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Why Animals Matter for Effective Altruism

This is an introductory article for people currently learning more about effective altruism. “Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?” This article explains why it’s so important to consider the wellbeing of animals when choosing where to donate, what career to take, and making other decisions from an effective altruism perspective. The primary author of this post is Jacy Reese with very helpful feedback from Jacob Funnell, Larissa Rowe, Eddie Dugal, Caspar Österheld, Hussein Al-Kaf, Kelly Witwicki Faddegon, Oliver Austin, Harrison Nathan, Eric Day, Robin Raven, James Snowden, Daniel Dorado, Kieran Greig, Oscar Horta, and Sanjay Joshi. The ideas expressed in the article come from a variety of sources, including people not mentioned above. Note that the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of these people or their respective employers.

 

Throughout human history, some people have diminished the plight of animals, even going so far as to suggest that these animals completely lacked the ability to feel happiness and suffering. Some people viewed animals as naturally “lower” than humans in the divine “ladder of nature” — that their needs and preferences simply held a lower priority than those of “higher” beings. One philosopher in the 17th century, René Descartes, ruthlessly illustrated his view by performing a live autopsy on his wife’s dog. He used this experiment as evidence for his belief because he found no soul inside the poor animal’s body.

 

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016), famed primatologist Frans de Waal grapples with the question of how humanity has consistently underestimated the cognitive capacities of animals, and explains that we’re finally coming around to the idea that animals have rich mental lives similar to our own. In fact, today 81% of surveyed US households “believe animals and humans have the same ability to feel pain."1 We also have scientific consensus that animals have the neurological substrates of consciousness. Indeed, animal consciousness is listed along with climate change and evolution on the Denialism Wikipedia page due to widespread agreement among scientists.

 

Realizing that animals have moral significance has serious implications. This article walks through the main reasons animals matter for effective altruism:

 

  • Scale: There are many animals that need our help.

  • Neglectedness: Not many people are working to help these animals.

  • Tractability: We can realistically make substantial progress on the issue.


If you find these arguments compelling, you can donate to animal charities like those recommended by
Animal Charity Evaluators, follow the advice of 80,000 Hours on how to use your career to help farmed animals, go vegetarian/vegan or reduce your consumption of animal products (which is surprisingly easy!), and join the Effective Animal Activism Facebook group.2

Scale

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Seeing animals as individuals is the first step in recognizing the scale of issues like animal agriculture.

 

Recognizing the scale of animal suffering starts with appreciating the sentience of individual animals — something surprisingly difficult to do given society’s bias against them (this bias is sometimes referred to as speciesism). For me, this appreciation has come from getting to know the three animals in my home: Apollo, a six-year-old labrador/border collie mix from an animal shelter in Texas, and Snow and Dualla, two chickens rescued from a battery cage farm in California.

 

For many people, one-on-one interaction with animals provides plenty of evidence of moral worth. Apollo licks his lips and fidgets when I fix his breakfast, and the simplest explanation for his behavior is that he’s feeling excitement. Snow slowly closes her eyes and purrs when I rub her ears, and it makes the most sense to see that as pleasure and contentment, in much the same way humans experience these emotions.

 

Unfortunately, the vast majority of farmed animals like Snow and Dualla suffer from intense confinement, inhibition of natural behaviors, untreated health issues, and numerous other causes of suffering. Their experience has been called “hell on earth.” If you have any skepticism about the misery of these animals, consider watching some undercover investigation footage. If you really want to exercise your heart, consider that fish show behavioral and neuroscience evidence of consciousness, and watch this brutal investigation of catfish slaughter. When animal protection groups randomly select farms to investigate, they inevitably find horrific cruelty.

 

This suffering is happening at a nearly unimaginable scale. At this moment, there are roughly 7 billion humans in existence, but there were over 60 billion land-dwelling farmed animals (mostly chickens) killed in 2013, with another 38 to 128 billion farmed fish killed in 2011 and 0.97 to 2.7 trillion wild fish killed each year from 1999 to 2007. Given that these figures are outdated, and global consumption of animal products is rising, current figures are probably even larger.

 

Many food advocates also oppose animal farming because of the harm it does to the environment, public health, workers, and the global economy. I think the animal protection case is the most compelling case from the effective altruism perspective, but these are important factors to consider.

 

The problem of animal suffering becomes even more significant when we consider the vast numbers of wild animals. There are 10^11 (100 billion) to 10^12 land-dwelling mammals and birds, 10^13 or more wild fish, and over 10^18 bugs. In addition to human-caused suffering, many of these animals endure untreated disease and injury, starvation, and long painful deaths.

