A Month of Vegan Research: The Significance of Animal Suffering

The following literature review is part of a series for World Vegan Month. Other essays can be accessed by visiting the essays catalog.


Elizabeth DeCoux.  2009.  “Speaking for the Modern Prometheus:  The Significance of Animal Suffering to the Abolition Movement.”  Animal Law 16 (1):  9-64.

This Article reviews the theories and methods of Abolitionists and Welfarists and suggests one reason that they have failed to relieve animal suffering and death: Welfarists use the right tool in the service of the wrong goal; Abolitionists work toward the right goal but expressly decline to use the right tool. Specifically, Welfarists accurately portray the appalling conditions in which animals live and die, but they inaccurately claim that welfare measures can remedy those appalling conditions without any challenge to the property status of animals. Abolitionists correctly assert that the exploitation of animals must end, and they depict the astonishing rate at which animals are killed and eaten, but they typically spare their audience the unpleasant subject of animal suffering. The thesis of this Article is that the tide of animal suffering and death will turn only when Abolitionists employ the tool used to achieve social change throughout the history of the United States: accurately depicting the suffering of the oppressed, in image and narrative.

DeCoux’s article critiques the Nonhuman Animal rights movement as a failure, with vegan numbers stagnated because of our stubborn refusal to engage images of suffering.  She outlines a rich history of human abolitionist work that utilized suffering, which is not only extremely interesting but offers a learning experience for abolitionists still at work today.


I respond to this article in my own publication, where I charge that anti-reform activists do indeed rely quite heavily on images of suffering.  The issue is that images of suffering have long been used as fundraising tools, prompting many activists to engage reasoned argument with hopes of highlighting a vegan anti-speciesist solution.

Audiences have been primed by decades of “humane”-centered welfare discourse. This has groomed concerned viewers to react to intense emotions by supporting reform, or more specifically, by financially supporting the organizations that exploit images of suffering.

The concern is that most of this fundraising is actually invested into organizational infrastructure and further fundraising, not Nonhuman Animal liberation. Furthermore, reform does nothing to challenge the systemic issue of speciesism; it only increases public comfort with speciesism and improves the image of exploitative industries.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.


Readers can learn more about the Nonhuman Animal rights industrial complex and its consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 11, 2013.