Ten Biases Against Prioritizing Wild-Animal Suffering

I recommend reading the short and related post Why Most People Don’t Care About Wild-Animal Suffering by Ben Davidow.


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.

1. Historical momentum and the status quo

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 their geographical 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 seen more footage of wild-animal suffering, 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 the omission bias — 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 notoriously difficult 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.

6. Invertebrate neglect

Related to, and amplifying, the scope-neglect consideration is our neglect of invertebrate suffering. 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. A
nd in line with the point about the significance of emotionally salient footage, it may be that we need to watch footage of harmed invertebrates 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.

So the truth is that there is much we can do at this point to work for a future with fewer harms to wild animals.

8. Underestimating public receptivity

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 written elsewhere 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 from Oscar 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 high when the issue is framed in terms of institutional change rather than individual consumer change).

9. Overlooking likely future trajectories

As I have noted elsewhere:

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 to grow meat and 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 by increasing the risks of 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, there are reasons to be skeptical.)

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 to space, which is one of the least speculative s-risks (i.e. risks of astronomical future suffering) — there are already people who actively advocate that humanity should spread nature to space, and concrete proposals 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-mode sequence 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 “proportion dominance“:  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.

Animal Advocates Should Focus On Antispeciesism, Not Veganism

First published: Dec. 2016.

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 antispeciesism may 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 a very 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 about the vast majority of sentient beings on the planet: animals who live in nature. Wild animals also suffer, and should not be granted less consideration simply because their suffering is not our fault.

Antispeciesism implies veganism – 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 should help wild animals in need, just as we should help humans suffering from starvation or disease that we didn’t cause. Unfortunately, nonhuman animals are often harmed in nature, and often do succumb to starvation and thirst. Fortunately, there is much we can do to work for a future with fewer harms to them.

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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 the main results of this evaluation, according to Horta, was that “contrary to what some people think, most people who attended these talks accepted the arguments against speciesism.”[1]

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. Another reason might be that the arguments against speciesism are 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 that the vast majority of nonhuman animals live in nature. Helping animals in the wild, such as through vaccinations 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 with environmentalism, supporters of which often recommend overtly speciesist interventions such as the mass killing of beings in the name of “healthy ecosystems” and biodiversity. This lack of potential for confusion is another strong reason in favor of antispeciesist advocacy.

Beyond veganism

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 to grow meat and 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 by increasing the risks of 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 of a 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 similarly generalizable and 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.

Additional Resources

Oscar Horta provides more reasons to favor antispeciesist advocacy in a talk entitled “About Strategies”. See also my Notes on the Utility of Antispeciesist Advocacy.

This article was originally published on the website of Sentience Politics.

[1] My own machine-assisted translation

Moral Circle Expansion Might Increase Future Suffering

Expanding humanity’s moral circle so 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 Tomasik notes:

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 people who 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 required of us, 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 utilitarian 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 subscribed 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 they 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 if we require an enormous amount of happiness (or an enormous amount of other intrinsically good things) to outweigh a given amount of suffering, this can 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 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 [extreme 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 a risk — a seemingly low yet still significant risk — 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 positive in expectation. Yet it seems less positive, and arguably significantly less robust (with respect to the goal of reducing extreme suffering) than does the promotion of suffering-focused valuesAnd it seems less robust and less positive still than 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, including extreme suffering.

Those who seek to minimize extreme suffering should seek to avoid both these pitfalls by pursuing the twin-track approach.

Notes on the Utility of Anti-Speciesist Advocacy

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

Unfortunately, yet predictably, the limited time available for each person to speak in such a panel discussion meant that I didn’t get to make half of the points I wanted to. 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 includes wild-animal suffering, one may object that the tractability of suffering in nature has been left out of the picture in this analysis.

In response, 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 greater neglectedness of 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’s Is 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.


See also Ten Biases Against Prioritizing Wild-Animal Suffering.

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