Effective animal advocates (EAAs) are members of the effective altruism movement. They use reason and evidence to identify the most effective ways to help animals, and they act on that evidence.
A central component of EAA is the willingness to revise one’s views in light of new evidence. Perhaps because different EAAs may have different views about how to best advocate for animals, there seem to be many misconceptions about what effective animal advocacy is and what EAAs do. We hope to clear up some of those misconceptions here.
“Effective animal advocacy is based on an assumption that there is only one right way to advocate for animals.”
We think there are many great ways to advocate for animals! While much of our research is devoted to identifying the most effective charities and the most effective interventions, we recognize that the movement as a whole will likely be maximally effective if a diverse group of advocates and charities employ a wide range of interventions to help animals. Moreover, different advocates might have different passions and talents, and the movement will be most effective if advocates can find the roles that best suit them.
If our research ever leads us to believe that a particular animal advocacy intervention is far more effective than any others, we would recommend that marginal resources be directed towards that intervention in the hopes that more donors and organizations will support that intervention in the future. However, we probably would not recommend that all donors and organizations solely support that intervention. Different interventions, when implemented together, can amplify one another’s effects. For instance, undercover investigations can increase the success of corporate or legal outreach by giving charities more information and leverage. Working for food justice can increase the success of veg outreach by making veg diets more widely accessible. Some interventions may be necessary components of a successful movement even if they are not the most cost-effective interventions when evaluated in isolation.
“Effective animal advocates only care about farmed animals.”
Some effective animal advocates (including advocates at many, but not all, ACE-recommended charities)1 prioritize farmed animal advocacy. “Prioritization” should not be confused with “caring.” EAAs can both prioritize farmed animal advocacy and care deeply about all animals.
Because farmed animals receive a small fraction of the funding that goes toward animal charities—and farmed animal suffering is more tractable than many other kinds of animal suffering—ACE currently believes that farmed animal advocacy is the most promising way to help animals effectively. Our recommendation that marginal resources be directed to this large-scale, tractable, and neglected area does not imply that we think a non-farmed animal is less important or less worthy of our advocacy than a farmed animal. Cause areas related to non-farmed animals are, in general, simply smaller in scale, less tractable, and/or less neglected. We’re glad that there are advocates working on behalf of many different populations of animals. Every advocate who helps nonhuman animals is someone who makes the world better than it would otherwise have been.
If there is ever a shift in the movement such that the majority of animal advocates are working on behalf of farmed animals—therefore making other populations of animals relatively neglected—we would consider changing our approach so as to ensure that no population of animals is ignored.2 However, there is little reason to think such a shift will occur any time soon. In 2013, farmed animals comprised approximately 99% of animals intentionally used and killed by humans in the United States, and they still comprised approximately 99% in 2016. Charities that focus specifically on farmed animals only received approximately 1% of animal charities’ total funding in 2013, and they still only received approximately 1% of funding in 2016.
“Effective animal advocates don’t value individual animals.”
We often hear animal advocates argue that it is wrong to make decisions based on the number of lives affected, because we should view animals as individuals rather than as numbers. Some argue that focusing on numbers will lead us to neglect the value of individual animals’ lives. For instance, some critics worry that our focus on helping farmed animals will lead us to neglect the value of individual animals in other circumstances.
We recognize the value of all individual animals, and we agree that the life of an animal in a lab (or in any other circumstance) is as valuable as the life of a farmed animal. Our respect for each individual life is precisely what motivates us to help more animals rather than fewer. As the late philosopher Derek Parfit explained: “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.” Our focus on numbers enables us to help more individuals, rather than fewer.
“Effective animal advocates rely solely on numerical data to make decisions.”
Because ACE’s primary goal is to reduce animal suffering as effectively as possible, quantitative cost-effectiveness estimates often play a significant role in our decisions. However, we often have very limited information about the effects of particular actions, in part because the field of animal advocacy research is still fairly new. We therefore rely on other considerations to guide our decisions, in addition to quantitative estimates.
At ACE, we use seven criteria to identify the most effective animal charities. Just one of those seven criteria is quantitative in nature. When we evaluate interventions, we consider a wide range of evidence—including interviews with experts and research about the long-term effects of analogous interventions used in other movements. These types of evidence play a large role in our analysis.
“All effective animal advocates are utilitarians.”
Classic utilitarianism is the view that an action is right if (and only if) it maximizes “net happiness” (i.e., the total amount of happiness minus the total amount of suffering).3 Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, according to which the “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action is determined only by its consequences. Many people are both utilitarians and EAAs. If the right action is the one which maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering, and if nonhuman animals are capable of happiness and suffering (which, of course, they are), we should all try to promote the happiness of both humans and nonhuman animals as much as possible. Since we have limited resources, helping as much as possible most likely requires researching the most effective strategies.
While many utilitarians are EAAs, not all EAAs are utilitarians. Many different moral theories are consistent with the claim that we should use reason and evidence to identify the most effective ways to help animals, though (unlike utilitarianism) some of those theories might imply that (i) there are constraints upon which actions we should take to help animals, (ii) some actions are justifiable even if they fail to help animals as effectively as possible, and/or (iii) there are other values we should consider in addition to promoting net happiness.
