There is a common tendency among effective altruists to think of animal advocacy as having little value for improving the long-term future. Similarly, animal advocates often assume that longtermism has little relevance to their work. Yet this seems misguided: sufficient concern for nonhuman sentient beings is a key ingredient in how well the long-term future will go.

In this post, I will discuss whether animal advocacy – or, more generally, expanding the moral circle – should be a priority for longtermists, and outline implications of a longtermist perspective on animal advocacy. My starting point is a moral view that rejects speciesism and gives equal weight to the interests and well-being of future individuals. 

Animal advocacy is a plausible longtermist priority area

Nonhumans are far more numerous than humans, but the latter hold all political power. Given that, it stands to reason that good outcomes are only possible if those in power care to a sufficient degree about all sentient beings.

This holds regardless of what exactly we mean by “good outcome” or “improving the long-term future”. My main priority is to prevent future moral catastrophes, but a healthy animal advocacy movement is important from many moral perspectives.[1] What hope is there of a good long-term future (for all sentient beings) as long as people think it is right to disregard the interests of animals (often for frivolous reasons like the taste of meat)? 

Generally speaking, the values of (powerful) people are arguably the most fundamental determinant of how the future will go, so improving those values is a good lever for shaping the long-term future.[2] There are many possible objections to this view, but I think none of them are decisive:

  • Future people might value moral reflection, and if so, they might automatically come to care about all sentient beings to an appropriate degree. However, I think we cannot be confident in this optimistic vision of a future shaped by careful moral reflection rather than economic pressures or selfish interests. 
  • Nonhuman animals (in particular, wild animals and invertebrates) are currently most numerous, but that may change in the future. It seems unlikely, though, that humans will be most numerous. Another (speculative) possibility is that novel forms of sentience, such as artificial beings, will emerge in large numbers. Yet that is not necessarily an argument against animal advocacy, as long as we can ensure that moral consideration eventually transfers to all sentient beings.3 
  • Perhaps we only need a relatively low degree of moral consideration to achieve good outcomes (and in particular, prevent risks of astronomical suffering), due to the possibility of compromise and greater leeway afforded by powerful future technology. (See e.g. here). This seems possible but far from clear, and we would still need to work on ensuring even a low degree of moral concern, as well as adequate processes for implementing compromise.

Of course, this brief overview does not show that expanding the moral circle is the most effective way to improve the long-term future. That also depends on the tractability of social change, the feasibility of long-term influence, the likelihood of a lock-in of values (rather than continued value drift), the effectiveness of other interventions, and the time-sensitivity[3] of moral circle expansion. Discussing these factors in detail is beyond the scope of this post (see e.g. here and here) – my aim is just to argue that moral circle expansion is a plausible longtermist priority area. 

Implications of longtermism for animal advocacy

Most animal advocacy efforts are focused on helping animals in the here and now. If we take the longtermist perspective seriously, we will likely arrive at different priorities and focus areas: it would be a remarkable coincidence if short-term-focused work were also ideal from this different perspective.[4]

I will argue that a long-term focus differs in two main ways.

First, a longtermist outlook implies a much stronger focus on achieving long-term social change, and (comparatively) less emphasis on the immediate alleviation of animal suffering. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Specifically, it’s about achieving lasting change, locking in persistent moral consideration of nonhuman sentient beings. 

This entails a focus on the long-term health and stability of the animal advocacy movement. It is vital to avoid any actions that could impair our ability to achieve our long-term goals (as individuals, as organisations, and as a movement). Maximizing the likelihood of eventually achieving sufficient concern for all sentient beings could be much more important than accelerating the process.

In particular, one way to jeopardize our long-term influence is by triggering a serious (and permanent) backlash, so we should take reasonable steps to prevent the movement from becoming too controversial. This could happen because animal advocacy itself becomes increasingly divisive, or because the movement is associated with other highly contentious political views. (Excessive polarisation and divergence of values are also a risk factor for s-risks.)

Second, it is crucial that the movement is thoughtful and open-minded. This is because of uncertainty over what will turn out to be the most important issue in the long term.[5] In particular, we must ensure that the movement eventually encompasses all sentient beings – including invertebrates, wild animals, and potentially artificial minds. This is a reason to focus on antispeciesism rather than veganism. Last, we should also be mindful of how biases might distort our thinking (see e.g. here) and should consider many possible strategies, including unorthodox ones such as the idea of patient philanthropy.

Other factors become less important from a longtermist point of view. The immediate alleviation of harm by, say, implementing an animal welfare reform in 2025 rather than 2030, is less imperative from this perspective – except insofar as such reforms have long-term flow-through effects. (Of course, reducing immediate animal suffering in the here and now is still very valuable; we should give some weight to both short-term and long-term suffering reduction.)

Accordingly, the specific number of animals that are currently used in different industries (or live in nature) becomes less meaningful, as those numbers will inevitably vary in the long term. Quantitative estimates of impact are also much more challenging, if not impossible, due to the difficulty of predicting future animal populations. It is, however, still good to be aware of the numbers to make more effective decisions in the short term and as an input for our estimates of sources of future suffering.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

  1. ^

    Extending the moral circle is also plausibly very important if one is motivated by bringing about a utopian future, as those very good outcomes are far more likely if attitudes towards animals change. (See below for possible objections.)

  2. ^

    Other factors, such as the available technological tools, also matter but are (according to this view) secondary in that values determine how we use technology.

