In Reasoned Politics, Magnus Vinding lays out a path toward politics based on ethical reasoning and empirical evidence. He argues that a better approach to politics is both conceivable and realistic. Modern discoveries in political psychology hint at new, improved norms for political discourse and cooperation, while also pointing to concrete ways in which such improvements can gradually be realized.
Having outlined a general framework for reasoned politics, Vinding proceeds to apply this framework to real-world policy issues. Based on an ethical foundation that takes the suffering of all sentient beings into account, he explores various lines of evidence to infer which policies seem most helpful for alleviating severe suffering.
“We missed it, now we have it. The Magnum Opus for a Reasoned Politics for all, humans and animals alike. I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in a rational approach to politics.” — Sabine Brels, international animal lawyer, author of Le droit du bien-être animal dans le monde
“In a time of heated political debate, Magnus Vinding provides a strong case for pursuing reason in politics, while cautioning us about the dangers of giving up on it. Vinding practices what he preaches — the book engages with relevant research from different areas to make its case in a reasoned way. It combines a wide-ranging view with topical applications. Even if not agreeing on every topic, the reader will come out enlightened.” — Tiago Ribeiro Dos Santos, author of Why Not Parliamentarism?
“A compelling case for a new kind of politics. Politics shouldn’t be conducted in the interests of any one ethnic group or species, but instead to promote the interests of all sentient beings. The text combines a masterly command of the academic literature with a minimum of scholarly clutter. Vinding’s plea for an alliance of reason and compassion deserves the widest possible audience. Highly recommended.” — David Pearce, author of The Hedonistic Imperative and Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?
“Magnus Vinding’s extensively researched and lucidly written work is a welcome antidote to the bold claims and strong opinions that permeate politics and activism. He carefully proposes aims and approaches that may inch us towards a world with less intense suffering of all sentient beings, based on empirical findings from sociology, psychology and other fields. A must-read for any changemaker concerned about how to reduce suffering over the long term.” — Jonathan Leighton, founder of the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering, author of The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe
“This book is unlike any other I know. Reasoned Politics shows us how we can adopt a form of politics thoughtfully informed by the right kind of values. To do this, we need to clarify our moral priorities and to identify the individual and collective political choices that best honor them. This task requires disciplined reflection, awareness of cognitive biases, patient empirical research, and inclusive deliberation. As Vinding argues, the reduction of suffering, human and non-human, must be central to any plausible political ideal. He then considers the political structures and norms that will advance the reduction of suffering and other paramount values. This leads him to an illuminating discussion of how to understand the concepts of liberty, equality, justice, and democracy. Unlike most political theorists, Vinding never lets his readers forget the urgency of ending our species’ indefensibly cruel treatment of non-human animals. This book is filled with insight, wisdom, and critical information. Vinding models the virtues that he recommends in political discourse: he is observant, clear-minded, humane, sensible, honest, and unafraid. Political theorists should take a break from what they are doing and read Reasoned Politics.” — Jamie Mayerfeld, professor of political science at the University of Washington, author of Suffering and Moral Responsibility and The Promise of Human Rights
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.
While there may be strong deontological or virtue-ethical reasons to avoid consuming animal products (“as far as is possible and practicable”), the consequentialist case for such avoidance is quite weak.
Or at least this appears to be a common view in some consequentialist-leaning circles. My aim in this post is to argue against this view. On a closer look, we find many strong consequentialist reasons to avoid the consumption of animal products.
The direct effects on the individuals we eat
99 percent of animals raised for foodin the US, and more than 90 percentglobally, live out their lives on factory farms. These are lives of permanent confinement to very small spaces, often involving severe abuse, as countless undercover investigations have revealed. And their slaughter frequently involves extreme suffering as well — for example, about a million chickens and turkeys are boiled alive in the US every year, and fish, the vast majority of farmed vertebrates, are usually slaughtered without any stunning. They are routinely suffocated to death, frozen to death, and cut in ways that leave them to bleed to death (exsanguination).
Increasing such suffering via one’s marginal consumption is bad on virtually all consequentialist views. And note that, empirically, it turns out that people who aspire to avoid meat from factory farmed animals (“conscientious omnivores”) actually often do not (John & Sebo, 2020, 3.2; Rothgerber, 2015). And an even greater discrepancy between ideals and actuality is found in the behavior of those who believe that the animals they eat are “treated well”, which in the US is around 58 percent of people, despite the fact that over 99 percent of farm animals in the US live on factory farms (Reese, 2017).
