Last updated: April 20 2017

A promising approach to eliminating or preventing significant suffering starts with determining what sources of suffering are extraordinarily severe, relatively extensive, and readily preventable.

Every year, more than 70 billion land animals and around 37 to 120 billion fish are farmed (and killed) for food. Another one to three trillion wild fish are killed every year as well. Death for farmed animals is typically a brutal end to a lifetime of extreme suffering: the overwhelming majority of farmed animals — 99% in the US and around or at least 70% globally for land animals, and likely all farmed fish — are intensively confined in operations informally referred to as “factory farms”. At any given time, there are around or at least 17 billion land animals and, based on the lifespans of farmed catfish and salmon, probably around 55 to 240 billion fish suffering in factory farms.

The intensive confinement and crowding of these animals leads them to boredom, frustration, depression, and significant physical health problems. Many animals endure painful deaths on account of health complications caused by their breeding or environment, and the others are exposed to their suffering and death. The chickens we eat, who are bred to grow to obesity in their infancy, often develop organic and skeletal abnormalities from being crushed by their own weight. Some animals are also debeaked, castrated, or mutilated in other ways without anesthesia. Many animals inflict physical harm on themselves and one another. Before their own slaughter, animals witness other animals struggling and dying around them. Nearly all fish die by being painfully suffocated and crushed by other fish in the nets that pull them out of the water. The stunning methods used to knock some animals unconscious before slaughter fail regularly and are often inadequate in the first place. Errors on industrial slaughter lines result in atrocities such as nearly one million birds being boiled alive every year.

These are just a few limited examples of the suffering that farmed animals endure. To learn more about farmed animals’ experiences, we recommend reading the Humane Society of the United States’ reports on farmed animals. It is also important to recognize that factory farming is a globally pervasive issue, and to that end we recommend viewing some of the short documentary videos filmed by the international organization Animal Equality at farms around the world, including in the UK and Europe. Also note that the term “factory farm” is loosely defined, sometimes only referring to farms that house in total hundreds of thousands of animals. This useage wrongfully excludes those that house hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of animals, which may have very similar population densities and conditions. Many labels on animal products are also misleading and not reliable indicators of animals’ well-being.

If we do not arbitrarily exclude select sentient beings from our circle of moral consideration, what is happening to farmed animals is an incredible catastrophe. If the factory farms and slaughterhouses were suddenly more visible to us, we would probably take drastic action — and indeed, many do after learning about what happens to these animals out of our sight. But despite the enormous scale and severity of suffering happening in animal farming, the issue is largely neglected.

Even of the little money we give to benefit nonhuman animals, most is given to shelters for companion animals. Very few of our resources are being used to fight factory farming, even though the vast majority of suffering animals are not dogs and cats — or humans.

In this piece, we will consider why numbers are an important part of our altruistic efforts, and how the scale of different problems should affect where we focus our resources. We will then look at the best ways to act on these considerations, and why we ought to act at all.

Why we should help as many individuals as we can

Trying to measure or compare suffering can feel very uncomfortable. But our resources are limited, so we cannot help everyone, and if we do not think carefully about how we use those resources, we may end up helping far fewer individuals and reducing far less suffering than we otherwise could have. Fundamentally, we are concerned for how many individuals are affected because we are concerned for each individual affected, and do not consider the suffering of any one of them to be more important than the combined suffering of two, ten, or a billion others.

Think of it this way: if we have the opportunity to cure one person of a deadly disease, or to cure two people of the same disease, shouldn’t we choose to help two over one? If we help the two people, we are abandoning the other one, but if we help the one person, we are abandoning the other two. The choice may be heartbreaking, but better option seems clear. To argue that we should not consider numbers is to argue that one person’s suffering can be more important than the similar suffering of many others.

It would be a mistake to believe that we never have to make such a decision in our own lives: whenever we use our money or time to do one thing, we are declining to take a range of other possible actions. For example, if we donate one dollar to a particular charity, we have excluded all other charities from receiving that dollar. What if another charity could have used it to help many more individuals, or could have helped individuals suffering from something much worse?

