On the 17th of August 2021, the EU authorized the use of insects as feed for farmed animals such as chickens and pigs. This was a disastrous decision for sentient beings, as it may greatly increase the number of beings who will suffer in animal agriculture. Sadly, this was just one in a series of disastrous decisions that the EU has made regarding insect farming in the last couple of years. Most recently, in February 2022, they authorized the farming of house crickets for human consumption, after having made similar decisions for the farming of mealworms and migratory locusts in 2021.
Many such catastrophic decisions probably lie ahead, seeing that the EU is currently reviewing applications for the farming of nine additional kinds of insects. This brief posts reviews some reflections and potential lessons in light of these harmful legislative decisions.
The most relevant aspect to reflect upon in light of these legislative decisions are the strategic implications. Could we have done better? And what could we do better going forward?
I believe the short answer to the first question is a resounding “yes”. I believe that the animal movement could have made far greater efforts to prevent this development (which is not saying much, since the movement at large does not appear to have made much of an effort to prevent this disaster). I am not saying that such efforts would have prevented this development for sure, but I believe that they would have reduced the probability and expected scale of it considerably, to such an extent that it would have been worthwhile to pursue such preventive efforts.
In concrete terms, these efforts could have included:
Wealthy donors such as Open Philanthropy making significant donations toward preventing the expansion of insect farming (e.g. investing in research and campaigning work).
Animal advocates disseminating these arguments to the broader public, to fellow advocates, and to influential people and groups (e.g. politicians, and policy advisors).
Important to note is that efforts of this kind not only had the potential to change a few significant policy decisions, but they could potentially have prevented — or at least reduced — a whole cascade of harmful policy decisions. Of course, having such an impact might still be possible today, even if it is a lot more difficult at this later stage where the momentum for insect farming already appears strong and growing.
As Abraham Rowe put it, “not working on insect farming over the last decade may come to be one of the largest regrets of the EAA [Effective Animal Activist] community in the near future.”
How can we do better going forward?
When asking how we can do better, I am particularly interested in what lessons we can draw in our efforts to reduce risks of astronomical future suffering (s-risks). After all, EU’s recent decisions to allow various kinds of insect farming will not only cause enormous amounts of suffering for insects in the near future, but they arguably also increase s-risks to a non-negligible extent, such as by (somewhat) increasing the probability that insects and other small beings will be harmed on an astronomical scale in the future.
So institutional decisions like these seem relevant for our efforts to reduce s-risks, and our failure to prevent these detrimental decisions can plausibly provide relevant lessons for our priorities and strategies going forward. (An implication of these harmful developments that I will not dive into here is that they give us further reason to be pessimistic about the future.)
The following are some of the lessons that tentatively stand out to me.
Questioning our emotions
I suspect that one of the main reasons that insect farming has been neglected by animal advocates is that it fails to appeal to our emotions. A number of factors plausibly contribute to this low level of emotional appeal. For instance, certain biases may prevent proper moral consideration for insects in general, and scope insensitivity may prevent us from appreciating the large number of insects who will suffer due to insect farming. (I strongly doubt that anyone is exempt from these biases, and I suspect that even people who are aware of them might still have neglected insect farming partly as a consequence of these biases.)
Additionally, we may have a bias to focus too narrowly on the suffering that is currently taking place rather than (also) looking ahead to consider how new harmful practices and sources of suffering might emerge, potentially on far greater scales than what we currently see. Reducing the risk of such novel atrocities occurring on a vast scale might not feel as important as does the reduction of existing forms of suffering. Yet the recent rise of insect farming, and the fact that we likely could have done effective work to prevent it, suggest that such feelings are not reliable.
Seeing the connection between current institutional developments and s-risks
When thinking about s-risks, it can be easy to fall victim to excessively abstract thinking and (what I have called) “long-term nebulousness bias” — i.e. a tendency to overlook concrete data and opportunities relevant to long-term influence. In particular, the abstract nature of s-risks may lead us to tacitly believe that good opportunities to influence policy (relative to s-risk reduction) can only be found well into the future, and to perhaps even assume that there is not much of significance that we can do to reduce s-risks at the policy level today
Yet I think the case of insect farming is a counterexample to such beliefs. To be clear, I am not saying that insect farming is necessarily the most promising policy area that we can focus on with respect to s-risk reduction. But it is plausibly a significant one, and one that those trying to reduce s-risks should arguably have paid more attention to in the past. And it still appears to merit greater focus today.
Proactively searching for other important policy areas and interventions
As hinted above, the catastrophic rise of insect farming is in some sense a proof of concept that there are policy decisions in the making that plausibly have a meaningful impact on s-risks. More than that, the case of insect farming might be an example where policy decisions in our time could be fairly pivotal — whether we see a ban on insect farming versus a rapidly unfolding cascade of policy decisions that swiftly expand insect farming might make a big difference, not least because such a cascade could leave us in a position where there is more institutional, financial, and value-related momentum in favor of insect farming (e.g. if massive industries with lobby influence have already emerged around it, and if most people already consider farmed insects an important part of their diet).
This suggests a critical lesson: those working to reduce s-risks have good reason to search for similar, potentially even more influential policy decisions that are being made today or in the near future. By analogy to how animal advocates likely could have made a significant difference (in expectation) if they had campaigned against the expansion of insect farming over the last decade, we may now do well by looking decades ahead, and considering which pivotal policy decisions that we might now be in a good position to influence. The need for such a proactive search effort could be the most important takeaway in light of this recent string of disastrous decisions.
