By Prof. Gary Francione
Effective Altruism (EA) maintains that those of us who are more affluent should give more to solve the problems of the world, and we should give to the organisations and individuals who are effective at solving those problems.
There are a not inconsiderable number of criticisms that can be and have been made of EA. For example, EA assumes that we can donate our way out of the problems we have created and focuses our attention on individual action rather than system/political change; it is usually linked with the morally bankrupt, just-about-anything-can-be-justified ethical theory of utilitarianism; it can focus on the interests of people who will exist in the future to the detriment of people who are alive now; it assumes that we can determine what is effective and that we can make meaningful predictions about what donations will be effective. In any event, EA is a most controversial position generally.
The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does, edited by Alice Crary, Carol Adams, and Lori Gruen, is a collection of essays criticising EA. Although several essays focus on EA on a more general level, they for the most part discuss EA in the specific context of animal advocacy and maintain that EA has adversely affected that advocacy by promoting certain individuals and organisations to the detriment of other individuals and organisations that would be as effective, if not more effective, in achieving progress for nonhuman animals. The authors call for a revised understanding of what it is for animal advocacy to be effective. They also discuss how those disfavoured by the EA gatekeepers—those who purport to make authoritative recommendations on which groups or individuals are effective—are often community or indigenous activists, people of colour, women, and other marginalised groups.
1. The discussion ignores the elephant in the room: what ideology should inform animal advocacy?
For the most part, the essays in this volume are primarily concerned with who is being funded to do animal advocacy and not with what animal advocacy is being funded. Many animal advocates promote some version or other of reformist ideology that I regard as detrimental to animals irrespective of whether it is promoted by a corporate charity that is favoured by EA gatekeepers or by feminist or anti-racist advocates who aspire to be favoured by those gatekeepers. In order to understand this point, and to understand the debate about EA in the animal context to see how much—or how little—is really at stake, it is necessary to take a brief detour to explore the two broad paradigms that inform modern animal ethics.
By the early 1990s, what was loosely called the modern “animal rights” movement had embraced a decidedly non-rights ideology. That was not a surprise. The emerging movement was inspired in large part by Peter Singer and his book, Animal Liberation, first published in 1975. Singer is a utilitarian and eschews moral rights for nonhumans. Singer also rejects rights for humans but, because humans are rational and self-aware in a particular way, he maintains that at least typically functioning humans merit right-like protection. Although activists who follow Singer may use the language of “animal rights” as a rhetorical matter and maintain that society should move in the direction of ending animal exploitation or, at the very least, of significantly reducing the number of animals we exploit, they promote as the means to achieve those ends incremental steps to reduce animal suffering by reforming animal welfare to make it more “humane” or “compassionate.” They also target particular practices or products, such as fur, sport hunting, foie gras, veal, vivisection, etc. I identified this phenomenon as new welfarism in my 1996 book, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement. New welfarism may use the language of rights and promote an ostensibly radical agenda but it prescribes means that are consistent with the animal welfare movement that existed before the emergence of the “animal rights” movement. That is, new welfarism is classical welfarist reform with some rhetorical flourish.
New welfarists, led by Singer, promote reducing the consumption of animal products or consuming supposedly more “humanely” produced products. They promote “flexible” veganism as a way of reducing suffering but do not promote veganism as something that is necessary to do if one maintains that animals are not things and have moral value. Indeed, Singer and the new welfarists often refer in a derogatory manner to those who maintain veganism consistently as “purists” or “fanatical.” Singer promotes what I call “happy exploitation,” and maintains that he cannot say with any confidence that it is wrong to use and kill animals (with some exceptions) if we reform welfare to provide them a reasonably pleasant life and a relatively painless death.
The alternative to new welfarism is the abolitionist approach that I started to develop in the late 1980s, in the first instance with philosopher Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights, and then on my own when Regan changed his views in the later 1990s. The abolitionist approach maintains that “humane” treatment is a fantasy. As I discussed in my 1995 book, Animals, Property, and the Law, animal welfare standards will always be low because animals are property and it costs money to protect animal interests. We generally protect the interests of animals who are used and killed for our purposes only to the extent that it is economically efficient to do so. A simple review of animal welfare standards historically and continuing up to the present time confirms that animals receive very little protection from animal welfare laws. The idea that welfare reforms will lead in some causal way to the significant reform or end of institutionalised use is unfounded. We have had animal welfare laws for about 200 years now and we are using more animals in more horrific ways than at any point in human history. Those who are more affluent can purchase “high-welfare” animal products that are produced under standards that supposedly go beyond those required by law, and that are celebrated as representing progress by Singer and the new welfarists. But the most “humanely” treated animals have still been subjected to treatment that we would not hesitate to label as torture were humans involved.
