Notes on the Utility of Anti-Speciesist Advocacy

I recently took part in a panel discussion, alongside Leah Edgerton, Tobias Leenaert, Oscar Horta, and Jens Tuider (moderator), on whether animal advocates should focus on veganism or anti-speciesism (I’ve outlined my own view here). In my opinion, the discussion went well, not least because there was a sense of a shared underlying goal among the panelists, as well as a high level of intellectual openness, humility, and friendliness.

Unfortunately, yet predictably, the limited time available for each person to speak in such a panel discussion meant that I didn’t get to make half of the points I wanted to (in spite of the fact that I, rather uncourteously, seemed to speak for a great plurality of the time of the discussion; my passion for the subject got the better of me, I’m afraid). And given that I had these unshared points written down already, it seemed worthwhile to publish them here for everyone to read.

Main Points: Scale and Receptivity

Two main points in favor of anti-speciesist advocacy that I did get to make, albeit briefly, have to do with scale and receptivity. In terms of scale, anti-speciesist advocacy is better than vegan advocacy, as well as other forms of advocacy that focus only on beings exploited by humans, in that it pertains to all non-human animals, including those who live in nature.

At an intuitive level, this may seem like a small point in favor of anti-speciesist advocacy. “+1 to anti-speciesist advocacy for being better in terms of scale.” Yet to think in this way is to fail to appreciate the actual numbers. Just as the much greater number of “farm animals” compared to the number of “pets” is a huge rather than small point in favor of focusing on the former rather than the latter in our advocacy, the much greater number of beings that anti-speciesist advocacy pertains to is an extremely significant point in its favor.

And, in terms of numbers at least, this analogy is actually strikingly accurate: the number of “farm animals” is, on some estimates, about a thousand times greater than the number of “pets”, while the number of non-human animals in nature is about a thousand times greater than the number of “farm animals”. A thousand times is a lot, and yet this is only counting vertebrates; the number is much greater if we include invertebrates in our considerations as well, as we should. In other words, if we include invertebrates in our considerations, the analogy to the ratio between “farm animals” and “pets” is actually much too weak. Yet our intuitions have a hard time appreciating such big numbers. Especially when the beings in question live in nature.

Thus, in terms of scale, the actions of many aspiring effective animal advocates may be more akin to donations to local animal shelters than they would like to think. This is not surprising. We humans are notorious group thinkers, and the animal movement has traditionally focused only on beings exploited by humans. Consequently, we should expect this history to bias us strongly toward that focus (objections to this controversial paragraph, e.g. “we should focus on beings exploited by humans first”, may be found answered here and here, as well as in the section on objections below).

The other main point in favor of anti-speciesist advocacy has to do with people’s receptivity toward anti-speciesist advocacy. In light of the above, one may think “sure, anti-speciesist advocacy is best in terms of scale, but will people be receptive to such advocacy? Isn’t it too abstract?”

This is an empirical question, and more research on it is urgently needed. Yet there are at least tentative reasons for thinking that people in fact are receptive to such advocacy, perhaps even more so than toward most other forms of advocacy. One line of evidence comes from Oscar Horta, who has delivered talks on speciesism and conducted surveys after these talks, whereby he found that, surprisingly, “most people who attended these talks accepted the arguments against speciesism.” Horta made more interesting findings than this, including that a focus on speciesism may be the best way to promote veganism, yet given that I have already reported on some of these findings elsewhere, and linked to his own report above, I shall not delve further into it here.

Another line of evidence comes from a study conducted by Vegan Outreach in 2016, in which they tested four different booklets against each other, one of which focused on the case against speciesism (another one was centered around a “reduce your consumption” message, another on the harms that “farm animals” suffer), and then examined which of them led to the greatest reduction in consumption of “animal products”. The results, in a nutshell, were that all the booklets caused a significant reduction in such consumption among readers, and that the booklet that focused on speciesism did the best of all the booklets, although the difference was not statistically significant.

In light of this (admittedly limited) data, we have reasons to think that, even if our only goal were to make people reduce their consumption of “animal products”, focusing on the case against speciesism is at least roughly as good as other, more traditional forms of advocacy.

And yet such a narrow focus cannot be defended. As I also argued during the panel discussion, we have an unfortunate tendency in our movement to view “total consumption of animal products” as a good measure of the quality of the (non-human) sentient condition on the planet, or at least of “how good we’re doing”. It is not. It only says something about a tiny fraction of the non-human beings on the planet, and we cannot defend excluding the rest, those not exploited directly by humans, in our considerations. This is not to say that such consumption is not an important measure to look at, merely that it is hopelessly insufficient.

In conclusion, when we combine these two considerations — a much greater scope in terms of the number of beings our advocacy pertains to, as well as a level of receptivity toward anti-speciesist advocacy that seems roughly as good as that of other forms of advocacy; and perhaps it is even better — we seem to have good reason to focus on anti-speciesist advocacy. And if we then factor in the neglectedness of such advocacy compared to the forms of advocacy and tactics we have traditionally been pursuing, including tech innovation such as in vitro meat, which has millions of US dollars in funding, the case becomes stronger still.

Objections Against Doing Anti-Speciesist Advocacy

But What About the Tractability of the Problem of Suffering in Nature?

While it is true that anti-speciesist advocacy seems optimal in terms of scale because it also includes wild animal suffering, one may object that the tractability of suffering in nature has been left out of the picture in this analysis.

In response to this, I would argue that the tractability of the problem of suffering in nature is highly uncertain at this point, yet given that the number of “wild animals” is more than a thousand times that of “farmed animals”, it would seem that the tractability of the problem of suffering in nature would have to be less than a thousand times smaller (to the extent we can meaningfully say such a thing) than the tractability of the problem of suffering for “farmed animals” in order for it to make sense to focus on the latter over the former. It is far from clear to me that this is the case. More than that, this all seems to rest on an assumed need to focus on one over the other, which then leads to the second point I would make in response to this objection.

For I do not believe we have to focus on one over the other. Anti-speciesist advocacy defends both “farmed animals” and “wild animals”, and, as seen above, it may be as successful with regard to the former as other forms of advocacy, implying that, even given high uncertainty concerning the tractability of wild animal suffering, anti-speciesist advocacy still seems a strategy worth pursuing. Again, in light of the notes on receptivity above, one could make a case that, even if we only cared about the wrongs done to beings exploited by humans, we should focus on anti-speciesist advocacy.

Similarly, even if there is a conflict between a focus on “wild animals” versus “farm animals, and even if suffering in nature indeed were a thousand times as intractable as suffering caused by direct human exploitation, the much greater neglectedness of wild animal suffering would make a case for doing advocacy that pertains to that, as anti-speciesist advocacy does.

I Don’t Think Non-Human Individuals in Nature Have Net Negative Lives

Opposing discrimination against individuals in nature in general, and defending the claim that we should help them to the extent we can in particular, does not rest on the claim that such beings live net negative lives, any more than the claim that we should not discriminate against other human individuals, and help them when we can — for instance under circumstances of famine or other catastrophes — rests on the claim that such humans have net negative lives.

(That being said, I have made a theoretical case for wildlife anti-natalism here, in which I argue that merely applying a non-speciesist position on procreative ethics implies that we should, in theory/if we can keep other things equal, prevent the births of the vast majority of non-human individuals in nature. More than that, I think we do tend to significantly underestimate how bad [at least many of] the lives of non-human beings in nature in fact are.)

Another point I would make in response to this claim is that even on the conservative assumption that only one in ten non-human individuals in nature have lives as bad as the average non-human individual cursed to live out their life on a factory farm, the big difference in terms of the number of beings in nature versus on factory farms still implies that there is more than a hundred times as many non-human beings living very bad lives in nature than there is on factory farms, meaning that even given such a relatively small “concentration of suffering” in nature, the greatest opportunity for reducing the most total suffering still lies here.

Isn’t Anti-Speciesism too Abstract?

More specifically: don’t we risk turning people off by seeming to claim that, say, a mosquito has the same moral value as an elephant?

I would make a few distinct points in response to this objection. First, to the extent this is a problem, we can say that anti-speciesism does not imply that all beings should be prioritized equally, just as total opposition to discrimination within the human species does not imply that, say, a human fetus has the same moral value as an adult human individual. The specific traits of a being do matter, and anti-speciesism does not demand us to overlook these differences, but rather to prioritize equal interests equally.

Second, I would argue that, to the extent anti-speciesism promotes more concern for smaller beings compared to other forms of advocacy, this is actually one of its main strengths rather than a weakness, as we generally underestimate the moral value of small beings. One way to see this is to consider the numbers. If we take fish, for instance, it is estimated that there are 10,000 times as many fish on the planet as there are humans, yet fish do not tend to weigh correspondingly strongly on our moral scale, even among animal advocates.

And if we consider invertebrates, our focus seems even more misaligned still, as it is estimated that there are about ten quintillion insects on the planet, ten to the power of nineteen, and yet we fail to take them seriously in moral terms for the most part. One might then object that the number of beings is not a good measure of moral value. Rather, one may argue, we should look at the total number of neurons for a better measure. Yet even if we adopt this as a proxy for moral value, the moral weight of the insect realm still appears staggering, as there are, on a rough estimate at least, a hundred times more insect neurons on the planet than there are human neurons.

(I am not claiming that the number of neurons is a perfect proxy for moral value by any means, but merely that no matter which of these simple, and probably not entirely meritless, measures we use, we appear to underestimate small beings a lot; Brian Tomasik’s Is Brain Size Morally Relevant? is quite apropos here, although I should note that I strongly disagree with his view of consciousness.)