I have seen some people claim that animal activists should primarily be concerned with certain groups of numerous vertebrates, such as chickens and fish, whereas we should not be concerned much, if at all, with insects and other small invertebrates. (See e.g. here.) I think there are indeed good arguments in favor of emphasizing chickens and fish in animal advocacy, yet I think those same arguments tend to support a strong emphasis on helping insects as well. My aim in this post is to argue that we have compelling reasons to include insects and other small vertebrates in animal advocacy.
A simplistic sequence argument: Smaller beings in increasingly large numbers
As a preliminary motivation for the discussion, it may be helpful to consider the sequence below.
I should first of all clarify what I am not claiming in light of the following sequence. I am not making any claims about the moral relevance of the neuron counts of individual beings or groups of beings (that is a complicated issue that defies simple answers). Nor am I claiming that we should focus mostly on helping beings such as land arthropods and nematodes. The claim I want to advance is a much weaker one, namely that, in light of the sequence below, it is hardly obvious that we should focus mostly on helping chickens or fish.
At any given time, there are roughly:
780 million farmed pigs, with an estimated average neuron count of 2.2 billion. Total neuron count: ~1.7 * 10^18.
33 billion farmed chickens, with an estimated average neuron count of 200 million. Total neuron count: ~6.6 * 10^18.
10^15 fish (the vast majority of whom are wild fish), with an estimated average neuron count of 1 million neurons (this number lies between the estimated neuron count of a larval zebrafish and an adult zebrafish; note that there is great uncertainty in all these estimates). Total neuron count: ~10^21. It is estimated that humanity kills more than a trillion fish a year, and if we assume that they likewise have an average neuron count of around 1 million neurons, the total neuron count of these beings is ~10^18.
10^19 land arthropods, with an estimated average neuron count of 15,000 neurons (some insects have brains with more than a million neurons, but most arthropods appear to have considerably fewer neurons). Total neuron count: ~1.5*10^23. If humanity kills roughly the same proportion of land arthropods as the proportion of fish that we kill (e.g. through insecticides and insect farming), then the total neuron count of the land arthropods we kill is ~10^20.
10^21 nematodes, with an estimated average neuron count of 300 neurons. Total neuron count: ~3 * 10^23.
Why stop at chickens or fish?
The main argument that supports a strong emphasis on chickens or fish is presumably their large numbers (as well as their poor treatment, which I discuss below). Yet the numbers-based argument that supports a strong emphasis on chickens and fish could potentially also support a strong emphasis on small invertebrates such as insects. It is thus not clear why we should place a strict boundary right below chickens or fish beyond which this numbers-based argument no longer applies. After all, each step of this sequence entails a similar pattern in terms of crude numbers: we have individual beings who on average have 1-3 orders of magnitude fewer neurons yet who are 1-5 orders of magnitude more numerous than the beings in the previous step.
Invertebrate vs. vertebrate nervous systems
A defense that one could give in favor of placing a relatively strict boundary below fish is that we here go from vertebrates to invertebrates, and we can be significantly less sure that invertebrates suffer compared to vertebrates.
Perhaps this defense has some force. But how much? Our confidence that the beings in this sequence have the capacity to suffer should arguably decrease at least somewhat in each successive step, yet should the decrease in confidence from fish to insects really be that much bigger than in the previous steps?
Based on the knowledge that we ourselves can suffer, one might think that a group of beings’ phylogenetic distance from us (i.e. how distantly related they are to us) can provide a tentative prior as to whether those beings can suffer, and regarding how big a jump in confidence we should make for different kinds of beings. Yet phylogenetic distance per se arguably does not support a substantially greater decrease in confidence in the step from fish to insects compared to the previous steps in the sequence above.
The last common ancestor of humans and insects appears to have lived around 575 million years ago, whereas the last common ancestor of humans and fish lived around 400-485 million years ago (depending on the species of fish; around 420-460 million years for the most numerous fish). By comparison, the last common ancestor of humans and chickens lived around 300 million years ago, while the last common ancestor of humans and pigs lived around 100-125 million years ago.
Thus, when we look at different beings’ phylogenetic distance from humans in these temporal terms, it does not seem that the step between fish and insects (in the sequence above) is much larger than the step between fish and chickens or between chickens and pigs. In each case, the increase in the “distance” appears to be something like 100-200 million years.
Behavioral and neurological evidence
Of course, “phylogenetic distance from humans” does not represent strong evidence as to whether a group of beings has the capacity to suffer. After all, humans are more closely related to starfish (~100 neurons) than to octopuses (~500 million neurons), and we have much stronger reasons to think that the latter can suffer, based on behavioral and neurological evidence (cf. the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness).
In light of this evidence, it seems that a sharp drop in confidence regarding pain in insects (versus pain in fish) requires a justification.
Nematodes and extended sequences
I believe that a stronger decrease in confidence is warranted when comparing arthropods and nematodes, for a variety of reasons: the nematode nervous system consists primarily of a so-called nerve ring, which is quite distinct from the brains of arthropods, and unlike the neurons of arthropods (and other animals), nematode neurons do not have action potentials or orthologs of sodium-channels (e.g. Nav1 and Nav2), which appear to play criticalroles to pain signaling in other animals.
