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This is the second post in a series clarifying what non-consequentialist cause prioritization looks like. The first part is here. The input of non-consequentialist theories can help resolve a few crucial considerations within causes. In this post, I will consider what non-consequentialist ethical theories have to say about humane animal agriculture and wild animal suffering.

Table of Contents

4. Permissibility of Humane Animal Agriculture

4.1 Neo-Kantianism and Broad Deontological Considerations

4.2 Virtue Ethics

4.3 Refined Intuitions

4.4 Summary and Takeaway

5. Permissibility of Intervening in Wild-Animal Suffering

5.1 Broad Deontological Considerations

5.1.1 Environmentalism

5.1.2 Zoopolis and Political Theory

5.1.3 Neo-Kantianism

5.2 Virtue Ethics

5.3 Refined Intuitions

5.4 Summary and Takeaway

6. Appendices for Future Research

A. Justice and Collective Responsibility

B. X-risk vs Trajectory Changes

C. Special Obligations

D. Risky Giving

E. Person-Affecting Views and Animal Welfare

F. Harmful Jobs that have a Net-Positive impact

4 Permissibility of Humane Animal Agriculture

There is a serious moral question of whether humane animal agriculture is preferable to no animal agriculture. I define humane animal agriculture as bringing up animals to live net-positive lives and then killing them.[1] The proponents of humane animal agriculture believe that if animals live net-positive lives, they are being benefited by humane animal agriculture. This is a crucial consideration that might make clean meat look less good in comparison to farming reforms on normative grounds (Sandberg, 2015).[2] Similar to part 1, I will analyze each issue from a wide variety of non-consequentialist viewpoints.

4.1 Neo-Kantianism and Broad Deontological Considerations

If you accept any deontological position, it is fairly straightforward that humane animal agriculture is morally wrong. Korsgaard argues that even when an animal lives a net-positive life, you shouldn’t “use products that have been extracted from her in ways that are incompatible with her good. You are treating her as a mere means to your own ends, and that is wrong” (Korsgaard, 2018, part 12 p. 11). The same is true if you accept a non-Kantian form of deontology because you are still clearly violating the animal’s right to life.

My view: This position is almost certainly what follows from most deontological views. Humane animal agriculture is a clear violation of rights.

4.2 Virtue Ethics

Nancy Williams has argued that humane animal agriculture is unvirtuous for a few reasons. First, it involves betrayal because the animals “go into the [slaughter] pen because they trust you” (Williams, 2015). Second, it shows a lack of respect by viewing animals “as mere consumable objects” (Williams, 2015).

My view: These are mildly persuasive reasons why humane animal agriculture is unvirtuous, but they are not decisive. I am hesitant for two reasons. Firstly, there is very little literature on this question, which makes me very hesitant to come to a strong conclusion. Even William’s article is about care ethics rather than virtue ethics, although the author later notes that they are the same in this instance. Secondly, humane meat could easily be reframed to represent compassion for the animal’s entire life.

4.3 Refined Intuitions

The intuitive considerations for humane animal agriculture are mixed. There are a few strong arguments both for and against humane animal agriculture. First, if you re-apply the marginal cases argument discussed in part 1, this practice seems impermissible with humans. For example, it intuitively seems wrong to have children just to painlessly kill them and donate their organs. However, it could be plausibly objected that it might indeed be better to have people raised for food, rather than the extinction of the human race (Sandberg, 2015). Second, Jeff McMahan has argued that at the time that an animal is going to be killed, the animal has a stronger interest in living than people have in eating the animal (McMahan, 2008, p. 2).[3] However, later McMahan changed his mind on this argument because he thinks animals are not psychologically connected to their future selves in the way humans are, so their death is less bad compared to the pleasure people get from eating meat (McMahan, 2012, p. 19).

My view: This debate is messy and you could go either way depending on your intuitions. I lean very slightly towards the side against humane animal agriculture, because I think the marginal cases argument is very strong. I am sympathetic to both sides.

4.4 Takeaway

Overall, I think we should be very hesitant about humane animal agriculture once we account for moral uncertainty. It looks very bad from a deontological position, moderately bad from a virtue ethical and somewhat mixed from an intuitive standpoint. Moreover, it only looks good under consequentialism if you accept certain views in population ethics, like that it is good to bring happy animals into existence. [4]

The upshot is of course very dependent on your credences in different ethical views. Even though my highest credence is in total consequentialism, I give significant credence to deontological and intuitive considerations. Given my own credences, I think humane animal agriculture is a bad idea; however, if you have higher credences in total consequentialism, I think it is more of a debate. Moreover, because this issue is so mixed, we should try to keep our options open and gain more moral information, so moral philosophy research on this question could be high value.