Consider paramedics arriving at the scene of a disaster. When they lack the ability to treat and save everyone, they perform triage: they sort the victims into different categories based on the severity of their injuries and whether it is possible to help them, addressing the injuries that are both severe and treatable first to save as many lives as possible. Objecting to this practice for being too calculating would be absurd, as any other strategy would result in deaths that could have been avoided. Consider whether you would want the paramedics to perform triage if you were one of the victims of such a disaster: if your life were on the line, would you want the paramedics to use an arbitrary process that would be much more likely to leave you for dead?

We already account for the number of individuals affected when making many policy decisions. For instance, if we are deciding between constructing traffic lights or a roundabout at a new crossing, we would consider how many fatal car accidents we should expect each option to result in, and choose the option with the least expected loss of life.

Numbers can feel “cold” because of the collapse of compassion we experience when we think of “165 billion animals” — the approximate number of animals suffering in factory farms right now1. The limits of our imaginations make it impossible for us to see 165,000,000,000 individuals who are each as complete in our minds as individuals we know personally. We are instead compelled to just see “a number” — a completely reductive representation of those 165,000,000,000 individuals. But each and every number in that sum represents an entire individual with a personality and unique experiences, and virtually every one of them is suffering tremendously. We care about all 165,000,000,000 because we care about each one.

A full application of our empathy requires us to consider every individual affected: numbers count because individuals count. Far from “cold and calculating”, trying to measure suffering is better described as warm and calculating. It would be much colder to risk abandoning many individuals who we could help.

Principles for cause prioritization

A useful framework for assessing what cause areas will use our resources to help the most is to consider an area’s scale, tractability, and neglectedness.

Scale

The scale of a problem refers to the number of individuals affected and the severity of their suffering. As we explored above, when we have the ability to help more, we should, whether that’s a matter of helping more victims, helping victims of more severe suffering, or a combination of the two. Information about the severity of victims’ experiences may be difficult to obtain, but we can draw some conclusions quite uncontroversially. For instance, given the numbers of individuals suffering on factory farms, and the severity of each of their suffering, there is clearly more suffering happening to animals in food farms than to those in fur farms, circuses, labs, or shelters. Those animals suffer too, some of them as intensely as farmed animals, but even their combined numbers are dwarfed by the number of animals being farmed for their meat, eggs, and milk.

Tractability

No matter the scale of a problem, if we cannot make progress towards solving or reducing it, we would be wasting our resources if we tried. This is why we also need to think about a cause’s tractability, or how easily we can address the problem. Factory farming looks particularly tractable for a few reasons.

Despite a popular yet false belief, eating animal products is not necessary to human health, as has been acknowledged by government organizations like the the UK’s National Health Service, and respected dietetic associations like the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This means that to us, as the people in control of the institution of animal farming, changing that institution is merely a cost of transitioning to something different. If there were long-term costs to ourselves, we would have to convince people to give up something that they need in the interest of the greater good, which may be a much harder — though still fully justified — project. Fortunately, not only is that not the case, but animal farming is also unsustainable, meaning that moving to a better system will not only be good for the animals, but good for humans as well.

So why haven’t we done away with it yet? The major forces maintaining animal farming are cultural norms and industry interests. These may seem powerful now, but historically, industries have come and gone, and cultural norms have changed dramatically over the course of a generation or less. This has been the case for multiple issues where a group’s suffering was originally severely disregarded on account of characteristics that were irrelevant to that suffering, such as their age, sex, sexuality, race, or ability, to name a few.

According to a 2015 Gallup poll, a third of Americans already believe that nonhuman animals should have the same rights as humans — a 7% increase in seven years — and just under two-thirds believe other animals should at least have some protection. We are already primed to move away from — if we’re not already moving away from — the speciesism that enables us to disregard so many farmed animals’ suffering and pleas for help. The same poll also shows that a quarter of Americans are currently “very concerned” with the treatment of farmed animals, and another half are “somewhat concerned”. Vegetarianism and veganism also appear to be on the rise, and entrepreneurs and investors are increasingly interested in animal-free food technologies like plant-based and cultured meats, milks and other animal products, which could displace many factory farms in the near future.