 

Additionally, just as the expected number of human descendants in the future likely dwarfs the current number of humans in expectation, the expected number of nonhuman sentient beings in the future seems exceedingly large, especially when we consider the possible development of digital sentience. Consideration of the far future is the strongest factor in favor of prioritizing animal advocacy for many long-time EAs, including myself.

Neglectedness

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Farmed animals make up the vast majority of animals used by humans, but receive only a tiny fraction of animal-targeted donations.

 

Around 97% of philanthropic funding in the US goes towards helping humans. The remaining 3% is distributed across protecting the environment and animals. Even within the funding spent on animals, less than 1% goes towards farmed animal charities3 — despite the fact that farmed animals account for over 99% of the animals used by humans. 80,000 Hours estimates that between $10-100 million is spent helping the more than 100 billion animals killed for food every year.4

 

This evidence of neglectedness can be partially explained by speciesism: the discrimination against certain individuals solely because of their species, which is apparent in the way people mistreat nonhuman primates, or care deeply for dogs but ignore the plight of farmed pigs, who share similar mental capacities. This bias is apparent even in everyday language when we say things like, “Kill two birds with one stone” or refer to a nonhuman animal as “it.” There is some experimental evidence that we think of animals we eat as having fewer mental capacities, and struggle to update our concern when we find out those animals are smarter than we thought, even though we think we should care more in those situations.

 

It was actually my recognition of my own speciesism that ultimately led me to prioritize animal advocacy, realizing that I was making irrational arguments to justify my focus on human-targeted interventions. Given the cost-effectiveness of human and animal charities, I would have needed to care so little about an individual animal relative to a human,5 and as a neuroscience major in university, I knew there was just no scientific basis for that judgment.

Tractability

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Social change can happen much faster than we expect beforehand.

 

At first glance, the case for the tractability of animal advocacy seems fairly weak. Much of the farmed animal advocacy field is focused on promoting vegetarian and vegan diets. This intervention and other forms of social change lack the robust randomized controlled trials that exist in other interventions favored by effective altruism, such as distributing malaria nets.

 

But there is reason to be optimistic about our ability to effect change for animals. We have already seen serious progress in the animal advocacy movement, such as reduction in some of the cruelest practices and strong public sentiment against factory farming. In the US, the number of animals slaughtered for food seems to have been dropping or at least stagnating, despite the growing human population. The corporate and public policy change in favor of animals, in particular, seems easily attributable to activism rather than external factors.

 

From a quantitative perspective, it seems like our donations can make a substantial impact. Current research from Animal Charity Evaluators indicates that, for example, a donation to Animal Equality, a highly effective animal rights organization, is estimated to spare an expected 13.2 animals per dollar from the suffering of animal agriculture through inspiring people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products. Open Philanthropy Project estimated that corporate cage-free campaigns spare 120 hens per dollar from confinement in tiny battery cages. Even though great, sometimes indistinguishable, plant-based meat, dairy, and egg products exist, many people involved in effective altruism are also excited about developing better alternatives to make eating animal-free foods easier for consumers.

 

In addition to direct evidence, historical evidence from previous social movements suggests it’s possible to substantially affect the ideas and moral values of humanity on a large scale. There is also an abundance of research from social psychology, marketing, and other areas that illustrates the ability of purposeful messaging to change individual attitudes and behaviors. The totality of this evidence gives us good reason to believe that we can make serious improvements for animals.

 

It seems the animal advocacy movement, right now, could experience a rapid take-off, much like historical social movements. That nascent potential could lead to significant gains from marginal contributions. The room for more funding, talent, and initiative in this field is huge, and it’s truly an exciting time to get onboard with a new and hugely important social movement.

 

 

As mentioned previously, if you find these arguments compelling, you can donate to animal charities like those recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators, follow the advice of 80,000 Hours on how to use your career to help farmed animals, go vegetarian/vegan or reduce your consumption of animal products (which is surprisingly easy!), and join the Effective Animal Activism Facebook group.6

 

 

 

Footnotes

1. Context: “Although 81% of respondents believe animals and humans have the same ability to feel pain, most respondents believed human suffering should take precedence over animal suffering. Nevertheless, 62% believed farm animal welfare should be addressed even in the presence of human suffering.”

2. Note that the term Effective Animal Advocacy is more popular these days because Activism is sometimes thought to just apply to leaflets, protests, and other forms of grassroots social change. The term EAA is meant to capture everyone working to help animals effectively.

