TL;DR Selfish reasons for working against factory farming.

Animal welfare work can have a dour feel to it. Not only is the fact of factory farming’s existence a potentially overwhelming reality to those who appreciate its scale, but as a cause area it’s also just kind of boring. There’s not really an easily-identifiable villain in this moral catastrophe, since virtually everyone is complicit in it. As such, it’s not very amenable to archetypal heroic narratives. In fact, it looks like the way this actually gets solved won’t be by convincing everyone to change their ways, but by inventing cruelty-free products that taste so much like the repulsive factory-farmed ones that no one notices a difference. There’s probably not going to be a day or year when animal abuse is summarily abandoned; instead, we’ll see a gradual reduction over many years. It’s conceivable that the world will barely even notice the monumental moral progress that has been made when factory farming is finally ended. If this ends up being the case, then vegans will never have their satisfying “I told you so!” moment with their acquaintances who thought they were a little crazy for their weird obsession with animal rights. Instead, those acquaintances might just go on thinking that the vegans were in fact a little crazy, all the while enjoying the amazing taste of their synthetic burgers as well as the absence of cognitive dissonance in cherishing their pets. In other words, animal activism is not only thankless now, but might remain so even in the case of victories. Moreover, the evil we are fighting is one inflicted upon beings we rarely interact with, have little understanding of, and who are incapable of communicating with us in any way. This can make it hard to practice excited altruism.

Of course, something similar can be said of other cause areas. There’s nothing sexy about malarial bednets, and working to mitigate risks from new technologies doesn’t exactly have the same allure as wide-eyed techno-optimism. But my own work and thinking goes primarily towards farmed animal welfare, so this post is aimed at others who share the burden of that banal gloominess that is peculiar to animal activism.

To a pure altruist, this gloominess would not matter. A moral saint would derive motivation from impact alone, and would feel no discouragement even if everyone thought they were a villain for their work. But I am no such saint. For me, it is helpful to remind myself that a world without factory farming will not only be more hospitable to sentient life, but will also be more beautiful and vibrant in ways that will enrich my own experience and the experiences of others like me. I expect that others share some of my aesthetic sensibilities, so here I will list some positive changes in the world-as-I-experience-it that I expect to see with the end of factory farming.

  • In a world without factory farming, people will be healthier. In rich countries, animal agriculture is a public health disaster because it contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. With a reduction in these illnesses, people will have an easier time getting around to do all the things they enjoy. They’ll be more able to go hiking, take their children to playgrounds, see public art installations, and play pickup basketball. I expect that people will also tend to be happier and in a better mood with the burden of chronic illness lessened. In other words, when you go to your local park in a vegan world, the people you’ll encounter will be a bit more pleasant to be around. They’ll also be more attractive.
  • People will be wealthier. The reduction in chronic illness (not to mention greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotic resistance, and zoonotic pandemics) will also free up lots of money. This is money we’ll be able to spend on lots of other things that we value! That means more nature preserves, playgrounds, art, music, poetry, spaceships, research into effective altruistic interventions, and implementation of the same.
  • We’ll also have lots of extra land. Animals are an extremely inefficient way to produce food. As a result, the vast majority of the world’s farmland is used to produce meat and dairy products, but the food produced only comprises 18% of the world’s calories. In other words, in a vegan world we could feed everyone with far less farmland. Imagine what we could do with that extra land!

These aren’t my primary reasons for reducing factory farming, but they help me stay motivated when my work feels a bit bleak. It’s nice to feel like there’s something positive that I’m building towards, even though the intended effect of my work is mostly to remove a negative from the world. Interestingly, environmental and health-based messaging on meat consumption seems to be somewhat more effective than welfare-based messaging, so perhaps this is indicative of some wider truth about human psychology.

