We are a social science think tank, which means we do research to understand how society works. Our main topic of interest is expanding humanity’s moral circle, particularly the issue of animal agriculture. We are a 501(c)3 tax-deductible nonprofit organization and produce this research with our full-time staff and through collaboration with other researchers.
In practice, this means we design, implement, and publish research studies that may yield important insights on these topics. For example, we conduct a biennial poll tracking how US residents view animal agriculture and animal-free food technology. You can read through other examples of our work in our research reports or blog.
If you would like a broad overview of “effective animal advocacy” (EAA) research, we recommend that you first read our Summary of Evidence for Foundational Questions in Effective Animal Advocacy, which contains summaries of and links to research across the EAA field and elsewhere.
If you would like a deep dive into a more specific topic, consider our biofuels report, which outlines the history of four biofuel startup companies and what we can learn about the strategy of developing and commercializing a new technology. This is similar to other case studies we publish on emerging technologies and social movements.
The moral circle is the set of beings given moral consideration, such as protection in a society’s laws. For example, our report on the British Antislavery Movement details how slaves in the transatlantic slave trade became included, to an extent, in Britain’s moral circle in the early 1800s. The first known use of the “circle” analogy is William Lecky’s History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne in 1869. Lecky argued that there has been a “natural history” of human morals over time towards humanitarianism, benevolence, and the inclusion of more individuals in the “circle” of “benevolent affections.” The term was popularized by Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle in 1981. Singer argued that factors such as kin selection coupled with rational thinking led to an expanding moral circle.
By extension, we frequently use the term moral circle expansion (MCE) to refer to increasing the number of beings included in the circle. If humanity’s moral circle had expanded sooner and more fully, many historical atrocities may have been prevented, and if advocates are able to expand it today, the future may be much better for all sentient beings. Thus, while the moral circle itself is very interesting, we are particularly interested in the factors that lead it to expand, narrow, or stay the same over time.
Effective altruism (EA) is working out how we can use our time and resources to help others the most. It can be understood as a set of principles, a research question (“How can we do the most good?”), and a growing community—though there are many different views on what exactly it means. Core principles of EA can include openness, integrity, and the maintenance of a scientific mindset. This implies that we should use research and the best available evidence to inform our decision-making, while accepting that we often need to act on imperfect understandings. Many people who take these ideas into consideration end up focused on issues of animal welfare and rights, and the overlap of the effective altruism and animal advocacy communities is sometimes referred to as “effective animal advocacy” (EAA). EAA is working out how we can use our time and resources to most effectively encourage positive social change for animals.
The main types of evidence we have available are:
Each of these has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, experiments can isolate a single variable and be specific to the forms of social change that we are most interested in, such as animal advocacy, but they rarely measure how behavior changes over the long run and how people affect each other’s behavior in groups, both of which seem crucial for real-world social change. At Sentience Institute, we try to use the methods most appropriate to the specific research question we want to address.
Arguably the most important finding of our research has been the effectiveness of institutional change and the farmed animal movement’s seeming overreliance on individual change. An “institution” is typically a formal or informal organization, such as a business or government, but can also be less organized social structures, such as the social norms that govern everyday human behavior. For example, institutional changes in government can be triggered by the actions of a small-number of individuals, such as lobbyists or attorneys affecting legislatures or courts, or larger actions, such as mass protests or state-wide voting on ballot initiatives. Governments can regulate farmed animal welfare, endow rights to particular entities, ban whole product categories, increase or decrease taxes and subsidies, or even support the creation of a new market category.
SI refers to institutional tactics primarily as a contrast to the focus on individual consumption that has been prevalent in the farmed animal movement, changing people’s diets (e.g. reducetarian, vegetarian, vegan) one by one, such as through hanging out leaflets or running online ads that compel people to stop eating animal products. When we encourage the farmed animal movement to shift towards institutional tactics, we do not mean to imply that there is no need to communicate with the public. For example, a mass media campaign to mobilize the public to vote for a particular ballot initiative would have an institutional focus, even if it would make demands of a large number of individuals, so we would consider this an example of an institutional tactic. In contrast, a mass media campaign asking the public to change their own dietary behavior seems clearly focused on individuals.
For more information on the “institutional approach” to animal advocacy and other forms of social change, see our paper at Palgrave Communications, “Institutional Change and the Limitations of Consumer Activism.”
All of our research is posted to the research or blog sections of our website. Most of the key action-relevant insights are added to our Summary of Evidence for Foundational Questions in Effective Animal Advocacy page.
Often, the primary audience of our work is the activists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and researchers in the farmed animal and effective altruism movements. To reach this audience, we share our research through our newsletter, Facebook page, and podcast, as well as through public Facebook groups, the Effective Altruism Forum, presentations at conferences, and direct communication (e.g. meetings, emails) with key stakeholders.
