What is the difference in impact between spreading different animal advocacy ideas, e.g. the cruelty of animal agriculture, dietary change, antispeciesism, and wild animal suffering?
This year, we evaluated Animal Ethics, an organization with a core aim of filling perceived gaps in the animal advocacy community.1 These gaps include messaging focused on antispeciesism, philosophical arguments in defense of animals, and wild animal suffering. We think all of these ideas are important and their propagation could help reduce large amounts of animal suffering, but the relative effectiveness of spreading these messages is far from obvious.
The degree to which other organizations promote the different key ideas also varies. For example, the Nonhuman Rights Project focuses on messages of animal rights and antispeciesism, rather than on particular industries or consumer behavior.
As with other prioritization decisions, we think it’s reasonable to compare these strategies using a few different considerations that inform our overall prioritization views. In this post, we’ll compare four key ideas in animal advocacy using the framework (also used in our prioritization of different cause areas within animal advocacy) of importance/scale, tractability, and neglectedness.
The key ideas:
- The cruelty of animal agriculture: We should oppose the animal cruelty that’s commonplace in the animal agriculture industry.
- Dietary change: We should change our diets in order to reduce the number of animals who suffer in animal agriculture.
- Antispeciesism: We should give animals moral consideration based on their sentience rather than species membership.
- Wild animal suffering: We should care about and be willing to act to reduce the suffering of wild animals.
- Importance (also sometimes called scale): Does the idea focus on an important, large-scale problem? If people fully appreciated this key idea, how much better would the world be?
- Tractability: How easy or hard is it to spread the key idea? How easily is one able to get more people to accept the idea and take action based on it?
- Neglectedness: Does the key idea get less attention or resources than other ideas with similar importance and tractability?
This seems like the most straightforward comparison. As we have explained elsewhere, the scale of animal agriculture is staggering compared to other human uses of animals with more than 60 billion animals slaughtered globally in 2013.2 This means that both the messages of cruelty in animal agriculture and dietary change are addressing a very large issue.
The number of wild animals seems to be vastly greater than even the number of farm animals.
Finally, antispeciesism seems like the largest issue by definition, since it considers all harm to animals, including new causes of suffering that could arrive in the distant future.
Tractability seems like the most difficult comparison for these ideas. It’s not clear what tractability implies here: Do we want to understand the ease at which you can get people to agree with the idea? Think the idea is more important than they did previously? Take action that’s in line with the idea?
We will consider tractability in a broad sense, including each of these considerations, but we think future research in this area should take a finer approach and address each of these considerations distinctly.
It seems that the cruelty of animal agriculture and associated dietary change are closer to the middle of the Overton Window — the range of ideas that are acceptable to discuss in mainstream public discourse — than wild animal suffering and antispeciesism. However, antispeciesism can be taken in different ways, and a weaker form of the idea, such as, “Animals are sentient and deserve better treatment than they receive today,” is actually quite acceptable and normal. In fact, if this idea is introduced in the context of animals that receive more consideration than farmed animals, such as dogs and cats in our home, it might even be closer to the middle of the Overton Window than farmed animal issues.
We think it’s generally easier to convince people of ideas that fall further inside the Overton Window, but there is a concern that if an idea is very well-accepted, you might not be able to spread awareness and support because people are already convinced. We don’t think that concern applies very strongly to any of the key ideas discussed in this post, except perhaps the weaker form of antispeciesism mentioned above.
It seems that dietary change might be less tractable than the cruelty of animal agriculture because it explicitly calls for changes in individual behavior. This could make people defensive because the idea is tied to an acceptance that their current behavior is wrong, and they believe they would incur a cost by switching to a diet that involves less consumption of animal products. There is also a counterargument here that even if we inspire large numbers of people to oppose animal agriculture as a system, that might not lead to concrete changes for animals, whereas inspiring people to change their diets would necessarily reduce the number of animals suffering in animal agriculture.
Wild animal suffering seems like a particularly difficult idea to spread because it conflicts with the common intuition that we should leave nature alone and that natural things are inherently good, known as the “natural fallacy” or “appeal to nature.” Of course, it seems like the notions that eating animals is necessary and that being human makes one much more important than other creatures are also deeply embedded in our society.
Overall, we think spreading the idea of cruelty in animal agriculture is most tractable, advocating for dietary change is somewhat tractable, and wild animal suffering is limited in tractability. We think the tractability of advocating for antispeciesism varies depending on the specific form of the idea being proposed. The weaker forms, such as, “Animals are sentient and deserve better treatment than they receive today,” might be the most tractable keys idea we’ve considered in this post because so many people already agree with them and seem close to viewing them as more important or taking action, while the strongest forms might appear too radical at this point to make serious traction. There is a possibility that the weaker forms of antispeciesism are so well-accepted in society that there’s limited room for further progress.
The cruelty of animal agriculture and the proposed solution of dietary change seem to be discussed much more often than the ideas of antispeciesism and wild animal suffering.
According to a survey conducted by the ASPCA in 2012, a whopping “94 percent [of U.S. residents] agree that animals raised for food on farms deserve to be free from abuse and cruelty.” Although we don’t have survey data to back it, we think that most U.S. residents, and likely people in other developed countries, are aware of vegetarianism and veganism as actions people take to help animals.
We expect the general population to be less familiar with antispeciesism and wild animal suffering. It could be argued that antispeciesism is well-known in concept, just not by name. Most people know that there are some individuals who support animal rights and think nonhuman animals should be treated more similarly to humans in terms of moral value.
We think a relatively small number of people are aware that some individuals are researching and advocating for intervention in the wild to help reduce the natural suffering of animals, like that of illness and starvation. It’s important to note that this work is distinct from that which focuses on just preserving their habitat and existence. We mean work that seeks to improve their quality of life, such as by administering vaccines to reduce rates of diseases that cause substantial suffering or administering birth control to reduce the suffering caused by overpopulation.
We can also think of neglectedness in terms of number of organizations working on the issues, which seems to follow a similar trend. We know of only a small number of organizations — Animal Ethics being the main group working in this area — explicitly addressing the plight of wild animal suffering.
Conclusions and avenues for future research
We believe the neglectedness and scale of antispeciesism and wild animal suffering ideas are sufficient to make Animal Ethics a very exciting organization for evidence-based donors, and we recommend them as a Standout Charity. We think the increased tractability of key ideas focused on animal agriculture is large enough that having organizations focused on farmed animals as our Top Charities makes sense.
We think there’s substantial room for research on the question of tractability. For example, surveys and experiments can help reveal how individuals react to these ideas and how easily one can change their mind (or help them arrive at a favorable position if they didn’t have an opinion beforehand). We also think our social movements project could help answer these questions. For example, we could ask whether successful social movements have tended to focus on the key idea of opposing a specific system or of changing individual behavior. We plan to tackle questions like these in the future, although they’re not an immediate priority.
“A core aim of the organization is to fill a number of gaps in the animal advocacy community.” – Conversation with Leah McKelvie and Oscar Horta, Animal Ethics
The calculator at http://faostat3.fao.org/ states that over 60 billion chickens raised for meat alone were slaughtered in 2013.