However, the evidence of pain in nematodes should not be understated either. The probability of pain in nematodes still seems non-negligible, and it arguably justifies substantial concern for (the risk of) nematode pain, even if it does not overall warrant a similarly strong concern and priority as does the suffering of chickens, fish, and arthropods.
This discussion also hints at why the sequence argument above need not imply that we should primarily focus on risks of suffering in bacteria or atoms, as one may reasonably hold that the probability of such suffering decreases by a greater rate than the number of the purported sufferers increases in such extended sequences.
Objection based on appalling treatment
Another reason one could give in favor of focusing on chickens and fish is that they are treated in particularly appalling ways, e.g. they are often crammed in extremely small spaces and killed in horrific ways. I agree that humanity’s abhorrent treatment of chickens and fish is a strong additional reason to prioritize helping them. Yet it seems that this same argument also favors a focus on insects.
After all, humanity poisons vast numbers of insects with insecticides that may cause intensely painful deaths, and in various insect farming practices — which are sadly growing — insects are commonly boiled, fried, or roasted alive. These practices seem no less cruel and appalling than the ways in which we treat and kill chickens and fish.
There are many reasons to expect that we are biased against giving adequate moral consideration to small invertebrates such as insects (in addition to our general speciesist bias). The four plausible biases listed below are by no means exhaustive.
It is highly inconvenient if insects can feel pain, as it would imply that 1) we should be concerned about far more beings, which greatly complicates our ethical and strategic considerations (compared to if we just focused on vertebrates); 2) the extent of pain and suffering in the world is far greater than we would otherwise have thought, which may be a painful conclusion to accept; and 3) we should take far greater care not to harm insects in our everyday lives. All these inconveniences likely motivate us to conclude that insects are not sentient or that they are not that important in the bigger picture.
Insects tend to be rather small, even compared to fish, which might make us reluctant to grant them moral consideration. In other words, our intuitions plausibly display a general sizeist bias. As a case in point, ants have more than twice as many neurons as lobsters, and there does not seem to be any clear reason to think that ants are less able to feel pain than are lobsters. Yet ants are obviously much smaller than lobsters, which may explain why people seem to show considerably more concern for lobsters than for ants, and why the number of people who believe that lobsters can feel pain (more than 80 percent in a UK survey) is significantly larger than the number of people who believe that ants can feel pain (around 56 percent). Of course, this pattern may also be partially explained by the inconvenience bias, since the acceptance of pain in lobsters seems less inconvenient than does the acceptance of pain in ants; but size likely still plays a significant role. (See also Vinding, 2015, “A Short Note on Insects”.)
Disgust and fear reflexes
It seems that many people have strong disgust reactions to (at least many) small invertebrates, such as cockroaches, maggots, and spiders. Some people may also feel fear toward these animals, or at least feel that they are nuisance. Gut reactions of this kind may well influence our moral evaluations of small invertebrates in general, even though they ideally should not.
Momentum/status quo bias
The animal movement has not historically focused on invertebrates, and hence there is little momentum in favor of focusing on their plight. That is, our status quo bias seems to favor a focus on helping the vertebrates whom the animal movement have traditionally focused on. To be sure, status quo bias also works against concern for fish and chickens to some degree (which is worth controlling for as well), yet chickens and fish have still received considerably more focus from the animal movement, and hence status quo bias likely negates concern for insects to an even stronger extent.
These biases should give us pause when we are tempted to reflexively dismiss the suffering of small invertebrates.
Other reasons to focus more on small invertebrates
In addition to the large number of arthropods and the evidence for arthropod pain, what other reasons might support a greater focus on small invertebrates?
An obvious reason is the neglect of these beings. As hinted in the previous section, a focus on helping small invertebrates has little historical momentum, and it is still extremely neglected in the broader animal movement today. This seems to me a fairly strong reason to focus more on invertebrates on the margin, or at the very least to firmly include invertebrates in one’s advocacy.
Opening people’s eyes to the extent of suffering and harmful decisions
Another, perhaps less obvious reason is that concern for smaller beings such as insects might help reduce risks of astronomical suffering. This claim should immediately raise some concerns about suspicious convergence, and as I have argued elsewhere, there is indeed a real risk that expanding the moral circle could increase rather than reduce future suffering. Partly for this reason, it might be better to promote a deeper concern for suffering than to promote wider moral circles (see also Vinding, 2020, ch. 12).
Yet that being said, I also think there is a sense in which wider moral circles can help promote a deeper concern for suffering, and not least give people a more realistic picture of the extent of suffering in the world. Simply put, a moral outlook that includes other vertebrates besides humans will see far more severe suffering and struggle in the world, and a perspective that also includes invertebrates will see even more suffering still. Indeed, not only does such an outlook open one’s eyes to more existing suffering, but it may also open one’s eyes (more fully) to humanity’s capacity to ignore suffering and to make decisions that actively increase it, even today.
Risks of spreading invertebrates to space: Beings at uniquely high risk of suffering due to human space expansion
Another way in which greater concern for invertebrate suffering might reduce risks of astronomical suffering is that small invertebrates seem to be among the animals who are most likely to be sent into space on a large scale in the future (e.g. because they may survive better in extreme environments). Indeed some invertebrates — including fruit flies, crickets, and wasps — have already been sent into space, and some tardigrades were even sent to the moon (though the spacecraft crashed and probably none survived). Hence, the risk of spreading animals to space plausibly gives us additional reason to include insects in animal advocacy.
