Effective Animal Advocacy: Roots And Practice
Inspired by the utilitarian philosophy of Peter Singer, who himself was inspired by figures like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, the Effective Altruism (EA) movement has emerged in the past decade as a major force in philanthropy. The underlying principle is simple: maximize the good done with every dollar. It is one facet of a phenomenon called “philanthrocapitalism.” Just as Jeff Bezos’ Amazon or Bill Gates’ Microsoft pull every cent of profit out of every cent of expenditure, EAs try to pull as much good out of every cent donated. This involves focusing on underreported problems that cause major suffering, but often have cheap or simple solutions.
Donating malaria nets, providing microloans to developing communities, and deworming programs are all some of the top-ranked charities by GiveWell.org, an EA-focused charity evaluating website. To determine the effectiveness of a given charity, EAs create data models that attempt to quantify the “good” done by each dollar. The movement tries to serve as an antidote to what they see as an overly-sentimental charity industry, which focuses more on problems that tug at our heartstrings, instead of those most deserving.
However, the EA movement is not without its critics. Some believe it to be not radical enough, satisfied with milquetoast change within the system rather than full revolution. In the vegan community specifically, some like PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk dislike the movement’s quantification of suffering, arguing that it undermines the fight to have animals seen as individual beings. Also under criticism is the focus on optimization, which some advocates see as coming at the expense of smaller-scale local operations that don’t have the resources of large charities. The EA community is also quite homogenous, being composed mostly of well-educated, highly paid white men. Indeed, the lack of diversity and outreach to other communities is self-identified as a weakness by many EAs.
This study interviewed nineteen animal advocates who identify as effective altruists and 25 key figures within the EA animal advocacy community, in an attempt to examine their motivations and tactics. Many choose to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet in an attempt to limit their personal suffering footprint, but are in agreement that personal choices alone are not enough. Some EAAs (effective animal advocates) claimed that animal advocacy was the least-respected subgroup of EA, due to factors like ingrained speciesism and the stigma that animal advocates are less utilitarian and more emotional.
EAAs have a common distaste of what they see as a false dichotomy between welfarist and abolitionist animal advocacy, claiming to support whatever methods the data claims work best. There is some disagreement within the EA community about how to best measure animal suffering, and whether some common welfare goals like removing cages for chickens or gestation crates for pigs actually improves welfare to a significant degree. EAAs also place a high value on professionalism, and few seem to fit the traditional mold of animal activists, with many rejecting the label “activist” in favor of “advocate.” This is fitting with a broader EA trend of “earning to give”: rather than working for charities directly, advocates take high-paying jobs in finance or tech and donate a substantial portion of their earnings to highly-rated charities.
There is a general feeling that radical or attention-grabbing methods do more harm than good, and fail to bring enough people into the fold to have a major impact. However, many conceded that if the data showed these tactics to be useful, they should be used. Furthermore, most EAAs interviewed said they believed reduction of farm animal suffering to be a neglected field of charity, and the numbers back them up: the majority of animal-related charity dollars in the US are donated to companion animal shelters. To solve this problem, many EAAs want to grow the EA movement in general – get more people thinking like effective altruists – in order to create a mass social movement. The lack of diversity in the EA movement is raised as a barrier to this, and many advocates express a desire to increase their outreach strategy to people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups. EAAs also want to increase the methodological rigor of studies related to animal advocacy, to give the movement better data to work with.
As many Faunalytics readers already know, the Effective Altruism movement has emerged as a major player in philanthropy, including animal advocacy. We need to understand their strategies and, if beneficial, incorporate them. If nothing else, EA has gotten a lot of people interested in charity, as well as a lot of investment. This is unequivocally a good thing, and the methods used by EAAs could prove to be incredibly useful. Critiques of the EA movement are focused on its attempt to quantify suffering, as well as the overwhelmingly white, wealthy, male supporter base. Effective altruists should take these concerns seriously, and work with existing animal advocacy organizations to alleviate them and explain their reasoning. Other organizations should adopt an open mindset towards Effective Altruism, as it provides an opportunity to bring more people into the fold of animal advocacy.