Furthermore, even in Brian Tomasik’s analyses that factor in the potential of animal agriculture to reduce wild-animal suffering, the consumption of virtually all animal “products” is recommended against — including eggs and meat from fish (farmed and wild-caught), chickens, pigs, and (especially) insects. Brian argues that the impact of not consuming meat is generally positive, both because of the direct marginal impact (“avoiding eating one chicken or fish roughly translates to one less chicken or fish raised and killed”) and because of the broader social effects (more on the latter below).
The above is an important consequentialist consideration against consuming animal products. Yet unfortunately, consequentialist analyses tend to give far too much weight to this consideration alone, and to treat it as the end-all be-all of consequentialist arguments against consuming animal products when, in fact, it is not necessarily even one of the most weighty arguments.
Another important consideration has to do with the institutional effects of animal consumption. These effects seem superficially similar to those discussed in the previous point, yet they are in fact quite distinct.
For one, there is the increased financial support to an industry that not only systematically harms currently existing individuals, but which also, perhaps more significantly, actively works to undermine moral concern for future non-human individuals. It does this through influential lobbying activities and by advertising in ways that effectively serve as propaganda against non-human animals (that is certainly what we would call it in the human case if an industry continually worked to legitimize the exploitation and killing of certain human individuals; in fact, “propaganda” may be overly euphemistic).
Supporting this industry can be seen as anti-charity of sorts, as it pushes us away from betterment for non-human animals at the level of our broader institutions. And this effect could well be moresignificant than the direct marginal impact on non-human beings consumed, as such institutional factors may be a greater determinant of how many such beings will suffer in the future.
Not only are these institutional effects negative for future farmed animals, but the resulting reinforcement of speciesism and apathy toward non-human animals in general likely also impedes concern for wild animals in particular. And given the numbers, this effect may be even more important than the negative effect on future farmed animals.
Another institutional effect is that, when we publicly buy or consume animal products, we signal to other people that non-human individuals can legitimately be viewed as food, and that we approve of the de facto horrific institution of animal agriculture. This signaling effect is difficult to avoid even if we do not in fact condone most of the actual practices involved. After all, virtually nobody condones the standard practices, such as the castration of pigs without anesthetics. And yet virtually all of us still condone these practices behaviorally, and indeed effectively support their continuation.
In this way, publicly buying or consuming animal products can, regardless of one’s intentions, end up serving as miniature anti-activism against the cause of reducing animal suffering — it serves to normalize a collectively perpetrated atrocity — while choosing to forego such products can serve as miniature activism in favor of the cause.
One may object that the signaling effects of such individual actions are insignificant. Yet we are generally not inclined to say the same about the signaling effects of, say, starkly racist remarks, even when the individuals whom the remarks are directed against will never know about them (e.g. when starkly anti-black sentiments are shared in forums with white people only). The reason, I think, is that we realize that such remarks do have negative effects down the line, and we realize that these effects are not minor.
It is widely acknowledged that, to human psychology, racism is a ticking bomb that we should make a consistent effort to steer away from, lest we corrode our collective attitudes and in turn end up systematically exploiting and harming certain groups of individuals. We have yet to realize that the same applies to speciesism.
For a broader analysis of the social effects of the institution of animal exploitation, see (John & Sebo, 2020, 3.3). Though note that I disagree with John and Sebo’s classical utilitarian premise, which would allow us to farm individuals, and even kill them in the most horrible ways, provided that their lives were overall “net positive” (the horrible death included). I think this notion of “net positive” needs to be examinedatlength, especially in the interpersonal context where some beings’ happiness is claimed to outweigh the extreme suffering of others.
Influence on our own perception
The influence on our own attitudes and thinking is another crucial factor. Indeed, for a consequentialist trying to think straight about how to prioritize one’s resources for optimal impact, this may be the most important reason not to consume animal products.
Moral denigration is a well-documented effect
Common sense suggests that we cannot think clearly about the moral status of a given group of individuals as long as we eat them. Our evolutionary history suggests the same: it was plausibly adaptive in our evolutionary past to avoid granting any considerable moral status to individuals categorized as “food animals”.