Qualifications and counter-considerations
To be clear, the considerations reviewed above merely push toward increasing the emphasis that we place on small beings such as insects — they are not necessarily decisive reasons to give primary focus to those beings. In particular, these arguments do not make a case for focusing on helping insects over, say, new kinds of beings who might be created in the future in even larger numbers.
It is also worth noting that there may be countervailing reasons not to emphasize insects more. One is that it could risk turning people away from the plight of non-human animals and the horror of suffering, which many people might find difficult to relate to if insect suffering constitutes the main focus at a practical level. This may be a reason to favor a greater focus on the suffering of larger and (for most people) more relatable animals.
I think the considerations on both sides need to be taken into account, including considerations about future beings who may become even more numerous and more neglected than insects. The upshot, to my mind, is that while focusing primarily on helping insects is probably not the best way to reduce suffering (for most of us), it still seems likely that 1) promoting greater concern for insects, as well as 2) promoting concrete policies that help insects, both constitute a significant part of the optimal portfolio of aims to push for.
My own view on strategy in brief
While questions about which beings seem most worth helping (on the margin) can be highly relevant for many of our decisions, there are also many strategic decisions that do not depend critically on how we answer these questions.
Indeed, my own view on strategies for reducing animal suffering is that we generally do best by pursuing robust and broad strategies that help many beings simultaneously, without focusing too narrowly on any single group of beings. (Though as hinted above, I think there are many situations where it makes sense to focus on interventions that help specific groups of beings.)
This is one of the reasons why I tend to favor an antispeciesist approach to animal advocacy, with a particular emphasis on the importance of suffering. Such an approach is still compatible with highlighting the scale and neglectedness of the suffering of chickens, fish, and insects, as well as the scale and neglectedness of wild-animal suffering. That is, a general approach thoroughly “scope-informed” about the realities on the ground.
Final clarification: Numbers-based arguments need not assume that large amounts of mild suffering can be worse than extreme suffering
An objection against numbers-based arguments for focusing more on insects is that small pains, or a high probability of small pains, cannot be aggregated to be worse than extreme suffering.
I agree with the view that small pains donot add up to be worse than extreme suffering, yet I think it is mistaken to think that this view undermines any numbers-based argument for emphasizing insects more in animal advocacy. The reason, in short, is that we should also assign some non-negligible probability to the possibility that insects experience extreme suffering (e.g. in light of the evidence for pain in insects cited above). And this probability, combined with the very large number of insects, implies that there are many instances of extreme suffering occurring among insects in expectation. After all, the vast number of insects should lead us to believe that there are many beings who have experiences at the (expected) tail-end of the very worst experiences that insects can have.
As a concluding thought experiment that may challenge comfortable notions regarding the impossibility of intense pain among insects, consider that you were given the choice between A) living as a chicken inside a tiny battery cage for a full day, or B) being continually born and reborn as an insect who has the experience of being burned or crushed alive, for a total of a million days (for concreteness, you may imagine that you will be reborn as a butterfly like the one pictured at the top of this post).
If we were really given this choice, I doubt that we would consider it an easy choice in favor of B. I doubt that we would dismiss the seriousness of the worst insect suffering.
For their helpful comments, I am grateful to Tobias Baumann, Simon Knutsson, and Winston Oswald-Drummond.
If ever there were a bias that we evolved not to transcend, it is surely our speciesist bias. After all, we evolved in a context in which our survival depended on our killing and eating non-human beings. For most of our evolutionary history, the questioning of such a practice, and the belief that non-human beings should be taken seriously in moral terms, meant a radically decreased probability of survival and reproduction. And this would likely also apply to one’s entire tribe if one were to start spreading such a sentiment, which might help explain the visceral threat that many people seem to feel upon engaging with supporters of this sentiment today. In other words, having significant moral concern for non-human beings was probably not a recipe for survival in our evolutionary past. It was more like a death sentence. For this reason alone, we should expect to be extremelybiased on this matter.
And yet this evolutionary tale is far from the full story, as there is also a cultural story to be told, which provides even more reasons to expect our outlook to be intensely biased. For on top of our (likely) speciesist biological hardware, we also have the software of cultural programming running, and it runs the ultimate propaganda campaign against concern for non-human beings. Indeed, if we ran just a remotely similar campaign against humans, we would consider the term “propaganda” a gross understatement. Their body parts are for sale at every supermarket and on the menu for virtually every meal; their skin is ripped off their bodies and used for handbags, shoes, and sports equipment; their names are used pejoratively in every other sentence. Why, indeed, would anyone expect this to leave our moral cognition with respect to these beings biased in the least? Or rather, why should we expect to stand any chance whatsoever of having just a single rational thought about the moral status of these beings? Well, we arguably shouldn’t — not without immense amounts of effort spent rebelling against our crude nature and the atrocious culture that it has spawned.
Another bias that is relevant to consider, on top of the preceding considerations, is that human altruism tends to be motivated by a hidden drive to show others how cool and likable we are, and to increase our own social status. To think that we transcend this motive merely by calling ourselves “effective altruists” would be naive. The problem, then, is that rejecting speciesism and taking the implications of such a rejection seriously is, sadly, seen as quite uncool at this point. If one were to do so, one would become more than a little obnoxious and unlikeable in the eyes of most people, and be more like a favorite object of ridicule than of admiration, none of which is enticing for social creatures like us. So even if reason unanimously says that we should reject speciesism, we have a thousand and one social reasons that say just the opposite.
