Our Perspective
photo_camera Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals
Chickens in a transport truck on their way to slaughter

Effective altruism

At Sentience Institute, we focus on “effective altruism,” meaning the strategies and tactics that generate the most positive impact for the amount of resources used. We do this because there are many sentient beings who need our help, but we lack the time, money, and other resources to fully help all of them. We need triage. Intuitively, we might feel inclined to pursue strategies that are the most appealing to us personally, the easiest to implement, or whose impacts are easiest to measure, but if we instead pursue more effective strategies we can help many more individuals and spare much more suffering.

This focus on effectiveness can feel “cold” because humans face a collapse of compassion when faced with large, seemingly insurmountable issues like the estimated 100 billion or more animals being raised for food globally. The limits of our imaginations make it impossible for us to see 100,000,000,000 individuals in the detail with which we see humans or animals we know personally. Instead we just see a number, a drastically reductive representation of those 100,000,000,000 individuals. But each and every number in that sum represents an entire individual with a personality and unique experiences, and most of them are suffering severely.

Fully empathizing with all who need our help and helping as much as possible means extending what feels like the “warm” understanding of individuals we know personally to these large populations. As opposed to “cold and calculating,” a better term for this radically equitable consideration of everyone we can impact might be “warm and calculating.” In fact, to us it seems much colder to only consider a few individuals and abandon so many more whom we could help.

Expanding the moral circle

It’s important for us to question the typical factors that prevent us from properly respecting the interests of other individuals. Society has made significant progress in accounting for some of these, like race and gender differences, but there are other dimensions that few of us consider:

Our current focus on animal farming

We would like to expand humanity’s moral circle across all of these dimensions, but our resources at Sentience Institute are limited. We currently focus our attention on nonhuman animals[1] because the vast majority of the individuals who are suffering are in this group, and their suffering is either totally or virtually totally ignored by humans. Though we still have substantial progress to make with human inclusion, nonhuman animals are not even granted rights to their own lives or to physical and psychological health. Instead they are wholly objectified, reduced in culture and law from sentient individuals to food, clothing, and chattel.

Additionally, many people are already working to ensure humanity’s moral circle fully includes all humans, but few are working to expand our circle beyond our own species. Even of the few people working to increase humanity’s concern for a limited number of animals, such as dogs, cats, whales, and chimpanzees, the consideration advocated for is often limited, paternalistic, and instrumental, in contrast to the full intrinsic concern our society affords many humans and generally believes all humans should have.

The scope of animal issues is large, so we want to focus our initial research on a narrower issue where we can produce high-quality research. We’ve decided that initial focus will be on animals farmed for food, because our co-founders have significant expertise in this area and the movement against animal farming is eager to incorporate new research results into its strategy.

The scale and severity of animal farming

As mentioned earlier, there are over 100 billion animals on farms right now, and the overwhelming majority of them — 99% in the US and likely over 90% globally — are crowded in operations informally referred to as “factory farms.”

The intensive confinement of these animals leads them to boredom, frustration, depression, which commonly lead them to inflict physical harm on themselves and one another. Their crowded conditions also typically lead to significant physical health problems, and many of these animals endure painful deaths on account of health complications caused by their breeding or environment, and the other animals in the farm are exposed to their suffering and death. Chickens raised to be eaten, 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. Before their own slaughter, most farmed animals witness other animals struggling and dying around them. 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. Nearly all fish die by being painfully suffocated and crushed by other fish in nets that pull them out of the water.

These are just a few examples of the intense suffering that the majority of farmed animals endure. Also note that the term “factory farm” is loosely defined, sometimes for instance only referring to farms that house in total hundreds of thousands of animals, a usage which wrongfully excludes those that house hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of animals, which may have very similar population densities and conditions and on which animals suffer similarly. Finally, note that many labels on animal products are misleading and not reliable indicators of farmed animals’ well-being.

Opposing animal farming as a whole, not just factory farming

When told about the suffering caused by factory farming, many react by suggesting that some animal farms, such as small farms that raise their animals on pasture, are a suitable alternative. While it does seem that some farms are much less harmful from an animal welfare perspective, we oppose animal farming as a whole and would like to see a transition towards wholly animal-free food production, for a few reasons.

First, undercover investigations and other inquiries into the conditions of so-called “humane” farms have shown that most of these farms are still places of intense suffering, and it doesn’t seem like most of these animals live lives worth living (i.e. a life that one would choose to live over nonexistence). Our co-founders themselves joined a professional animal rescue team at a farm with organic, pasture-raised egg-laying hens, which from the nearby road looked as picturesque as the farms in the most bucolic advertisements, but on closer inspection we learned that the animals had internal and external parasites, blindness, bone deformities, neurological damage, and lung infections from diseases that went untreated. As all hens bred to lay eggs, they were also all constantly anxious due to their overactive reproductive systems and daily hormonal fluctuations. They also had to experience the pain of laying large eggs on a near-daily basis, and many had already died from severe reproductive illnesses and ailments such as cancer, stuck eggs, broken eggs, and oviduct infections, all which went entirely untreated. The farmhand told us that we “wouldn’t believe” how many were killed by (nonhuman) predators, a given in pasture farms with limited shelter and no trees to hide in. This is just one example of a picture-perfect, “humane” animal farm.

Second, the idea that there is a humane way to farm animals, even if true in a very small percentage of cases, may provide people with a psychological refuge that ultimately makes them more accepting of all animal farming, even if the vast majority of it happens in factory farms. Activists frequently hear people say they don’t eat meat and animal-based products from bad farms, but when asked about their actual consumption habits, they admit that only a small fraction are actually from something labelled even merely “cage-free,” “sustainable,” “natural,” etc., which do not correlate with the bucolic conditions the consumer imagines.