Neglectedness

Finally, we can ask how neglected a problem is. How much we can contribute to a solution usually depends on how many resources are already being put towards it. This is because more neglected areas tend to have much lower-hanging (and more cost-effective) fruit waiting to be picked. Donations to organizations fighting factory farming probably amount to $20-50 million annually from the US (or 1-6% of a penny to every animal currently suffering in a factory farm). This is extremely low even compared to other animal-focused donations: Americans spend $2.5 billion on local animal shelters. This neglectedness becomes even more dramatic when we look at total philanthropic contributions.

The question of how to reduce the most suffering is challenging, but these criteria offer a useful framework for determining what broader areas we should focus our efforts on.

Is there a difference between acts and omissions?

Some people may believe that there is a morally relevant difference between an agent acting and refraining from acting, even if the consequences of that action or inaction are the same. Those who subscribe to such a belief may claim that eating animals is bad because it actively harms sentient beings, while simply not donating to (or working for) animal advocacy organizations that spare animals from farms is not bad.

Such a distinction seems intuitive: surely it is much worse to drown a piglet in a pond than to merely walk past her, letting her drown? But to the piglet, the result is the same. It may be worse to have a societal norm by which people are allowed to drown piglets than one where they’re allowed to walk past drowning piglets, because the former may set a precedent encouraging others to drown piglets, resulting in more suffering than the latter. However, when considered from the perspective of the drowning piglet, the act-omission distinction is irrelevant. To anyone who is suffering, it makes no difference whether that suffering is caused by deliberate action or unintentional neglect — they suffer the same either way.

A famous and similar thought experiment is called the trolley problem. Consider a train hurtling down a railway track towards five individuals, who will be killed unless the train is redirected to a different track. There is one individual on the other track, so if the train is redirected, that one individual will be hit and killed instead. You are standing at the lever that can redirect the train. Would you pull it? Most people say that they would. This suggests that most of us already believe that actively killing one individual is better than not saving five.

A strong distinction between acts and omissions would also have absurd consequences, suggesting for instance that activists working against human slave labor in the production of electronic devices, who themselves are compelled to use devices produced through such labor in order to carry out their advocacy against it, should throw out all of their devices, and consequentially stop their advocacy work and abandon those individuals to their servitude. This would make it impossible to effect change, so if we care about preventing as much suffering as possible, we should not distinguish between acts and omissions.

Unfortunately, giving to charity is often regarded in broader society merely as a generous use of our spare cash, and working for charities is seen as something someone does when they “feel a calling” to help others. Not participating in altruistic efforts is conceived of as a mere omission. But by not giving all we can, we are failing to help individuals whose suffering we could have prevented. Whether we harm them or neglect to help them, we have responsibility in their suffering either way. Taking this idea to its naive extreme may result in lifestyle and behavioral changes that are too demanding for us to maintain, so a full consideration of the idea that we should give as much as we can will account for what we each need to sustain our own altruism in the long-term. But ultimately, when we think about where to direct our resources, it is crucial that we consider all those whose suffering we have the ability to prevent.

In the case of issues like factory farming, not distinguishing between acts and omissions means supporting efforts working to end the problem, not just abstaining from participation in it.

Making the greatest impact

The extraordinary scale of the issue, its neglectedness, and its relative tractability make a strong argument for prioritizing efforts to end factory farming. But different strategies for combating factory farming will vary in their effectiveness, and we want to pursue only the most effective ones. In this series’ next article, we will discuss what we believe are the most effective paths to end factory farming.

Next Article: Effective Strategies


Overview

  1. The Case Against Speciesism
  2. Altruism, Numbers, and Factory Farms
  3. Effective Strategies
  1. This number is based on the 17 billion estimate for land animals and the median of the 55 billion – 240 billion estimate for fish.  

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