Sometimes we publish research, such as our biennial poll, that is of interest to the general public, so we participate in radio, video, and podcast interviews and write articles for newspapers and magazines, much of which is documented on our outreach page. Our co-founder Jacy Reese has written a book, The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System, which summarizes much of the research done by ourselves and our colleagues in the past few years.
If you are interested in a full-time position, we expect to only hire researchers in the foreseeable future. We are open to the many different backgrounds that can make one a capable researcher, but we expect that most will have doctoral degrees in relevant disciplines, such as statistics, psychology, political science, sociology, or economics. Comparable experience can be gained through other means, such as an extensive research project completed at a think tank or research-oriented NGO. To learn more about getting research experience, we would encourage you to look at the career profile on academic research by 80,000 Hours, as well as some episodes of the 80,000 Hours and Sentience Institute podcasts because we frequently ask guests about their own backgrounds. A new organization, Animal Advocacy Careers (co-founded by an SI researcher), expects to publish other helpful resources in the future.
Building up your understanding of research in the effective animal advocacy and effective altruism communities can also be helpful. Check whether you understand the key concepts used in these communities and would be able to replicate some examples of relatively complex methods.
One way to test your personal fit is to carry out small-scale independent research projects on similar topics, such as starting a blog or giving a presentation. You can get a sense of the sorts of research projects that we are interested in by familiarizing yourself with our research agenda and other research pages on our website. Independent research could be published in academic journals, the EA Forum, personal blogs, or, if it is a good fit with Sentience Institute, on our website.
Job postings will be listed on our Get Involved page and various online platforms.
We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization funded by charitable gifts. Most of our supporters are excited about expanding humanity’s moral circle and excited about the value of social change research. Some are individuals, either directly or through institutional mechanisms (e.g. their employer, a donor advised fund) and some are organizations, such as private foundations and other nonprofit organizations. Some identify with the effective altruism community, some with the animal advocacy community, and some with both or neither. The vast majority of donations we receive are unrestricted, meaning they are for our general budget and not earmarked for any particular project.
Alongside many organizations in the effective altruism community, Sentience Institute holds a longtermist view, defined by the Global Priorities Institute as, “the view that the primary determinant of the differences in value of the actions we take today is the effect of those actions on the very long-term future.” This is because the number of sentient beings that could come into existence in the long-term future is astronomically large. This means the long-term future could be very good or very bad, such as s-risks, risks of astronomical future suffering.
There is uncertainty over whether broad/indirect or narrow/direct approaches to improving the value of the long-term future will be more cost-effective. One potentially broad method of reducing s-risks is moral advocacy (“values spreading”), which is similar to but not necessarily inclusive of moral circle expansion. SI tentatively favors moral circle expansion research over other possible strategies for improving the value of the far-future, both for its relatively direct effects on human values and its relatively indirect effects such as movement-building.
SI currently focuses on expanding the moral circle to farmed animals, which we see as an important frontier of the modern moral circle and a tractable area of research. Successful farmed animal advocacy could have meaningful impacts on attitudes towards other sentient beings through a secondary transfer effect, or by otherwise generating momentum for further moral circle expansion.
Yes, much of our research will probably still be relevant. Because our research is highly empirical, most of our time is spent collecting or reviewing relevant data, which we then synthesize into action-relevant insights. As long as your worldview is interested in the sorts of data we focus on, such as historical case studies and surveys, then you can learn from our research. For example, our technology adoption case studies have strategic implications for entrepreneurs seeking to maximize the success of their animal-free food products, and our social movement case studies have strategic implications for activists seeking to reduce the harms of factory farming. This matters whether your timescale is years, decades, centuries, or even longer.
One sort of person who tends to find our research particularly valuable is someone who cares about the issue of animal farming (or specifically, factory farming), but is more focused on whether we address that grand challenge in the coming decades than on whether we can inspire more people to eat plant-based or pass more cage-free egg policies in the next few years. We have ended up carving out a niche of sorts in this long-term, mixed-method farmed animal advocacy research.
This is an emerging area of research, so there are less books available than many other topics, but some relevant books include:
 Moral advocacy and values spreading are not clearly defined terms. For example, if most people would agree with the statement, “Humanity’s moral circle should expand to include all sentient beings,” then is working towards that outcome actually changing anyone’s values? It depends, for one, on whether “value” is solely about terminal goals or also includes factors such as the relative prioritization, e.g. do we spend some of our time and attention on helping animals while there is so much human suffering in the world?
 There are several groupings that we might refer to as “movements” related to SI’s work, such as the farmed animal movement, the animal rights movement, the animal welfare movement, the effective animal advocacy movement, the effective altruism movement, the artificial sentience rights movement, or the s-risk movement. Most forms of research and other supportive work probably have diffuse effects across these categories. Most of the time, we refer to one or several of these movements only for brevity, since they are all closely related.