5 Permissibility of Intervening in Wild-Animal Suffering

Intervening to stop wild-animal suffering is one of the more ethically controversial causes within EA because under certain non-consequentialist views it is not only suboptimal, but actively bad to intervene.[5] [6]

5.1 Broad Deontological Considerations

5.1.1 Environmentalism

The clearest case against intervening in WAS is an environmentalist worldview, which posits that nature has some intrinsic value that is violated by intervention. Moreover, intervention would be a case of “anthropocentric arrogance” (Hursthouse, 2011, p.133).

My view: This is certainly what follows from environmentalism, but I assign a very low credence to environmentalism being true. We should still take this into account for moral uncertainty, but more importantly, many people intuitively agree with environmentalism so this is essential for moral cooperation.

5.1.2 Zoopolis and Political Theory

Another form of deontology is the one posited by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka in their book Zoopolis. They argue that wild animals form sovereign political communities. This claim might seem odd because animals are not rational, but the authors argue that sovereignty does not depend on rational agency but rather exists to “allocate individuals to territories; to allocate membership in sovereign peoples; and to enable diverse forms of political agency including assisted and dependent agency” (Donaldson and Kymlicka, 2011, p. 61). Once this is established, Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that intervening in nature to stop suffering is a violation of sovereignty. Of course, they recognize that violations of sovereignty can be justified in emergency situations like the Rwandan Genocide. They hold that the situation of nature is not akin to this emergency situation because it is a systematic problem, so it is more alike countries with high crime rates, which is obviously an unjustifiable reason to intervene.

My view: This is one of the best ethical arguments against intervening in Wild-Animal Suffering. My intuitions track with most of their normative claims. The place where I am a bit hesitant is their last claim that nature is not an emergency situation. I think this area is messy and there have been multiple response articles written about it. However, even after accounting for the uncertainty about this claim, we should still take this type of argument seriously.

5.1.3 Neo-Kantianism

Christine Korsgaard has written a small amount on wild-animal suffering and has two separate arguments about why we should not intervene. First, she takes a stance somewhat similar to Zoopolis, that communities of animals are morally relevant and these communities are wronged by intervention. Second, she makes a complicated argument relating to her views about population ethics. She believes that we can only solve the non-identity problem by appealing to relationships e.g. we have a duty to future generations whoever that may be; however, she believes we have no relationship with wild animals to give us a duty to benefit them.

My view: Korsgaard’s first argument has some weight to it but not her second. I would object to her second argument by claiming that first, we do have a relationship with wild animals given that we are already shaping how they live via environmental destruction and second, this view about relationship-based solutions to population ethics strikes me as unmotivated by Kantian ethics as I outlined in part 1. Her first argument is better but runs into the same problem as Zoopolis. Therefore, it gives us no new considerations, but simply updates our credences to take the sovereignty issue even more seriously because it is serious issue from both a Kantian and a general deontological standpoint.

5.2 Virtue Ethics

Rosalind Hursthouse has argued that intervention in nature is unvirtuous because it is anthropogenically arrogant and disrespectful because we are not accepting the way “Animals are red in tooth and claw” (Hursthouse, 2011, p. 183).

My view: Hursthouse is almost certainly wrong. We do not find it disrespectful to reject the way violent psychopaths are, even if it is part of their essence to be violent, so it seems perfectly reasonable to not accept the violent nature of predators. Moreover, intervention could easily be framed as an act of compassion for the sake of the prey. Finally, some interventions like treating diseases and using more humane pesticides don’t change the nature of animals. Therefore, I think if anything virtue ethics mildly favors intervention if done for the right reasons.

5.3 Refined Intuitions

When people first think about intervening to stop wild animal suffering, they often find it repugnant. However, many philosophers have argued that these intuitions do not hold up to scrutiny. Jeff McMahan has argued that as long as you accept that nature is full of suffering, then it follows that we have a strong obligation to intervene because then we can reduce suffering.

My view: The intuitive case for intervention is actually quite robust. I think the suffering argument is simple and strong, and more importantly, almost all the objections I see to it are weak and just appear to be an attempt to accommodate the immediate intuitive repulsion to intervention.[7]

5.4 Summary and Takeaway

Overall, I think we should be careful with interventions to stop Wild-Animal Suffering because of the mixed results from non-consequentialist ethical theories. At the least, Environmentalism, Zoopolis and to some extent Kantianism oppose intervention. However, at least refined intuitions and most likely utilitarian considerations support interventions. Depending on your credences in these different ethical views, I could see you coming out with a reasonable answer going either way.