  3. ^

     It is not clear whether moral concern for animals transfers to concern for artificial beings, and one can argue that it may be more effective (under the assumption that artificial beings are ultimately most numerous) to advocate directly for rights for artificial beings. The best approach might be to combine both by advocating moral concern for all sentient beings (and updating based on evidence regarding possible artificial sentience).

  4. ^

     Time-sensitivity is about whether we can delegate or “pass the buck” to our successors. That is, it’s not clear if it’s urgent to expand the moral circle now, as opposed to gathering more information and retaining the option to do so later. This depends on whether we expect a value lock-in or other pivotal events soon. (Similar questions have also been discussed for other interventions.)

  5. ^

    However, it is less surprising if there is some degree of convergence on a broad category of actions for the near and long-term future. For instance, increasing consideration of neglected beings is a solid heuristic for improving the world, regardless of the timeframe. Also, if the current knowledge and resources of the movement are not yet strongly optimised for maximal short-term impact, there is more room for improvements to both short and long-term impact (e.g., increasing effectiveness in general).

  6. ^

    It is worth noting that animal farming in its current form might become obsolete anyway in the long term, e.g. due to technologies such as cultivated meat – though this is far from clear.

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Longtermism and animal advocacy are often presented as mutually exclusive focus areas. This is strange, as they are defined along different dimensions: longtermism is defined by the temporal scope of effects, while animal advocacy is defined by whose interests we focus on. Of course, one could argue that animal interests are negligible once we consider the very long-term future, but my main issue is that this argument is rarely made explicit.

This post does a great job of emphasizing ways in which animal advocacy should inform our efforts to improve the very long-term future, and ways in which a focus on the very long-term future should inform animal advocacy.  

This is a key reading for anyone who wants to think more broadly about longtermism. We used this post as part of a fellowship at UCLA focused on effective animal advocacy, and our participants found it very thought-provoking. 

I don't yet have a strong view on how plausible it is that animal advocacy is a priority for longtermism. However, I think it's worth noting that, if it is, there are probably quite a few other sorts of projects that would qualify using exactly the same arguments. 

For instance, at the Happier Lives Institute, we spend a lot of time thinking about best to measure well-being. There's an analogous argument that, if governments had better measures of well-being  - e.g. better than GDP - and used them to make public policy decisions, that would have enormously valuable consequences over the long-run. I won't do it here, but the arguments are sufficiently analogous that, in Tobias' post, you could replace "animal advocacy" with "well-being measurement", keep the rest of the text the same and it would still make sense. So perhaps well-being measurement is a plausible longtermist priority too. 

Other examples that might work include, just from the top of my head: "democratic institutions", "peace building", "education".

It's not clear to me if the right way to update is (a) all these 'society change' interventions are plausible longterm priorities or (b) none of them are. I lean toward (a), but I'm not very confident. 

There's an analogous argument that, if governments had better measures of well-being  - e.g. better than GDP - and used them to make public policy decisions, that would have enormously valuable consequences over the long-run.

For human-centric concerns, this could be true, but my impression is that this kind of thing is more likely to happen eventually anyway in most human populations, because humans are both moral patients and moral agents; they will eventually create pressure for reform in this direction. On the other hand, s-risks often involve moral patients who aren't (powerful) agents, so we need to rely on agents to take their interests seriously in order to avoid s-risks, and advocacy is one way we might hope to ensure this.

If we send out vessels with moral patients to colonize space, something which is hard to reverse, if these moral patients are not agents, then their situations may be essentially decided for them at the time they're sent off and by the concern that decision-makers had for their welfare at the time, whereas if they are also agents (and motivated to improve their own welfare), then they can do more to improve their own welfare on their own.

Thanks for this post. Looking forward to more exploration on this topic.

I agree that moral circle expansion seems massively neglected. Changing institutions to enshrine (at least some) consideration for the interests of all sentient beings seems like an essential step towards creating a good future, and I think that certain kinds of animal advocacy are likely to help us get there. 

As a side note, do we have any data on what proportion of EA's adhere to the sort of "equal consideration of interests" view on animals which you advocate? I also hold this view, but its rarity may explain some differences in cause prioritization.  I wonder how rare this view is even within animal advocacy.

I would guess that most of the more dedicated EAs believe in something roughly like "equal consideration of interests" ("equal consideration of equal interests" to be more specific), but many might think nonhuman animals' interests are much less strong/important than humans, on average.

I'm somewhat less optimistic; even if most would say  that they endorse this view, I think many "dedicated EAs" are in practice still biased against nonhumans, if only subconsciously. I think we should expect speciesist biases to be pervasive, and they won't go away entirely just by endorsing an abstract philosophical argument. (And I'm not sure if "most" endorse that argument to begin with.)

Sorry, I'm a bit confused on what you mean here. I meant to be asking about the prevalence of a view giving animals the same moral status as humans. You say that many might think nonhuman animals' interests are much less strong/important than humans. But I think saying they are less strong is different than saying they are less important, right? How strong they are seems more like an empirical question about capacity for welfare, etc.

Ya, my point is that I'd guess most dedicated EAs would endorse the principle in the abstract, but they might not think animals matter much in practice. Also, for what it's worth, about half of EAs who responded to the diet question are at least vegetarian, and still more are reducing meat consumption:

From https://www.rethinkpriorities.org/blog/2019/12/5/ea-survey-2019-series-community-demographics-amp-characteristics