Animal Charity Evaluators works to identify the most effective ways to help nonhuman animals. Our research is not premised upon any particular ideology. We think our research is valuable to anyone who shares the following three relatively uncontroversial philosophical commitments:
1. We are committed to anti-speciesism.
Species membership is a morally irrelevant feature of identity—much like race, age, sexual identity, gender identity, and so on. Nobody should be given less than full moral consideration on the basis of any of these features.
2. We are committed to promoting welfare.
All other morally relevant factors being equal, the best (most morally good) action is the one that results in the highest net welfare.
3. We are committed to the value of empirical research.
Empirical research can help us determine which action is best.
On this page, we explain each of the claims above and some of the reasons we endorse them. We do not argue in support of any of the claims; rather, we describe them so as to be explicit about our philosophical commitments.
Commitment One: Anti-Speciesism
Species membership is a morally irrelevant feature of identity—much like race, age, sexual identity, gender identity, and so on. Nobody should be given less than full moral consideration on the basis of any of these features.
What is moral consideration?
To say that an individual deserves “moral consideration” (or has “moral status”) is to say that we have moral obligations to that individual or that the individual can be wronged. Almost everyone believes that humans have moral status. It ought to be uncontroversial that no individual’s moral status should be determined by their race, age, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, sexual identity, or any other such morally irrelevant features of their identity. Similarly, we believe that no individual’s moral status should be determined by their species, given that species membership is also a morally irrelevant feature.
There is no morally relevant difference between humans and other animals that justifies regarding all human beings as having a higher moral status than any nonhuman animal.
In “Animal Liberation,” Peter Singer draws a comparison between speciesism and other forms of prejudice, such as racism and sexism. There are important differences among these various forms of oppression, including the distinct ways in which they can manifest. However, racism, sexism, and speciesism are analogous insofar as all such forms of discrimination mark certain individuals as “other” by identifying morally irrelevant features of their bodies, personalities, and identities and using these traits as justification for unfair treatment or inferior classification:
“Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favoring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case”.1
While there are certainly differences between humans and nonhuman animals, none of those differences both (i) distinguish all human individuals from all nonhuman individuals, and (ii) are relevant to whether or not an individual deserves moral consideration.
Some people who believe that only humans deserve moral consideration have claimed that moral status is grounded in certain features that are uniquely human. They might argue, for example, that only humans use language, that only humans are self-aware, or that only humans are capable of empathy or moral concern. Some may claim that humans are more intelligent than other species or that only humans have interests in their continued existence.
However, there is a host of evidence contradicting the claim that all humans have certain mental capacities that all nonhumans lack. There is evidence, for example, that dolphins can understand sentences and call each other using unique whistles. There is evidence that bonobos can recognize themselves in the mirror and that elephants can cooperate and comfort each other. There is even evidence that crows can solve puzzles with the competence of five- to seven-year-old human children. Many nonhuman animals engage in goal-directed behavior indicative of having interests in their continued existence, whether or not they have a concept of the future.2 Meanwhile, there are humans who lack each of these capacities—such as infants or those with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome—and surely we want a conception of moral status that includes these individuals.
We are only able to identify one characteristic that applies to all and only humans: membership in the species Homo sapiens. Species membership, like race, age, gender, or sexual orientation, is an arbitrary feature of identity on which to place moral importance.3 Nobody should be discriminated against on the basis of any of these features.
We believe that all sentient individuals deserve moral consideration.
Some people argue that an individual has moral status if (and only if) they are the subject of a life.4
Others argue an individual has moral status if (and only if) they are autonomous or rational.5 Still others argue that an individual has moral status if (and only if) they are sentient; that is, they have the capacity for conscious experiences including pleasure and pain.6
In the interest of transparency, we want to be clear that we evaluate causes, interventions, and charities primarily according to the effects that they have on sentient individuals. Our work will likely be most useful for people who hold the view that individuals have moral status if and only if they are sentient. That said, we hope and expect that our work can still be useful to those who hold other views of moral status—especially given the connections between sentience, life, autonomy, and rationality.
Commitment Two: Promoting Welfare
All other morally relevant factors being equal, the best (most morally good) action is the one that results in the highest net welfare.7
At Animal Charity Evaluators, we work to identify the most effective actions people can take to help nonhuman animals. There are different ways to promote the welfare of nonhuman animals. We can work to reduce an animal’s suffering, we can work to increase an animal’s happiness or wellbeing, or we can prevent an animal from existing if they would be born into a miserable life.