Psychological studies bear out common sense and evolution-based speculation. In Don’t Mind Meat? The Denial of Mind to Animals Used for Human Consumption, Brock Bastian and colleagues demonstrated that people tend to ascribe diminished mental capacities to “food animals”; that “meat eaters are motivated to deny minds to food animals when they are reminded of the link between meat and animal suffering”; and that such mind denial is increased when people expect to eat meat in the near future.
categorization as food — but not killing or human responsibility — was sufficient to reduce the animal’s perceived capacity to suffer, which in turn restricted moral concern.
This finding is in line with the prevalence of so-called consistency effects, our psychological tendency to adapt beliefs that support our past and present behavior (see Salamon & Rayhawk’s Cached Selves and Huemer, 2010, “5.d Coherence bias”). For example, “I eat animals, and hence animals don’t suffer so much and don’t deserve great moral consideration”.
And yet another study (Loughnan et al., 2010) found that the moral numbing effects of meat eating applied to other non-human animals as well, suggesting that these numbing effects may extend to wild animals:
Eating meat reduced the perceived obligation to show moral concern for animals in general and the perceived moral status of the [animal being eaten].
These studies confirm a point that a number of philosophers have been trying to convey for a while (see John & Sebo, 2020, 3.2 for a brief review). Here is Peter Singer in Practical Ethics (as quoted in ibid.):
it would be better to reject altogether the killing of animals for food, unless one must do so to survive. Killing animals for food makes us think of them as objects that we can use as we please …
And such objectification, in turn, has horrendous consequences. This is usually quite obvious in the human case: few people are tempted to claim that it would be inconsequential if we began eating a given group of humans, even if we stipulated that these humans had the same mental abilities as, say, pigs. Singer’s point about objectification is obvious to most people in this case, and most consequentialists would probably say that raising, killing, and eating humans could only be recommended by very naive and incomplete consequentialist analyses detached from the real world — not least the realities of human psychology. Yet the same ought to be concluded when the beings in question possess not just the minds but also the bodies of pigs.
Relatedly, in the hypothetical case where systematic exploitation of certain humans is the norm, few consequentialists would be tempted to say that abstention from the consumption of human products (e.g. human body parts or forcefully obtained breast milk) is insignificant, or say that it is not worth sticking with it because other things are more important. For on reflection, when we put on the more sophisticated consequentialist hat, we realize that such abstention probably is an important component of the broader set of actions that constitutes the ethically optimal path forward. The same ought to be concluded, I submit, in the non-human case.
Note, finally, that even if we believed ourselves to be exceptions to all of the psychological tendencies reviewed above — a belief we should be skeptical of given the prevalence of illusory superiority — it would still be hypocritical and a failure of integrity if we ourselves did not follow a norm that we would recommend others to follow. And consequentialists have good reasons to show high integrity.
This is more of a meta consideration suggesting that 1) we should be skeptical of convenient conclusions, and 2) we should adhere to stricter principles than a naive consequentialist analysis might imply.
A good reason to adhere to reasonably strict principles is that, if we loosen our principles and leave everything up for case-by-case calculation, we open the door for biases to sneak in.
As Jamie Mayerfeld writes in Suffering and Moral Responsibility (p. 121):
An agent who regarded [sound moral principles] as mere rules of thumb would ignore them whenever she calculated that compliance wasn’t necessary to minimize the cumulative badness of suffering. The problem is that it might also be in her own interest to violate these principles, and self-interest could distort her calculations, even when she calculated sincerely. She could thus acquire a pattern of violating the principles even when compliance with them really was necessary to prevent the worst cumulative suffering. To avoid this, we would want her to feel strongly inhibited from violating the principles. Inhibitions of this kind can insulate agents from the effect of biased calculations.
And there are indeed many reasons to think that our “calculations” are strongly biased against concern for non-human individuals and against the conclusion that we should stop consuming them. For example, there is the fact that people who do not consume animal products face significant stigma — for example, one US study found that people tended to evaluate vegans more negatively than other minority groups, such as atheists and homosexuals; “only drug addicts were evaluated more negatively than vegetarians and vegans”. And a recent study suggested that fear of stigmatization is among the main reasons why people do not want to stop eating animal products. Yet fear of stigmatization is hardly, on reflection, a sound moral reason to eat animal products.
A more elaborate review of relevant biases can be found in (Vinding, 2018, “Bias Alert: We Should Expect to Be Extremely Biased”; Vinding, 2020, 11.5).
Defenses of the consumption of non-human individuals often rest on strongly anthropocentric values (which cannot be justified). But even on such anthropocentric terms, a surprisingly strong case can in fact be made against animal consumption given the negative effects animal agriculture has on human health — effects that individual consumption will also contribute to on the margin.
