The case for donating to animal rights orgs

This year, I am seriously considering making the bulk of my charitable donations to organizations working on animal rights, specifically Animal Charity Evaluators and two of the charities they recommend, Animal Equality and Mercy for Animals. I wanted to talk about my reasons for this, both to get feedback from other people in the effective altruism movement, and to convince some of them to do the same if I’m right.

Other EA causes are hurting less for cash

Lately, there’s been a lot of worries within the effective altruism movement about how much good additional money, beyond what people are already donating, will really do. Two months ago, Ben Kuhn wrote a post on the EA forum titled “How important is marginal earning to give?”, which had a good summary of reasons to be worried:

  • Most of GiveWell’s senior staff are moving over to the Open Philanthropy Project.
  • This year, GiveWell had to set explicit funding targets for all of their charities and update their recommendations in April to make sure nobody ran out of room for more funding.
  • My understanding is that Good Ventures (a) probably has more money than the current discounted cash flows from the rest of the EA movement combined and (b) still isn’t deploying nearly as much money as they eventually will be able to.
  • Open Phil has recently posted about an org they wish existed but doesn’t and funder-initiated startups.
  • I can’t remember any EA orgs failing to reach a fundraising target.
  • Effective altruism is growing quickly; many EAers plan to earn to give but are currently students and will increase their giving substantially in the next few years.

To these points, I’d add that on the AI-risk front, there’s Elon Musk’s recent donation of $10 million to the Future of Life Institute. And I heard Benjamin Todd of 80,000 Hours express similar worries at a recent EA meetup in San Francisco.

But these points don’t seem to apply to animal charities. Animal Charity Evaluators (whose goal is to be the GiveWell of animal charities is still a young and under-funded organization. They’ve only really existed since 2013, and last year their budget was under $100,000.

Low-hanging research fruit

My confidence in the reliability of ACE’s research is lower than my confidence in GiveWell’s. However, I see no reason to think that their research couldn’t be greatly improved with more funding. Figuring out how to persuade more people to go vegan seems like an inherently tractable problem–unlike, say, trying to address potential threats from new technology decades before they occur, a cause whose tractability is highly debatable.

Having read some of their research, I think ACE does an impressive job with the limited resources they do have. For example, while I’m impressed by some of the work The Humane Society of the United States has done and have considered donating to them, ACE’s article on the organization persuaded me than donating probably doesn’t make sense for smaller donors. (Though if you’re reading this and looking to donate an amount of money that could potentially fund a new project or employee position, I recommend reading ACE’s report on HSUS for why doing so might make sense.)

In spite of my lower confidence in ACE’s current set of recommendations, I plan on donating to both ACE and some of their recommended orgs for three reasons. First, I think those organizations probably do do a significant amount of good, even if it’s hard to be certain or quantify their impact exactly. Second, I think the effective altruism movement should be very cautious about getting overly focused on “meta” charities. Finally, I suspect that ACE will be more effective if animal rights organizations know that ACE’s recommendations carry weight.

The enormous importance of the cause

Claire Zabel (a form Stanford student who’s about to start a job as a researcher for GiveWell) put it very well in an article titled “The worst thing in the world”:

Promoting animal rights and animal welfare is not a side issue. It is the immense, towering moral problem of our time. And all of us have the luxury of ignoring it, as long as savvy farmers keep the billions suffering in ceaseless torment hidden away. Thus far, most of us have chosen to do so. And yet, most of us care deeply about suffering, aspire to right injustices and believe ourselves to be good people who stand against cruel and unnecessary killing and torture. But while we support these brutal animal agriculture institutions and pay them to kill on our behalf, our belief in our positive impact on global well-being remains an empty delusion.

Looking at it another way, we’ve made enormous strides in human welfare over the last two centuries on almost every measure. The rise of factory farming, however, may be the single most significant way the world has gotten worse over the past century, and makes it harder to be optimistic that things are guaranteed to always get better, all the time.

There’s also a part of me that wonders, if we can’t get this moral issue right, what are the chances we’ll make the right decision when faced with moral dilemmas involving, say, possibly-sentient computer programs? So while it’s very hard to predict the long-run impact of anything we do, how we deal with animal rights could have a huge impact on the balance of happiness over suffering in the universe.