New welfarism fails to appreciate that, if animals are property, their interests will always be accorded less weight than the interests of those who have property rights in them. That is, the treatment of animal property cannot as a practical matter be governed by the principle of equal consideration. Abolitionists maintain that, if animals are going to matter morally, they must be accorded one moral right—the right not to be property. But the recognition of this one right would require morally that we abolish and not merely regulate or reform animal use. We should work toward abolition not through incremental welfarist reforms but by advocating veganism—or not deliberately participating in animal exploitation for food, clothing, or any other use to the extent practicable (note: it’s practicable, not convenient)—as a moral imperative, as something we are obligated to do today, right now, and as a moral baseline, or the least we owe animals. As I explain in my 2020 book, Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals, if animals matter morally, we cannot justify using them as commodities irrespective of how supposedly “humanely” we treat them, and we are committed to veganism. Reformist campaigns for “humane” treatment and single-issue campaigns actually perpetuate animal exploitation by promoting the idea that there is a right way to do the wrong thing and that some forms of animal use should be regarded as morally better than others. A shift of the paradigm from animals as property to animals as nonhuman persons with a morally significant interest in continuing to live requires the existence of an abolitionist vegan movement that sees any animal use as unjust.
The new welfarist position is, by far and overwhelmingly, the dominant paradigm in animal ethics. New welfarism became thoroughly entrenched by the later 1990s. It provided a perfect business model for the many corporate charities that were emerging at the time in that just about any animal welfare measure could be packaged and sold as reducing animal suffering. Any use could be targeted as part of a single-issue campaign. This provided a virtually endless number of campaigns that could fuel the fundraising efforts of these groups. Moreover, this approach allowed groups to keep their donor bases as broad as possible: If all that mattered was reducing suffering, then anyone who was concerned about animal suffering could consider themselves as “animal activists” merely by supporting one of the many campaigns on offer. Donors did not need to change their lives in any way. They could continue to eat, wear, and otherwise use animals. They just had to “care” about animals—and donate.
Singer was (and is) the primary figure in the new welfarist movement. So when the 2000s came along, and EA emerged, it was no surprise that Singer, who was also a leading figure in the EA world from the outset, took the position that what was “effective” in the context of animal advocacy was to support the new welfarist movement that he created by supporting the corporate charities that promoted his utilitarian ideology—and that was most of them. Gatekeepers like Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), which is discussed throughout The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does, and is criticised because it has close ties with large corporate animal charities, accepted Singer’s view and decided that it was “effective” to persuade potential donors to support those organisations Singer thought would be effective. Singer looms large in the EA movement. Indeed, he is an Advisory Board Member and “external reviewer” for ACE, and financially supports charities named by ACE. (And I am proud to say that I have been robustly criticised by Animal Charity Evaluators for promoting the abolitionist perspective.)
A number of the essays in the book are critical of these corporate charities that have been the primary beneficiaries of EA. Some of these maintain that the campaigns of these charities are too narrow (i.e., they focus largely on factory farming); some are critical because of the lack of diversity in these charities; and some are critical of the sexism and misogyny displayed by some of those involved in these charities.
I agree with all of these criticisms. The corporate charities do have a problematic focus; there is a lack of diversity in these organisations, and the level of sexism and misogyny in the modern animal movement, an issue on which I have spoken out going back many years, is shocking. There is a lack of emphasis on promoting local or indigenous advocacy in favour of promoting the celebrity activism of the corporate charities.