There are also psychological studies that demonstrate the existence of strong biases in our views of non-human individuals, such as that we “value individuals of certain species less than others even when beliefs about intelligence and sentience are accounted for”. More than that, we deny the mental capacities of the kinds of beings whom we consider food — a denial that is increased by “expectations regarding the immediate consumption” of such beings.
These forms of bias should give us pause and should encourage serious reflection. The way forward, it seems, is to admit that we are extremely biased and to commit to doing better.
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.
First published: Feb. 2021. Last update: Feb. 2021.
Two positions are worth distinguishing. One is the view that we should reduce (extreme) suffering as much as we can for all sentient beings. The other is the view that we should advocate for humans not to have children.
It may seem intuitive to think that the former position implies the latter. That is, to think that the best way to reduce suffering for all sentient beings is to advocate for humans not to have children. My aim in this brief essay is to outline some of the reasons to be skeptical of this claim.
Lewis, 2016warns of “suspicious convergence”, which he introduces with the following toy example:
Oliver: … Thus we see that donating to the opera is the best way of promoting the arts.
Eleanor: Okay, but I’m principally interested in improving human welfare.
Oliver: Oh! Well I think it is also the case that donating to the opera is best for improving human welfare too.
The general point is that, for any set of distinct altruistic aims or endeavors we may consider, we should be a priori suspicious of the claim that they are perfectly convergent — i.e. that directly pursuing one of them also happens to be the very best thing we can do for achieving the other. Justifying such a belief would require good, object-level reasons. And in the case of the respective endeavors of reducing suffering and advocating for humans not to procreate, we in a sense find the opposite, as there are good reasons to be skeptical of a strong degree of convergence, and even to think that such antinatalist advocacy might increase future suffering.
The marginal impact of antinatalist advocacy
A key point when evaluating the impact of altruistic efforts is that we need to think at the margin: how does our particular contribution change the outcome, in expectation? This is true whether our aims are modest or maximally ambitious — our actions and resources still represent but a very small fraction of the total sum of actions and resources, and we can still only exert relatively small pushes toward our goals.
What, then, is the marginal impact of advocating for people not to have children? One way to try to answer this question is to explore the expected effects of preventing a single human birth. Antinatalist analyses of this question are quick to point out the many harms caused by a single human birth, which must indeed be considered. Yet what these analyses tend not to consider are the harms that a human birth would prevent.
For example, in his book Better Never to Have Been, David Benatar writes about “the suffering inflicted on those animals whose habitat is destroyed by encroaching humans” (p. 224) — which, again, should definitely be included in our analysis. Yet he fails to consider the many births and all the suffering that would be prevented by an additional human birth, such as due to its marginal effects onhabitat reduction (“fewer people means more animals“). As Brian Tomasikargues, when we consider a wider range of the effects humans have on animal suffering, “it seems plausible that encouraging people to have fewer children actually causes an increase in suffering and involuntary births.”
This highlights how a one-sided analysis such as Benatar’s is deeply problematic when evaluating potential interventions. We cannot simply look at the harms prevented by our pet interventions without considering how they might lead to more harm. Both things must be considered.
To be clear, the considerations above regarding the marginal effects of human births on animal suffering by no means represent a complete analysis of the effects of additional human births, or of advocating for humans not to have children. But they do represent compelling reasons to doubt that such advocacy is among the best things we can do to reduce suffering for all sentient beings, at least in terms of the direct effects, which leads us to the next point.
Some seem to hold that the main reason to advocate against human procreation is not the direct effects, but rather its long-term effects on humanity’s future. I agree that the influence our ideas and advocacy efforts have on humanity’s long-term future are plausibly the most important thing about them, and I think many antinatalists are likely to have a positive influence in this regard by highlighting the moral significance of suffering (and the relative insignificance of pleasure).
But the question is why we should think that the best way to steer humanity’s long-term future toward less suffering is to argue for people not to have children. After all, the space of possible interventions we could pursue to reduce future suffering is vast, and it would be quite a remarkable coincidence if relatively simple interventions — such as advocating for antinatalism or veganism — happened to be the very best way to reduce suffering, or even among the best.
In particular, the greatest risk from a long-term perspective is that things somehow go awfully wrong, and that we counterfactually greatly increase future suffering, either by creating additionalsourcesofsuffering in the future, or by simply failing to reduce existingformsofsuffering when we could. And advocating for people not to have children seems unlikely to be among the best ways to reduce the risk of such failures — again since the space of possible interventions is vast, and interventions that are targeted more directly at reducing these risks, including the risk of leaving wild-animal suffering unaddressed, are probably significantly more effective than is advocating for humans not to procreate.
If our aim is to reduce suffering for all sentient beings, a plausible course of action would be to pursue an open-ended research project on how we can best achieve this aim. This is, after all, not a trivial question, and we should hardly expect the most plausible answers to be intuitive, let alone obvious. Exploring this question requires epistemic humility, and forces us to contend with the vast amount of empirical uncertainty facing any endeavor to create a better world.