Because our goal is to answer a question about how people should behave, we are engaged in a fundamentally moral project. However, we are not committed to any particular ethical theory about how people should make decisions, and we are certainly not committed to any particular metaethical theory about the nature of morality. Our work relies on the simple assumption that all other morally relevant factors being equal, the best action is the one that promotes the most welfare overall.
The impact of an action is morally relevant.
Given the choice between making a $1 donation that results in one life spared8 or making a $1 donation that results in ten lives spared, it’s better to make the donation that will spare ten lives, all else equal. Given the choice between volunteering an hour of time to make a small improvement in an animal’s welfare or volunteering an hour of time to make a large improvement in an animal’s welfare, it’s better to use the time to make the larger improvement, all else equal.
For shorthand, we often refer to actions that result in the highest net welfare as actions that have the “greatest positive impact.” It is not particularly controversial that, other things being equal, it is better to choose an action that has a greater positive impact than the alternatives.
There may be other morally relevant factors.
Some philosophers and animal advocates make a stronger, more controversial claim: the only morally permissible action is the one that has the greatest positive impact.9 Our recommendations are generally consistent with the stronger claim. We recommend that our readers take actions that, as far as we can tell, have the greatest positive impact. However, we do not take ourselves to be committed to the stronger claim. We recognize that there may be other factors, aside from an action’s impact, that determine whether an action is permissible or impermissible. In other words, there may be multiple factors that are morally relevant. Here are some examples:
- Some people might think that the demandingness of an action is relevant to whether it can be required of us.10 Perhaps we are not morally required to perform actions that are too demanding, even if they have the greatest positive impact and are the morally best actions we can perform. For instance, donating all of the money we make above minimum wage may be too demanding to be morally required.
- Some people might think that the ways in which we relate to others is morally relevant. For instance, it may be wrong to use others as a means to an end.11 Using sexualized images of women in an advertising campaign or lying about the health benefits of adopting a vegan diet may be wrong, even if those strategies would promote the most welfare overall.
- Some people might think that, in addition to promoting welfare, it’s important to promote equality or fairness. For instance, improving the welfare of an individual who is suffering might be better than improving the welfare of an individual who is flourishing, other things being equal.12 Similarly, slightly improving the welfare of many individuals might be better than greatly improving the welfare of a single individual, insofar as doing so might promote equality or fairness.
For the most part, we do not make assumptions about whether there are other features of actions, aside from their impact on welfare, that are morally relevant. We simply work to identify those actions that have the greatest impact on welfare. We publish detailed explanations of charities’ programs and campaigns, in part so that our readers can draw their own conclusions about whether each charity’s actions meet all relevant moral criteria.
One exception is that we do not endorse actions that are violent, even if they appear to have a greater positive impact than other options. For instance, it may seem that harming a vivisectionist would have a positive impact by preventing them from continuing to experiment on animals and perhaps disincentivizing others from doing the same. However, we do not endorse actions that are intended to cause substantial or permanent harm to any sentient individual.
Our opposition to violence is not purely philosophical. There are also empirical reasons to believe that violence is not the best way to achieve social change. As a public-facing charitable organization, advocating violent action could pose a serious threat to our work. We would need to have extremely compelling reasons to advocate violence, and we do not currently have any such reasons.
Some factors are not morally relevant.
While we do not claim to have identified all of the features of actions that are morally relevant, we do sometimes judge that certain features of an action are not morally relevant. For example, if an action has a greater positive impact than any alternative, we take it to be the best course of action regardless of whether it: (i) coheres with cultural norms, (ii) prevents or creates future lives, (iii) interferes with nature, (iv) affects individuals in close proximity to us, or (v) is a perfect course of action.
(i) The morality of an action does not depend upon whether that action coheres with cultural norms.
Some people might believe that an action’s rightness or wrongness hinges upon whether it coheres with cultural norms.13 However, we believe that an action’s coherence with cultural norms is morally irrelevant. For instance, we believe that (other things being equal), Americans should adopt a diet that has the greatest positive impact for animals, even though such a diet may be quite different from a typical American diet.
(ii) The morality of an action does not depend upon whether that action causes or prevents future lives.
Some people might believe that an action is impermissible if it prevents a future individual from existing. However, we believe that if a future individual will experience more suffering than flourishing, it is better to prevent that individual from coming into existence—all else being equal. For example, we would consider an action to have a positive outcome if it “spares” an animal from being born into a life in industrial agriculture. We don’t know for certain that it would be preferable for an animal to avoid being born at all rather than to be born in a factory farm, but we operate based on the assumption that animals in factory farms live net-negative lives and that it is therefore better to prevent them from being born.14
(iii) The morality of an action does not depend upon whether that action interferes with nature.
