Francione is known for his work on animal rights theory, and in 1989, was the first academic to teach it in an American law school. His work has focused on three issues: the property status of animals, the differences between animal rights and animal welfare, and a theory of animal rights based on sentience alone, rather than on any other cognitive characteristics.
He is a pioneer of the abolitionist theory of animal rights, arguing that animal welfare regulation is theoretically and practically unsound, serving only to prolong the status of animals as property by making the public feel comfortable about using them. He argues that non-human animals require only one right, the right not to be regarded as property, and that veganism – the rejection of the use of animals as mere resources – is the moral baseline of the animal rights movement. He rejects all forms of violence, arguing that the animal rights movement is the logical progression of the peace movement, seeking to take it one step further by ending conflict between human and non-human animals, and by treating animals as ends in themselves.
Francione is the author or co-author of several books about animal rights, including The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? (2010, with Robert Garner), Animals as Persons (2008), Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (1996), and Animals, Property, and the Law (1995). He has also written papers on copyright, patent law, and law and science.
Francione graduated with a BA in philosophy from the University of Rochester, where he was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa O'Hearn Scholarship, allowing him to pursue graduate study in philosophy in the UK. He received his MA in philosophy and his JD from the University of Virginia, where he was articles editor of the Virginia Law Review. After graduation, he clerked for Judge Albert Tate, Jr., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court.
After practising law at the New York firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, he joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1984, and received tenure in 1987. He began to teach animal rights theory as part of his course in jurisprudence in 1985. In 1989, he joined the Rutgers faculty, and in 1990, he and his colleague Anna E. Charlton started the Rutgers Animal Rights Law Project, in which law students were awarded academic credit for working on actual cases involving animals. Francione and Charlton closed the clinic in 2000, but continue to teach courses in animal rights theory, animals and the law, and human rights and animal rights. Francione also teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, and legal philosophy. In 1989, Francione taught the first course in an American law school on animal rights and the law.
Francione has been a professor at Rutgers since at least 1995, when the New York Times reported that the Rutgers' Animal Rights Law Center, the only one in the US, was receiving 200 calls a week, and that Francione was losing "well over half the lawsuits the clinic brings", as they were taking a strict abolitionist approach.
In Animals, Property, and the Law (1995), Francione argues that because animals are the property of humans, laws that supposedly require their "humane" treatment and prohibit the infliction of "unnecessary" harm do not provide a significant level of protection for animal interests. For the most part, these laws and regulations require only that animals receive that level of protection that is required for their use as human property. Animals only have value as commodities and their interests do not matter in any moral sense. As a result, despite having laws that supposedly protect them, Francione contends that we treat animals in ways that would be regarded as torture if humans were the ones being used. He argues that we could choose to provide some greater measure of protection to animals even if they were to remain our property, but only up 'til the point where it becomes too costly for us to continue. Legal, social, and economic forces militate strongly against recognizing animal interests unless there is an economic benefit to humans.
In Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (1996), Francione argues that there are significant theoretical and practical differences between animal rights, which he maintains requires the abolition of animal exploitation, and animal welfare, which seeks to regulate exploitation to make it more humane. Francione contends that the theoretical difference between these two approaches is obvious. The abolitionist position is that we cannot justify our use of nonhumans however “humanely” we treat animals; the regulationist position is that animal use is justifiable and that only issues of treatment are relevant.
Francione describes as "new welfarists" those who claim to support animal rights, but who support animal welfare regulation as the primary way to achieve incremental recognition of the inherent value of nonhumans. He argues that there is no factual support for this position because not only do regulations seldom if ever go beyond treating animals as economic commodities with only extrinsic value, but the perception that regulation has improved the "humane" treatment of animals may very well facilitate continued and increased exploitation by making the public feel more comfortable about its consumption of animal products.
A central tenet of Francione's philosophy is that the most important form of incremental change within the abolitionist framework is veganism. Francione has also long argued that the animal rights movement is the logical extension of the peace movement and should embrace a non-violent approach. He maintains that an abolitionist/vegan movement is truly radical and that violence is reactionary.
In his Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? (2000), Francione argues that a theory of abolition should not require that animals have any cognitive characteristic beyond sentience to be full members of the moral community, entitled to the basic, pre-legal right not to be the property of humans. He rejects the position that animals have to have humanlike cognitive characteristics, such as reflective self-awareness, language ability, or preference autonomy in order to have the right not to be used by humans as resources. Francione derives this right from the principle of equal consideration in that he maintains that if animals are property, their interests can never receive equal consideration.
As part of this discussion, Francione identifies what he calls our “moral schizophrenia” when it comes to nonhumans. On the one hand, we say that we take animal interests seriously. Francione points to the fact that many of us even live with nonhuman companions whom we regard as members of our families and whose personhood—their status as beings with intrinsic moral value—we do not doubt for a second. On the other hand, because animals are property, they remain things that have no value other than what we choose to accord them and whose interests we protect only when it provides a benefit—usually economic—to do so. According to Francione, if animals are going to matter morally and not be things, we cannot treat them as property. Francione debated the sentience of plants with Michael Marder in a debate organized by Columbia University Press.
Francione has been critical of what he calls "animal welfarist organisations" such as PETA. He claims, quite controversially, that these groups condone the continued exploitation of animals through supporting isolated improvements in animal welfare. Contrary to reducing the harm imposed upon animals, Francione argues that this support leads consumers to further justify their consumption of unethical food products as they believe such an action is morally permissible or helpful. PETA, however, claims to oppose "humane meat." Francione's response is that PeTA does not reject happy exploitation.
In 2008, Francione opposed California's Proposition 2, which was a ballot proposition to prohibit the confinement of certain farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.
Francione’s theory of animal rights, particularly his views on animal welfare, is criticized by some sections of the animal-protection movement, who argue that animal welfare does provide meaningful protection for animal interests. Moreover, many within the animal protection community maintain that certain animals, such as the great apes or dolphins, ought to receive greater protection based on their higher cognitive capacities. Francione opposes this view—which he calls the "similar minds position"—on the grounds that sentience is the only characteristic required for personhood. As he writes, "The exploitation of the nonhuman great apes is immoral for the same reason that is immoral to exploit the hundreds of millions of mice and rats who are routinely exploited in laboratories or the billions of nonhumans who we kill and eat."
Francione opposes violence in animal rights. He has been criticised for this stance by Steven Best, who refers to those in the movement who reject violence as "Franciombes" and supports the more permissive attitude to violence of groups such as Negotiation is Over.
His wife, Anna E. Charlton, is an adjunct professor of law at Rutgers, is active in the same field, and has co-authored several publications with Francione. As of 2017 he lives with six dogs, calling them "non-human refugees" who share his home — four suffered cruelty at the hands of past owners.