Animal welfare

animal welfare
wild animal suffering
effective altruism
Farm animals and wild animals suffer in horrible ways in great numbers. At Rethink Priorities, I contribute to various projects aimed at addressing this important problem.

Now that I work at Rethink Priorities I get to devote a significant chunk of my time on projects related to animal welfare. I’ve only recently joined RP, though, so there is not much yet to show, but below I explain why I want to focus on this more and some steps I’ve taken so far.

Why is this important?

“It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

This (partial) quote by Jeremy Bentham gets to the heart of the matter. Whether something deserves moral concern is predominantly (if not only) a function of whether that something is capable of suffering. Cheating on a partner is bad not because cheating is inherently bad, but because it likely causes great suffering on the cheated-on partner. If your partner doesn’t care about being cheated on (i.e., being in an open relationship), cheating is no longer a bad thing. This shows morality is about the consequences of one’s actions and whether those consequences cause suffering.

Many animals can suffer. It is unclear and impossible with our current knowledge about consciousness to assess which animals are capable of suffering, but we know enough to confidently say that some animals can suffer. Large mammals such as cows, sheep, goats, and horses can undoubtedly suffer. Smaller creatures such as chicken and turkeys are similarly unlucky and likely also capable. It is less clear when it comes to fish, but I would put my money them being able to suffer rather than being experience-less creatures.

The examples of animals I used above are the kinds of animals we farm. These are the kinds of animals we treat in ways that cause them to suffer, with great intensity and in great numbers. Chicken, for example, live in crowded spaces that cause in-fighting, the spread of diseases, and deaths due to, for instance, pile ups. They are artificially selected to grow at unhealthily fast rates, causing physical abnormalities. They are prevented from displaying their instinctive behaviors, such as establishing pecking orders, dust bathing, building nests, and spreading their wings. Sometimes farmers address these problems, although not always in the animal’s best interest. Injuries due to in-fighting is reduced by cutting or burning off the beaks, thus preventing them from harming each other. Other farm animals face similar situations.

What makes it worse is the scale of factory farming. In the Netherlands alone, over 600 million land animals were killed in 2019. And that’s just in the Netherlands, a pretty tiny country. In the U.S., 9.76 billion land animals were killed in 2020. These numbers are so big they almost lose their meaning. The reality is, however, that factory farming causing suffering in billions and billions of individual animals, every year.

People might retort that killing animals for food is simply the natural order of things. This argument is easy to refute: The natural order also sucks. We should not look at nature to determine what is good or bad (this is called the naturalistic fallacy). In nature, all kinds of suffering takes place. Animals (including humans) die due to various causes including disease, disasters, predation, starvation, and so on. These things are normal in nature. As humans, we have done our best to remove all these natural threats from our lives because that reduces our suffering. If we want to be natural, we should invite all these threats back into our lives. Of course, that’s not what we want to do, because we don’t want to suffer.

I think we should extent that courtesy also to wild animals. We have succeeded in making our lives a lot better, while ignoring the same problems in other species. If we care about the lives of conscious creatures (such as our fellow humans, our pets, our zoo animals), we should also care about the lives of wild animals.

In short, farm animals suffer in horrible ways in great numbers, and the same happens in nature (although perhaps less efficiently than in factory farms). Given that suffering is the main reason to care about something, this logically means that we should figure out ways to alleviate their suffering. I hope to contribute to this.

What am I working on?

At Rethink Priorities I’m working on the development of a scale to assess people’s attitudes toward wild animal suffering. We aim to publish the results of this project in an academic journal with the goal for many other academics to begin studying the topic of wild animal suffering.

I have also joined the following groups:

  • Society for the Psychology of Human-Animal Intergroup Relations (PHAIR)

  • Research to End Consumption of Animal Products (RECAP)

By joining these groups I hope to learn more about current research directions and to join existing projects. Eventually I also hope to use these platforms to share my own work.

I’ve joined a project by Mercy for Animals on a multi-country survey to develop insights on people’s knowledge, attitudes, behavioral intentions and behaviors regarding farmed animal issues and key advocacy activities.

I’ve started my own project that is a meta-analysis on meat intervention studies. There have been several meta-analyses on this topic (see here for a recent one), but I think I can contribute in some unique ways by creating a ‘live meta-analysis’ that can continuously be updated with new studies.