But what I find disturbing is that very few of these authors explicitly criticise these organisations because they do not promote the abolition of animal exploitation and the idea that veganism is a moral imperative/baseline as a means to the end of abolition. That is, these authors may not agree with the corporate charities, but they also are not calling clearly for the abolition of all animal use or for the recognition of veganism as a moral imperative and moral baseline. They are critical of EA because it supports a particular sort of non-abolitionist position—the traditional corporate animal charity. They are saying that if they were funded, they could promote what is, for at least some of them, a non-abolitionist position more effectively than those who are presently favoured, and they could bring more diversity of various sorts to non-abolitionist advocacy.
A number of the essays in the collection either explicitly express some version of a reformist position or are written by people who are generally exponents of a position that cannot be characterised as abolitionist. Some of these essays do not say enough one way or the other concerning the ideological position of the author(s) on the issue of animal use and veganism but by not being clear, these authors are essentially in agreement that EA—and not the normative content of modern animal advocacy—is the primary problem.
In my view, the crisis in animal advocacy is not a result of EA; it is a result of a movement that is not fit for purpose because it will not commit explicitly and unequivocally to the abolition of animal use as the end goal and veganism as a moral imperative/baseline as the primary means to that end. EA may have amplified a particular vision of the reformist model—that of the corporate animal charity. But any reformist voice is a voice of anthropocentrism and speciesism.
It is telling that there is one—one—essay in the entire book that recognises the importance of the reform/abolition debate. Another essay regurgitates the substance of my economic criticism of new welfarism but does not reject the reformist paradigm. On the contrary, the authors claim that we just need to do reform better but don’t explain how this can be done given that animals are property. In any event, by not engaging with the issue of what animal advocacy should be, and by accepting some version or other of the reformist paradigm, most of the essays are just complaints about not getting funding.
2. The matter of marginalised voices
A major theme of the book is that EA discriminates in favour of corporate animal charities and against people of colour, women, local or indigenous activists, and just about everyone else.
I agree that EA disfavours these groups but, again, the problems of sexism, racism, and discrimination generally existed before EA came on the scene. I spoke publicly against PETA’s use of sexism in its campaigns at the very outset in 1989/90, five years before Feminists for Animal Rights did. I have for many years spoken against single-issue animal campaigns that promote racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. A major part of the problem is that the large corporate charities have uniformly rejected the idea, which I have always thought to be obvious, that human rights and nonhuman rights are inextricably intertwined. But that is not a problem peculiar to EA. It is a problem that has plagued the modern animal movement for decades.
To the extent that minority voices are not getting resources to promote some version of a reformist message and are not promoting the idea that veganism is a moral imperative, then, although I think discrimination is per se a very bad thing, I can’t feel terribly sorry about anyone who is not promoting an abolitionist vegan message not getting funded because I regard any non-abolitionist position to involve the discrimination of anthropocentrism. An anti-racist position, feminist ethic of care, or anti-capitalistic ideology that does not reject as morally unjustifiable any animal use and explicitly recognise veganism as a moral imperative/baseline may not have some of the more insidious characteristics of the corporate ideology, but is still promoting the injustice of animal exploitation. All non-abolitionist positions are necessarily reformist in that they seek to somehow change the nature of animal exploitation but they do not seek abolition and they do not promote veganism as a moral imperative and baseline. That is, the binary is abolitionist/veganism as a moral imperative or everything else. The fact that some members of the “everything else” category are unlike other members ignores that, in not being abolitionist and focused on veganism, they are all alike in one very important respect.
There has been a tendency of some animal advocates who promote alternative but nevertheless reformist perspectives to respond to any challenge with an accusation of racism or sexism. That is an unfortunate result of identity politics.
I did want to mention that several of the essays mention that animal sanctuaries have been overlooked by EA and argue that EA ignores the needs of individuals. I have in the past had concerns that farm animal sanctuaries that welcome/admit the public are, in essence, petting zoos, and that many farm animals are not enthusiastic about human contact, which is forced on them. I have never visited the one sanctuary that is discussed at length (by its director) in the book so I cannot express a view about the treatment of animals there. I can, however, say that the essay does very much emphasise veganism.
3. Why do we need EA?
EA is about who gets funded. EA is relevant not because effective animal advocacy necessarily needs a large amount of money. EA is relevant because modern animal advocacy has produced an endless number of large organisations that employ a cadre of professional animal “activists”—careerists who have executive positions, offices, very comfortable salaries and expense accounts, professional assistants, company cars, and generous travel budgets, and that promote a mind-boggling number of reformist campaigns that require all sorts of expensive support, such as advertising campaigns, lawsuits, legislative action and lobbying, etc.