It may seem that whether an action intervenes in nature is relevant to whether that action is right or wrong. It may seem wrong to interfere with nature even if doing so has the greatest positive impact for animals. Some have argued that, since we can’t predict the future, we can never be sure of the effects that our interventions will have on the environment.15 Others have argued that we should treat nature as sovereign territory, which limits the kinds of interventions we are permitted to undertake.16
Animal Charity Evaluators does not currently recommend any particular actions that disrupt ecosystems, degrade habitats, or interfere with nature in any other significant way. However, as we continue to investigate the topic of wild animal suffering, we expect to find that helping animals effectively might sometimes require such actions. As Oscar Horta suggests in his essay “Debunking the Idyllic View of Natural Processes,” helping animals effectively may sometimes require us to intervene in nature by feeding wild animals, curing diseases when we are able, and changing the current behaviors of ours that cause harm to wild animals. When intervening in nature is the most effective way to promote welfare, we believe that it is justified, all else equal.
(iv) The morality of an action does not depend upon the proximity of those affected by the action.
Intuitively, it may seem that the rightness or wrongness of an action hinges upon whether it affects those who are near to us rather than those who are far away. For instance, some people might think that we have an obligation to care for a stray dog who approaches our house, but that we do not have an obligation to help a dog being raised as meat in Yulin, China. At Animal Charity Evaluators, we believe that our obligations to an individual do not depend on that individual’s proximity to us.17 A dog in Yulin and a dog on our doorstep are equally capable of suffering and equally deserving of moral consideration.
(v) An action does not have to be perfect to be right.
Our endorsement of actions that have the greatest positive impact means that we sometimes endorse actions that are less than perfect. During our charity evaluation process, we do not (and probably never will) investigate every detail of each charity’s activities and staff. We do not, for instance, investigate whether every staff member of our Top Charities is vegan in order to determine whether a small fraction of our audience’s donations may support animal agriculture through funding staff salaries.
Some people might object to our endorsement of actions that may be imperfect. However, it seems to us that consistently acting in perfect coherence with our values is likely impossible given the complex world we live in. Any available course of action probably has some negative consequences, though they may be quite small. If we refused to recommend charities that employ non-vegans, have leather chairs in their conference rooms, or use cleaning products tested on animals, we might not be able to recommend any charities. Even if we found that we could, they might not be the most effective ones overall. Moreover, investigating all promising charities at such a high level of detail would probably not be the most effective use of our time. We think we can do the most good by identifying the best available courses of action, rather than investing all of our time in a search for perfect actions which may not exist.
Is it wrong to prioritize the welfare of “the greatest number?”
It may seem unfitting to approach a moral problem the same way one might approach a math problem. We often hear animal advocates argue that the intrinsic value of each individual life is so great that it is wrong to compare the value of sparing one life to the value of sparing ten lives. In response to such a concern, we can only emphasize our respect for the value of each individual life. We do not see a contradiction between the conviction that each life is inherently valuable and the conviction that it is better to improve or spare more lives rather than fewer lives. On the contrary, it follows precisely from our conviction that each life is valuable that we choose to spare more lives rather than fewer lives.18
Perhaps those who feel that it’s inappropriate for us to focus on “numbers” are concerned that doing so will distract us from experiencing important moral emotions like empathy and concern. As philosopher John Stuart Mill expressed in his book Utilitarianism, calculating the consequences of our actions may make us seem “cold and unsympathizing” or it may “[chill our] moral feelings towards individuals.”19 In other words, focusing on the number of animals we help could distract us from our concern for each individual animal, which may be what motivated us to help animals in the first place.
Mill grants that losing touch with our moral emotions would be undesirable. He points out, however, that anyone—regardless of their moral decision-making process—faces a similar risk. Anyone can get caught up in reasoning about what is right and wrong such that they get distracted from feeling moral emotions like empathy and concern. Mill also suggests that, when we try to strike an appropriate balance between moral reasoning and moral feeling, it is better to err on the side of reasoning.20
When our critics express concern about our numbers-oriented approach to helping animals, we suspect they are anxious that our approach will lead us to ignore important groups of animals. Our focus on helping animals as much as possible does lead us to prioritize farmed animal advocacy, which may seem unfair to companion animals, animals in labs, animals used in entertainment, and so on.
We care deeply about the welfare of all sentient beings, and we think that the suffering of a rabbit in a laboratory is just as important as the suffering of a hen in a battery cage. We are grateful for the animal activists who are working on behalf of any and all populations of nonhuman animals. The reason we prioritize farmed animal advocacy is not that we think farmed animals matter more than other animals. We prioritize farmed animal advocacy because we believe it is the most promising avenue for helping animals as much as possible with limited resources.