In more concrete terms, antinatalists may be more effective if they focus on defending antinatalism for wild animals in particular. This case seems easier to make given the overwhelming amount of suffering and early death in nature, it pertains to a larger number of beings, and it may have more beneficial near-term and long-term effects — being less at risk of increasing non-human suffering in the near term, and plausibly being more conducive to reducing worst-case risks, whether these entail spreading non-human life or simply failing to reduce wild-animal suffering.
Broadly speaking, the aim of reducing suffering would seem to recommend efforts to identify the main ways in which humanity might cause — or prevent — vast amounts of suffering in the future, and to find out how we can best navigate accordingly. None of these conclusions seem to support efforts to convince people not to have children as a particularly promising strategy, though they likely do recommend efforts to promote concern for suffering more generally.
The aim of this essay is to list some of the reasons why animal advocates and aspiring effective altruists may be biased against prioritizing wild-animal suffering. These biasing factors are, I believe, likely to significantly distort the views and priorities of most people who hold impartial moral views concerned about the suffering of all non-human animals.
The animal rights movement has, historically, been almost exclusively concerned with the protection of non-human animals exploited by humans. Very little attention has been devoted to suffering in nature for natural reasons. And to the extent the issue has been mentioned by philosophers in the past, it has rarely been framed as something that we ought to do something about.
Only in recent decades has the view that wild-animal suffering deserves serious attention in our practical deliberations been defended more explicitly. And the people who have defended this view have, of course, still been a tiny minority among activists concerned about animal suffering, and they have so far had little impact on the focus and activism of the animal movement at large.
This historical background matters greatly, since we humans very much have a social epistemology: we tend to pick up the views of our peers. For example, most people adopt the religion that is most popular in theirgeographical region, even if it is not the most rational belief system on reflection. And a similar pattern applies to our views in general. It is truly rare for people to think critically and independently.
Thus, if most people concerned about non-human animals — including our own mentors and personal heroes — have focused almost exclusively on the plight of non-human animals exploited by humans, then we are likely to be strongly inclined to do the same, even if this is not the most rational focus on reflection (in terms of how we can have the best impact on the margin).
2. Emotionally salient footage
Closely related to the point above is the fact that footage of suffering “farm animals” constitutes almost all of the disturbing footage we see of animal suffering. Whether on social media or in documentary movies about animal rights, the vast majority of the content encountered by the average animal activist shows cows, pigs, and chickens who are suffering at human hands.
Note how unrepresentative this picture is: a great majority of the animal suffering we observe occurs at human hands, although the vast majority of all suffering beings on the planet are found in nature. It is difficult to see how this can give us anything but a skewed sense of what is actually happening on our planet.
Yet not only will most of us have been exposed to far more suffering occurring at human hands, but we probably also tend to see the victims of such suffering with very different eyes compared to how we see the victims of natural processes. When we, as animal activists, see pigs and chickens suffer at human hands, we look at these beings with sympathy. We feel moral outrage. But when we see a being suffer in nature for natural reasons — for example, a baby elephant getting eaten alive — we are probably more hesitant about activating this same sympathy. Sure, we may lament the suffering and feel bad for the victim. But we do not truly see ourselves in the victim’s place. We do not look at the situation with moral eyes that cry “this is unacceptable”.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of this point. For while we may like to think of our activism and moral priorities as being animated chiefly by reasoned arguments, the truth is that salient experiences tend to matter just as much, if not more, for our moral motivation. It is one thing to think that wild-animal suffering is important, but it is quite another to feel it. The latter renders action less optional.
If we had only seenmorefootageofwild-animalsuffering, and — most crucially — dared to behold such footage with truly sympathetic eyes, we would probably feel its moral gravity much more clearly, and in turn feel more motivated to address the problem. It seems unlikely that the priorities of the animal movement would be largely the same if more than 99 percent of the horrible footage encountered by animal activists had displayed the suffering of wild animals.
3. Perpetrator bias
Another relevant bias to control for is what I have called the perpetrator bias: we seem to care more about suffering when it is caused by a moral agent who has brought it about by intentional action (Vinding, 2020, 7.7). By extension, we tend to neglect suffering when it is not caused by intentional actions, such as when it occurs in nature for natural reasons. This bias, and its relevance to our appraisals of wild-animal suffering, has been explored in (Tomasik, 2013; Davidow, 2013).
As both Tomasik and Davidow argue, this bias could well be among the main reasons why most people, and indeed most animal advocates, tend to neglect the problem of wild-animal suffering. Our moral psychology is very much set up to track the transgressions of perpetrators, which can leave us relatively unmoved by suffering that involves no perpetrators, even if our reflected view is that all suffering should matter equally. After all, the core programming of our moral cognition does not change instantly just because a few of the modules in our minds have come to endorse a more advanced, impartial view.
4. Omission bias
Some version of theomissionbias— our tendency to judge harmful acts of omission more leniently than harmful acts of commission, even when the consequences are the same —may be another reason why people with impartial views give less priority to wild-animal suffering than they ideally should. Our moral psychology is plausibly often motivated to focus on wrongs that we can be perceived to be responsible for, and for which we may be blamed.
Suffering caused by humans is in some sense done by “us”, and hence we may instinctively feel that we are more blameworthy for allowing such suffering to occur compared to allowing the suffering of wild animals. This might in turn incline us toward focusing on the former rather than the latter. Yet from an impartial perspective, this is not a sound reason for prioritizing human-caused suffering over “natural” suffering.