Third, we suspect it is highly unlikely that society could eliminate only factory farms while still maintaining anywhere close to modern levels of animal product consumption. Even with a halving of global consumption due to regulations or consumer choices, a non-factory system would likely involve very high costs for consumers, higher than the cost of current so-called “humanely raised” animal products. Producers would have strong incentives to cut corners, as farmed animals are unable to organize and protest their treatment like human laborers do, so an extensive oversight system with inspections and close monitoring would be required. Shifting industry practices to this extent would require extremely strong political and consumer pressure, which seems particularly unlikely given the cognitive dissonance people experience when eating animals while caring about animals. The alternative to our current factory farming system that seems much more promising is to replace animal farming altogether with more resource-efficient and truly “humane” animal-free meat, dairy, and eggs.

Fourth, if humanity continues using animals for food, those animals will continue to be seen at least to an extent as objects and a means to our own ends. We believe that sentient beings are more likely to have their wellbeing fully considered when they are seen as individuals with their own interests, instead of as commodities. This suggests that ending the commodification of these and other animals could further help other sentient beings who will need our help in the future. To that end it is important that we address entire institutions and not just the particularly bad practices within them.

Prioritizing sentient wellbeing

Discussions of morality often include a diverse set of values like justice, tradition, rights, sanctity, duty, patriotism, loyalty, respect, honor, and liberty. We believe some of these are useful standards for everyday moral discussion, but such values often conflict. If one has to steal a loaf of bread from a store to feed their starving family, what comes first: their family, the law, or the rights of storekeeper? We believe that the determining factor of moral questions should be the welfare of all sentient beings involved. This does not lead to easy answers, but it gives us a useful standard for making difficult moral decisions.

This is especially important when it comes to the welfare of humans and animals who suffer from natural causes, i.e. from causes other than the actions of humans. In the case of humans, this is a rather obvious conclusion: If someone is suffering from an infection of tuberculosis, a natural ailment, treating them with antibiotics is clearly the right call. To that human, the suffering is clearly a very bad thing. The experience itself, and not where the disease came from, is what matters.

Emphasizing consequences to individuals’ wellbeing forces us to consider wild animals in a way that many may find counterintuitive. There are an enormous number of animals in the wild, and many of them suffer in ways unheard of by many humans. Intense competition for resources means that starvation is a common occurrence. Illnesses and injuries go untreated, extreme weather cripples and kills the exposed, and children and families are routinely separated. Most individuals die young after a short and painful life, and only a very small minority are able to lead something like the pleasant life we typically imagine.

One of the intuitions people have about this suffering is that any attempt to intervene in the wild will go badly, based on the track record humans have of pollution and habitat destruction. But humanity has made very few interventions with the intent of helping wild animals, and those few we have, such as the distribution of contraceptives and the construction of wildlife crossings, have been limited in scope and have also generally only been taken because they were instrumental to humans. There simply isn’t a precedent to base such a judgement on. Many of us are sympathetic to the rescue and rehabilitation of individual wild animals who are in need of help, regardless of the cause of their suffering, and we need to take care to avoid the collapse of our compassion when the number of victims is greater.

Environmentalist rhetoric often involves appealing to the preservation of nonsentient entities such as a species, ecosystem, or habitat, and while these may at times be useful proxies for sentient wellbeing, they are not sufficient and may even prevent us from doing what’s best for wild animals themselves. In the interest of their wellbeing, we need to shift our mindset and conduct substantial research into effective strategies to reduce their suffering. We encourage others to develop concern for the wellbeing of these individuals in the way we have concern for humans suffering in ways that no one intentionally caused and which they have no means of preventing without our help. If society can adopt such concern for wild animals’ wellbeing, we will be better prepared to take action when we develop the technological capability and scientific understanding to help them.

For more detailed discussion of this perspective on wild animal wellbeing, see this paper by Brian Tomasik at the Foundational Research Institute. While we don’t necessarily endorse all of Tomasik’s views, this resource covers many arguments and counterarguments on the topic.

Rights are important for sentient wellbeing

There is a legal wall separating two types of entities: On one side is “things” such as books, computers, and houses, and on the other is “persons” such as humans, and in some countries corporations or landforms such as rivers. The difference is that persons have rights, and things don’t. One of the main methods and indications of moral circle expansion in human history has been the inclusion of more and more humans as legal persons. We’ve seen this with the abolition of slavery, the passage of child labor laws, the franchisement of women, and many more important social movements. In each of these cases, the granting of legal rights greatly increased the wellbeing of a population.

Today, the same rights revolution could be happening for animals. We’ve seen the legislatures of countries like New Zealand and Spain grant some basic rights for some primate species, for instance banning their use in research except when in their own best interests.

A recurrent mechanism for expanding legal personhood throughout history has been through writs of habeas corpus, a legal tool for reporting the unlawful imprisonment of a legal person or someone believed to be a legal person, requiring the captor to come to court to determine if the imprisonment is actually unlawful. For animals, the first writ was granted in 2014 in Argentina for an orangutan named Sandra, though the judge’s decision was neither confirmed nor rejected by the appellate court that reviewed the case. The most famous of these personhood campaigns has been the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project in New York, which is currently working on several cases on behalf of chimpanzees.

We see the pursuit of rights and personhood in these cases not just as an important step for the great apes in the cases, but for the recognition of all sentient beings, and not just those within the human species, as having fundamental interests that a just legal system must consider.

[1] We may refer to nonhuman animals as “animals” in short though we do not support anthropocentric and unscientific assumptions that there is a strict and morally relevant divide between all humans and all other animals.

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