The animal advocacy movement is doing a lot to help animals, and has enjoyed some level of success. Yet there is still substantial room for improvement to allow the movement to reach its full potential. To that end, we believe it is critical to be aware of biases that may distort our thinking, such as the tendency to keep doing what we have done so far simply because that’s what we are familiar with.
In this post, we outline our suggestions for the animal movement and our vision of how it can develop to reduce animal suffering (even) more effectively.
This is, of course, a wide subject that entails many different strategic questions, and we don’t claim to have all the answers. Therefore, we will focus on aspects that we have considered in depth and that we have come to fairly confident conclusions about. Our perspective is inspired by our focus on s-risks and our antispeciesist, suffering-focused values.
This post draws heavily on Magnus Vinding’s new book Reasoned Politics. In particular, its chapter on Non-Human Beings and Politics goes into more detail on the issues discussed below.
Focus on institutional and social change
Even though a message centered on individual behavior change can motivate (some) people, we believe that it is overall best to avoid framing the issue of animal suffering in terms of individual food consumption choices. Instead, we think it would make more sense to focus on institutional and social change. This entails talking (and thinking) primarily about what we need to do as a society.
A key reason for this is the greater level of support for change at the level of our collective norms and policies. In a survey conducted in the US (replicated here), a surprisingly high number – almost half – of respondents agreed with the statements “I support a ban on the factory farming of animals” and “I support a ban on slaughterhouses” to at least a moderate degree, with around ten percent agreeing strongly with each of the statements. By contrast, more than 97 percent agreed with the individual-focused statement that “To eat animals or be vegetarian is a personal choice, and nobody has the right to tell me which one they think I should do”.
Of course, it is unclear whether the survey respondents fully appreciated the consequences of these options, and survey responses are often fickle. Nevertheless, the results above suggest that animal advocates often make a serious mistake by using the framing (i.e. asking for personal dietary change) that elicits the most resistance and opposition. For more details on institutional tactics that could be employed instead, see here.
Historical case studies of other movements aiming to create social change also lend some support to this view. While it can be difficult to transfer lessons from the successes and failures of past social movements, it seems that these movements have had greater success when they focused on institutional tactics rather than individual consumer change.
A case in point is that political parties (as well as organisations, societies, movements, etc.) aiming to help animals should choose a name that emphasises this commonly shared goal — like the uniquely successful Dutch Party for the Animals — rather than calling themselves the “Vegan Party” or similar.
The focus on dietary change is likely also suboptimal with regard to reducing the suffering of animals living in nature and future non-human beings (more on this below). Additionally, the individual framing is suboptimal in its emphasis on merely minimising our own “harm footprint”, rather than finding the most effective ways to help animals. And finally, another reason to prioritise institutional or social change is that innovations like clean meat may have the potential to eventually make dietary change superfluous (although this is far from certain).
To be clear, the point is not that there is no room for advocacy focused on individual actions and consumer change, but rather that a relatively greater emphasis should be given to institutional change, such as calling for the abolition of slaughterhouses (instead of, or in addition to, promoting plant-based diets). While it is probably not optimal that all animal advocates focus on the abolition of slaughterhouses, we think that e.g. protests or marches may be more effective with this concrete and evocative focus.
The relatively high level of existing support for animal-friendly policies and attitudes, at least when the issues are framed in non-dietary terms, also suggests that an effective strategy could be to make the surprisingly high levels of (expressed) concern for nonhuman beings common knowledge. Common knowledge is important for social coordination, as illustrated by the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. (A more detailed explanation of common knowledge and its importance for reducing animal suffering can be found here.)
Social coordination problems also exist within the animal movement. For instance, proposals like the abolition of slaughterhouses may seem “too radical”. But perhaps that is a self-fulfilling prophecy: maybe such proposals are perceived as “too radical” because (almost) nobody dares to explicitly call for them, and (almost) nobody calls for them because they are thought to be “too radical”. We therefore think that increasing awareness of the existing high level of concern for nonhuman beings (such as by publicising the results of the abovementioned survey) could be very powerful.
A movement for all sentient beings
The animal movement often claims to speak on behalf of all sentient beings. Yet in practice it neglects many beings — in particular, it tends to neglect the serious harms suffered by animals who live in nature. We think this neglect of wild animal suffering is a major blind spot of the current animal movement. The common sentiment that it is impossible to do anything about the issue is arguably misguided.
To reduce suffering most effectively, the movement must truly encompass all sentient beings. This may also include invertebrates (the sentience of which is subject to debate) and possibly even novel forms of sentience, such as artificial entities.
This is not to say we should necessarily focus entirely on these issues. The point is to take all sentient beings into account, reflecting a more complete perspective of the problems and risks we are facing. Also, given that the movement’s focus is currently almost entirely on animals that are exploited by humans, we believe a greater emphasis on the harms suffered by animals living in nature is warranted.
Another upshot is to focus more on advancing antispeciesism. The case against speciesism is remarkably strong, and it arguably implies a duty to help, rather than just a duty to personally avoid causing harm. But the main advantage of this approach is that it pertains to all sentient beings, and not only to farmed animals (in contrast to efforts to promote a plant-based diet).