My view is that this gives us reason to focus on interventions that look convergently good while we try to resolve our moral uncertainty. For example, switching to more humane pesticides that kill with less pain looks robustly good. Personally trying to destroy habitats does not. Gene drives to make predators into herbivores or to make animals suffer less is more of a debate, which I am uncertain about. Moreover, because interventions are largely irreversible, we should delay until we get more moral information via more philosophical research.


The appendix will cover areas where I think non-consequentialist ethics might have a big effect but that I did not explore in-depth. I would encourage future research on these areas. If you are considering researching any of these questions, feel free to reach out to me at (whitfillp@uchicago.edu).

Appendix A: Justice and Collective Responsibility

This is, I believe, the most important consideration that I did not cover. Under many non-consequentialist ethical theories, our duties to rectify previous wrongdoings are much stronger than our duties to produce the best consequences. For example, if I stole money, I would be under a greater duty to return it than I would be to donate it to effective charities. On an individual level, this seems to not have a big practical effect because most EAs are not stealing others’ money.

The more difficult problem is collective wrongdoings. It is at least plausible that individual EAs are part of collectives that have done wrong. For example, the US government commits many wrongdoings, but it is unclear how much of that responsibility is transferred to the individual EAs who live in the US, especially if those individual EAs do not approve of the US government’s actions. If the responsibility transfers, things like global poverty reduction in order to repay for the unjust global economic system, criminal justice reform, preventing war, etc. might look like very good or even top interventions.

Here are some relevant links: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9760.2010.00360.x




Appendix B: X-risk vs Trajectory Changes

If the non-identity problem can be solved, then many non-consequentialist ethical theories (Kantianism, Contractualism and the most plausible PAVs) will probably value trajectory changes over x-risk mitigation because this does not rely on making happy people, just making the people who will exist happier. This is of course, a huge if, because the non-identity problem is one of the hardest problems in ethics that no one has conclusively addressed in 40 years.

My impression is that under totalist framing and given empirical circumstances, x-risk mitigation looks better than trajectory changes, but these added normative considerations could tip the balance.

If you are interested in this project, I’d recommend Tim Mulgan’s unpublished paper What Exactly Is Wrong with Human Extinction? If you are interested in it, email me.

Appendix C: Special Obligations

Under some non-consequentialist ethical theories, we have special obligations to certain individuals that are much stronger than our obligations to strangers. For example, you might think that you have a much stronger obligation to help your family, friends or compatriots than to help strangers. This could plausibly affect how good certain interventions look.

Relevant link:


Appendix C: Risky Giving

Many non-consequentialist theories take doing harm much more seriously than allowing harm. For EA interventions, this might mean we should be risk-averse towards interventions that could accidentally cause harm. Ultimately I am less concerned about these harms because they are mostly foreseen rather than intended; however, I think this area deserves further research.

Relevant link:


Appendix D: Person-Affecting Views and Animal Welfare

Population ethics is not discussed enough when considering the value of helping animals. Even though interventions happen in the present, because animals often live short lives, most of the benefits come to animals who have not yet been born. My current thoughts are that this is not as important as it seems. First, if we are decreasing the number of animals this would be good under an asymmetric person-affecting view because most people believe that factory farmed animals live net-negative lives. Second, many of these non-consequentialist ethical theories think that animal interventions are morally right independent of their effect on future animals. For example, for deontologists being party to animal agriculture might be wrong because it supports the rights violations of current animals. These thoughts are only preliminary. I would like to see more people investigate this problem.

Appendix E: Harmful Jobs that have a Net-Positive Impact

80,000 Hours covered this area well in this post. I think it is worth thinking about every job in this article, including the options “considered but not included.” Personally, I’d be most interested in the morality of working at IARPA and DARPA.


[1] However, as Jeff McMahan has correctly pointed out, it is still possible to organize farming in a way that does not kill and thus probably avoids all these non-consequentialist considerations. For example, you could genetically edit animals so that they die at a certain age without killing them, or you could simply raise chickens and use some of their eggs that they discard. See here for more discussion.

[2] This is dependent on tons of descriptive considerations e.g. it might be that the only way to stop factory farming is clean meat, which would outweigh the benefits of humane meat. Anti-speciesist value spreading is another potential consideration.

[3] N.B. Jeff McMahan changed his mind on this argument. See here.

