In this post I summarize key strategic implications from Sentience Institute's five completed social movement case studies and several additional case studies by other researchers, looking for correlations and convergent findings across the different movements and contexts. From this evidence, I argue that the farmed animal movement should take steps to avoid unintended consequences from incremental tactics; use a more diverse range of institutional tactics; use fewer individual diet change tactics, primarily as a complement to institutional tactics; explore opportunities to bypass public opinion; and focus less on issue salience. I also argue that the nascent movements to protect the interests of future sentient beings (e.g. artificial sentience) should focus first on building a credible, professional movement but subsequently invest in a broader range of social movement tactics when promising opportunities arise.
Sentience Institute has now published five social movement case studies. This post provides a summary of the strategic implications from this work so far.
The main goal of these case studies is to glean strategic insights for social movements encouraging moral circle expansion (MCE), especially the farmed animal movement and the nascent movements to protect the interests of future sentient beings (e.g. artificial sentience). Other social movements, including the broader effective altruism movement, may also benefit.
We have argued:
Individual historical cases can therefore provide inspiration for potential tactics and perhaps build our intuition, but we should not place much weight on strategic knowledge gained from a single case, because causal relationships may not replicate in different contexts and may seem to work in contradictory ways. Note, however, that weak evidence can still be useful and should not be disregarded as it is often all we have available.
Even if we are not very confident about individual hypothesized causal relationships, we may be able to place significant weight on the strategic knowledge gleaned from history if we see that certain correlations reliably replicate across different movements and across different contexts.
In this post, I identify correlations and convergent findings across the different movements and contexts that SI has studied so far.
The movements we have studied so far are:
- The British antislavery movement
- The US anti-abortion movement
- The US anti-death penalty movement (including brief discussion of Europe)
- The US prisoners' rights movement
- The international Fair Trade movement
We have a separate post discussing methodological considerations such as why we have chosen to focus on these particular case studies. Our research on this topic is incomplete, so I also draw on similar reports by other researchers associated with the effective altruism community:
- Animal Charity Evaluators’ case studies of childrens’ rights (UK, Sweden, and New Zealand) and environmentalism (US and Europe).
- Mauricio Baker’s case studies of antislavery and climate change, both with a broad international focus.
- Włodzimierz Gogłoza’s case study of the US antislavery movement.
To identify big-picture trends, I assigned scores to each movement for a number of different variables:
- Success — whether the movement encouraged institutional changes, change to individuals’ behavior, change in public opinion, or acceptance by targeted institutions. Where I refer to “successful social change,” I am referring to the average of these four submetrics.
- My rough impression of the proportion of resources spent by each movement on various tactics.
- The position taken by each movement on other strategic tradeoffs, e.g. confrontation vs. nonconfrontation.
I then estimated Spearman’s correlations between the variables and tested for statistical significance (p < 0.05), though there are many limitations to this sort of correlational historical evidence and to statistical tests with small sample sizes.
Looking more closely at specific case studies, I identify a number of other findings that seem to hold true in multiple contexts, even though I did not find significant correlational evidence for them from across the full set of case studies. The anti-abortion and anti-death penalty movements provide a number of strategic implications relating to the causes and effects of US Supreme Court rulings; these implications were analyzed in more depth in a separate report and so are not included here.
FULL LISTS OF STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS
The full results of the scoring and correlational analysis are recorded in a spreadsheet. The full list of repeat findings from the qualitative, comparative analysis are reported in a second spreadsheet, ordered by strength of evidence.
The writeup below provides discussion on the strategic implications most relevant to prevailing practices in the farmed animal movement and the movements for future sentient beings, following additional qualitative analysis and synthesis of the findings identified by the above two methods. This means that, while potentially important, some of the recommendations below have relatively weak supporting evidence.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE FARMED ANIMAL MOVEMENT
TAKE STEPS TO REDUCE RISKS OF UNINTENDED NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES FROM INCREMENTAL TACTICS
Animal advocates often debate whether it is better to focus on welfare reforms or the abolition of animal farming without intermediary, incremental steps. Disagreement is partly due to differing ethical views (e.g. consequentialism versus deontology) and partly due to differing strategic views about whether welfare reforms lead to momentum or complacency for future progress. The case studies have implications for the latter component of the debate.
