As a political think tank that seeks to fully consider the interests of all sentient beings, we take an interest in the current Massachusetts campaign to end some of the most intensive confinement practices in animal farming, appearing as Question 3 on the Massachusetts ballot accompanying the US presidential vote next week. If Massachusetts voters support the law, it will “prohibit the sale of eggs, veal, or pork of a farm animal confined in spaces that prevent the animal from lying down, standing up, extending [their] limbs, or turning around.” We are happy to join other nonprofit organizations, elected leaders, businesses, and numerous other parties in endorsing the measure.
We are supporting the initiative because such intensive confinement causes intense suffering to the animals. We recognize that such reforms represent limited improvement to farmed animals’ still agonizing lives, but they do alleviate part of their torment. More importantly, we suspect this and similar reforms will inspire further public support for farmed (and ultimately all) animals. We want to expand on this last consideration briefly because we consider the long-term effects of our actions particularly compelling, and think they are sometimes neglected by the animal advocacy community.
We share some advocates’ concerns that legal or corporate policy changes that lessen the suffering of farmed animals, but do not directly challenge their use as property or reduce their numbers, risk inducing some level of complacency in the public, potentially making society more comfortable with our still deplorable treatment of these animals and reducing our ability to effect positive change for animals in the long-term. Many advocates are particularly concerned by “humanewashing”, the labelling of products whose production involves severe animal suffering with terms and images that mislead consumers into believing that the animals led happy lives.
However – and although we think much more research is needed on this topic – we currently think such reforms are likely to inspire more momentum for the farmed animal advocacy movement than complacency with problems of animal farming. As with many research conclusions in the complex and understudied field of effective animal advocacy, our confidence in this judgement is low. We intend to pursue and support further research on this topic, including investigation of the history and sociology of how such gradual improvements may affect a social movement’s success.
Evidence in favor of welfare reforms
Our current optimism about welfare reforms is based on the following observations:
Second, from the limited track record of welfare reforms for farmed animals, we see some evidence of momentum over complacency. A recent wave of cage-free commitments in the US was followed in short order by a commitment from United Egg Producers, a cooperative of egg producers in the US, to phase out the killing of male chicks, suggesting that reforms create momentum for further reforms2.
Third, we have informally observed that media coverage of these reforms often highlights the shortcomings of animal farming and focuses on what’s next, rather than suggesting that the reformed products offer a solution to the problems of animal farming3.
In terms of corporate reforms, advocacy groups that build relationships with companies in the pursuit of those reforms may also be better positioned to negotiate further changes, such as the adoption of animal-free alternatives.
There is also evidence that “foot-in-the-door” strategies can be effective at compelling individuals to take bigger steps, and that is precisely what welfare reforms represent – a step away from a total lack of concern for these animals, and towards a full consideration of their interests. This strategy seems more effective on individuals who grew up in more individualistic cultures with more consistent/less flexible perceptions of the self, suggesting both that American culture, if not Western culture more generally, is particularly suited to this approach, and that compliance with subsequent requests is dependent on internal perceptions rather than who makes the request – meaning subsequent requests can be made by different advocates or groups. There is evidence for the potentially similar effectiveness of “door in the face” strategies, though this effect may be dependent on the same people making both the initial (extreme) and final (lesser and actually sought) requests, and it is unclear whether this “reciprocity” effect can scale to requests from a broader movement.
In the bigger picture, we expect a gradual move away from factory farming to achieve more support from the public, industry, and policymakers than an attempt to move abruptly from where we are – farming an extremely high and still increasing number of animals, and confining the overwhelming majority of them in factory farms – to an agricultural system that does not subordinate the interests of nonhuman animals to the comparably trivial interests of the animal agriculture industry. Reforms, which are small progressions away from the current norm, can assist such a shift – though we also need consumers to reduce their consumption of animal-based foods (aided by businesses providing compelling animal-free alternatives), and we need policymakers to take other steps to reduce the scale of animal farming.
Evidence against welfare reforms
Some psychology experiments suggest that, on the individual level, taking moral actions could make people less charitable in the future, an effect known as “moral licensing” or “moral balancing”. For example, one study suggests that having people make “green” consumer choices makes them more likely to “balance” out their environmentally-friendly actions with indulgent, environmentally-unfriendly actions. This could suggest that purchasing products with higher welfare standards (or which are labelled to suggest as much) would encourage some negative action, or a more lenient attitude towards animal farming. However, there is data supporting both such “moral balancing” and the opposite effect of “moral consistency” in individuals’ behavior, and it is difficult to know how these individual behavioral effects correlate with broader social and attitudinal complacency or momentum.
The evidence we have now for the long-term effects of reforms like the one on the Massachusetts ballot is weak, but it leans towards momentum, in addition to a compelling near-term mitigation of suffering for farmed animals. Even if individual advocates or organizations are skeptical about welfare reforms, the animal advocacy movement’s resources are dwarfed by the animal agriculture industry’s resources, so it is important for us to cooperate with and support one another whenever possible. The movement is still young enough that we need to continue trying a diversity of strategies to determine what works best. If you are interested in participating in our research efforts to better understand the impact of strategies like welfare reforms, or to address other important questions, take a look at our Research Agenda and sign up to our Research Network.
And if you live in Massachusetts: Vote “yes” on Question 3!
- In the US, conversion to cage-free egg farms may result in a 3% decrease in the number of eggs consumed. Refer to this analysis published in Poultry Science for some discussion of elasticity and the effects of reforms on egg farming. ↑
- That announcement was followed by a commitment by Perdue to improve its farm and slaughter treatment of chickens raised for meat. Perdue’s treatment of chickens had recently been exposed by undercover investigators with Mercy for Animals, so the prospect of getting ahead of the rest of the industry on other reforms was probably not their sole motivation for commitment. Many of the details of the commitment are also vague, so it’s unclear how much of this announcement is humanewashing and how much reform will happen – nor is it clear how humanewashing, disentangled from reforms, affects social momentum and complacency. (For instance, when companies encourage consumers to believe the animals are happy, implicitly insisting that their suffering matters, how are those consumers affected when they realize that the animals were suffering tremendously after all? Unfortunately we have too little information at this time to discuss such questions. ↑
- See for instance these articles by the Guardian and the New York Times. ↑