First, as is quite salient these days, animal agriculture significantly increases the risk of zoonotic diseases. Many of the most lethal diseases of the last century were zoonotic diseases that spread to humans due to animal agriculture and/or animal consumption, including the 1918 flu (50-100 million deaths), AIDS (30-40 million deaths), the Hong Kong flu (1-4 million deaths), and the 1957-1958 flu (1-4 million deaths). The same is true of the largest epidemics so far in this century, such as SARS, Ebola, COVID-19, and various bird and swine flus.
A remarkable 61 percent of all human pathogens, and 75 percent of new human pathogens, are transmitted by animals, and some of the most lethal bugs affecting humans originate in our domesticated animals.
Antibiotic resistance is another health problem exacerbated by animal agriculture. Each year in the US, more than 35,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections, which is more than twice the annual number of US gun homicides. And around 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US are given to non-human animals — often simply to promote growth rather than to fight infections. In other words, animal agriculture is a key contributor to antibiotic resistance.
The environmental effects of animal agriculture represent another important factor, or rather set of factors. There is pollution — “ammonia pollution linked to U.S. farming may impose human health costs that are greater than the profits earned by agricultural exports”. There are greenhouse gases contributing significantly to climate change. There is nitrate contamination of the groundwater from manure:
The EPA found that nitrates are the most widespread agricultural contaminant in drinking water wells and estimates that 4.5 million people [in the US] are exposed to elevated nitrate levels from drinking water wells. Nitrates, if they find their way into the groundwater, can potentially be fatal to infants.
Beyond the environmental effects, there are also significant health risks associated with the direct consumption of animal products, includingredmeat, chickenmeat, fishmeat, eggs and dairy. Conversely, significant health benefits are associated with alternative sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, and seeds. This is relevant both collectively, for the sake of not supporting industries that activelypromote poor human nutrition in general, as well as individually, to maximize one’s own health so one can be more effectively altruistic.
A more thorough review of the human costs of animal agriculture are found in (Vinding, 2014, ch. 2).
In sum, one could argue that we also have a strong obligation to our fellow humans to avoid contributing to the various human health problems and risks caused by animal agriculture.
What I have said above may seem in tension with the common consequentialist critique that says that animal advocates focus too much on individual consumer behavior. Yet in reality, there is no tension. It is both true, I submit, that avoiding the consumption of animal products is important (in purely consequentialist terms) and that most animal advocates focus far too much on individual consumer change compared toinstitutionalchangeandwild-animal suffering. The latter point does not negate the former (the same view is expressed in John & Sebo, 2020, 3.3).
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.
How can we help nonhuman animals as much as possible? A good answer to this question could spare billions from suffering and death, while a bad one could condemn as many to that fate. So it’s worth taking our time to find good answers.
Focusing our advocacy on antispeciesismmay be our best bet. In short, antispeciesist advocacy looks promising because it encompasses all nonhuman animals and implies great obligations toward them, and also because people may be especially receptive to such advocacy. More than that, antispeciesism is also likely to remain relevant for a long time, which makes it seem uniquely robust when we consider things from avery long-term perspective.
The value of antispeciesist advocacy
Antispeciesism addresses all the ways in which we discriminate against nonhuman animals, not just select sites of that discrimination, like circuses or food farms. Unlike more common approaches to animal advocacy, it demands that we take all forms of suffering endured by nonhuman animals into consideration.
Campaigns against fur farming, for instance, do not also cover the suffering and death involved in other forms of speciesist exploitation, such as the egg and dairy industries.Veganism, on the other hand, is much broader, in that it rejects all directly human-caused animal suffering. Advocating for the interests of comparatively few beings when we could advocate for the interests of many more with the same time and resources is likely a lost opportunity.
But even veganism is not as broad as antispeciesism, since it says nothing aboutthe vast majorityof sentient beings on the planet: animals who live in nature. Wild animalsalso suffer, and should not be granted less consideration simply because their suffering is not our fault.
Antispeciesism impliesveganism– i.e. that we “exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose” – but unlike veganism it also requires us to give serious consideration to nonhuman animals who are harmed in nature. Antispeciesism implies that we shouldhelp wild animalsin need, just as we should help humans suffering from starvation or disease that we didn’t cause. Unfortunately, nonhuman animals areoften harmedin nature, and often dosuccumb to starvation and thirst. Fortunately, there is much we can do towork for a future with fewer harms to them.