Similar concerns that incremental reforms may encourage complacency have been raised in other movements, such as worries that the US Supreme Court’s procedural reforms to the death penalty may have legitimated and encouraged the imposition of death sentences in lower courts by assuaging anxiety and the sense of responsibility for the decision. There is some weak evidence for these specific concerns, though the case studies also provide evidence that incremental reforms do not prevent subsequent, more radical reforms.
Some incremental social movement tactics seem to have had various other kinds of unintended negative consequences:
- The American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code seems to have been intended to fundamentally challenge capital punishment, but it was widely used to introduce and defend new state-level death penalty legislation that complied with restrictive laws.
- Litigation to improve conditions for US prisoners may have encouraged an increase in the number of prisons constructed and an enlargement of the prison administration bureaucracy.
- The Fair Trade movement’s engagement with mainstream companies seems to have led to a lowering of Fair Trade certification scheme standards.
Another risk is that incremental tactics distract advocates’ attention from more important political and systemic issues. The US prisoners’ rights movement won small palliative welfare reforms for prisoners while doing little to halt the increasing number of prisoners and more punitive treatment of criminals. The Fair Trade movement has made very limited efforts to address the unfavorable tariffs and international trade regulations that are arguably the root cause of the problems it seeks to address. Neglecting these trends may have been a major strategic mistake, though it’s not clear whether advocates could have affected them.
There are many good reasons to use incremental tactics, and most advocates who do so would presumably agree that, all else equal, it’s preferable to choose incremental tactics that are unlikely to have unintended negative consequences. However, l worry that the farmed animal movement doesn’t pay enough attention specifically to reducing these risks. I recommend that advocates:
- Avoid presenting incremental steps as a solution to the problem, e.g. via idealized imagery of animals in improved conditions or messages like “end animal cruelty.”
- Maintain a strategic focus on the bigger picture and long-term goals of the movement; switch tactics if wider societal shifts begin to happen that threaten the movement’s overall goals and successful counter-mobilization seems tractable. For example, the suffering caused by a rapid increase in insect farming could outweigh the value of all welfare gains won by the farmed animal movement to date.
USE FEWER INDIVIDUAL DIET CHANGE TACTICS, PRIMARILY AS A COMPLEMENT TO INSTITUTIONAL TACTICS
The case studies have strategic implications for another foundational question in effective animal advocacy — whether the farmed animal movement should focus its messages and interventions on changing institutions and social norms rather than changing consumer diets.
The largest US farmed animal advocacy organizations spent 46% of their resources on influencing public opinion and individual dietary behavior in 2016, but the case studies suggest that marketing and efforts to raise public awareness have limited effects on behaviors:
- The US antislavery movement engaged in a large-scale campaign of “moral suasion,” but the “free produce” consumer movement that arose from it failed to attract significant numbers of adherents.
- Although assessing causation is difficult, it seems unlikely that the widespread use of grassroots and direct action tactics has directly contributed much, if at all, to the modest decline in the number of abortions in the US since the 1980s. There is some survey and experimental evidence suggesting that tactics focused specifically on individual decision-making regarding abortions have little or no effect.
- There is evidence that marketing efforts have increased awareness of Fair Trade, but high awareness and support have not led to widespread changes in consumer behavior.
- More positively, campaigns by the US government and others have encouraged widespread participation in recycling.
In comparison, the largest US farmed animal advocacy organizations only spent 7% of their resources on influencing policy and the law in 2016, but some of the findings from the case studies suggest positive outcomes from legislative tactics:
- Legislative change can positively affect individual behavior.
- Legislative change can positively affect public opinion.
- Once influential institutions in one country or region adopt a value, they can influence institutions elsewhere to adopt the same value.
- Direct lobbying efforts sometimes make the difference between victory or defeat in closely fought legislative campaigns.
The antislavery and anti-abortion movements provide evidence that legislative change can occur before the behaviors that will be regulated have changed. This challenges the intuition shared by many animal advocates that the successes of individual and institutional tactics are interdependent.