3. Note that this excludes charities that work primarily outside of farmed animal advocacy but then spend some resources to help farmed animals. It’s very difficult to get the estimates of internal budget breakdowns necessary to include those programs in the estimate, but I think it’s safe to say that still a tiny minority of funding goes towards farmed animal protection.

4. Estimates I’ve seen put the figure at probably less than $40 million in funding for farmed animal advocacy, although the definitions are tricky here, and I don’t know of a publicly available systematic estimate.

5. Figuring out exactly how much you need to care about humans vs. animals is very challenging given the large number of judgment calls involved. For example, if comparing the reduction in malaria achieved by GiveWell top charity Against Malaria Foundation to the reduction in factory farm suffering achieved by ACE top charity Animal Equality, you need to have views on how long the average malaria case lasts, how bad that suffering is compared to living on a factory farm, etc. The last time I saw a back-of-the-envelope calculation for what the human-animal tradeoff needed to be to think both cause areas were equally as impactful, it was around 1:10,000. Although that still excluded potential long-term effects and was a very very rough estimate.

6. Note that the term Effective Animal Advocacy is more popular these days because Activism is sometimes thought to just apply to leaflets, protests, and other forms of grassroots social change. The term EAA is meant to capture everyone working to help animals effectively.

Comments (23)

Comment author: AFGasperi 23 August 2016 03:24:28AM 7 points [-]
Comment author: jasonk 22 August 2016 06:18:53PM 4 points [-]

This is a nice article. Thanks for writing it.

Regarding: "Consideration of the far future is the strongest factor in favor of prioritizing animal advocacy for many long-time EAs, including myself."

How do you see animal advocacy as a cause area stacking up against work on existential risks?

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 23 August 2016 09:19:40AM 4 points [-]

It is a bit surprising that such a small part of the article is explicitly concerned with the far future, if considerations of the far future is the strongest factor in favour of prioritising animal advocacy. In general, the amount of space one spends on a consideration should probably be at least roughly proportionate to its significance.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 23 August 2016 02:47:20PM 8 points [-]

If it's supposed to be introductory then it should probably focus on the simpler reasons why animal advocacy looks important. Plus, my understanding is that most animal advocates don't focus as much about the far future, so even if the author does, it probably makes sense for the article to use arguments that convinced most people rather than the arguments that convinced him personally.

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 23 August 2016 05:28:33PM 7 points [-]

OK. Personally I would prefer the convention that everybody at the EA forum gives the reasons they actually believe in themselves. I think that is more in line with the EA credo of evidence and reason, and with intellectual honesty.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 24 August 2016 12:38:42AM 5 points [-]

There is the elephant in the room that the real, big intersection of animal ethics and far-future concerns is very controversial. This includes reducing wild-animal suffering, the issue of digital sentience, and astronomical suffering. The EA Forum is sufficiently public its critics and deriders will cherry-pick and mine contentious issues which the EA community itself is divided on and which the majority reject as central to EA ideas, and use them as symbols of failure to strawman the everything about effective altruism. See, for example , this article. To not have ideas so controversial outside EA, let alone within it, so easily quotable by those who just want to take potshots at EA, seems to me a fair and pragmatic approach. If push really came to shove and you still wanted to see everyone give actual reasons they believe one approach is best, especially on the topic of animals and other non-humans over the long future, I propose a compromise.

A line could be added to this or future posts saying something like, "there are those concerned about how human activity and other events will impact the well-being of animals over the far future, such as on the scale of centuries or millenia. This is an issue of great consequence, but of course there is much uncertainty on the issue. So, in the mean time, these far-future concerns still practically play a small part in animal advocacy as a whole, and are relegated to research."

The above is all true. Otherwise, the above could include embedded links to the Foundational Research Institute, where anyone who wishes to learn more can find a whole website dedicated to the topic of animal well-being in the far future. I think being maximally transparent at all times for the sake of transparency may have unintended and costly consequences. For due diligence, I'll ask Brian Tomasik what he thinks. I expect he'll agree with me.

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 24 August 2016 09:39:59AM 4 points [-]

Hmm, I'm somewhat atypical in usually maintaining the heuristic that one should generally be transparent even in cases where doing so seems like it might hurt one's popularity or receptiveness to one's ideas. So I'm not that worried about journalists quoting out of context, and I think it'd be a big cost to hamper honest discussion just because of that concern. (The cost in terms of worse discussion probably exceeds any benefits in terms of not turning people off?)

Many other EAs disagree with me. They make an interesting point that even if one's ultimate goal is to help people discover their own idealized preferences, bridging inferential gaps slower can make it more likely that people will eventually update to "weird" positions that they will then endorse on reflection.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 25 August 2016 02:19:35AM *  0 points [-]

Yeah, it is a real toss-up here. Well, I mean, you know I perceive lots of merit in your above position, but I also see merit in the arguments of EAs who disagree with you.

