Hide table of contents

This a linkpost from my personal blog; posting it during draft amnesty week largely because it ended up making recommendations that I don't have the experience to evaluate well. 

For this post, I’d like to focus on something that’s been buzzing around in my head for awhile now. It is partly a personal annoyance about the reception of the animal advocacy movement in academia as much as an identification of a particular failing point.


A very rough model of the stages of success for the animal advocacy movement proceeds as such:

Small group of vegan advocates—————→Majority reject speciesism

In analogy, the civil rights movement could be (very roughly) modeled in the same fashion, going from self-avowed racism to a ending in a majority rejecting overt racist beliefs. This obviously leaves out a lot of grey areas. And it doesn’t account for the possibility of a non-linear relationship between speciesist attitudes and progress, such as may occur via incremental welfare reforms or the mass adoption of clean meat.

I think we can fill in a middle stage with a reasonable degree of confidence:

Small group of vegan advocates—————→Recommendations of advocates begin to be adopted by experts —————→Majority reject speciesism

Why think this isn't happening? Well, here’s an example of a glaring hole where this should be happening… but isn’t.

4.3. Conclusion

What people eat has implications not only for individuals, but also the environment and others around the world. Eating less meat can arguably protect against fatal and costly diseases, help address the climate crisis, and mitigate social justice issues like world hunger. We observed that pledging can be an effective tool for promoting meat reduction, particularly in countries where plant-based eating is currently trending. However, pledging mainly serves as a temporary opportunity to reduce. Further mechanisms are needed to sustain commitments beyond the boundaries of the initial pledge.

Something is missing…

I chose this particular example because it is on a topic (study on effect of pledges on reducing meat consumption) which is highly relevant to reducing the suffering of animals; and it’s not a non-obvious connection either, or one requiring special knowledge of the intricacies of animal agriculture. Indeed, it was even supported with grant money from Animal Charity Evaluators!

As examples go, the rest of it seems to be passable on a first glance of the introduction of the paper; for instance they do a much better job at detailing other work on pledging and on remarking on the history of vegan activists using it, even mentioning the 4 N’s, much better than this very similar paper, or this one. The point isn’t to judge the quality of these studies.

One might object “but no one reads conclusions, introductions, impact statements, or discussions anyways, so what!”. I’m not an academic, so perhaps I’m missing important life experience with study design, execution, review, publication, etc. But surely these have some influence. Dealing with study participants, IRB demands, data analysis and so on may have been the real, substantial work. But typing a few words in LaTeX on animal interests in the subject at hand forces acknowledgment of them. And humans take cues, if the studies forming the literature on meat consumption pledges mention animal welfare in the conclusions, you’ll do so too. The more prevalent acknowledgments of animal welfare are, the more the Overton window for the “proper” place of animal welfare concerns shifts, and the more a foundation is built for work more directly focused on the subject.[1] So acknowledging animal interests is important. But just “do more of that then!” misses the core of the issue.

The core of the issue isn’t merely that animal welfare concerns are often not mentioned. It’s that they are not recognized as being self-justifying. Even individuals and groups likely amenable to including them on equal footing, don’t do so.[2] If they are mentioned, it only occurs in the round-about fashion that the concerns of an particular (human) interest group, like “rights activists” are acknowledged. This is reflective of current attitudes, but it also reinforces them. Undermining this faulty cognitive model is key.

This dynamic can be seen in papers on everything from food policy, economics to ecology. Development economics could play a big role in coming decades as developing countries adopt the cruel industrialized animal agriculture of the developed world; one economist in a recent World Bank blog post pointed out that welfare indexes (e.g. GDP) are inadequate due to lacking measures of animal welfare. Human ecological impacts are a common fretting point of environmentalists and a significant proportion of the general, nature-loving public. Yet a careful reader of any given concern of these folk may recognize that animal welfare is not often among them; saving endangered species, preserving nature, ensuring biodiversity and so on are anthropocentric concerns, increasing the aggregate welfare of wild animals is only loosely related at best. It is almost exclusively within the research sphere associated with the Effective Altruism movement that animal welfare is regularly weighed along with human interests.

All that considered, why is this the case? I don’t want to make this about the wider challenges around getting people to go vegan and ending the exploitation of animals; that’s a topic for another day. I think there are reasons particular to the quandary of why the research community avoids treating insights on animal welfare as equally important, or even comparable, to anthropocentric interests.

Certainly, if most people were as insistent that animal interests be recognized as I am, this wouldn’t be a problem. But that shouldn’t be a necessary factor. There are many motivations and niche ideologies that animate academics that don’t animate the general public. And many of these, at least ideally, don’t have to be matters of great emotional import.

A researcher may for instance be intrinsically driven to study poverty due to his childhood experience, but he doesn’t have to be especially emotionally attached to the experiences of young black men without college degrees to give the particular phenomenon of the racial wealth gap some examination. It’s just a matter of course for doing a through job. Likewise, researchers looking at the value of a policy providing free school lunches to children may reasonably look at everything from the cost, to the impact on parents, to nutritional improvements in the kids, to the carbon footprint of the lunches provided. Missing the impact on the animals eaten could be recognized as just as much of an oversight as anything else.

