamental dissimilarity which they see as justifying the continued use of animals for human purposes”.

Any line of thinking shaped over two thousand years deserves our meaningful consideration. We may not agree with it but we should at least offer our time and sympathetic understanding.

The Origins of a Movement

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) states, “Animal rights is not just a philosophy – it is a social movement…”

The origin of an organized animal rights movement goes back at least to the middle of the 19th century when, in 1822, England passed the first animal protection legislation to address the cruel treatment of domestic cattle.

Much of the early animal rights movement crystallized between the 1860s and 1960s around two main issues: better treatment of domestic farm animals and an end to vivisection (scientific experimentation on animals).

By the 1970s, animal rights advocates began to recognize that they needed to move from what Alan Herscovici describes as a “focus on individual problems” to develop “a comprehensive moral argument for animal rights”.

brown elephant with chain
Much of the early animal rights movement focused on single-species campaigns

A comprehensive moral argument came in 1971, with the publication of Animals, Men and Morals by Oxford philosophers Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch. In this collection of essays, the Godlovitches argue, “[o]nce the full force of moral assessment has been made explicit there can be no rational excuse left for killing animals, be they killed for food, science, or sheer personal indulgence”.

At this point in the story, the animal rights movement solidified as one focused not only on reducing animal suffering but also on ending all human uses of animals. Again, while we can disagree with their principles and beliefs, we can also acknowledge a certain cohesion in the logic of animal rights advocates in equally opposing hunting, animal ownership, clothing manufacture, farming, and all other human uses.

Animal Welfare

Animal welfare advocates do not necessarily oppose the human use of animals. Rather, animal welfare focuses on reducing suffering and treating animals with respect and care. It is in this distinction between the two schools of thought that hunters can locate their ethics.

Hunters will readily recognize policies and regulations aimed at improving animal welfare in the form of minimum draw weights for archery hunting and minimum bullet calibers for firearms. The purpose of these rules is to minimize suffering by helping ensure that we use enough power to kill game animals quickly.

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Trappers think a great deal about animal welfare. In an interview published on Truth About Fur, Alan Herscovici tells the story of researcher and humane trapping advocate Neal Jotham, who has worked since 1965 to raise awareness and increase knowledge about trapping methods to reduce suffering. Far from anti-trapping, Jotham has dedicated his work to ensure that trapping is as ethical as possible.

In 1970, Neal and the Canadian Association for Humane Trapping (CAHT) created a short film called They Take So Long to Die, which showed some of the issues with trap technology at that time. The goal was to stimulate action to make trapping more humane. One person who supported the movement to improve animal welfare in trapping was Frank Conibear, who had been working on a design since 1929 to create a more efficient killing trap and whose name many will recognize as the inventor of the Conibear trap.

Conibear trap

The deep care trappers have for the animals they trap led to the establishment of a research facility and long-term research program in Alberta in partnership between the Fur Institute of Canada and the Alberta Research Council. Research at this facility made critical contributions to the development of the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS).

It is worth resisting what might be a knee jerk reaction against concepts such as animal welfare. It may sound similar to other terms, but there are important conceptual differences and it is in understanding those differences that the hunting community can better articulate our ideas and do even more to strengthen the conservation movement.

But there are some things we should be cautious of as we engage in conversations.

Avoid the Fallacy of the False Dilemma

One of the reasons we have a difficult time with complex concepts is that in public discourse they are often simplified and presented in a way that obscures their more specific meanings. Sometimes, this simplification is unintentional. When it is intentional, it is usually a tactic to stifle opposition.

So we need to engage in conversations that explore concepts like animal welfare and articulate both our understanding of the term and our support for its values.

We need to be cautious not to take the bait of the false dilemma (also known as the either/or fallacy), a logical fallacy that makes meaningful discourse exceedingly difficult.

PETA declares that people who support animal rights “believe that animals have an inherent worth—a value completely separate from their usefulness to humans”. While this is certainly true, the belief that animals have inherent worth is not restricted to supporters of animal rights.

Rather than a dichotomy between animal rights advocates and everyone else, what we find here is a point of agreement obscured as an either/or situation.

The statement above from PETA implicitly suggests that either you are an animal rights advocate who believes animals have inherent worth, or you think animals are only worth their usefulness to humans. It eliminates a large middle ground where many other groups and cultures believe both that animals have inherent worth and that humans can ethically use them.

The mistake here is certainly one of poor argumentation; the tragedy is that we miss an important opportunity to find common ground.

Common Ground

This is not a repudiation of animal rights. The key to success in all big conservation issues is finding common ground between a wide diversity of perspectives. We need to ask ourselves where we find that common ground. I think the concept of animal welfare can help.

We might suggest that animal welfare is the other side of the coin to foundational hunting ethics such as the concept of fair chase.

A cartoon depicting Teddy Roosevelt’s concept of fair chase hunting.

Fair chase promotes an approach to hunting that ensures the hunter does not have a disproportionate advantage over wildlife by, among other actions, opposing high-fence hunts and accepting a set of disadvantages that provides the animal with a reasonable chance of escape. Therefore, ethical hunting demonstrates a concern for the welfare of wildlife in the sense that it considers the broader context of an animal’s entire life and its place in a wider ecology.

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Hunter-conservationists think about animal welfare in the context of the entire landscape and our place in that narrative. Within this conceptualization, animal welfare does not revolve around humans; rather, we place ourselves in the bigger story of conservation and healthy wildlife populations.

David Petersen argues, “as a nature hunter, nature lover, and neo-animist, I find it impossible to endorse any animal rights group, even though we may agree on many animal welfare issues, if that group universally decries hunting…”.

Where does this leave us? Should hunters refuse to work with any animal rights group if it universally decries hunting? Or should we embrace the common ground of animal welfare and a desire to work for a future with healthy populations of wildlife, even if that common ground is only tenuous and temporary?


In their paper on the historical debate about animal ethics, Fraser and Preece comment on the unfortunate circumstance that “the modern debate often seems not to have advanced greatly beyond the stage reached in the historical debate”.

In the end, I think this all points to a couple of main conclusions.

First, the overarching problem starts with improved communication. According to Fraser and Preece, the problem is that different sides of the debate make “broad generalizations about ‘animals’ that simply contradict those of their opponents, with little (or mainly selective) use of empirical observations to justify those claims”.

Second, remember that the debate over animal ethics has been ongoing for thousands of years. This history means that it is not the burden of any single one of us to solve it. We should not go into conversations to solve the debate, change anyone’s mind, or prove a point. Instead, measure success by listening, having thoughtful dialogues, and ending the conversation on positive terms.

Finally, disagreements are inevitable. The problem is not disagreement on the issues; it is also that each side digs in and clings tightly to its ideology with little discussion about how to even progress on the disagreements. Fraser and Preece continue that, “lacking any agreement on an appropriate methodology for resolving the contradictions, it is hard to imagine that the current approaches will move toward consensus”.

In the interest of appreciating nuance and embracing complexity, I do not think we necessarily need consensus. There may be times when the rhetoric and argumentative fallacies of animal rights discourses make it nearly impossible for hunters to endorse them.

However, if we willingly and earnestly engage with the intricacies of the many philosophies involved in the conservation movement and truly listen, we will be better equipped to disentangle the dialogue and find common ground where it exists.

2 Comments on “Appreciating Nuance: The Difference between Animal Rights and Animal Welfare

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