The modern animal movement is a big business. Animal charities take in many millions of dollars every year. In my view, the return has been most disappointing.
I first got involved in animal advocacy in the early 1980s, when, by happenstance, I met the people who had just started People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA emerged as the “radical” animal rights group in the U.S. At the time, PETA was very small in terms of its membership, and its “office” was the apartment that its founders shared. I provided pro bono legal advice to PETA until the mid-1990s. In my view, PETA was much more effective when it was small, had a network of grassroots chapters around the country that had volunteers, and had very little money than when, later in the 1980s and 90s, it became a multimillion dollar enterprise, got rid of the grassroots focus, and became what PETA itself described as a “business . . . selling compassion.”
The bottom line is that there are a lot of people in the modern animal movement who would like money. Many are already making a good living off the movement; some are aspiring to do better. But the interesting question is: does effective animal advocacy require much money? I suppose the answer to that question is that it depends on what is meant by “effective.” I hope that I have made clear that I regard the modern animal movement to be about as ineffective as it can get. I see the modern animal movement as embarked on a quest to figure out how to do the wrong thing (continuing to use animals) in the right, supposedly more “compassionate,” way. The reformist movement has transformed activism into writing a check or pressing one of the ubiquitous “donate” buttons that appear on every website.
The abolitionist approach that I have developed maintains that the primary form of animal activism—at least at this stage of the struggle—ought to be creative, nonviolent vegan advocacy. This does not require a great deal of money. Indeed, there are abolitionists all around the globe who are educating others in all sorts of ways about why veganism is a moral imperative and how it is easy to go vegan. They don’t complain about being left out by EA because most of them don’t do any serious fundraising. Almost all of them operate on a shoestring. They don’t have offices, titles, expense accounts, etc. They don’t have legislative campaigns or court cases that seek to reform animal use. They do things like table at a weekly market where they offer samples of vegan food and talk with passersby about veganism. They have regular meetings where they invite people in the community to come and discuss animal rights and veganism. They promote local foods and help to situate veganism within the local community/culture. They do this in myriad ways, including in groups and as individuals. I discussed this sort of advocacy in a book that I co-authored with Anna Charlton in 2017, Advocate for Animals!: A Vegan Abolitionist Handbook. Abolitionist vegan advocates are helping people to see that a vegan diet can be easy, cheap, and nutritious and does not require mock meats or cell meat, or other processed foods. They have conferences but these are almost always video events.
New welfarists often criticise this, claiming that grassroots education of this sort cannot change the world fast enough. This is comical, although tragically so, given that the modern reformist effort is moving at a pace that could be characterised as glacial but that would be to insult glaciers. Indeed, a good argument could be made that the modern movement is moving in one and only direction: backwards.
There are an estimated 90 million vegans in the world today. If every one of them convinced just one other person to go vegan in the next year, there would be 180 million. If that pattern were replicated the next year, there would be 360 million, and if that pattern continued to be replicated, we would have a vegan world in about seven years. Is that going to happen? No; it’s not likely, particularly as the animal movement is doing everything possible to focus people on making exploitation more “compassionate” than it is on veganism. But it presents a model that is far more effective than the present model, however “effective” is understood, and it emphasises that animal advocacy that is not focused on veganism profoundly misses the point.
We need a revolution—a revolution of the heart. I do not think that is dependent, or at least dependent primarily, on issues of funding. In 1971, amidst the political turmoil over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War,Gil Scott-Heron wrote a song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” I suggest that the revolution that we need for animals will not be a result of donations to corporate animal welfare charities.
Professor Gary Francione is Board of Governors Professor of Law and Katzenbach Scholar of Law & Philosophy, at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He is Visiting Professor of Philosophy, University of Lincoln; Honorary Professor of Philosophy, University of East Anglia; and Tutor (philosophy) in the Department of Continuing Education, University of Oxford. The author appreciates comments from Anna E. Charlton, Stephen Law, and Philip Murphy.
Original publication: Oxford Public Philosophy at https://www.oxfordpublicphilosophy.com/review-forum-1/animaladvocacyandeffectivealtruism-h835g