Our emphasis on identifying the most effective cause areas, interventions, and charities may seem to imply that we think there is one monistic approach to animal advocacy that is most effective. In fact, we think that the most effective approach is probably a pluralistic one, and we hope that a diverse group of animal charities will continue pursuing a wide range of interventions to help all populations of animals. However, we will continue to recommend that marginal resources support farmed animal advocacy for as long as it remains the case that farmed animals receive a small fraction of animal charities’ resources despite enduring the vast majority of the suffering humans inflict on animals in the U.S.
Commitment Three: Empirical Research
Empirical research can help us determine which action is best.
Anyone who is determined to help animals as much as possible should rely on research to guide their actions. Investigating animal welfare is, at least to some extent, an empirical enterprise. To better understand the inner lives of nonhuman animals, we can rely on research from academic fields like biology, neuroscience, and ethology, among others. Predicting the effects of various actions is also, at least to some extent, an empirical enterprise. We occasionally design and conduct original studies to investigate the effects of common animal advocacy interventions. We also rely on similar studies conducted by other animal charities or by academics.
The Role of Empirical Research in Choosing a Cause Area
To increase the expected value of our actions, we prioritize cause areas that are large in scale, tractable, and neglected. Large-scale cause areas are those that offer opportunities for having significant positive impact. They often involve relatively large groups of individuals who experience relatively high amounts of suffering. Tractable cause areas are those which can be substantially improved by human intervention. Neglected cause areas are those which receive relatively little attention and resources. Based on these three criteria, we find farmed animal welfare to be a promising cause area for creating the greatest positive change.
Determining which cause areas are large-scale, tractable, and neglected requires empirical research. Empirical research from the sciences informs our judgment that nonhuman animals are capable of suffering. Given their enormous numbers, this means that the problem is very large in scale. We rely upon evidence about dietary impact and other interventions to determine the tractability of animal welfare, and we have used data about charitable donations in the U.S. to determine that farmed animal welfare is particularly neglected. For more information about the evidence we have used to select a cause area, see our Prioritizing Causes page.
The Role of Empirical Research in Guiding Action
Choosing a cause area is just the first step towards identifying which actions can have the greatest impact. Much research is still needed before we can confidently predict which actions will be of the most help to farmed animals. In order to contribute to our understanding of the consequences of various interventions on behalf of farmed animals, ACE synthesizes existing research and conducts original research. We use our knowledge of interventions to identify which animal charities are likely doing the most good for animals, so that donors can make more informed choices about where to give.
What kinds of evidence can help us make better choices?
Researching the experiences and circumstances of farmed animals is, at least to some extent, an empirical enterprise. To better understand the inner lives of nonhuman animals, we can rely on research from academic fields like biology, neuroscience, and ethology. To better understand what farmed animals experience in particular, we can also rely on information about what happens inside factory farms, much of which has been discovered and publicized through undercover investigations.
Researching the best ways to improve conditions for farmed animals is also, to a certain extent, an empirical enterprise. We occasionally design and conduct original studies to investigate the effects of common animal advocacy interventions. We also rely on similar studies conducted by other animal charities or by academics.
In addition to directly studying the effects of animal advocacy interventions, we can use evidence from many other fields to help us determine how to best help nonhuman animals. For instance, research on social psychology, marketing, and moral decision-making can help us learn how to persuade others to join our cause. Research about behavioral interventions and about current vegetarians and vegans help us to support individuals wishing to adopt and maintain dietary changes that help nonhuman animals. Historical and sociological research can help us learn what makes social movements effective.
Sometimes, there is limited evidence available.
Unfortunately, though we have many different possible sources of evidence, we still often find that we do not have enough information to determine the best ways to help animals with a high degree of confidence. Many of the existing studies on the effects of animal advocacy interventions are inconclusive. Some of them have yielded statistically insignificant results, perhaps because they lacked adequate statistical power. We try to be conservative about the conclusions we draw from research about psychological phenomena, behavioral interventions used in other fields, and the history of other social movements—since the extent to which such research can be reliably generalized to the animal advocacy movement is not always clear.
Given the current state of the research, our conclusions are often quite tentative. Nonetheless, we strongly believe in using what data we have to inform our understanding of effective animal advocacy, and we therefore do make recommendations on the basis of our limited empirical data. We do our best to express our level of uncertainty in our communications. For instance, in our charity reviews, we present our cost-effectiveness estimates as ranges rather than as point estimates, and we provide reasons to think that our estimates might be high or low, whenever we think that there are any. We also do our best to explain our research methodology in detail so that readers who disagree with our interpretation of the available evidence are able to locate the source of their disagreement and adjust the conclusions that we’ve drawn as they see fit.
