by Brian Tomasik
First written: 4 June 2009 and 13 May 2010; last update: 20 Nov. 2013


The importance of animal suffering seems to be one significant lacuna in the ethical views of most elite thinkers. It's helpful to expand people's hearts and minds on this issue, although we need to make sure to do so in a way that actually helps suffering animals in nature rather than reinforcing some of the other ideas of the animal-rights movement, like that we should "leave animals alone in all cases."

Importance of caring about animals

What are some examples of experiences that lead people to give serious concern to the suffering of animals? For Peter Singer, as he describes in Animal Liberation, it was logical argument by vegetarian friends that persuaded him to think about the issue. For Josh Balk, it was watching videos of animal cruelty. For Jon Camp, it was a college ethics course. Some people discovered the suffering caused by factory farming while being stuck in traffic behind trucks bringing animals to slaughter. Many others have been affected by Vegan Outreach leaflets. In my own case, I simply needed to realize that animals could feel pain, a point that somehow escaped me until I came across an online excerpt from Animal Liberation (pp. 10-12, 14-15).

I ask this question because it seems to me that serious attention to animal suffering is one area that is perhaps most lacking from the mainstream intellectual sphere of moral concern. Everyone in the modern western intelligentsia seems to care about racism, homophobia, poverty, disease, and other conventional issues, yet many still fail to think twice about eating a turkey sandwich for lunch.

I worry about how animals might fare in a post-human technological society -- not because I think many people would favor deliberate harm to animals, but simply because decisions with vast consequences for animal suffering might be made without giving animals a second thought, such as expanding wildlife many times beyond what we have on Earth.

The worst source of animal suffering is undoubtedly predation, disease, and death in the wild. A serious solution to this problem appears far off. Therefore, it may be that animal-welfare supporters can best address the wild-animal problem by promoting concern for animal suffering generally, both to ensure that animal welfare does have a place within the scope of concern of future humans and to hasten the development of technologies that might address the issue.

It's important, though, that altruists promote the right kind of concern for animals. Many in the animal-rights movement feel that animals inherently deserve to live in nature without disturbance from man; it would be a terrible tragedy to promote "animal liberation" in such a way as to increase the number of people demanding preservation of animals in their natural state because this is "the way things are supposed to be." Similarly, it's important that concern for animal suffering be linked with a mindset of cost-effectiveness analysis, lest well meaning people spend their lives opposing a few circuses and zoos while billions of farmed chickens suffer, to say nothing of the orders of magnitude more wild animals.

How to spread concern for animals

What are some ways to promote this kind of utilitarian concern for animals? I think Vegan Outreach brochures, as well as ads by The Humane League, are impressive and have strong economies of scale. They're good for opening people up to concern for animals, although they aren't sufficient for the subset of the population -- animal activists and other philosophically minded thinkers -- who already agree that animal suffering matters and who are ready for the next step: applying that concern to wild animals.

Some have suggested that in-vitro meat may reduce speciesism, on the grounds that many people resist giving moral consideration to animals because of the undesirable consequences of doing so on their food choices. Perhaps the possibility of producing meat without factory farming would free people up to care more about animals than before, just as the advent of industrial technologies to replace slave labor may have facilitated moral opposition to slavery. That said, this approach seems less direct and less obviously helpful than veg outreach. Maybe if fewer people confront the dilemma of eating factory-farmed animals, there will be less of a "hook" for people to latch on to concern for animal suffering at all. (In this model, ethical vegetarianism is like a gateway drug to caring about suffering in nature.)

I think videos can be effective, and I find watching them to be one of the most effective ways to trigger the release of chemicals in my brain that motivate me to want to do something to prevent animal suffering.

Perhaps one could make a video that includes images of brutality in nature. An important challenge would be finding a way to avoid leaving people feeling merely depressed, or leading them to conclude that concern for animals is hopeless because the suffering of wild animals is overwhelming and intractable. Indeed, arguments about "how far do you go with concern for animals?" are often used as reductios against vegetarianism. It may be that talking about the possibility of insect suffering will entirely put off some people who are just beginning to consider the idea of extending some moral concern to chickens. Different audiences are at different stages.

Promoting awareness of animal emotions

There was formerly a group on Facebook called "Promote Awareness of the Emotional and Intelligent Lives of Animals." It highlights books and articles that describe how much animals sometimes share with humans in terms of cognitive abilities and affective states. Would sharing this kind of research be an effective approach?

I think that would have been true in my case. For many years, I scoffed at vegetarians because I thought animals were cognitively inferior to humans to an extent that they didn't really feel pain in a bad way. It was only upon reading Singer's "Do Animals Feel Pain?" that I realized that animal emotions even mattered. At that point, vegetarianism (and lots of associated conclusions) followed naturally.

That said, I worry about two things:

  1. Cognitive biases tend people toward optimism (see section 5 of this piece), coupled with the fact that the humans we're talking about live relatively comfortable lives. One's own internal affective state makes a huge impact on one's assessment of the overall quantities of happiness and suffering that exist, and most people making decisions about these matters do so in the comfort of their temperature-controlled, predator-free, and food-stocked homes and offices.
  2. Even people who agree that wild animals suffer more than they're happy often still favor wilderness preservation, because they value things (like beauty, complexity of ecosystems, or natural evolutionary processes) apart from subjective experiences by individual organisms. In fact, I've met only a handful of non-utilitarians to whom the idea of letting natural habitats recede is not repugnant. One friend of mine is even dedicated to spreading life throughout the universe as widely as possible even though he agrees wildlife suffer enormously.

So, in addition to highlighting how much animals are similar to humans, it's important as well to remind people that the circumstances in which most animals live are quite different and that those differences matter a lot in answering the question of how best to help wild animals.

Finally, I wonder whether promoting awareness of animal emotions may not be necessary for most people. To many pet owners, for instance, a dog's ability to feel pain is obvious. Maybe it tends to be the overly academic and rationalist crowd that has the hardest time acknowledging animal suffering -- I think my own former skepticism about animal pain derived from some weird notion that language was essential for subjective experience. In this case, highlighting intellectual portrayals of animal abilities might appeal to just a small minority of the population; perhaps there are better strategies for "the average Joe"? Then again, if the future will mainly be shaped by more elite thinkers, it's theirs whose minds we would most want to expand.