New Works in the Field

Effective Altruism, Meet Animal Protection

Editors’ Note: Examining how the animal protection and effective altruism movements have come to intersect, Garrett M. Broad explains the ways that these communities have contributed to each other, what conflicts have emerged, and what the future holds for ‘effective animal advocacy.” In this essay, Broad draws from an academic article he wrote, published this past December in Agriculture and Human Values.  

Do you consider yourself an “animal lover”?

In a nationally representative (US) online poll I conducted back in December of 2017, nearly 75% of respondents agreed that they did, indeed, identify as such, while under 10% disagreed. It was yet another data point to show the way Americans open up their hearts – and their wallets – to the nonhuman animal world. As evidence, about two in three American homes include at least one companion animal in their household, and we collectively spend over $70 billion on our pets each year. Another $2 billion or so is spent by Americans on animal protection charities, shelters, and other animal advocacy activities.

As a number of scholars and activists have noted, however, our love for animals comes with a paradoxical catch, notably in terms of the food we eat. An estimated nine billion land animals and 46 billion sea animals are killed annually for food in the United States alone, many of whom are raised in cramped and inhospitable “factory farming” conditions that cause significant suffering. A wide and growing body of research shows that little separates the cognitive or emotional capacity of these animals from the pets whom we treat as members of the family or the animals to whom we direct our charitable giving. Yet, a cognitive divide allows Americans to distinguish their compassion for animals from their animal food consumption, as even self-described “animal lovers” are mostly meat-eaters. Indeed, the price tag for the animal foods we eat stands at four or five times that of the nation’s animal-loving generosity.

In the context of philanthropy, the issue of animal suffering in the food system is wide in scope yet often overlooked. There are, however, a number of potential strategies that could be deployed to mitigate and, perhaps, even eliminate such animal suffering. In fact, one major philanthropic movement has recently targeted these opportunities to reduce animal suffering: effective altruism. In an article I published this past December in Agriculture and Human Values, which I preview here, I ask: How did the animal protection and effective altruism movements come to intersect? In what ways have the communities contributed to each other, and what conflicts have emerged? What does the future hold for “effective animal advocacy”?

The Animal Protection Movement

Concern over the welfare of animals has roots in antiquity, but organized animal protection activities emerged around the humane and antivivisection movements of the 19th century. In the United States and other developed Western nations, the contours of the contemporary animal protection movement began to take shape in the post-WWII period. Newly formed advocacy organizations pressured government and the private sector to institute basic regulations in areas related to wildlife protection, anti-fur, animal research, and companion animal overpopulation. By the 1970s and 1980s, as a host of social movements advocating for the rights of marginalized human beings gained prominence in the U.S. – including the civil rights movement, feminist movement, and gay rights movement – a groundswell of support for another marginalized group – animals – forged ahead. At that time, concerns related to the intensive farming of animals for food, cruelty to animals used for entertainment and sport, and the use of animals in laboratory testing and experimentation joined existing animal protection focus areas.

Several decades later, the U.S. animal protection movement is now composed of an ideologically and strategically diverse set of activists. Most animal protection donors and advocates still focus the majority of their attention on companion animals such as dogs and cats. According to those who take farmed animal suffering seriously, however, this selective attention is irrational and counter-productive, the result of “speciesist” or “carnist” ideologies that characterize certain animals as worthy of care but deem others as commodities to be used for food. These critics underscore the importance of protecting the rights and interests of animals within the food system as much as we protect the animals who serve as human companions.

With that said, farmed animal activists are far from unified in their animal advocacy efforts. From a tactical level, some advocate for mass protests and civil disobedience, others employ vegan/vegetarian leafletting or provocative media outreach, while still others call for legislative lobbying and ballot referenda initiatives. From a philosophical perspective, debates between so-called animal rights “abolitionists” (who argue against any and all human use of nonhuman animals) and animal advocacy “welfarists” (who often see abolition as a desirable long-term goal but call for incremental regulation of animal industries along the way) abound. A third group within this internal debate—the Peter Singer-inspired consequentialist animal “liberationists” – situate themselves as a balance between these poles, eschewing adherence to any particular ideology, and insisting that what is best for the animals is whatever can be proven to reduce animal suffering the most. It is this third perspective, in fact, that has brought effective altruism into the world of animal protection.

The Effective Altruists

Effective altruism (EA) is part concept, part movement. According to its proponents, they simply believe in using evidence when figuring out how they can make the biggest possible difference in the world. They blend a Peter Singer-styled utilitarian philosophy with a Bill Gates-informed approach to markets and philanthropy, using quantitative metrics of cost-effectiveness to evaluate and compare the impacts of specific careers, projects, and philanthropic programs.