However, I found that successful institutional change is positively correlated with change to individuals’ behavior. For example, the antislavery movement successfully encouraged both reduction of purchases of slave-made goods and legislation that abolished slavery, whereas only a small proportion of global trade is in certified Fair Trade goods and there have been few institutional changes specifically to encourage Fair Trade purchasing or values. So the success of these different types of tactics seems at least mutually complementary. There is evidence from the Fair Trade movement and other “ethical consumerism” movements that individuals who participate in consumer action are more likely to participate in other forms of activism. Additionally, the boycotts of West Indian sugar seem to have built momentum for the legislative campaigns of the British antislavery movement.
The case studies also show that consumer action can be taken by individuals who would otherwise be unlikely to contribute to a social movement:
- Boycotts of slave-produced West Indian sugar were led and encouraged by women who lacked political power or other opportunities for advocacy.
- The vast majority of the US population, including people with low support for environmentalism, recycle at least occasionally.
- Some individuals who would probably not usually donate to help the world’s poorest people still intentionally buy Fair Trade products.
As we have argued before, convergent evidence suggests that the farmed animal movement should shift some of its resources from tactics focused on individual diet change towards legislative and other institutional tactics. Where advocates continue to engage in individual tactics, they should:
- Proactively optimize for movement-building outcomes, such as contacting people who successfully participated in vegan pledge programs, offering follow-up support to involve them more deeply in the movement.
- Proactively optimize for institutional outcomes, such as utilizing forms of publicity that might be more persuasive to potential institutional partners than to individual consumers and following up with the reached institutions.
- Target individual-focused tactics primarily towards audiences who would otherwise be unlikely to contribute to the farmed animal movement, such as focusing on mainstream consumers rather than encouraging people who already eat mostly vegan food and identify with veganism to become “fully vegan.”
- When possible to suggest multiple ways that individuals can help animals, de-emphasize diet change relative to suggestions that they become active in support of institutional campaigns, such as joining groups like Hen Heroes and the Fast Action Network.
DIVERSIFY INSTITUTIONAL TACTICS BEYOND CORPORATE CAMPAIGNS
There are many possible institutional tactics that the farmed animal movement can use. Among these, the farmed animal movement primarily focuses on influencing industry in various ways. The case studies suggest that pressure tactics can be effective at challenging companies. There is evidence from beyond the case studies that corporate welfare campaigns can be highly cost-effective on short timeframes and that welfare reforms encourage momentum for further change.
However, I found among the case studies that successful social change was negatively correlated with the use of corporate campaigns and negotiations. For example, the antislavery and children’s rights movements — among the most successful — spent little on corporate campaigns, while the less successful anti-abortion and Fair Trade movements spent relatively more.
Additionally, it seems likely that each type of institutional tactic has some low-hanging fruit. For example, the anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, and Fair Trade movements provide evidence that it is especially tractable to pressure companies to stop selling a particular product type if it makes up only a small proportion of their profit margins. The anti-death penalty and antislavery movements first won legislative successes in areas where the targeted practices were not in regular use. The US anti-death penalty and prisoners’ rights movements seem to have been weakened by their narrow focus (at times) on litigation while neglecting other strategies, while the anti-abortion movement shows that advocates who successfully push through controversial legislation may need to defend that legislation in the courts. Hence, investing small amounts of resources in a variety of institutional tactics may generate surprisingly high gains for animals.
EXPLORE OPPORTUNITIES TO BYPASS PUBLIC OPINION
My impression is that farmed animal advocates often believe that legislative change is intractable without favorable public opinion. The case studies provide some support for this belief, suggesting that public opinion can positively affect legislative policy-making. However, the case studies also provide evidence that:
- Advocates can start successfully publicly advocating for institutional change even if they don’t yet have public support.
- Legislative change can occur without public support for that change.
- The attitude of policy-makers is a more important determinant of legislative outcomes than public opinion.
- Changing public opinion requires substantial resources.
Combined with the arguments above about the importance of legislative and other institutional tactics, this suggests that in some instances the movement should appeal to influencers and institutional decision-makers directly, without worrying about first securing favorable public opinion. However, this only seems wise in certain circumstances, since (i) it seems easier to introduce and implement unpopular laws if voters in the state do not have ready access to ballot initiatives or referenda, and (ii) politicians are incentivized to be more sensitive to public opinion on “morality issues” (e.g. a ban on factory farming) than on technical issues (e.g. food labelling regulations).