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8 thoughts on “The case for donating to animal rights orgs

  1. I’d add that animal charities look like they do much more good than global poverty charities, even if you heavily discount the importance of nonhuman animals (which I don’t). The evidence for animal charities is weaker, but ACE and some other organizations care a lot about evidence and are trying to collect better data. Actually, the proportion of animal charities who care about effectiveness seems a lot higher than in any other sector I know of.

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  2. I donated to ACE this year for roughly the reasons already mentioned, plus the fact value of information seems very very high in the animal activism sphere and the hope that figuring out effective interventions for animal activism will turn out to be a broadly applicable skill in other spheres of EA.

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  3. “There’s also a part of me that wonders, if we can’t get this moral issue right, what are the chances we’ll make the right decision when faced with moral dilemmas involving, say, possibly-sentient computer programs?”

    As a far-future-focused EA, this is the most compelling argument I’ve seen for donating to animal rights organizations: that by doing so, you will shift population attitudes to make people more benevolent (either towards animals or just in general) and thus create better far-future outcomes. But one reading of the vegan leafleting research supports the opposite conclusion. This paper suggests that people who are reminded of the fact that the meat they eat comes from animals may become *more* speciesist, not less. And the evidence that leafleting succeeds in creating new vegans doesn’t seem very robust.

    My feeling is that nonveganism is an indicator that humans are bad at moral reasoning, but to try to persuade people to become vegan to fix this confuses cause and effect. In programming terms, it’d be like noticing that one of your tests failed and changing the test instead of trying to fix the bug.

    Using this analogy, nonveganism could serve as a test case for interventions that purport to improve moral reasoning. If a particular intervention doesn’t mention veganism anywhere, but people treated with it are subsequently more likely to become vegan, that’d be a promising sign.

    I agree that promoting veganism seems like a non-terrible approach to dealing with the computer program issue in particular, but I’m skeptical that it generalizes to other moral issues (and there are plausibly better ways to attack the computer program issue anyway–in particular, linking the two cases in peoples’ minds may be a huge mistake if vegan advocacy fails. Fortunately I’ve only seen this analogy drawn in EA circles.)

    As a side note, I am more worried in general about people working towards worthwhile goals in a shortsighted, wrongheaded, or overly stubborn way than I’m worried about them having the wrong terminal values. Take the Greek referendum: no matter which way a Greek votes, it’s because they want to fix Greece’s economy.

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    • One particular complicating factor may be that the most efficient psychological means of creating more vegans is to heavily tap into existing food taboo predispositions, leaving rationally defensible utilitarian arguments at the level of surface rationalization. Prima facie, I tend to believe something like this for two types of reason. First, that a large majority of vegans I’ve known personally seemed to care very much whether there were trace amounts of animal product in what were obviously primarily non-animal foods, while in most of these cases also being dog owners who fed their animals large amounts of meat. Second, how easily many meat-eaters can be made to feel disgust by a simple change in terminology (e.g. “pieces of animal carcass”), versus how relatively hard it is to make a utilitarian argument stick. If our primary goal is to decrease animal suffering in the short term, it seems likely that we must accept a deal with the devil of quasi-religious, disgust-driven moralities of personal purity.

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      • Yes. And any method for promoting veganism that hooks in our food taboo predisposition sounds like the sort of solution that changes the test instead of fixing the bug. I don’t see any reason to believe that teaching people meat is disgusting is going to help them become better at moral reasoning in unrelated situations. You could argue that it will make them *worse* at moral reasoning, if they become inclined towards purity-based reasoning at the expense of reasoning on the margin.

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  4. These slides about the long-term impact of animal rights advocacy might interest you. I got them from Rob Wiblin (let me know if this is not supposed to be publicly shared). In my opinion the chief value of animal rights advocacy is how it influences future attitudes towards suffering. It’s route to doing that is pretty indirect though and I wonder if more targeted interventions are more effective.

    https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1pSZ-kVj7Q0JP6k7Vx5Pae26IcDnr9-ANBsuXSE471x8/edit?usp=sharing

    What are your thoughts about wild animal suffering? It seems to satisfy your criteria, but it’s not a main focus point for ACE. The question would of course be who to support. But at least Animal Ethics and Foundational Research Institute both work on the issue and may be in need of funding.

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