In this piece, 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).
This post is part of series: Abolitionist in the Streets, Pragmatist in the Sheets: New Ideas for Effective Animal Advocacy. The series' main point is 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.
I (a pragmatic, abolitionist-leaning animal advocate and vegan) wrote this series voluntarily, in rare spare time, over the course of 14 months, with help from three other vegans, all of whom have been familiar with EA for a few years. It is intended to be a big-picture piece, surfacing and investigating common beliefs within EA animal advocacy. Necessarily, I deal with generalisations of views, which will not cover all variations, organisations, or advocates.
To my knowledge, this is only the second time such a case has (independently) been made. Prior work has (also independently) argued about the importance of farmed animal suffering for longtermists.
The scale of factory farming (and its potentially exponentially larger scale in several possible futures) is so huge that its continuation constitutes an s-risk. If welfarist approaches are subject to diminishing marginal returns (see our section on Corporate Welfare Campaigns) and abolitionist approaches are not (see our section on Unexplored Abolitionist Approaches), then that would push advocates very strongly towards abolitionist approaches - even if tractability is low, the scale is so high it’s still a crucial problem.
If welfarist approaches lead only to a reduction of (or higher-welfare) animal farming, there is a risk that, we may get stuck at a point where a large part of the population perceives animal agriculture as ‘humane’, and/or still holds on to a speciesist worldview, and does not have the motivation to abolish animal exploitation entirely. Consequently, focusing on welfare improvements could end factory farming sooner, but delay abolition for a very long time, ultimately affecting more individuals. The gravity of such a risk is then compounded by considerations of wild animal suffering.
In contrast, as well as hastening or helping bring about abolition, abolitionist approaches may also be better suited to prevent factory farming from re-emerging if abolished. I suspect that in emergency situations (barely surviving an existential catastrophe), a strong moral culture against exploiting animals would make it less likely for society to resume animal exploitation, especially factory farming.
Wild Animal Suffering (WAS)
It is well-established that suffering in the wild, on all expectations, dominates all other forms of suffering, and so from a longtermist perspective WAS is more important than farmed animal suffering. However, WAS is beyond the limits of our current moral circle and social acceptance. Furthermore, there is psychological evidence  that eating meat reduces empathy for animals. It may be that giving up animal products in general, especially when accompanied with the adoption of a non-speciesist worldview, will have greater psychological effects in terms of extending empathy to wild animals. Hence, it may become far easier to attract support for efforts to reduce WAS if abolition is achieved. While strict veganism might not be necessary for this, it seems intuitively unlikely that eating only high-welfare animals would have the same psychological effect as giving up meat entirely. In other words, even though taking WAS may not depend physically, on abolishing all animal farming, it plausibly depends on it psychologically - a claim which can be tested empirically.
Such thinking is in conflict with a view put forward by Brian Tomasik, who has argued that when we take WAS into account, certain types of animal agriculture like grass-fed beef production might be a net positive in terms of total animal suffering, because they reduce the number of wild animals in such areas. However, Tomasik’s argument relies on the claim that most wild animals live ‘net negative’ lives, a claim which has been disputed . Above all, the argument also presents a false dichotomy between natural ecosystems and cattle farming; it would also be possible to have pastures without growing animals to slaughter them, or simply to have humans live on the land.
While a focus on WAS and farmed animal welfare can be seen to conflict, a focus on non-speciesism implicitly supports both. However, taking non-speciesism seriously points towards abolitionism. Advocating for welfare improvements arguably perpetuates speciesist ideas (that animal interests or rights matter less), and thereby undermines, or at least does not support, efforts to reduce WAS.
Learning Tactics for Moral Circle Expansion
Lastly, I note that in the wait/absence of a techno-fix, researchers actually have a good opportunity to study and collect data for moral circle expansion. Such information might be quite useful preparation for advocating for the inclusion of robots and/or aliens in our moral circles, further reducing another type of s-risk. A recently published (Dec 2022) Sentience Institute blog post arrived at a similar conclusion independently, and goes into more detail about potential counter-arguments too.
“Waiting for technology to end animal farming may set a dangerous precedent for scenarios where technology cannot solve moral problems as quickly as social change or cannot solve moral problems at all. Socially driven trajectories seem to have better outcomes for spillover into attitudes towards future farmed animals, wild animals, and artificial sentience because they would set better historical precedent for human morality.”
We wrote the bulk of this section in March 2022, and then found the related articles. Great minds think alike? Slow writers get scooped (multiple times!), that’s for sure ¯\_(ツ)_/¯