5. Scope neglect
Numbers are commonly invoked as one of the main reasons for focusing on “farm animals”. For example, there are about a hundred times as many non-human animals used and killed for food as there are companion animals, and hence we should generally spend our limited resources on helping the former rather than the latter. What is less commonly acknowledged, however, is that a similar thing can be said about wild animals, who, even if we only count vertebrates, outnumber vertebrates used and killed for food at least a thousand times (and perhaps more than 100,000 times).
Such numbers are notoriouslydifficult for us to internalize in our moral outlook. Our minds were simply not built to feel the significance of several orders of magnitude. Consequently, we have to make an arduous effort to really appreciate the force of this consideration.
The following illustration from Animal Charity Evaluators shows the relative proportion of wild vertebrates to domesticated vertebrates:
6. Invertebrate neglect
Related to, and amplifying, the scope-neglect consideration is our neglect of invertebratesuffering. Not only are domesticated vertebrates outnumbered by wild vertebrates by at least a thousand times, but wild vertebrates are, in turn, outnumbered by wild invertebrates by at least ten thousand times (and perhaps by more than ten million times). .
Put differently, more than 99.99 percent of all animals are invertebrates, and virtually all of them live in the wild. Taking the suffering of invertebrates into account thus gives us another strong — and widely ignored — reason in favor of prioritizing wild-animal suffering. And in line with the point about the significance of emotionally salient footage, it may be that we need to watch footage of harmedinvertebrates in order for us to fully appreciate the weight of this consideration.
7. Thinking we can have no impact
A common objection against focusing on wild-animal suffering is that the problem is intractable — if we could do anything about it, then we should prioritize it, but there just isn’t anything we can do at this point.
This is false in two principal ways. First, we humans already make countless decisions that influence animals in the wild (and we will surely make even more significant such decisions in the future). For example, the environmental policies adopted by our societies already influence large numbers of non-human animals in significant ways, and it would be false to claim that such policies are impossible to influence. After all, environmental groups have already been able to influence such policies to a considerable extent. Sadly, such groups have routinely pushed for policies that are profoundly speciesist and harmful for non-human animals — often with support from animal advocates, which shows how important it is that animal activists do not blindly endorse environmentalist policies, and how important it is that we reflect on the relationship between environmentalist ethics and animal ethics. And, of course, beyond influencing large-scale policy decisions, there are also many interventions we can make on a smaller scale that still help non-human animals in significant ways.
Second, we can help wild animals in indirect ways: by arguing against speciesism and for the importance of taking wild-animal suffering into consideration, as well as by establishing a research field focused on how we can best help wild animals on a large scale. Such indirect work, i.e. work that does not lead to direct interventions in the near term, may be the most important thing we can do at this point, even as our current wildlife policies and direct interventions are already hugely consequential.
There are reasons to think that animal advocates strongly underestimate public receptivity to the idea that wild-animal suffering matters and is worth reducing (see also what I have writtenelsewhere concerning the broader public’s receptivity to antispeciesist advocacy).
One reason could be that animal advocates themselves tend to find the idea controversial, and they realize that veganism is already quite controversial to most people. Hence, they reason, if they, as animal advocates, find the idea so controversial, and if most people find mere veganism to be highly controversial, then surely the broader public must find concern for wild-animal suffering extremely controversial.
Yet such an expectation is heavily distorted by the idiosyncratic position in which vegans find themselves. The truth is that most people may well view things the opposite way: veganism is controversial to them because they are currently heavily invested — socially and habit-wise — in non-veganism. By contrast, most people are not heavily invested in non-intervention with respect to wild animals, and thus have little incentive to oppose it.
The following is a relevant quote fromOscar Horta that summarizes his experience of giving talks about the issues of speciesism and wild-animal suffering at various high schools (my own software-assisted translation):
Intervention to help animals is easily accepted There are many antispeciesist activists who are afraid to defend the idea of helping animals in the wild. Even if these activists totally agree with the idea, they believe that most people will reject it completely, and even consider the idea absurd. However, among the people attending the talks there was a very wide acceptance of the idea. Radical cases of intervention were not raised in the talks, but all the examples presented were well accepted. These included cases of injured, sick or trapped animals being rescued; orphan animal shelters; medical assistance to sick or injured animals; vaccination of wild animals; and provision of food for animals at risk of starvation. In sum, there does not seem to be any reason to be afraid of conveying this idea in talks of this type.
Of course, the claim here is not that everybody, or even most people, will readily agree with the idea of helping wild animals — many will surely resist it strongly. But the same holds true of all advocacy on behalf of non-human animals, and the point is that, contrary to our intuitive expectations, public receptivity to helping non-human animals in nature may in many ways be greater than their receptivity to helping “farm animals” (although receptivity toward the latter also appears reasonably highwhen the issue is framed in terms of institutionalchangerather thanindividual consumer change).
Veganism is rising, and there are considerable incentives entirely separate from concern for nonhuman animals to move away from the production of animal “products”. In economic terms, it is inefficient to sustain an animal in order to use her flesh and skin rather than togrow meatand other animal-derived products directly, or replace them with plant-based alternatives. Similarly strong incentives exist in the realm of public health, which animal agriculture threatens byincreasing the risksof zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA, and cardiovascular disease. These incentives, none of which have anything to do with concern for nonhuman animals per se, could well be pushing humanity toward veganism more powerfully than anything else.