[4] I have not thought about this issue for long, but it might be the case that even global consequentialism does not support humane animal agriculture. Global consequentialism contrasts with act consequentialism by evaluating everything including blame, character, etc. based on consequences. One illuminating example of global consequentialism is the moral dilemma of saving two strangers or your own child. Under naïve consequentialism, two strangers are more important than one child, even if that one is your own child. However, it is nearly impossible for anyone to truly love their own child and to let them die for two strangers. So in order to save these two strangers, we would have to live in a world where people do not love their children, which would actually be net-worse.

In a similar way, I think being anti-speciesist and eating (humane) meat may be incompatible under global consequentialism. Perhaps there is some sort of similar psychological block where to live in a world where it is psychologically possible to eat the meat from animals, you must be at least a bit speciesist.

[5] One note about wild-animal suffering is that since a large amount of wild animals are invertebrates, the right interventions will depend a lot on one’s views of philosophy of mind and on how ethical weight is distributed across species. This is a crucial moral consideration that may or may not have an effect on how valuable interventions are, even given non-consequentialist ethical theories. However, this is beyond the scope of this article.

[6] Of course this depends on the intervention. For certain interventions, like switching to a more humane pesticide, it is hard to see how it could be morally wrong from any moral viewpoint. For others, like killing predators to save prey, it is more clear how a rights violation could be involved.

[7] See here for why I think the objections are weak.

Works Cited

Altman, Matthew C. Kant and Applied Ethics: the Uses and Limits of Kant's Practical Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

Ashford, Elizabeth. “Contractualism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 Apr. 2007, plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractualism/.

Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. Zoopolis: a Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Frick, Johann. “'Making People Happy, Not Making Happy People': A Defense of the Asymmetry Intuition in Population Ethics.” 'Making People Happy, Not Making Happy People': A Defense of the Asymmetry Intuition in Population Ethics, Harvard, 2014, dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/13064981.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. “4. Virtue Ethics and the Treatment of Animals.” The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, 2006, pp. 119–144., doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195371963.003.0005.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Korsgaard, Christine M. Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Leiter, Brian. “What Is Your Opinion of ‘Factory Farming’?” Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, 2017, leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2017/12/what-is-your-opinion-of-factory-farming.html.

Mcmahan, Jeff. “The Comparative Badness for Animals of Suffering and Death.” The Ethics of Killing Animals, 2012, pp. 65–85., doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199396078.003.0005.

Mcmahan, Jeff. “Eating Animals the Nice Way.” Daedalus, vol. 137, no. 1, 2008, pp. 66–76., doi:10.1162/daed.2008.137.1.66.

Muglan, Tim. What Exactly Is Wrong with Human Extinction? 2017.

Ord, Toby. “Why the Long-Term Future of Humanity Matters More than Anything Else.” 80,000 Hours, 2017, 80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/why-the-long-run-future-matters-more-than-anything-else-and-what-we-should-do-about-it/.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Clarendon Press, 1984.

“Preliminary Survey Results | PhilPapers Surveys.” Philpapers, philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl.

Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. University of California Press, 2010.

Sandberg, Anders. Practical Ethics, 2015, blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2015/09/the-moral-limitations-of-in-vitro-meat/.

Scheffler, Samuel. Death and the Afterlife. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: the Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement. Harper Perennial, 2009.

Williams, Nancy M. “The Ethics of Care and Humane Meat: Why Care Is Not Ambiguous About ‘Humane’ Meat.” Journal of Social Philosophy, vol. 46, no. 2, 2015, pp. 264–279., doi:10.1111/josp.12094.

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Thanks for these write-ups! A really broad and informative overview of non-cons literature.

For your interest and perhaps to build on section 5, you might find these papers by Sapontzis (1984) and Fink (2005) interesting. They consider non-consequentialist and vaguely deontological reasons to reject the reductio of the Predation argument (briefly, if vegetarianism is an obligation, we ought also to intervene to prevent predation, which is absurd).

Sapontzis argues that:

Where we can prevent predation without occasioning as much or more suffering than we would prevent, we are obligated to do so by the principle that we are obligated to alleviate avoidable animal suffering.

Fink dissects a few versions of the reductio and challenges Singer for not accepting that we ought to intervene to prevent predation. He also makes this interesting argument:

Consider what our reaction would be if a human being were attacked by a wild animal. No one could reasonably argue that because a wild animal is not a moral agent and cannot, therefore, violate anyone’s rights, this releases us from any obligation to come to that person’s assistance. We have a moral obligation to protect all members of the moral community from harm, whenever possible, whether or not this harm comes from moral agents. If sheep are members of the moral community, therefore, it would certainly seem to follow that there is an obligation to protect them from wolves, whether or not wolves violate their rights.
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