While we do our best with the limited research that is available, we are also working in many different ways to build upon the available body of research. We maintain a Research Library and a Data Repository so that researchers can catch up on existing research before planning their own studies. We provide guidelines for animal advocates who wish to study the effects of their interventions using surveys. We host a researcher Collaboration Directory so that researchers can find collaborators who have similar interests and complementary skillsets. We organized a 2016 Symposium on Multidisciplinary Research in Effective Animal Advocacy and made the talks available online. Finally, we administer funding to promising research projects through our Animal Advocacy Research Fund. We hope that these efforts will help to produce a more substantial body of animal advocacy research within the next few years.
We feel it is important to state our philosophical commitments explicitly, in the spirit of transparency. We hope that this page will make our commitments clear to our readers. We think it may also serve to clarify that we are not committed to certain philosophical claims. For instance, we are not committed a particular theory of consciousness and we are not committed to the claim that our readers must always take the actions that have the greatest positive impact, no matter how demanding.
We are simply committed to the claims that:
- Species membership is a morally irrelevant feature of identity—much like race, age, sexual identity, gender identity, and so on. Nobody should be given less than full moral consideration on the basis of any of these features.
- All other morally relevant factors being equal, the best (most morally good) action is the one that results in the highest net welfare.
- Empirical research can help us determine which action is best.
We realize that some of our readers may disagree with some or all of these claims, and this page is not intended to convince anyone to share our commitments. Instead, we explain our thinking so that others may understand our position.
All the products of our research, including our charity reviews, intervention reports, and other research, are intended to further our understanding of the best courses of action based on the commitments described on this page. If you do share our philosophical views, we hope you will follow our work!
See Lori Gruen’s “Ethics and Animals: An Introduction,” page 101.
For a more detailed presentation of the argument included in this section, see the first section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on The Moral Status of Animals.
For instance, see Tom Regan’s “The Case for Animal Rights.”
For instance, see Immanuel Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.” Also see Christine Korsgaard’s “Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and our Duties to Animals,” in which she argues that all beings who have concern for themselves have moral status.
For instance, see Peter Singer’s “All Animals Are Equal.”
Our second commitment implies that, all else equal, adding more individuals to the world is a good thing provided that those individuals experience more happiness than suffering and thus increase the population’s net welfare. The claim that it’s always better to add more happy individuals to the world, while potentially controversial, is unlikely have practical implications for our work in the near future. Because our priority is helping farmed animals and the vast majority of them live miserable lives, we recommend actions that improve farmed animals’ lives or prevent more farmed animals from being born. We are unlikely to recommend increasing the number of farmed animals or any other individuals.
When the “greatest positive impact” is considered in terms of happiness, this view is known as “classic utilitarianism.” Famous historical proponents include Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. A more contemporary proponent of utilitarianism is Peter Singer, author of “Animal Liberation” and Advisory Board Member at Animal Charity Evaluators.
See, for example, Shelly Kagan’s “Does Consequentialism Demand Too Much?”
Immanuel Kant famously suggests that it is wrong to use others as a means to an end in “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.”
For example, in “The Methods of Ethics,” Henry Sidgwick suggests that, when deciding between two actions that have equally positive consequences, we should choose the one that leads to greater equality. In “Inequality,” Larry Temkin argues that we should we should aim to promote equality, sometimes at the expense of total utility.
For instance, philosopher Gilbert Harman is known for defending the view that whether an action is right or wrong depends on one’s “moral frame of reference.”
Philosopher Jeff McMahan suggests that, intuitively, it is best to prevent net-negative lives in his essay “Asymmetries in the Morality of Causing People to Exist.”
For example, Aaron Simmons argues that attempts to intervene in nature might result in ecological disaster in his article, “Animals, Predators, the Right to Life, and the Duty to Save Lives.”
For example, in chapter six of “Zoopolis,” Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka argue that the “presumption of competence amongst wild animals, and their demonstrated antipathy to human intervention, is sufficient to establish their claim to be recognized as having legitimate sovereign authority” (177).
In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Peter Singer argues that “[i]f we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or we are far away from him)” (232).
As philosopher Derek Parfit puts it: “Why do we save the larger number? Because we do give equal weight to saving each. Each counts for one. That is why more count for more.”
Mill, J. S. (1998). Utilitarianism. In Crisp, R. (Ed.) New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 66. See page 13 of the linked edition.
Mill, J. S. (1998). In Crisp, R. (Ed.) Utilitarianism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 67. See page 14 of the linked edition.