That these benefits (to animals) do not apply to humans isn’t especially clarifying. Many researchers are quite keen on not leaving out particular humans. They go out of their way to ensure that particular groups of humans are included. And this isn’t merely a social justice-y reflex that demands that the experiences of some repressed minority population be represented; it’s also a sense of respect for how knowledge should be built. That one’s sample for a study making overly grandiose claims about universal human psychology is actually just an unrepresentative gaggle of undergraduates is an academic failing. Given the right prompting, there is no reason why academics shouldn’t be equally ashamed at failing to include animals.

Institutional Inertia

One major reason animals aren’t included may be institutional inertia. Being the first to advance anything new is difficult, it is always much easier to just make a new iteration on proven grounds. This is compounded by the fact that researchers are expected to review and cite the relevant literature. If there is no existing scientific literature, then there’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem.

It isn’t the case though that there is no relevant literature. The new field of welfare biology is bringing scientific insights into animal welfare. Groups like Faunalytics, Animal Charity Evaluators and the Wild Animal Institute help grow the research field. And there is some work in economics.

This is a great sign that a firm foundation is growing that animal-inclusive scholarship can be built off of. But we still have the issue that research across the full range of scientific fields and public policy research does not recognize “animal welfare” as anything but the demands of particular interest groups - ones that may commission studies perhaps, but that’s it.

Values in Science

The second hold up is the prevalent attitude toward values in science. Make no mistake - respecting the is-ought gap is important. Scientists generally understand that addressing values is not part of their job description. This is an essential bulwark against ideology and advocacy. More fundamentally, it is a recognition that investigations into values are not doable with empirical methods.[3]

But this virtue of good science can go awry. Sometimes it is corrupted into a form of Emotivism, the position that claiming something is wrong or right is equivalent to saying Yay!! or Boo!! This is best exemplified by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who while being the proponent of a quite fascinating theory of moral psychology he calls “Moral Foundations Theory”, also seems to think that positions in moral philosophy are just reflections of psychology.

While I think Haidt is (partly) wrong here, I’ll leave that discussion for another time. Suffice it to say, the notion that morality too is within the bounds of science is compelling to some; scientists trust science - not the humanities.[4] However, I don’t think the issue scientists have with values is usually as explicit as with Haidt. More often, it is represented as a disengagement with values. We can make an analogy to a company disengaged with its customers. It may function fine, according to the notion held by it’s employees of how a well-functioning company operates, but the proper criterion is what the customer thinks.

Likewise, while it wouldn’t be proper for scientists to adjudicate about value questions themselves, they need to be able to communicate with ethicists in a constructive manner. This is required if we are to get to a point where animals are routinely included.

What Can Be Done?

I suspect that actually achieving what I have argued for isn’t drastically unrealistic. It doesn’t require a few big changes that must be made, but many small easy ones. 

What holds back the experts isn’t the same degree of personal interest that holds people back from going vegan. Mentioning that eating less meat = less animal suffering in your research isn’t quite the same as summoning the strength of will and moral fortitude to not eat a cheeseburger. And keeping the facts as abstractions in MLA formatting, rather than as the implicit acknowledgment of personal incrimination that accepting the demand to “go vegan!” implies, also helps.

Getting there requires overcoming institutional inertia and misplaced notions of value. While I focused on scientists here, properly speaking it requires work from philosophers too. It is already the case that they generally agree that not eating factory farmed meat is morally better, as the 559 signatories to the Montreal Declaration on Animal Exploitation indicates. At the same time, it is abhorrent how few philosophers actually endeavor to do so - research has shown that moral philosophers have only statistically marginal differences in their meat eating than academics in other disciplines.

Getting there requires that people who don’t particularly care about the animal rights movement nevertheless act in its interests. While I’m not overly enthused with the track record of open letters, I think there is something to be said for the idea when there is a particular mix of collective action challenges and unacknowledged consensus, as I think there is with this issue.

But for it to be done properly isn’t a simple thing. There would have to be input from respected philosophers. Individual scientists representing a wide variety of fields would have to be on board. But there would also have to be pressure on editors of respected journals, on the National Science Foundation and on the individual reviewers and program officers who evaluate research proposals.

A open letter approach, perhaps combined with an advocacy campaign, may be able to get us to a point where including the interests of animals can seem permissible, letting some of the more bold researchers who are sympathetic to the idea to do so - if they are challenged on relevancy by the reviewers, this at least sheds light on the issue.[5] And in time, including animals may become not only acceptable, but expected.

  1. ^

    One easily missable benefit of this is that it allows a “scientists say” dynamic in policy advocacy. This is especially important given the extensive capture of “scientists say” by industry interests.

  2. ^

    Willing to bet that if prompted, most individuals would be in favor of broadly including animal interests in the ways I’m arguing for, just as most or many report in surveys not liking factory farms, being in favor of welfare reforms, reducing their meat consumption and so on. Especially the case for well-educated and environmental/social justice conscious academics.

  3. ^

    I’ll submit these claims as approximately true for our purposes here.

  4. ^

    Insofar as there is an ideology particular to scientists, it is that empirical claims have a privileged epistemic status. There’s philosophical nuances to this that I do not have the expertise for.

  5. ^

    I imagine counter-challenging with a link to the Montreal Declaration and other relevant literature showing consensus on these matters. (Actual academics, please tell me how realistic an ask this is!)





More posts like this

No comments on this post yet.
Be the first to respond.
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities