The following is an excerpt from my book Reasoned Politics.
Two levels of knowledge are worth distinguishing in the context of human coordination (De Freitas et al., 2019):
- Private knowledge: “where each person knows something, but knows nothing about what anyone else knows”
- Common knowledge: “where everybody knows that everybody else knows it”
Common knowledge is often explained with the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which everyone had private knowledge that the emperor was naked (as far as they could see), but they could not be sure that others saw the same, and hence it was not common knowledge. But the moment a child exclaimed that the emperor wore no clothes, it soon became common knowledge, and eventually everyone shouted the child’s words in unison.
This story makes a deep point about the importance of common knowledge for social coordination, as the child’s exclamation did not merely change the state of knowledge of the onlookers, but also enabled them to coordinate, emboldening them to act in ways they would not have otherwise dared, such as laughing and shouting at the emperor. Indeed, not only do psychological studies show that people cooperate significantly more and better when they have common knowledge (Pinker, 2016; De Freitas et al., 2019), but there are also countless real-world examples of the importance of common knowledge for creating social change — and, conversely, how the suppression of common knowledge can prevent social change.
For instance, in Saudi Arabia, most young men are privately in favor of female labor force participation, but they will not say this until they are informed that most other young men think the same (Sunstein, 2019, p. 6). Likewise, all dictatorships, from Nazi Germany to contemporary North Korea, have made it a priority to suppress all expressions of dissent, as such expressions risk creating common knowledge about people’s opposition to the rulers and their totalitarian policies (Mercier, 2020, p. 134). As one North Korean coal miner noted: “I know that our regime is to blame for our situation. My neighbor knows our regime is to blame. But we’re not stupid enough to talk about it” (as quoted in Mercier, 2020, p. 134).
The relevance of this point to our moral and political neglect of non-human suffering is that the concern we have for non-human beings is not yet common knowledge. That is, most people care about non-human animals, but most people, including most animal advocates, do not realize the extent to which most people care about non-human animals (Anderson & Tyler, 2018, p. 8). This may help explain why surveys of public views on this matter consistently surprise us, as our privately held beliefs and ideals are far more compassionate than our actions might suggest.
For example, in a US survey from 2017, more than 80 percent of people expressed agreement with the statement that “farmed animals have roughly the same ability to feel pain and discomfort as humans”, with about 30 percent agreeing strongly (Sentience Institute, 2017; Norwood & Murray, 2018). More than 60 percent of people agreed that “the factory farming of animals is one of the most important social issues in the world today”, and around 40 percent of people said they would be at least somewhat likely to join a public demonstration against “the problems of factory farming” if asked by a friend (Sentience Institute, 2017; Norwood & Murray, 2018).
Another survey of more than 4,000 US adults found that 93 percent believed that chickens feel pain, 78 percent believed that fish feel pain, and a majority of respondents believed that insects such as honeybees (65 percent), ants (56 percent), and termites (52 percent) can feel pain. Among the minority of respondents who did not express agreement with the statement that these animals can experience pain, most expressed agnosticism rather than disagreement (Dullaghan et al., 2021, p. 3; see also Beggs & Anderson, 2020, pp. 10-11).
A similar survey conducted in the UK found that a majority agreed that honey bees (73 percent), shrimps (62 percent), caterpillars (58 percent), and flies (54 percent) can feel pain, and even more people thought that lobsters (83 percent), octopuses (80 percent), and crabs (78 percent) experience pain (Rethink Priorities, 2021).
Moreover, a US poll from 1996 found that 67 percent of people expressed at least some agreement with the statement that a “[non-human] animal’s right to live free of suffering is just as important as a [human] person’s right to live free of suffering”, with 38 percent agreeing strongly (Deseret News, 1996).
A US Gallup poll from 2015 yielded similar results, with 32 percent of people indicating that, among three different statements, the one that came the closest to their view was that “[non-human] animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation” (42 percent of female respondents agreed with the statement, as did 39 percent of Democrats). Meanwhile, 62 percent held that non-human animals deserve some protection from harm and exploitation, whereas only three percent thought that “animals don’t need much protection from harm and exploitation” (Riffkin, 2015).
Additionally, a recent study in the UK found that most meat eaters consider vegetarianism and veganism to be ethical (77 percent and 72 percent, respectively) as well as healthy (more than 72 percent and 50 percent, respectively) (Bryant, 2019).
Making such beliefs and attitudes common knowledge should plausibly be a high priority: to simply document people’s expressed views of non-human suffering and its moral importance, and to then publicize the results. This is important for two principal reasons. First, it makes it clear to politicians that the public actually does care about this issue, and that it wants to see legislators take this issue seriously (even if it is not most voters’ primary concern). Second, it helps make the general public aware of the already widespread concern that exists for non-human animals, at least at the level of people’s expressed ideals, which may in turn embolden them to stand by their values more firmly.
Indeed, making prevailing attitudes common knowledge might effectively reverse the social pressure: where people otherwise thought that public opinion went against their concern for non-human animals, and thus chose to hold back from expressing their views, the realization that a large fraction of the public shares these concerns may encourage them to speak up, suddenly giving them the feeling that the wind of social pressure is in their favor rather than against them. (And this would largely be true, as long as the problems and objectives are phrased in institutional terms.)
Furthermore, not only may people with sympathy for the cause feel more willing to speak up, but most people will likely also (slowly) increase their actual level of concern as they become aware of other people’s pro-animal attitudes. After all, public attitudes and social pressure are among the strongest influences on people’s views (cf. Haidt, 2001; Reese, 2018, ch. 6).
This is then another powerful tool that is not being employed to anywhere near its full capacity: continually broadcasting people’s own stated attitudes — through popular articles, social media, documentaries, etc. — so as to make these attitudes common knowledge. And unlike in the case of oppressive dictatorships, there is really nobody who forcefully prevents us from employing this strategy. We are simply not choosing to use it, probably to the great detriment of non-human beings.