I like to imagine myself going for a drive across my country in a vegan world. Much of the countryside is still farmland, but far more of it is not. Now that countless new nature preserves have opened up, my stops for a day hike can be more frequent. The people I meet on these hikes are healthier and friendlier, and so are the wild animals I observe, now that the world has recognized the value of all sentient beings and set aside some resources for researching and implementing cost-effective wild animal welfare interventions. I can rest easy knowing that the world is working to make both manmade and natural environments friendlier to all sentient life, and that things can only get better moving forward. The stretches of farmland that I do drive through are far more interesting than they used to be. Where once there was endless corn destined for consumption by farmed animals, there is now a great variety of human-edible plants. And when at last I arrive at a coastal city, nestled at the mouth of a pristine river, I see that the air is a little clearer and the sea is rising a little slower now that pollution of various kinds is past its peak. Since there’s less nutrient pollution-driven eutrophication, the beaches are more likely to be open. And the city itself is a little more beautiful.

My point here isn’t to claim that this is a perfectly accurate model of what the world will look like once factory farming has ended. In fact, it seems to me that the future might be wild in any number of ways, whereas the picture I’ve painted here is basically society as I currently experience it, just a bit nicer in some ways that are fun for me. But regardless of what the future may hold, making societies nicer seems robustly helpful and my little mental picture of a slightly-prettier today is a good source of motivation for me. And most of these improvements aren't all or nothing; even if factory farming continues for many more decades, marginal reductions in it probably do cause some marginal environmental & public health gains.

“Selfishness” might be one way to characterize this type of motivation. I want the world to be more beautiful, so I derive value from actions that satisfy this preference. But I think it goes beyond selfishness in a couple of ways. For one thing, I am not the only person who would enjoy the aesthetic beauty of a world without factory farming. I suspect that many of my aesthetic sensibilities are shared by the vast majority of other humans, so there is a real sense in which these aesthetic improvements constitute a substantial positive externality in work against factory farming. Also, as I mentioned earlier, making society broadly more inclusive, prosperous, and “nice” might facilitate better decision-making with respect to whatever strange twists of fate may be in store for us.[1] I also think there’s a meaningful difference between “selfish” motivations, at least in the way that the word “selfish” is typically used, and aesthetic motivations. “Selfish” behavior is typically associated not only with self-interested activities, but also with a certain affective state in which one consciously puts one’s own pleasure before that of others. In this case, I don’t exactly feel such an affective state. I genuinely care about the welfare of all the people who will be healthier and happier after we reform the food system, and about all the good that can be done with the resources we’ll free up. I also care about the beauty of the world in a way that at least feels separate from how I care about my own welfare. And even if these feelings don’t factor into any cost-effectiveness analyses, they’re important information about the humans who aspire to do some good in the world.

Feel free to comment any other “selfish” motivations you have for fighting factory farming, or for any other altruistic endeavors.

  1. ^

    Though of course it's important to beware surprising and suspicious convergence.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:02 AM

I agree that vegans probably won't get an "I told you so" moment or an "end of meat" day to celebrate. But I think there is a good chance of a future where eating/milking animals is unthinkable and in which people have respect and compassion for all animal life.

It must have rankled in the 1800s when slaveholders were actually compensated when slavery was banned in the British Empire - there was no "I told you so" moment, and much of the historic racial inequality endured in a different form for generations even up to the present day. But now slavery is a massive taboo; all people are recognised as human and entitled to rights; labour exploitation still exists but is condemned; the old days' institutional degradation of an entire race is unthinkable now.

I'd argue that most of this moral progress hasn't come from living people changing their minds. It's from children reared in a society without slavery thinking "wow, slavery sounds really inhuman, let's not do that again". The ban enabled people to see how wrong owning humans was.

We can hope for something similar when it comes to factory farming. If fake meat makes factory farming obsolete, and kids have never tasted the real thing and have only encountered animals in nature and in zoos - they will find the idea of eating animals and their milk/eggs really gross. They will genuinely believe that factory farming is wrong.

It won't be a day of reckoning but it will be a giant shift worth celebrating .