I’ve been reading a lot about animal advocacy lately and thinking about layers of it. I’ve been vegetarian and nearly-vegan in the past but currently am doing nothing at all to help animals. I’m trying to think about which levels make most sense, and trying not to be too motivated in my reasoning.
Other people have thought about this way more than I have, and this is my incomplete attempt to grasp the basics.
This focuses on animal suffering, not environmental impact. These sometimes point in the same direction (beans are a low-suffering and low-impact food) and sometimes in opposite directions (beef is better than other meats for animal suffering, because one steer provides so much meat, but worse for carbon emissions). I’m not too bothered about the emissions, because going vegan is estimated to save 1.5 tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses a year, which costs only a few dollars to offset.) But there are other worries like antibiotic overuse.
This doesn’t get into how to compare animal advocacy with other causes you might work on.
Some stages one might go through:
- Animals don’t want to die. We shouldn’t kill them. (This was my basic viewpoint during the 10 years I was vegetarian.)
- Cows and chickens suffer to make milk and eggs, too. In fact, egg production probably causes more suffering than most types of meat. So you should be vegan.
- If animals have a net positive life, it might be good to raise them even though you then slaughter them. Pastured cattle seem to have pretty good lives (though hens in battery cages seem to have really bad lives), so certain kinds of meat might be okay.
- Advocating for change matters way more than what you personally eat. Combing the cracker aisle for ones without any whey powder is a ridiculously bad use of time and attention, particularly given that the market for milk is pretty inelastic (meaning it doesn’t change that much based on small consumer decisions.) Whereas advocating for wider changes, like getting your state to ban the cruelest farming practices, is far more effective. Paying more for pasture-raised meat or cage-free eggs is just buying your own purity when you could be doing something more effective with the money, like funding advocacy. Personal diet is basically a distraction.
- We shouldn’t just advocate for incremental change; we should aim for a world in which animals are treated like they matter. This is like advocating for treating slaves nicely rather than abolishing slavery. You can’t advocate for a constituency while simultaneously eating their corpses. Also, once you start thinking of animals as beings who matter it is seriously horrifying, rather than enjoyable, to eat their bodies.
- And what about wild animals? Even if we didn’t directly cause their suffering, it’s probably still pretty miserable to always be scared, cold, and hungry and to eventually get eaten by something bigger than you. And there are something like 50 times more wild birds and mammals than farmed animals (not even counting wild fish, reptiles, etc.) Some farming practices might be better or worse; like grass-fed beef might be better because fewer mice and other small critters will live on pasture. But in general a habitat that houses fewer of one kind of wild animal will house more of another, and it seems super difficult to figure out which direction is more helpful.
- Again, look to the big picture of society rather than personal choices.Things we might do in the future, like terraforming, could affect far more animals than exist today. Getting society to generally care about the welfare of all animals, farmed and wild, is the best goal. If people care, they will bother to do better research on this stuff, and once we know more about the results of our actions we can make more humane choices.
- You can’t build a coherent movement and get society to think of animals as people rather than commodities without also having the lower layers. So it still matters what you eat.
- Widespread elimination of animal foods seems really unlikely; the people I’ve met who think vegetarianism or veganism will sweep the planet seem pretty out-of-touch to me. Maybe a movement for animals is better off advocating moderation, like reducetarianism and humane treatment or meat replacements, than abolition.
- I’ve seen a lot of sketchy logic for both points, but I believe some effectiveness-minded animal advocates have looked at the history of various social movements and have better information here than I’ve found.
 Except the New York Manumission Society was formed partly of slaveowners, including the founder. They were successful in phasing out slavery from the state of New York.