This series of posts is not intended to re-ignite the never-ending philosophical debate about welfarism vs abolitionism. Its main point is simply to point out that (broadly speaking) animal advocacy within Effective Altruism is uniform in its welfarist thinking and approach, and that it has assumed with insufficient reason that all abolitionist thinking and approaches are ineffective. This assumption is partly based on (1) poor evidence (2) a narrow conception of what it means to take an abolitionist approach to animal advocacy (3) with one notable exception, abolitionists’ poor/absent engagement with animal advocacy on pragmatic terms.
It is important to note I am not claiming that alternative approaches mentioned are (cost-)effective, though I do state reasons this might be true. In logic terms, I am simply saying that currently, the status quo is,
- EA Animal Advocacy = Welfarist approaches & not (Abolitionist approaches).
What I am proposing is that it should at least be
- EA Animal Advocacy = Welfarist approaches & unknown(Abolitionist approaches).
That is, the community does not have strong enough evidence and arguments to rule out abolitionist thinking and approaches. This opens up new lines of thinking, new questions for research and new advocacy strategies to test and refine. I also suggest how advocates might measure such strategies’ effectiveness, in ways appropriate to abolitionism (Social Change Dynamics).
I am a pragmatic, abolitionist-leaning animal advocate and vegan and I wrote this series voluntarily, in rare spare time, with help from three other vegans, all of whom have been familiar with EA for a few years. Two of us have a moderate amount of experience (a few years) volunteering with local abolitionist activism of various sorts, and we recognise this could lead to motivated reasoning. Two of us would identify as EAs, and have attended EA conferences. One of us is studying for a PhD in wild animal suffering; I am studying for a PhD in Computer Science. None of us have any formal training or professional experience in EA-related research, or criticism. Most importantly, this series was written over the course of more than 14 months; the sheer length of time means research moves on - I’ve done my best to keep up, and have even been scooped on multiple points, but I’ve probably missed things.
This series is intended to be a big-picture piece, surfacing and investigating common beliefs within EA animal advocacy. It covers a huge amount of ground, more akin to setting a research agenda than answering specific questions: each paragraph could be the subject of an investigation. Necessarily, I deal with generalisations of views, which will not cover all organisations, variations, or advocates. I have made my best efforts to avoid accidentally strawmanning, by, wherever possible, checking my intuition on what the mainstream views are against any available evidence (funding allocations, forum posts, surveys, reports from prominent EA organisations, searches on the EA forum).
- A Case for Abolition
I present a short, pragmatic, and EA-targeted case for complete abolition of animal exploitation, and for using abolitionist approaches to achieve this. I show that (1) a longtermist perspective leads one to aim for complete abolition as a goal, and with one key assumption, using abolitionist approaches to get there and (2) contrary to prior work, abolition is helpful to reducing wild animal suffering (and conversely, welfarism could hinder such efforts).
- Limitations with Current EA Animal Advocacy
I argue that the current major strands of EA Animal Advocacy (corporate welfare campaigns, cultured meat and focusing on high-income countries, though I recognise that the last of these is changing, and discuss this too) have the limitations summarised below, and so are jointly insufficient as a means to end farmed animal suffering.
- Diminishing returns.
- High resource usage.
- Not challenging carnism & speciesism.
- In conflict with helping people in LMICs.
- Biassing towards improving rather than averting lives.
- Scrutinising Objections to (Traditional) Abolitionist Approaches
I examine the objections to the following, deemed by EA Animal Advocacy to be ineffective. I think that, in all of these cases, the evidence that these strategies are ineffective is quite weak.
- Influencing social & political opinion.
- Individual outreach.
- Advocating for elimination (of animal-product consumption) rather than reduction.
- Advocating using an animal-centric message (rather than broad appeal, ‘safer’ messages like health, environment or taste).
- Under-explored Abolitionist Approaches
I discuss promising ideas which are more often found in/associated with abolitionist circles. Intuitively, these ideas do not suffer from the aforementioned limitations and weaknesses, however we don’t prove this, or that they work. I argue that these ideas have either (a) not been considered or (b) been dismissed too quickly: they work and there are cost-effective ways of scaling them.
- Scaling Animal Agriculture Transitions
- Documentaries (and Other Media)
- Rights-based Legal Actions
- Street Outreach
- Increasing Plant-based Food & Education
In this series of posts, I have suggested many ideas. I suspect some of them are wrong, and many are incomplete, but I do not know which ones, and so I look forward to the discussion that follows. My goals have simply been to:
- point out that there is a whole set of tactics that have not been rigorously considered within EA
- encourage a closer engagement with these tactics from EA organisations and individuals
- encourage more empirical study of the effectiveness of such tactics.
Even if they turn out to be ineffective upon further study, the process of thinking critically about the implicit assumptions of our activism can only be positive for the community and for the animals we’re trying to help.
A sincere thank you to Peter McLaughlin for reaching out to chat about this, encouraging me to write it up and contributing some paragraphs and suggestions. Likewise thanks to Tristan Katz, for sitting down to discuss these ideas and contributing to some paragraphs and suggestions. Also thank you to Jalitha “Vish” Vithanage, for his input and suggestions.