Even if we expect people to be more receptive to messaging that is narrower in focus and easier to agree with, the all-encompassing nature of antispeciesist advocacy could mean it has greater value overall.
But are people really less receptive to such advocacy anyways? The concept of speciesism may seem abstract and advanced, and may strike us as something only committed animal rights advocates know of and understand. Yet there are reasons to think that this gut intuition is wrong.
Oscar Horta, a professor of moral philosophy who has delivered talks about animal rights around the world, has repeatedly put this pessimistic intuition to the test. At various talks delivered to Spanish high school students, he has attempted to systematically evaluate the attitudes of the attendees by giving them a questionnaire. One of themain resultsof this evaluation, according to Horta, was that “contrary to what some people think, most people who attended these talks accepted the arguments against speciesism.”
So reportedly, a majority of attendees accepted the arguments against speciesism. And perhaps we should not be that surprised. Most people understand the concept of discrimination already, and speciesism is just another form of discrimination. The fact that many people are already familiar with the concept of discrimination and agree that it is not justified suggests that there might be a template upon which speciesism can easily be argued against. This could partly explain why most of Horta’s attendees accepted the arguments against speciesism. An additional reason might be that thearguments against speciesismare exceptionally strong and hard to argue with.
Another interesting finding from Horta was that students appeared more receptive to a message opposing speciesism than to one supporting veganism. As he reports:
What is controversial is not really the discussion about speciesism. On the contrary, the most controversial point is (as might be expected), the discussion about whether we should stop eating animal “products”. Yet this discussion can also be carried out without major problems, at least if a couple of recommendations are followed: First of all, that this discussion arises not at the beginning of the talk, but rather towards the end, when speciesism and the need to respect all sentient beings has already been discussed. At that point, there is a greater willingness to consider this issue, because people who attend the talk then have a favorable attitude both toward animals and the speaker. But if we proceed in the opposite order and first argue for veganism and then raise the arguments about speciesism, the reaction is different. The result is that there is less willingness to consider the issue of veganism. And not only that, acceptance of arguments about speciesism is lower as well.
If this difference in effectiveness between vegan and antispeciesist messaging is similar in the broader public, the implications for advocacy are profound: even if our goal were only to promote veganism, the best way to do so might be to talk about speciesism, rather than, or at least before, talking about veganism. That talking about veganism straight away seems to have made the students less receptive not only to veganism itself but also to arguments against speciesism is also worth taking note of.
More thorough replication of Horta’s findings, on larger, more varied populations would significantly increase our confidence in the conclusion that antispeciesist advocacy is superior to vegan advocacy for creating antispeciesists, as well as vegans. Until then, Horta’s reported findings do at least suggest that people can accept arguments against speciesism.
Is vegan advocacy costly to wild animals?
Vegan advocacy could also be costly to animals not encompassed by vegan advocacy. Horta states:
There are many people involved in antispeciesism who are afraid to defend the idea that we should help animals in need in nature. Even though they fully agree with it, they believe that most people totally reject that idea, and even consider it absurd. However, among those attending the talks, there was a broad acceptance of the idea.
This is good news for animals and their advocates, given thatthe vast majorityof nonhuman animals live in nature. Helping animals in the wild, such as throughvaccinations and cures for diseases, may be among the most effective ways in which we can help nonhuman animals. Vegan advocacy excludes consideration of their interests, but antispeciesist advocacy does not.
This means that not only might it be costly to focus mainly on veganism in the interest of spreading veganism itself (compared to focusing mainly on speciesism and then raising the issue of veganism), but it might also be costly with respect to the goal of helping animals in nature. It’s possible that talking about veganism rather than speciesism makes it significantly harder to bring about interventions that could help nonhuman animals.
Compared to veganism, antispeciesism is also much harder to confuse withenvironmentalism, supporters of which often recommend overtly speciesist interventions such as themass killingof beings in the name of “healthy ecosystems” and biodiversity. This lack of potential for confusion is another strong reason in favor of antispeciesist advocacy.
Antispeciesist advocacy is also much more neglected than vegan advocacy.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.
