Thursday, June 4, 2009

Caring about Animal Suffering

What are some examples of experiences that lead people to give serious concern to the suffering of animals? For Peter Singer, as he describes in Animal Liberation, it was logical argument by vegetarian friends that persuaded him to think about the issue. For Josh Balk, it was watching a video containing scenes of animals being killed. For Jon Camp, it was a college ethics courseSome people discovered animal cruelty by being stuck in traffic behind trucks bringing animals to slaughter. Many others have been affected by Vegan Outreach leaflets. In my own case, I simply needed to realize that animals could feel pain, a point that somehow escaped me until I came across an online excerpt from Animal Liberation (pp. 10-12, 14-15).

I ask this question because it seems to me that serious attention to animal suffering is one area that is perhaps most lacking from the mainstream intellectual sphere of moral concern. Everyone in the modern western intelligentsia seems to care about racism, homophobia, poverty, disease, and other conventional issues, yet many still fail to think twice about eating a turkey sandwich for lunch. I worry about how animals might fare in a post-human technological society -- not because I think many people would favor deliberate harm to animals, but simply because decisions with vast consequences for animal suffering might be made without giving animals a second thought.

The worst source of animal suffering is undoubtedly predation, disease, and death in the wild. A serious solution to this problem appears far off. Therefore, it may be that animal-welfare supporters can best address the wild-animal problem by promoting concern for animal suffering generally, both to ensure that animal welfare does have a place within the scope of concern of future humans and to hasten the development of technologies that might address the issue.

It's important, though, that utilitarians promote the right kind of concern for animals. Many in the animal-rights movement feel that animals inherently deserve to live in nature without disturbance from man; it would be a terrible tragedy to promote "animal liberation" in such a way as to increase the number of people demanding preservation of animals in their natural state because this is "the way things are supposed to be." Similarly, it's important that concern for animal suffering be linked with a mindset of cost-effectiveness analysis, lest well meaning people spend their lives opposing a few circuses and zoos while billions of farmed chickens suffer, to say nothing of the orders of magnitude more wild animals.

What are some ways to promote this kind of utilitarian concern for animals? I think Vegan Outreach brochures, as well as ads by The Humane League, are impressive and have strong economies of scale. They're very good for opening people up to concern for animals, although they aren't sufficient for the subset of the population -- animal activists and other philosophically minded thinkers -- who already agree that animal suffering matters and who are ready for the next step: Applying that concern to wild animals.

Some have suggested that in-vitro meat may reduce speciesism, on the grounds that many people resist giving moral consideration to animals precisely because of the undesirable consequences of doing so on their food choices. Perhaps the possibility of producing meat without factory farming would free people up to care more about animals than before, just as the advent of industrial technologies to replace slave labor may have facilitated moral opposition to slavery. That said, this approach seems less direct and less obviously helpful than veg outreach. Maybe if fewer people confront the dilemma of eating factory-farmed animals, there will be less of a "hook" for people to latch on to concern for animal suffering at all. (In this model, ethical vegetarianism is like a gateway drug to caring about suffering in nature.)

I think videos can be effective, and I find watching them to be one of the most effective ways to trigger the release of chemicals in my brain that motivate me to want to do something to prevent animal suffering. Perhaps one could make a video that includes images of brutality in nature. An important challenge would be finding a way to avoid leaving people feeling merely depressed, or leading them to conclude that concern for animals is hopeless because the suffering of wild animals is overwhelming and intractable. Indeed, arguments about "how far do you go with concern for animals?" are often used as reductios against vegetarianism. It may be that talking about the possibility of insect suffering will entirely put off many people who are just beginning to consider the idea of extending some moral concern to chickens. Different audiences are at different stages. Committed animal-welfare supporters definitely need to hear about insects, but for the majority, we should probably stick to chickens for now. :)


  1. In thinking about these questions, I have to wonder about analogies to the anti-abortion movement. In many ways they seem similar to reducing suffering of animals, especially in that one of the main questions is to what extent to value the suffering of the creature/thing in question. Except that many people have a substantially easier time caring about babies than about farm animals.