I used the phrase "maximally transparent" above, as distinct from "transparent". I'll unpack that so it's clearer what I mean and why. Transparency in expressing ideas in writing, at least, can be thought of as following the spirit and/or letter of Grice's maxims.

Being "maximally transparent" would be following all of Grice's maxims as much as possible. The 'compromise' statement I gave above, describing the role of far-future animal altruism, follows the maxims of quality and relation, but doesn't fully satisfy the maxims of quantity and clarity ("manner" at the link; I prefer "clarity", as well as being taught it that way). We're volunteering as much info as necessary (as an intro to the topic), but not all the info which would be appropriate (as an intro to the topic).

So, we're satisficing instead of optimizing for transparent communication on the prediction this will prevent the costs of journalists or pundits using our own words against us at a later date.

Is this transparent "enough"? Is it better to optimize for transparent communication, because we're overrating the real costs of blowback? Ought we optimize communication for maximum transparency at all times because journalists and pundits who want to hurt EA will find a way to do so regardless? How would we make the implied prediction both explicit and testable? I don't know. Those are questions I'd love to see answers to. The above 'compromise' position is as far as I've gotten.

Comment author: thebestwecan 23 August 2016 10:47:47PM *  3 points [-]

Just to be clear, I do "believe in" the near-term reasons outlined in this article, even though far future arguments also matter a lot to me. I also think there's a lot of overlap, e.g. if something is neglected now, that can be good reason to think it will continue being neglected. I don't think this post deviated from evidence-based thinking, the use of reason, or intellectual honesty.

I think personal posts are important, but introductory content and topic summaries are also useful. Several people have asked for a post on "why animals matter" like this one, and I don't think they'd have been nearly as interested in a post where >75% of the content was about the far future considerations.

Also, in case anyone missed it, I did mention this in the post: "Consideration of the far future is the strongest factor in favor of prioritizing animal advocacy for many long-time EAs, including myself."

Comment author: thebestwecan 22 August 2016 08:28:14PM *  4 points [-]

Great question! Yeah, I personally favor animal advocacy over reducing extinction risk. (I use existential risk to include both risks of extinction and risks of well-populated, but morally bad, e.g. dystopian, futures.) Here's another blog post that talks about some things to consider when deciding which of these long-term risks to prioritize: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/t3/some_considerations_for_different_ways_to_reduce/

Also note that some work might both decrease extinction and quality risks, such as general EA movement-building and research. Also, "animal advocacy" is kind of a vague term, which could either refer to just "values spreading" (i.e. trying to inspire people, now and/or in the future, to have better values and/or act more morally), or just generally refer to "helping animals." If it's used as the latter, then it could include extinction risk if you think that will help future animals or animal-like beings (e.g. sentient machines).

Comment author: Gregory_Lewis 23 August 2016 04:56:17AM 1 point [-]

Am I right in thinking you are the author of the linked post?

Comment author: thebestwecan 23 August 2016 05:12:36PM *  2 points [-]

Yep. I've used the "Tyrael" username on here for posts that I might have wanted to keep anonymous (largely due to the downvoting brigades), but ended up being okay with it being nonanonymous after the fact.

Comment author: ClaireZabel 24 August 2016 01:24:38AM 5 points [-]

Have you experienced downvoting brigades? How do you distinguish them from sincere negative feedback?

Comment author: thebestwecan 25 August 2016 05:30:08AM *  1 point [-]

Evidence is (i) downvoting is on certain users/topics, rather than certain arguments/rhetoric, (ii) lots of downvotes relative to a small amount of negative comments, (iii) strange timing, e.g. I quickly got two downvotes on the OP before anyone had time to read it (<2 minutes).

I think it happens to me some, but I think it happens a lot to animal-focused content generally.

Edit: jtbc, I mean "systematically downvoting content that contributes to the discussion because you disagree with it, you don't like the author, or other 'improper' reasons." Maybe "brigades" was the wrong word if that suggests coordination, which i'm updating towards after searching online for more uses of the term. Though there might be coordination, not really sure.

Comment author: Larks 04 September 2016 05:19:46PM 0 points [-]

Yep. I've used the "Tyrael" username on here for posts that I might have wanted to keep anonymous (largely due to the downvoting brigades), but ended up being okay with it being nonanonymous after the fact.

So to clarify, the accounts:

are all yours?

