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.”
On the part about longtermism, Tobias Leenhart from ProVeg seems to think more on the lines of behaviour change(from whatever reason, health, enviorment, cheaper price of plants(due to welfare reforms for animals)) will make attitude change for animals & wild animals much easier.
This makes me think that they would not be in agreement with what you said about "focusing on welfare improvements could end factory farming sooner, but delay abolition for a very long time", but rather think there would be welfare improvements sooner & abolition sooner. What are your thought on that idea?
I am in agreement though that attitude change for animals is most important in the longterm.
Heard from this podcast https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/30-tobias-leenaert-on-the-pragmatic-path-to-a-vegan-world/id1465166926?i=1000511558596
My thoughts are that it's sensible (and an important component) but insufficient by itself.
Thanks for writing this, Dhruv.
Note all farmed animals excluding arthropods only have about 3 % of the neurons of all humans (see here). So, if neurons are a decent proxy for moral weight, human welfare may dominate. However, as argued by Adam Shriver here, neurons do not account for all relevant factors. All in all, I think the 3 % figure is an underestimate.
Another point is that ending factory farming is only good to the extent the lives of factory farmed animals are bad. I believe this is true now, but welfarist approaches may ultimately lead to net positive lives in the future.
Although there is lots of uncertainty, I agree the total moral weight of wild animals dominates. All marine arthropods have 50 k times as many neurons as all humans (see here). However, this is from a neartermist perspective. Longterm, I expect the number of humans (or digital minds) to continue to increase relative to the number of wild animals. This has been the case in the last 300 k years, and therefore we can expect the importance of human welfare to increase relative to that of wild animal welfare. Of course, this does mean wild animal welfare should be ignored, I actually think it is underrated.
I am not sure about this, and guess it may depend on the magnitude of the improvement. If it is large enough to imply net positive lives in the improved conditions, welfarist approaches would be more likely to be robustly good. For example, laying hens arguably have negative lives in both conventional cages and cage-free aviaries (see here), so pushing for not eating eggs (in which case hens would not exist, and therefore have null welfare) would tend to be better than pushing for cage-free aviaries. However, transitioning to cage-free aviaries is much easier, and could also increase the likelihood of a future transition to net positive conditions (maybe free range hens).
I tend to agree. In addition, it seems unlikely that having factory-farmed animals with net positive lives is an efficient way to produce welfare, but I do not know.
What do you think the risk of re-emergence and the psychological argument (linked in the post) by Jeff Sebo? I believe they outweigh the benefits of any potential net-positive high welfare farming (if one is thinks non-existence is comparable and neutral wrt negative/positive existence).
And yes, I mentioned a slightly different take on your last point when I pointed out Tomasik's false dichotomy (either not slaughtering animals, or putting those resources to better use by having happy humans live on the land instead).
I have now watched Jeff's talk.
If I understood correctly, the argument is that eating animals can lead people to disregard the welfare of animals. I agree this is currently the case, as most farmed animals have net negative lives, disregarding their welfare is useful to avoid cognitive dissonance.
However, if people started eating animals with net positive lives out of concerns about animal welfare, I would expect animal welfare to remain in people's minds. I am also unsure about whether there is a conflict between animal rights and eating high welfare animals. If these had super good lives, and were killed without any pain (this could even occur at the end of their healthy lives, in which case the killing would actually be preventing their suffering, like euthanasia), I guess no rights would be violated.
Humans have a right to life, but whenever a human is born, it is being sentenced to death (in as much as we think the lifespan of the universe is finite). This is still fine as long as the human as a good life, so I would guess the same applies to animals.
That being said, I am open to abolitionist approaches being more effective than welfarist ones. I do not think it is obvious either way.
I often hear this argument, X animal would not exist if they were not intensively farmed for human products. However why wouldn't they exist? I think they would exist but in much smaller healthier numbers and their genetics would be able to recover slowly. Many people love animals and would keep them just like many keep cats and dogs. They can be good for the land etc as well. There are also many vegan farm animal sanctuaries that would keep them. Post farming they would only stop existing over time if breeding was strictly outlawed or they were outright banned. Same for many other intensively farmed animals. Some vets thought horses would go extinct when the automobile was first mass produced.
In that sentence, I just meant to point out that not existing is better than existing in negative conditions. I agree the animals which are currently factory-farmed could continue to exist in better conditions.