Of course, favorable public opinion can be useful for other reasons. I found that change in public opinion is positively correlated with change to individuals’ behavior. Besides, tactics that focus on education and attitudinal change might be important: I found that the use of such tactics is positively correlated with successful social change. For example, the successful antislavery, children’s rights, and European anti-death penalty movements spent a high proportion of their resources on such tactics, whereas the less successful US anti-abortion and US prisoners’ rights movements spent lower prorportions on them. However, there is less evidence on the optimal educational and attitudinal tactics and it seems intuitively plausible that the usefulness of these tactics could owe to their role in mobilising supporters, rather than successfully changing public opinion.
FOCUS LESS ON INCREASING ISSUE SALIENCE
We’ve argued before that the farmed animal movement should stop using publicity stunts and gimmicks such as sexualized images of women and cute, cartoonish animal costumes. Animal advocates sometimes justify the use of these tactics in terms of increasing public awareness and attention to farmed animal issues (i.e. increasing issue salience). While there may be some benefits to increasing issue salience, our case studies provide weak evidence that high issue salience can decrease the tractability of legislative change, which is evidence against tactics that are aimed at increasing salience. This might be especially so if advocates are trying to push through unpopular policies. High issue salience might also make it harder to encourage further attitude change.
Many tactics not explicitly focused on salience can still affect it. For example, there is evidence that institutional tactics can increase the salience of an issue.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE MOVEMENTS FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS OF SENTIENT BEINGS
The findings and strategic implications discussed above are also relevant to the movements for future generations of sentient beings. For example, legislative tactics seem promising, and it seems important to take care to avoid unintended negative consequences. Below, I highlight two other implications that seem important for these nascent movements.
FOCUS FIRST ON BUILDING A CREDIBLE, PROFESSIONAL MOVEMENT
There has been discussion in the effective altruism community about whether EA and various associated movements should focus narrowly on specific professional groups or on the broader population. Comparisons of tactics used at different times within particular movements suggest that social change is more likely to occur if credible professional groups and institutions advocate for change before broader participation and pressure is encouraged:
- The US ADPM’s fairly successful recent moratorium efforts were first driven by European political institutions, the American Bar Association, and Supreme Court justices, then supplemented by grassroots initiatives. By comparison, the early 20th century ADPM focused first on state-level, grassroots legislative campaigns, which gave way to a centralized litigation effort that culminated only in a temporary victory through the Furman v. Georgia ruling.
- The British antislavery movement’s Abolition Committee was led by MPs, and some of the first ally-led antislavery advocacy was through litigation. It was from this platform that the movement turned towards mobilizing grassroots support. Britain was among the first countries to ban the slave trade and then to emancipate slaves. The later American Anti-Slavery Society seems to have had a less professional leadership and focused initially on widespread antislavery messaging; membership numbers grew rapidly, but US advocates failed to win victories for slaves until they changed their approach.
- The US anti-abortion movement seems to have had more of a public-facing focus than its abortion rights opponents at several points where it suffered major defeats.
Given the technical nature of many of the issues that the movements for future generations of sentient beings seem likely to focus on (e.g. complex regulatory topics, research to address specific risk factors), decision-makers may not be very sensitive to public opinion anyway. Of course, the cutoff point at which a movement should start opening the door to broad, public-facing campaigns will be unclear.
USE OTHER PROMISING TACTICS
Many successful tactics in the case studies do not yet seem to be an important part of some movements for future generations:
- Pressure tactics can be effective at challenging companies.
- Consumer action can be taken by individuals who would otherwise be unlikely to contribute to a social movement.
- Encouraging consumer action can build momentum for institutional campaigns.
- Media coverage can encourage institutional change.
- Selecting and encouraging the most compelling issue framings in public discourse can have substantial effects on public opinion.
As argued above, it may be premature to use public-facing tactics. Additionally, some of these tactics may never be viable, comparably to how there seem to have been no opportunities for consumer action in the anti-death penalty or prisoners’ rights movements.
Visible on SI's blog post version.