Comment author: thebestwecan 04 September 2016 05:37:00PM 0 points [-]

The last account is presumably a dummy one created by mapping comments from other sites to the EA Forum, but yeah, the first two are mine.

Comment author: Buck 24 August 2016 12:50:09AM 0 points [-]

What downvoting brigades are there?

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 24 August 2016 10:41:36AM *  4 points [-]

Recognizing the scale of animal suffering starts with appreciating the sentience of individual animals — something surprisingly difficult to do given society’s bias against them (this bias is sometimes referred to as speciesism). For me, this appreciation has come from getting to know the three animals in my home: Apollo, a six-year-old labrador/border collie mix from an animal shelter in Texas, and Snow and Dualla, two chickens rescued from a battery cage farm in California.

I wonder if we might do ourselves a disservice by making it sound really controversial / surprising that animals are thoroughly sentient? It makes it seem more ok not to believe it, but I think also can come across as patronising / strange to interlocutors. I've in the past had people tell me they're 'pleasantly surprised' that I care about animals, and ask when I began caring about animal suffering. (I have no idea how to answer that - I don't remember a time when I didn't) This feels to me somewhat similar to telling someone who doesn't donate to developing countries that you're surprised they care about extreme poverty, and asking when they started thinking that it was bad for people to be dying of malaria. On the one hand, it feels like a reasonable inference from their behaviour. On the other hand, for almost everyone we're likely to be talking to it will be the case that they do in fact care about the plight of others, and that their reasons for not donating aren't lack of belief in the suffering, or lack of caring about it. I would guess that would be similar for most of the people we talk to about animal suffering: they already know and care about animal suffering, and would be offended to have it implied otherwise. This makes the case easier to make, because it means we're already approximately on the same page, and we can start talking immediately about the scale and tractibility of the problem.

Comment author: thebestwecan 25 August 2016 06:03:42AM *  2 points [-]

I basically agree with this. Some feedback on this post before it was published suggested that I add even more content justifying animal sentience. I pushed back on that for reasons you mention, but still wanted to include the quoted section because (i) even if most people agree with animal sentience when asked, it's a different matter to "appreciate" it and recognize the implications for cause prioritization and other moral decisions, (ii) some people in the EA community have noted skepticism about animal sentience as the main reason for not prioritizing animal advocacy (although this happens less as time goes on), so I wanted to directly confront that.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 23 August 2016 02:18:47AM 2 points [-]

Farmed animals make up the vast majority of animals used by humans, but receive only a tiny fraction of animal-targeted donations.

Alternatively, farmed animals make up the vast majority of sentient beings (excluding wild animals because let's not even get into that), but receive only an even tinier fraction of donations. Non-human animals are not some special category; they are almost all the beings that matter in the world. Therefore it doesn't make sense to compare donations on factory farming only to animal-targeted donations.

Comment author: thebestwecan 23 August 2016 05:09:24PM 2 points [-]

I worry that simplifying it to one level of neglectedness is (i) not as good of a way of driving home just how neglected it is because people have trouble appreciating very large/very small numbers, (ii) potentially misleading because the fact that it's two levels (3%, 1%) might make the total neglectedness more/less than if it were just one bigger level (3% * 1%). E.g. other animal advocates could notice the neglectedness within their own first-level cause of "helping animals" and farmed animal protection could receive more resources than if it were a first-level cause area that were all out on its own, so to speak.

Granted, (ii) seems like a pretty minor point in the scheme of things, and I do appreciate the sentiment of not wanting to draw lines between humans and other animals, especially due to the excessive use of those lines throughout history to justify animal abuse (and the use of similar lines between humans to justify the abuse of some humans).

Comment author: Ben_West  (EA Profile) 30 August 2016 07:55:34PM 1 point [-]

One philosopher in the 17th century, René Descartes, ruthlessly illustrated his view by performing a live autopsy on his wife’s dog. He used this experiment as evidence for his belief because he found no soul inside the poor animal’s body.

This is tangential but Gina asked me an interesting question: my understanding is that Descartes thought that the pineal gland was where the soul was in humans. Dogs also have pineal glands. Why didn't he think that the soul interacted with the body through the dogs pineal gland? Was it just too small for him to see?

Comment author: [deleted] 03 September 2016 10:20:27AM 0 points [-]

Just a small suggestion, feel free to neglect it if it doesn't make sense: perhaps the additional benefits, namely food availability, ecology (deforestation, ocean depletion, foot print) and global health (e-coli, swine flu, ...) might be stressed a bit more, as, even though I think animal ethics is the most important reason to focus on animal suffering, those are all things one gets into the bargain with just caring about animals, which consequently makes a vast difference in many other fields of EA as well.