We’ve identified three core philosophical commitments that underlie EAA:
- Species membership is a morally irrelevant feature of identity—much like race, religion, 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.
Anyone who shares these views can be an effective animal advocate.
“Being an effective animal advocate is inconsistent with doing active work for other social justice movements.”
If you’re under the impression that being an effective animal advocate leaves no room for supporting other causes, we don’t blame you. The animal advocacy movement as a whole has done very little thus far to support other social justice movements. In fact, as we explain in a recent blog post, some animal advocates (perhaps including some EAAs) have a history of conducting their work in ways that are racist, sexist, classist, sizeist, and more.
Still, we believe that actively supporting consonant social justice movements is in line with the goals of effective animal advocacy. Building coalitions with other movements―particularly in a way that highlights connections and intersections between different forms of oppression―can benefit everyone, including animals.
“Effective animal advocates endorse reducetarianism or other non-vegan diets.”
Anyone working to reduce animal suffering as much as possible likely hopes to achieve an entirely anti-speciesist, vegan world. However, there is room for disagreement about the most efficient ways to realize that world. Some EAAs believe that the most efficient way to help animals is to advocate exclusively for a vegan diet. Other EAAs believe that the most efficient way to help animals is to advocate for smaller, incremental dietary changes. This disagreement is empirical; it could, in principle, be resolved by further research. ACE does not currently have a position on the effectiveness of reducetarian messaging. We evaluate charities based on factors including the outcomes they achieve, but generally not the messages they use.
Of course, many people strongly object to advocacy for non-vegan diets on principled—rather than pragmatic—grounds. Some animal advocates (perhaps including some EAAs) think it’s wrong to endorse speciesist diets, regardless of the impact it ultimately has for animals. On the other hand, some would argue that tolerating some speciesist attitudes or behavior in the short term is justified if it is indeed the quickest way to bring about an anti-speciesist society.
“Effective animal advocates only care about short-term or measurable outcomes.”
Effective animal advocates do care about long-term outcomes, even if they are difficult or impossible to measure. At ACE, we consider the long-term impact of charities when we evaluate them on Criterion 2 (“The charity engages in programs that seem likely to be highly impactful”). We also consider the long-term or indirect effects of interventions when we write our intervention reports. We recommend several charities (e.g., The Good Food Institute, New Harvest, and the Nonhuman Rights Project) that are working for long-term, systemic change—despite the fact that their efforts may achieve relatively few measurable outcomes for animals in the very short term.
Though we always make an effort to consider long-term outcomes, it’s likely that we place disproportionate weight on outcomes that are short-term and easy to measure. We are more confident in our ability to assess short-term outcomes, whereas long-term outcomes are generally more speculative. Because we generally seek to recommend charities about which we are highly confident, our evaluations may be biased in favor of charities and interventions that have relatively easy-to-measure positive outcomes and/or relatively difficult-to-measure negative outcomes. Donors who are not averse to investing in speculative causes might want to consider our recommended charities that are working for long-term, systemic change more favorably relative to the others.
“EAA research is a poor guide to decision making because there is not enough high-quality data on animal advocacy.”
It’s true that the field of animal advocacy research is young, and there is much less data about animal advocacy interventions than there is data about interventions in other cause areas, such as global poverty. It’s often difficult to draw reliable conclusions from the little research that does exist, but it’s not impossible. Even when a study has limitations, it can still meaningfully reduce our uncertainty about the effects of an intervention. For instance, despite the fact that MFA’s study of online ads was clearly underpowered to detect some possible effects, it still had enough power to substantially reduce our estimate of the amount of dietary change associated with a given number of views of animal advocacy Facebook ads.
Our conclusions are often quite tentative, which we do our best to communicate. We strive for maximal transparency and publish our full cost-effectiveness models so that our audience can understand the assumptions and inferences we make and, if they disagree, they can adjust accordingly and draw their own conclusions.
In order to discover the most effective ways to help animals, we are committed to using reason and empirical research. Even when evidence is frustratingly lacking, ignoring the evidence that we have will only make us less informed. In the meantime, we are working to raise both the quantity and quality of animal advocacy research. We encourage animal advocates who are frustrated with the current lack of research to invest in EAA research, rather than to give up on it.
We hope that this post will help clear up some misconceptions about effective animal advocacy. If you want to learn more, read about our mission, vision, and philosophy.
Three of our 2016 recommended charities (Animal Ethics, Faunalytics, and the Nonhuman Rights Project) work on behalf of many populations of animals. Additionally, The Good Food Institute and New Harvest are not farmed animal advocacy organizations—though their work on developing animal product alternatives will most likely benefit farmed animals more directly than other animals.
This is a description of classic utilitarianism, or hedonistic maximizing act consequentialism. Closely related views may not be hedonistic (i.e., they may call for maximizing some value or values other than happiness), they may not be “maximizing” (i.e., they may not require that every action result in a maximally good outcome), and they may not take actions to be justified on the basis of whether they are the optimal act, but rather take them to be justified on the basis of whether they follow the best set of rules.