How can we use our limited resources to help as many sentient beings as possible, as much as possible? If we pursue less impactful approaches — perhaps because they are more appealing to us personally, easier to identify, easier to implement, or easier to measure — we risk failing to help many more individuals. So what are the most promising measures we can take to end as much suffering as possible? We are constantly asking this question, and currently view the measures below as the most promising ways to prevent substantial suffering. Most of these measures focus on helping farmed animals, a priority we discuss in our page on “Altruism, numbers, and factory farms”.
Political action and social change
Many movements are ultimately successful when a solution is passed by the law. Eventually, the movement against the extensive suffering caused by speciesism will need to end the law’s disregard of nonhuman animals, which enables them to be treated as objects without interests. The movement will have to become political, and there may be many political actions we can start taking now.
Depending on the form of a political initiative and where it is launched, we will need to convince at most a majority of voters, and at least a handful of decision-makers to push the change through.
The general public may also find it easier to support political measures that already align with their values than to change their daily habits, which may make political action more promising than the consumer outreach that currently dominates farmed animal advocacy.
However, ambitious political campaigns, possibly including our own future initiatives to ban factory farming, may be unlikely to succeed in the near term. Investing resources in projects that will likely fail in their immediate legislative goals can feel, and may turn out to be, ineffective. But while political action may be a higher risk investment, we can also expect it to be of significantly higher value, both because of the substantial suffering that will be eliminated if it is successful, and because campaigns have significant value beyond their political successes. Launching a high-profile political initiative could spark public debate about the way we treat nonhuman animals, and mobilize many people to oppose the speciesist practices that cause tremendous suffering. The Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance, did not directly achieve legislative reform, but they did force the issue of economic inequality into mainstream public debate. As a result of their actions, economic inequality is now an important topic in American (and international) politics.
The more people are informed about and reject speciesism, the better positioned we will be to address all forms of suffering experienced by nonhuman beings. And one of the best ways we can bring speciesism into public discourse is by engaging in political activism with antispeciesist goals.
What kinds of political work should we engage in? There are many options, and we think a promising strategy is to pursue a combination of four approaches:
We can work on initiatives that would immediately eliminate significant suffering if successful, such as statewide or national bans on factory farming. If they succeed, these bans will reduce tremendous amounts of suffering. Even if not successful, such initiatives still will escalate public debate on the issue of factory farming, providing media opportunities to encourage people to confront speciesism more broadly, and growing momentum that can be harnessed for future campaigns.
We can also work on foot-in-the-door initiatives that could both help many animals further down the road, and again, be used to publicly address the issue of speciesism. For instance, we can demand basic rights to bodily and mental integrity for the nonhumans most closely related to us.
We can also work on initiatives enabling increased access to animal-free meals; securing funding for animal-free food technologies and industries; and withdrawing government funding from animal industries.
And we can work on initiatives that ban some specific harmful practices to relieve some amount of the suffering that many animals are facing now, as groups in many countries have been doing in the last two decades. For instance, the EU has banned veal crates, Switzerland has banned battery cages, and the Netherlands has banned debeaking. Such initiatives may have limited impact in the near-term, but can be publicly discussed as a step in the right direction, away from factory farming and, more broadly, speciesism.
We expect such a diversity of initiatives to attract and mobilize people from a diversity of interests. The human rights community, for example, may be particularly drawn towards rights for other primates; the general public may be very interested in the elimination of factory farming; and environmentalists, public health authorities, and economists or politicians interested in reducing environmental and public health costs may be excited about the replacement of animal-based foods with cultured and plant-based alternatives. A long-term cultural shift away from speciesism must ultimately be reflected in and reinforced by our governing institutions. With such a variety of political initiatives, we can gain widespread support for political change, sustain media interest and exposure, and unite and strengthen the animal advocacy movement.
If we can directly replace suffering-intensive products like animal meat with better defaults, like cultured or plant-based meat, we can eliminate significant suffering without having to convince people to change their behavior or even to participate in political change. They only have to accept minor changes to the products they consume, and we can make this easy for them by enthusiastically promoting these technological advances. Notably, press on cultured and plant-based alternatives has been glowing, which may prove important to its widespread adoption.
Researchers, investors and entrepreneurs are already hard at work developing cultured and plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy, and other animal-based products. If we can make more viable consumer alternatives — perhaps even better ones than the already-popular plant-based milks — this could spare billions of animals from being raised and killed in intensive farming conditions.
Psychology has also shown that our behavior can influence our beliefs and moral positions. The less people eat animal-based foods, the more equipped they may become to progress away from speciesism, as they are less complicit in the suffering that the animals endure. In this way, animal-free foods may contribute to long-term societal change, and aid social and political efforts.
Building capacity and improving effectiveness
Promoting political progress, behavioral change, and technological solutions can directly help many individuals. But when both the talent and funding going into such efforts is limited, it may be worthwhile to work on growing the community of advocates, researchers, entrepreneurs and supporters working on these efforts instead of working directly and exclusively on these efforts ourselves. This is why capacity building is a cornerstone of Sentience Politics’s mission.