Why we underestimate smaller beings is a question worth pondering, I think, and I believe we can readily identify at least three reasons. First, small beings, such as fish and insects, tend to be more numerous, which makes greater moral concern for them inconvenient, and we are generally biased against inconvenient updates. Second, smaller beings are generally very different from us in terms of what their bodies look like, which makes it more difficult to empathize with them, even disregarding the size difference. For instance, feeling empathy for a chimpanzee-sized insect or fish seems more challenging than feeling it for a chimpanzee. Third, the size difference itself seems likely to make us more biased against smaller beings as well. Compare the difficulty of feeling compassion for a normal-sized chimpanzee versus feeling it for an ant-sized chimpanzee. Or for a lobster versus an ant; the latter actually has more than twice as many neurons as the former.

Another distinct point I would make in relation to this objection is that the case against speciesism is very similar, in terms of its form, to the case against racism, and most people seem to accept the latter today, implying that there may be much ready potential we can tap into here. The argument against racism does not seem too intellectually advanced for most people, which provides an additional reason to question the intuitive assumption that the case against speciesism necessarily must be too advanced or abstract for most people to follow it (along with the non-peer-reviewed studies cited above that tentatively hint the same). More than that, the philosophical case against speciesism also happens to be exceptionally strong, much stronger than we animal advocates tend to realize — the literature that argues in favor of speciesism is surprisingly thin and weak — and I think we ignore this strength at our peril. We have a powerful tool at our disposal that we refuse to employ.

Anti-Speciesism Is Often Better than (Naive) Consequentialist Calculations

If one is a wannabe consequentialist rationalist, it is easy to be misguided about where much of our moral wisdom comes from, by imagining that we have gained it via clever deductive consequentialist analyses. Yet for the most part, this is not the case. Our rejection of racism today, for instance, is mostly due to cultural evolution, including lessons from history, that has accumulated gradually; it has not primarily been due to consequentialist arguments (to the extent arguments have played a crucial role, it seems to me that they have rather rested on consistency). As a result, we have now arrived upon a moral wisdom that is deeper, I believe, than what a simple chain of consequentialist reasoning could have readily produced prior to this cultural change (after all, how would you make a solid consequentialist case that human slavery is wrong? It is not easy. And if you can, would it apply equally to the property status of non-human individuals? If not, why?).

And I think the same applies to anti-speciesism: it tends to be wiser than naive consequentialist analyses. It provides us with a free download of the full package of the moral progress we have made over the last few centuries with respect to human individuals, ready for us apply to non-human individuals by simply using the heuristic “what would we do if they were human?” With this package installed, we can quickly gain wise views on many ethical issues pertaining to non-human beings, including “happy meat” and veganism — it provides a clear case against and for them respectively. One could be forced to spend a long time arguing for these conclusions otherwise, if one were to insist on employing directly consequentialist arguments, even though these conclusions arguably are what a complete consequentialist analysis would recommend (I believe Brian Tomasik would mostly disagree, although he would do so for complicated reasons).

New Information: Have We Updated Sufficiently?

Something I think we should be wary of is when we build up our views on a matter over a long period of time, and then encounter a new piece of crucial information that makes us change our outlook completely, yet without properly updating the aforementioned views we have built and consolidated over a long period of time in the absence of this crucial information.

To be more concrete: I think many animal advocates have spent a lot of time thinking hard about how to best advocate for non-human animals so as to reduce their suffering as much as possible. Unfortunately, what they have been thinking hard about has “merely” been what we should do in order to reduce the suffering of non-human beings exploited by humans, and they have then built up their preferred strategy for advocating for non-human individuals based on this outlook. A positive thing that has then happened for many of these advocates is that they have become convinced of the importance of wild animal suffering; this would be the “crucial piece of information” in the more general statement of this “updating problem” above.

This has changed the outlook of these advocates completely in some ways, yet it seems to me that their preferred strategy in terms of advocacy has remained suspiciously unchanged, which should give them pause. We have had our minds opened to this piece of information that changes everything: the vast majority of beings is not found in the realm we have been focusing on for all these years. Yet the ideal form of advocacy somehow remains exactly the same as before we came upon this information, advocacy that pertains exclusively to the beings we used to think were the only beings whom we owed any obligations.

This makes little sense, although one can say that, in one sense, it makes perfect sense. A view on a matter that one has built over many years is unlikely to be changed over night, especially if one has thought a lot about it. Yet this is a psychological explanation of the phenomenon in question; it is not an explanation that defends it as reasonable in any way.

In conclusion, I would encourage all animal advocates to reflect upon whether they have factored in the obligations we owe to non-human individuals in nature in their current view of the best advocacy strategies and tactics. As far as I can tell, virtually none of us have.




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