As a movement, the intellectual and programmatic life of EA is anchored by a growing number of organizations and funding sources from across Silicon Valley and other strongholds of global finance and technology, at elite academic institutions, and through thousands of individual donors who connect and collaborate in online forums and real-world meetups. The charity evaluator GiveWell, founded in 2007 by two former investment analysts, is perhaps the most prominent EA-aligned organization. Focused on vetting and recommending cost-effective and underfunded organizations, mostly in the global health arena, GiveWell endorses the EA movement’s principles of strategic cause selection and its belief in maximizing the good accomplished in the world. In 2011, inspired in part by reading Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, former Wall Street Journal reporter Cari Tuna established the foundation Good Ventures. GiveWell and Good Ventures collaborated to create the Open Philanthropy Project in 2014, which offers large grants directly to organizations working in more expansive arenas of policy and society, including criminal justice reform, pandemic preparedness, risks related to artificial intelligence, and farmed animal welfare, with the animal focus area led by program officer Lewis Bollard.

How did farmed animal welfare become enshrined as an EA focus area? When evaluating whether a particular issue is worthy of significant attention, effective altruists ask a series of questions based on the “Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness” (ITN) framework. Such questions include: Is the problem of large enough scope that tackling it could significantly reduce suffering and/or improve well-being in the world? Is it tractable, such that there are actionable ways to make an impact in the arena? Is it neglected, meaning there is room for an infusion of human and fiscal resources to be dedicated to this area? For many effective altruists, farmed animal welfare clearly fits the bill.

Effective Animal Advocacy

Effective altruism and animal protection are far from a seamless match, bringing together two social movement communities with different cultural practices, demographic compositions, and ideological value systems. Still, their intersection has led to the emergence of several notable trends with relevance for observers of philanthropy. Within the EA movement, the presence of animal advocates has pushed many to reconsider the cognitive and emotional complexity of animals, as well as to give more weight to nonhuman animal moral status. Surveys of effective altruists continue to show a higher level of concern for issues related to global poverty and global existential risk, but animal protection generally – and farmed animal protection specifically – is undoubtedly part of the broader EA conversation. As one marker, vegan food options are a staple at nearly all EA events.

Within the animal protection movement, effective altruists’ thinking has proved both controversial and influential. EA has been criticized for a host of perceived limits, including but not limited to: a set of measurability biases that prioritize easily quantifiable outreach strategies and incremental welfare reforms at the expense of broader social and political change; a tendency to valorize corporate-driven technological and market-based solutions; a lack of demographic diversity that makes widespread outreach difficult; and a propensity to play philanthropic favorites, particularly in the charity recommendations of the EA-aligned Animal Charity Evaluators and in the grantmaking portfolio of the Open Philanthropy Project.

At the same time, however, the conceptual and practical power of effective altruism has encouraged the animal protection movement to pursue new arenas. Notably, through a mix of major philanthropic giving and a spur to individual donors, EA has brought significant sums of new money into animal advocacy, funds that are being focused on improving farmed animal welfare in the United States and, increasingly, on limiting the extent of farmed animal suffering in the developing world. Despite a history of methodological shortcomings of its own, EA has also helped raise awareness about the value of social science research within the animal protection community, pushing established organizations to more carefully consider the evidence-base of their actions and spawning new organizations – such as the Sentience Institute – that are focused specifically on evaluating the best path forward for the movement.

Effective altruism also has propelled the thinking of animal protection advocates into new frontiers, building enthusiasm for entrepreneurial and market-based efforts to create alternative animal protein products like plant-based meats, as well as building support for developing new slaughter-free, cell-based animal products that are created through the cultivation of live animal cell cultures. Indeed, a significant proportion of self-identified “effective animal advocates,” along with a growing number of farmed animal advocates generally, see market expansion in alternative protein as a potential game-changer that could radically shift consumer habits in ways that ethical vegan arguments have failed to do for generations. It is a move that is illustrative of the EA movement’s affinity for technological and market-oriented solutions to social problems, as well as its commitment to focus on neglected spaces of opportunity with the potential for large-scale impact. In addition, EA-aligned thinkers have also raised questions about “wild animal suffering,” pushing advocates to think about the rights and responsibilities humans bear to improve the well-being of the countless animals who live outside the conventional reach of animal protection organizations, another neglected topic that could shed light on widespread suffering throughout the animal world.

At this stage, the big takeaway is that effective altruists are likely to play a significant role within the animal protection movement in the years ahead, particularly in terms of anti-factory farm advocacy and in the promotion of animal food replacement technologies. Future research will be required in order to assess how these intersecting dynamics evolve over time, to determine what influence effective altruists have on the animal protection movement, and to explore what influence animal advocates have on effective altruism.

-Garrett M. Broad

Garrett M. Broad is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University and the author of More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change (University of California Press, 2016). His research focuses on networked social movements in local and global food systems, exploring how food can contribute to social justice, environmental sustainability, and the rights and welfare of animals.

This blog post draws from the following article:

Broad, G. M. (2018). Effective animal advocacy: effective altruism, the social economy, and the animal protection movementAgriculture and Human Values35(4), 777-789.

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