Encouraging people to participate in and support the most effective efforts is especially important, and we expect efforts to increase the animal advocacy movement’s effectiveness to be more tractable than efforts to increase its size (we expect the same is true for many movements). This is because the movement has only recently begun to measure its impacts and consider psychological, social, historical, and scientific evidence to inform its strategic and tactical decisions.
Perhaps the most obvious way to support direct work — particularly if we are not suited to it ourselves — is to fund it. The movement for animal rights, like any social justice movement, needs funding to achieve its goals. Research, outreach campaigns, and political initiatives cannot happen without funding.
We could also go a step further, and support organizations that fundraise for effective projects. If you wanted to donate to the organizations that Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) recommends as high-impact giving opportunities, instead of donating to the organizations directly, you could donate to ACE. ACE moved $5 to these organizations for every $1 donated to them last year, giving them a “multiplier effect” on these organizations’ funding.
Donating some percentage of our own income is very helpful, and traditional fundraising strategies, such as bucket collections or “memberships” of donors who give small amounts every month, can help too. But major donations are essential to many organizations’ work — on average, 88% of donations come from 12% of donors — and projects that push the envelope may not be easy for many members of the general public to get behind, so fundraising for small donations from the general public is low yield, time-consuming, and unreliable. A more reliable way to support such projects could be for dedicated individuals to “earn to give”: to pursue a high-paying career, if they are able, in order to donate a significant portion of their salary to effective projects. Sentience Politics and our parent organization, the Effective Altruism Foundation, owe a lot of our own success to such supporters. The people who are dedicated enough to consider doing this may also be suited to work directly for effective organizations, but if their particular abilities, background and personal fit make them well-suited to earning to give, this may be a more impactful option. One person earning to give may be able to fund multiple direct workers who the organizations would otherwise not be able to hire, resulting in much more impact than if they took a position at one of the organizations themselves.
Refer to our “Effective Giving” page for further discussion of the best ways to donate.
One could also participate in or support research efforts, like Sentience Politics’s own Research Network, in acquiring more information on effective strategies to reduce suffering. This research can help advocates directly working on a problem to have dramatically greater impact.
We need researchers working on empirical questions about the psychology, sociology, and history of social movements, others to work on relevant empirical matters in science and economics, and others still to consider philosophical questions. And we need cooperation between direct work and research, so we do not miss out on insights and opportunities that could substantially increase our impact.
Why not consumer change?
One very common strategy for reducing substantial suffering is the promotion of animal-free (often called “vegan” or “plant-based”) diets. Removing animals and animal-based foods from our diets can spare hundreds of animals per year from factory farms and slaughter. And perhaps more importantly, refusing to eat animals (or to consume other animal-based products) can communicate to others that we care about those animals. Depending on how we talk about our own vegetarianism or veganism with the people in our community, we can also help them understand our choice as a rejection of the speciesist practices that seriously hurt animals, and not just a personal preference. Our social influence may help them combat their own speciesism and motivate them to do more for animals themselves.
Unfortunately, humans are deeply resistant to changing both our minds and our behavior, especially when it comes to habits as ingrained as our eating patterns. Challenging the morality of someone’s consumption of animals can make them feel personally attacked, and people often retreat to rationalizations of their existing beliefs and behavior. There are other compelling historical precedents and psychological reasons to prefer approaches that focus more on the institutions that exploit animals than the consumer behaviors that support those institutions, so while while we do expect consumer change to be valuable, our own pursuit of it is generally limited to ballot initiatives enabling greater access to animal-free meals.
Note though that all of us can adopt an animal-free (or at least mostly animal-free) diet at no detriment to our other efforts, so while we are not as enthusiastic about the promotion of consumer change as we are about other strategies to help animals, we do recommend animal-free eating.
Because our resources are limited, we cannot help everyone. To help as many individuals as possible, we need to identify, pursue, and support only the strategies that help the most.
Political action could achieve great successes, and while the chance of that success may be low in the near-term, political campaigns can spark media interest and public debate that draws in supporters. And by pursuing a variety of political initiatives, we can attract widespread support.
Promoting technological advances like cultured meat is promising because there should be little personal incentive to oppose changes that have such positive effects on both the animals and the environment, without even a minor cost of inconvenience to ourselves. These technologies will immediately spare many animals, and may also mitigate the biases that make it difficult for us to tackle our speciesism.
We can also work on capacity building, research, and improving the effectiveness of the animal advocacy movement. Compared to creating conscious consumers and generally scaling the movement, increasing our effectiveness and recruiting particularly promising individuals seems to offer staggering benefits for a relatively low cost.
Finally, while consumer outreach is appealing given the number of animals a single vegan can spare, creating new vegans (or vegetarians, or reducetarians) is more resource-intensive than other strategies, and the promotion of individual dietary change is unlikely to lead to a global shift in how society views nonhuman animals. It may help us along the way, but likely not as much as other strategies that we could pursue instead. Importantly, consumer outreach currently dominates the movement for farmed animals, leaving other more effective strategies severely neglected.
As a focus on effectiveness is so new in the animal advocacy movement, it is vital that we strive to be open-minded, experimental, and robust in our approach. This, in a nutshell, is the Sentience Politics approach, and we remain eager to continue updating our positions and pursuing only the most impactful strategies.