    But there are two substantial reasons I'm bringing up the similarity (besides that it's interesting for its own sake). The first is if abortion can't be made illegal than why do you think there's any particular hope of animal suffering ending? And the second is why you think people who care about animal suffering care about it because they really want it to stop? How many of the people who agree with you about animal suffering believe animal suffering is wrong merely as a way to feel self-righteous, as though they're fighting the good fight. How many of them care less about whether their goal is accomplished than about being on the right side of the disagreement? If the answer to that question is "a lot" or "most" of them, then it will be substantially harder to make people care about animal suffering because they see the insincerity of its advocates.

  2. Also, do you have any comment on the Less Wrong thread ?

  3. Hi Anonymous.

    especially in that one of the main questions is to what extent to value the suffering of the creature/thing in question

    Is the assumption that animals / unborn infants can suffer, and we're merely deciding whether to care about that suffering? It seems to me that the relevant question ought to be merely, as Bentham said, Can they suffer? If they do, then it seems obvious that we should care about it: Suffering is suffering, regardless of the container (i.e., organism) within which that suffering is taking place. Of course, you're right that in practice, people do seem to care more about suffering within certain types of containers....

    The first is if abortion can't be made illegal than why do you think there's any particular hope of animal suffering ending?

    Well, the title of this blog is "Reducing Suffering" rather than "Ending Suffering" -- I doubt animal suffering can be eliminated (at the very least, suffering that has occurred at previous times within the block universe remains forever), but it seems clear that there are ways to lessen the amount of it that exists. Indeed, as an existence proof, consider something like the use of controlled atmosphere killing for 10 percent of all birds slaughtered in the EU (

    And the second is why you think people who care about animal suffering care about it because they really want it to stop?

    I would guess that the fraction of people who actually want it to stop is pretty big (> 75%), but I could be wrong. I think the disgust and distress that most people experience when they watch a video like "Meet Your Meat" constitutes an implicit wish to see animal suffering prevented. The main problem seems to be that it's easy for people to get caught up in the feeling "I have to do something, anything" ( without giving much thought to the widely differing magnitudes of impact that could be made by focusing on different areas.

    Do you have reason to think that the proportion of merely self-righteous activists is higher among the animal-rights movement than other movements? I suppose the large fraction of sensational but inefficient campaigns could be evidence?

    Regarding the Less Wrong thread, I would agree with Dagon's comment that "personal identity is a lie": I am a different person at time t+1 than at time t, so it isn't surprising that my preferences may be different. I would also concur with Eliezer's distinction between description and prescription: Sure, utility functions may be a bad description of how people feel. But I think we ought to use them in prescribing how we want the world to be.

    In theory, my own utility function is just the classical-utilitarian undiscounted sum of happiness minus pain, with pain weighted heavily compared against pleasure (i.e., lots of pleasure is needed to outweigh a given amount of pain). Of course, in practice, I fail to live up to this standard, due to selfishness, akrasia, and so on. :)

  4. "Do you have reason to thinkn that the proportion of merely self-righteous activists is higher among the animal-rights movement than other movements?"

    More or less is slightly less relevant when the consequences of commitment to reducing animal suffering are so large. To convince people of its worthiness it has to be more sincere than the norm. Not to mention more unified and organized than it currently is; movements have a bad historical record compared to organizations.

  5. AlterNet has published an excerpt by Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich from The Animal Activist's Handbook under the nice title, "Why Progressives Should Care About Animal Rights." In addition to advancing the aim discussed in my post above, the piece contains a great discussion of triage in our approach to reducing suffering, including the importance of money.

  6. Vegan Outreach's activist profiles pages include a number of stories of how various animal supporters first decided to care about these issues. Great reading!

  7. An interesting new study finds greater empathy among those who avoid meat for ethical reasons. It's unsurprising, but it demonstrates the value of generally promoting empathy. (What are some of the best ways to increase the average empathy of society? Genetics? Environmental influences? As society becomes more affluent and comfortable, does empathy decrease? Or does greater comfort allow people to care less about themselves and more about others?)

  8. I do care about animal suffering and I think that people who mistreat animals should go to jail too, because if they do those terrible things to their pets, they can do the same with people!