There is also some (not necessarily conclusive) empirical evidence to suggest that antispeciesist messaging (which doesn’t have to use the term ‘antispeciesism’ itself) can also be effective in terms of reducing consumption of animal products. Psychological research likewise suggests that the rejection of speciesist beliefs is the main predictor of animal-free eating behaviours, implying that the best way to encourage such eating behaviours might be to challenge speciesist beliefs.
There are various objections to focusing on antispeciesism, such as its abstractness (see e.g. here). Still, we believe that overall, antispeciesist messaging should be employed to a greater degree — especially since it also lends itself well to a focus on institutional and social change, as discussed above.
Considering the long-term future
Most efforts to relieve animal suffering focus on individuals who currently exist or will exist in the foreseeable future. We are instinctively compelled to help those whose suffering we can immediately see or clearly visualise. Yet the sentient beings who are alive today, and who will live in the coming decades, are vastly outnumbered by those who will live in the centuries, millennia, and ages to come. (For more on the importance of the long-term future, see here and here.)
This is why CRS focuses on averting risks of future suffering. Our impact on the long-term future is admittedly less predictable than short-term impacts. Yet the scope of a future moral catastrophe could be so massive (vastly exceeding contemporary animal suffering) that, on balance, we still think that a greater focus on reducing suffering in the long term (i.e. beyond the coming decades) is warranted.
This has significant implications for animal advocacy. As outlined in Longtermism and animal advocacy, a long-term outlook implies a much stronger focus on achieving lasting social change. Ideally this would result in persistent moral consideration of nonhuman sentient beings.
So while it is still urgent and important to alleviate animal suffering in the here and now, this should not be the sole focus of our efforts. After all, it might be overall at least equally — if not vastly more — important to ensure that future civilisation is guided by animal-friendly values.
This also entails an emphasis on the long-term health and stability of the animal advocacy movement (including its individual advocates). It is vital to avoid any actions that impair our ability to achieve our long-term goals — as individuals, as organisations, and as a movement. Maximising the likelihood of eventually achieving sufficient concern for all sentient beings could be much more important than accelerating the process.
Avoid partisanship and needless controversy
In particular, one way to jeopardise our long-term influence is by triggering a serious and permanent backlash. We think this is a strong reason to adopt a highly cooperative approach. This not only means adopting a non-violent approach, but also avoiding needless controversy and antagonism. A backlash could happen if animal advocacy itself becomes increasingly divisive, or if the movement comes to be associated with other highly contentious political views.
In the short term, it is unclear whether highly controversial and antagonistic strategies are effective. In the long term, they could well cause a growing resentment and a greater resistance to the cause than there would otherwise be. Such resentment and hostility could be a significant risk factor for worst-case outcomes.
There is already a lively discussion on the advantages and drawbacks of adversarial strategies. The point is that the long-term perspective may tip the scales in favour of a more friendly and cooperative approach. Such an approach is, to be clear, still compatible with being assertive about the moral importance of non-human beings and their suffering. (Also, this is not to say that there is no place for confrontation at all.)
In concrete terms, we think it would be better for the animal movement to avoid partisan framings. The animal movement currently has a clear left-leaning bent, and parts of it are associated with the social justice movement. This may, to some degree, be rooted in personality differences. Still, we should take care to not alienate potential supporters through partisan speech. It is also worth emphasising that, despite the statistical relationship, there are numerous voices from across the political spectrum — including conservative and libertarian voices — that support the cause of reducing animal suffering.
Last, research on so-called do-gooder derogation suggests that a main driver of backlash and the negative attitudes of some meat eaters towards vegans and vegetarians is a perception of being judged as morally inferior. This suggests that we should take care to avoid triggering such a perception — which is yet another reason to primarily frame the issue in institutional or political terms, rather than in terms of individual food choices.
Always learn more
Given how complex these issues are, and how uncertain it is what will turn out to be most important in the long run, we should always remain open-minded and strive to learn more. It is tempting to think that others are biased or uninformed, but much harder to acknowledge one’s own biases. It is worth keeping in mind how pervasive motivated reasoning and cognitive biases are, and that it is highly unlikely that we already have all the answers to the various issues relating to the problem of nonhuman suffering.
Learning about the diverse issues of non-human suffering should be understood not as a one-off endeavour, but as a never-ending journey — there is always more potential to gain new insights and further refine our views.
In this vein, we conclude with selected resources in case you’d like to go into detail on the various aspects of the problem of non-human suffering:
- For more on the main arguments concerning speciesism and the implications of rejecting it, see here and here.
- On the problem of wild-animal suffering, and strategies for reducing wild-animal suffering, we recommend Animal Ethics’ video course or book on the topic.
- We think the idea of greater political representation of all sentient beings (“sentiocracy”) is worth exploring further. For more details on how that could be achieved, see The Political Status of Nonhuman Animals and Alasdair Cochrane’s book on Sentientist Politics.
- For more on risks of increasing non-human suffering in the future, see Risks of Astronomical Future Suffering, Reducing Risks of Astronomical Suffering: A Neglected Priority, our own introduction to s-risks, and Chapter 14 in Magnus Vinding’s book on Suffering-Focused Ethics.
- If you prefer a video or audio format, we would suggest this talk on effective strategies, this introduction to potential risks of future suffering, as well as this podcast on moral circle expansion, cause prioritisation, and s-risk.