While veganism likely has a promising future, the future of antispeciesism seems much less clear and less promising, and has far fewer people working to promote it. This suggests that our own limited resources might be better spent promoting the latter. When thinking about how to build a better tomorrow, we should also consider the following tomorrows, and if we have a virtually vegan world a century from now due to the incentives mentioned above, the world will likely still be speciesist in many other respects. So in addition to the appeal antispeciesist advocacy has for the nonhuman animals whom humans are actively harming now, the explicitly antispeciesist approach is important for the sake of nonhuman animals in the future. Working towards a less speciesist future could both help close down the slaughterhouses, and help many animals long after.
Additionally, the spread of antispeciesism might also be a useful stepping stone toward concern for sentient beings of nonanimal kinds. Unfortunately, there is a risk that new kinds of sentient beings could emerge in the future – for instance,biologically engineered brains– and become the victims ofa whole new kind of factory farming. Just like concern for humans who face discrimination can provide useful support today when the case against speciesism is made, antispeciesism could well be similarlygeneralizableand provide such support in the case against new forms of discrimination.
A final point in favor of antispeciesist advocacy over vegan advocacy is that the message of the former is clearly ethico-political in nature, and therefore does not risk being confused with an amoral consumerist preference or fad, as veganism often is. The core of antispeciesism is clear, easy to communicate, and much follows from it in terms of the practical implications.
“Their experiences may be more simple than ours, but are they less intense? Perhaps a caterpillar’s primitive pain when squashed is greater than our more sophisticated sufferings.”
— Richard Ryder, Painism: A Modern Morality, p. 64.
Many people, myselfincluded, find it plausible that suffering of a certain intensity, such as torture, carries greater moral significance than any amount of mild suffering. One may be tempted to think that views of this kind imply we should primarily prioritize the beings most likely to experience these “lexically worse” states of suffering (LWS) — presumably beings with large brains.* By extension, one may think such views will generally imply little priority to beings with small, less complex brains, such as insects. (Which is probably also a view we would intuitively like to embrace, given the inconvenience of the alternative.)
Yet while perhaps intuitive, I do not think this conclusion follows. The main argument against it, in my view, is that we should maintain a non-trivial probability that beings with small brains, such as insects, indeed can experience LWS (regardless of how we define these states). After all, on what grounds can we confidently maintain they cannot?
And if we then assume an expected value framework, and multiply the large number of insects by a non-trivial probability of them being able to experience LWS, we find that, in terms of presently existing beings, the largest amount of LWS in expectation may well be found in small beings such as insects.
* It should be noted in this context, though, that many humans ostensibly cannot feel (at least physical) pain, whereas many beings with smaller brains show every sign of having this capacity, which suggests brain size is a poor proxy for the ability to experience pain, let alone the ability to experience LWS, and that genetic variation in certain pain-modulating genes may well be a more important factor.
Expanding humanity’s moral circle such that it includes all sentient beings seems among the most urgent and important missions before us. And yet there is a significant risk that such greater moral inclusion might in fact end up increasing future suffering. As Brian Tomasiknotes:
One might ask, “Why not just promote broader circles of compassion, without a focus on suffering?” The answer is that more compassion by itself could increase suffering. For example,most peoplewho care about wild animals in a general sense conclude that wildlife habitats should be preserved, in part because these people aren’t focused enough on the suffering that wild animals endure. Likewise, generically caring about future digital sentience might encourage people to create as many happy digital minds as possible, even if this means also increasing the risk of digital suffering due to colonizing space. Placing special emphasis on reducing suffering is crucial for taking the right stance on many of these issues.
Indeed, many classical utilitarians do include non-human animals in their moral circle, yet they still consider it permissible, indeed in some sense morally good, that we bring individuals into existence so that they can live “net positive lives” and we can eat them (I have argued that this view is mistaken, almost regardless of what kind of consequentialist view one assumes). And some even seem to think that most lives on factory farms might plausibly be such “net positive lives”. A wide circle of moral consideration clearly does not guarantee an unwillingness to allow large amounts of suffering to be brought into the world.
More generally, there is a considerable number of widely endorsed ethical positions that favor bringing about larger rather than smaller populations of the beings who belong to our moral circle, at least provided that certain conditions are met in the lives of these beings. And many of these ethical positions have quite loose such conditions, which implies that these views can easily permit, and even demand, the creation of a lot of suffering for the sake of some (supposedly) greater good.