So despite the bleakness of the current situation, there are many incentives that appear to push humanity toward the abolition of animal exploitation, and we may even be moving in that direction faster than most of us expect (this is not, of course, a reason to be complacent about the unspeakable moral atrocity of “animal farming”, but it is something to take into account in our approach to helping future beings as much as we can).
In contrast, there are no corresponding incentives that lead us to help non-human animals in nature, and thus no strong reasons to think that humanity (including environmentalists, sadly) will take the interests of wild animals sufficiently into account if we do not advocate on their behalf.
Advocacy focused on wild animals is already vastly neglected in the animal movement today, and when we consider what the future is likely to look like, the level of priority animal advocates currently devote to the problem of wild-animal suffering seems even more disproportionate still.
10. Long-term nebulousness bias
This last bias is a bit more exotic and applies mostly to so-called longtermist effective altruists. People who focus on improving the long-term future can risk ending up with a rather nebulous sense of how to act and what to prioritize: there are so many hypothetical cause areas to consider, and it is often difficult to find tractable ways to further a given cause. Moreover, since there tends to be little real-world data that can help us make progress on these issues, longtermists are often forced to rely mostly on speculation — which in turn opens the floodgates for overconfidence in such speculations. In other words, focusing on the long-term future can easily lead us to rely far too strongly on untested abstractions, and to pay insufficient attention to real-world data and existing problems.
In this way, a (naive) longtermist focus may lead us to neglect concrete problems that evidently do have long-term relevance, and which we can take clear steps toward addressing today. We neglect such problems not only because most of our attention is devoted to more speculative things, but also because these concrete problems do not seem to resemble the “ultimate thing” that clearly improves the long-term future far better than other, merely decent focus areas. Unfortunately, such an “ultimate thing” is, I would argue, unlikely to ever be found. (And if one thinks one has found it, therearereasonsto beskeptical.)
In effect, a naive longtermist focus can lead us to overlook just how promising work to reduce wild-animal suffering in fact is, and how long a list of compelling reasons one can give in its favor: in terms of scale, it vastly dominates all other sources of currently existing suffering; it is, as argued above, a tractable problem where there are fairly concrete and robust ways to make progress; and the problem is likely to exist and be dominant in scale for a long time — centuries, at least.
More than that, work to reduce wild-animal suffering is also likely to have many good flow-through effects. For example, such work is probably among the most promising actions we can take to prevent the spread of animal suffering tospace to space, which is one of the least speculative s-risks (i.e. risks of astronomical future suffering). Indeed, there are already people who activelyadvocate that humanity should spread nature to space, and concreteproposals for how it could be accomplished already exist.
The risk of spreading wild-animal suffering to space appears greater than the risk of spreading factory farming to space, not least in light of the point made in the previous section concerning the incentives and future technologies that are likely to render factory farming obsolete. One may, of course, object that the risks of astronomical future suffering we reduce by addressing factory farming today do not involve factory farming itself but rather future analogs of it. This is a fair point, and such risks of future analogs to factory farming should indeed be taken seriously. However, by the same token, one can argue that we also address future analogs to wild-animal suffering by working on that problem today, and indeed further argue that this would be a superior focus.
After all, work to address wild-animal suffering appears more wide-ranging and inclusive than does work to address factory farming — for example, it is difficult to imagine a future where we address wild-animal suffering (and analog problems) yet fail to address factory farming (and analog problems). Future scenarios where we address the latter yet fail to address the former seem more plausible, since addressing wild-animal suffering takes a greater level of moral sophistication: it not only requires that we avoid directly harming other beings, but also that we actively help them.
Which brings us to another positive secondary effect of focusing on wild-animal suffering: such a focus embodies and reinforces the virtue of factoring in numbers in our moral deliberations, as well as the virtue of extending our circle of moral concern — and responsibility — to even include beings who suffer for reasons we ourselves had no hand in. It is a focus that reflects a truly universal view of our moral obligations, and it does this to a significantly greater extent than a mere opposition to factory farming or (anthropogenic) animal exploitation in general.
To be clear, I am not claiming that wild-animal suffering is necessarily the best thing to focus on for people trying to reduce suffering in the long-term future (I myself happen to think suffering-focused research of a more general nature is somewhat better). But I do claim that it is a decent candidate, and a better candidate than one is likely to realize when caught up in speculative far-modesequence thinking.
Either/Or: A false choice
To say that most of us likely have strong biases against prioritizing wild-animal suffering, and that we should give it much greater priority, is not to say that we cannot still support efforts to abolish animal exploitation, and indeed do effective work toward this end.
As I have argued elsewhere, one of the many advantages of antispeciesist advocacy is that it encompasses all non-human animals and all the suffering they endure — anthropogenic as well as naturogenic.
Addendum: An important bias I left out above is the “proportion bias” (Vinding, 2020, 7.6), also known as “proportiondominance“: our tendency to care more about helping 10 out of 10 individuals than we care about helping 10 out of 100, even though the impact is the same. This bias is especially relevant in the context of wild-animal suffering given the enormous scale at which it continually occurs as a backdrop to any altruistic effort we may pursue.
In terms of biases in the other direction, Jacy Reese has suggested some biases that may favor a focus on wild-animal suffering (though note that he largely agrees with me: “there are no ‘similarly strong’ biases [in the other direction] in the sense that, among self-identified animal advocates, the biases away from wild animal suffering are much stronger than biases toward”). I have shared my views on Jacy’s points on Twitter.