Effective Altruism for Animals

Many vegans will know Peter Singer as the godfather of the animal rights movement, but less well known is the foundation he provided for another burgeoning area of practical ethics, effective altruism (EA). In his essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (1972), Singer, appalled by the famine and poverty in East Bengal, came up with a thought experiment to justify his notion that spending money on luxury is immoral when those same dollars could save lives in the third world:

if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.¹

And so, just as it is wrong to watch a child drown, it is wrong to blow thousands on a hot tub, while that money could save a life in Sudan. There is undoubtedly a psychological difference between someone who can watch a child drown without intervening and treating yourself to an expensive gift, but what’s the moral difference? Singer revels in these sorts of uncomfortable real-world problems.

The EA movement understands that using money to actually save a life is not as easy as rescuing a drowning child in a nearby pool. The movement’s major push has been to quantify the work that charities are doing to ensure that each dollar does the most good possible. For instance, William MacAskill, one of the leading lights of contemporary EA, gives a figure of around $3,500 as the amount of money required to actually save a human life (this based on the effectiveness of insecticide bed nets in preventing malaria)². There have been a host of sites like Givewell, Charity Navigator and Singer’s own, The Life You Can Save that compile data, summarize the approach of charities and recommend the most effective ones.

Knitting The Two Together: Animal Rights and Effective Altruism

Animal charities have long followed the lead of traditional charity, relying on sad music and sadder photos to attract donations–appealing to emotion over reason, story over substance and empathy over rational compassion³. This is a particularly stumbling block for animal charities, because many of the animals that suffer most are not animals people typically encounter. We are primed to see pigs, cows and chickens as food, not friends. The sentimental approach works best with dogs and cats, who do suffer, but not to the same degree as factory farmed animals. Thankfully, this is all changing in the era of effective altruism, with its rigorously scientific focus on data. For the effective altruists, statistical analysis provides an impetus to donate and a rationale for where to donate.

Still, it’s possible to imagine the work of EA undermining animal charities. Charity is a zero-sum game. Every dollar you give to help a cow is a dollar you don’t give to a Nepalese farmer. This is called opportunity cost and it is an important consideration for every do-gooder. However, by utilitarian logic, the goal of EA is to alleviate suffering as efficiently as possible, and there is no shortage of animal suffering in the world. According to the ASPCA, 100 million pigs and 8.5 billion(!) chickens are slaughtered for meat every year in the US alone. The suffering of non-human animals may not be as morally salient as the suffering of humans, but can we really claim that their suffering is so diluted in comparison with that of humans that their interests are not a worthy cause? There must be some proportionality in our concern for suffering.

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The work of charity evaluations is a crowded field for the broad mass of charitable organizations. For animal charity, one site dominates the field, Animal Charity Evaluators. As of this writing, there are three top charities, Mercy for Animals, The Humane League and The Good Food Institute. Mercy For Animals is best known for their undercover work exposing the deplorable condition of factory farms, but they also do legal advocacy to crack down on animal abuse and corporate outreach to encourage food outlets to buy more vegan food. The Humane League also does corporate outreach, while focusing on vegan advocacy on college campuses and in media. The Good Food Institute funds alternatives to dairy, meat and eggs, thereby empowering consumers to eat more vegan food without compromising on taste. These organizations are diverse in their aims and approaches, broad in their ambitions for reform and grounded in detailed cost/benefit analysis. Animal Charity Evaluators does valuable work to ensure that our contributions do what we want them to do. Anyone with any amount of disposable income can help alleviate animal suffering in a way that makes sense to them. It’s a wonderful time to be a donor.

¹Singer, Peter. “Famine Affluence and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3. (1972). Retrieved from https://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm

²Harris, Sam (host) & McAskill, William. “Being Good and Doing Good.” Waking Up With Sam Harris. Audio podcast. Retrieved from https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/being-good-and-doing-good

³I am alluding to the title of Paul Bloom’s excellent book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion here.


⁵See Evan Anderson’s Reasoned Vegan piece “On Comparing Animal Agriculture to The Holocaust,” particularly in the second half, for a similar discussion on the weight of human versus animal suffering

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