Indeed, the truth is that even a view that requires an enormous amount of happiness to outweigh a given amount of suffering might still easily permit the creation of large amounts of suffering, as illustrated by the following consideration (quoted from the penultimate chapter of my book on effective altruism):
consider the practical implications of the following two moral principles: 1) we will not allow the creation of a single instance of the worst forms of suffering […] for any amount of happiness, and 2) we will allow one day of such suffering for ten years of the most sublime happiness. What kind of future would we accept with these respective principles? Imagine a future in which we colonize space and maximize the number of sentient beings that the accessible universe can sustain over the entire course of the future, which is probably more than 10^30. Given this number of beings, and assuming that these beings each live a hundred years, principle 2) above would appear to permit a space colonization that all in all creates more than 10^28 years of [the worst forms of suffering], provided that the other states of experience are sublimely happy. This is how extreme the difference can be between principles like 1) and 2); between whether we consider suffering irredeemable or not. And notice that even if we altered the exchange rate by orders of magnitude — say, by requiring 10^15 times more sublime happiness per unit of extreme suffering than we did in principle 2) above — we would still allow an enormous amount of extreme suffering to be created; in the concrete case of requiring 10^15 times more happiness, we would allow more than 10,000 billion years of [the worst forms of suffering].
This highlights the importance of thinking deeply about which trade-offs, if any, we find acceptable with respect to the creation of suffering, including extreme suffering.
The considerations above concerning popular ethical positions that support larger future populations imply that there is some probability — a seemingly low yet still significant probability — that a more narrow moral circle may in fact lead to less future suffering for the morally excluded beings (e.g. by making efforts to bring these beings into existence, on Earth and beyond, less likely).
In spite of this risk, I still consider generic moral circle expansion quite beneficial in expectation. Yet it seems less beneficial, and significantly less robust (with respect to the goal of reducing extreme suffering) than does the promotion of suffering-focused values. And it seems less robust and less beneficial still than does the twin-track strategy of focusing on both expanding our moral circle and deepening our concern for suffering. Both seem necessary yet insufficient on their own. If we deepen concern for suffering without broadening the moral circle, our deepened concern risks failing to pertain to the vast majority of sentient beings. On the other hand, if we broaden our moral circle without deepening our concern for suffering, we may end up allowing the beings within our moral circle to endure enormous amounts of suffering.
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. 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.
This analogy actually understates the disparity in numbers, as there are less than a hundred times as many “farm animals” as there are “pets”, while the number of wild animals 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, it becomes clear that the analogy to the ratio between “farm animals” and “pets” is actually a strong understatement. 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 such as “we should focus on beings exploited by humans first” may be found answered here and here).
The other main point in favor of anti-speciesist advocacy has to do with people’s receptivity toward such 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 sorely needed. Yet there are at least tentative reasons for thinking that people are in fact 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, which suggested 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 summary of the findings, 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, i.e. wild animals, in our considerations.
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 at least as good as that of other forms of advocacy — 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 technological innovations such as in vitro meat, which has millions of US dollars in funding, the case becomes stronger still.
Objections Against 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 includeswild-animal suffering, one may object that the tractability of suffering in nature has been left out of the picture in this analysis.
In response, one can say that, given that the number of wild animals is more than a thousand times that of “farmed animals”, it would seem that the tractability of farm-animal suffering would have to be more than a thousand times greater (to the extent we can meaningfully say such a thing) than the tractability of wild-animal suffering in order for it to make sense to focus almost exclusively on the former (as the animal movement currently does). I do not think that is a reasonable view.
Moreover, the preceding framing makes it appear as though we must choose one over the other. Yet this is a false choice. Anti-speciesist advocacy defends both “farmed” and “wild” animals, and, as seen above, it may be as successful with regard to the former as other forms of advocacy. Again, in light of the notes on receptivity above, one could make a case that we should focus on anti-speciesist advocacy even if we only cared about the wrongs done to beings exploited by humans.
Similarly, even if there were a strong conflict between focusing on “wild” 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 greaterneglectednessof wild-animal suffering would still count as a strong reason in favor of doing advocacy that pertains to such suffering, as anti-speciesist advocacy does.
I Don’t Think Wild Animals 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, 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 most lives 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 “number of neurons” is a perfect proxy for moral value by any means, but merely that no matter which of these simple measures we use, we appear to underestimate small beings a lot; Brian Tomasik’sIs Brain Size Morally Relevant?is quite apropos here, although I should note that I 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 reportedly 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 suggest 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 veganism and “happy meat” — it provides a clear case for and against 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 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 expanded by 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 largely 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.
In conclusion, I would encourage all animal advocates to reflect on 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.