(Roman Samokhin via Shutterstock)

Is it moral to save this puppy?

Animals raised and slaughtered for food number in the billions and endure horrible pain. We should help them first


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Peter Singer
April 19, 2015 1:59PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "The Most Good You Can Do"

Melissa Berman, the president and chief executive of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, includes “rescue abused animals” as another of the charitable causes which she appears to believe cannot be objectively compared with other causes. Presumably she has in mind charities that rescue pets, mostly dogs and cats, and attempt to find homes for them, for that is the focus of most animal rescue organizations.

There is, however, a straightforward reason for not giving the highest priority to charities that rescue abused animals. The suffering of abused pets amounts to a tiny fraction of the suffering we inflict on animals. In 2012 there were 164 million owned dogs and cats in the United States. The majority of them probably live reasonably good lives, but even if every single one of them were abused, this number would be dwarfed by the 9.1 billion animals annually raised and slaughtered for food in the United States. Factory-farmed animals have to endure a lifetime of suffering much more severe than the typical dog or cat, and in the United States there are fifty-five times as many factory-farmed animals as there are dogs and cats. Anyone who kept a dog confined in the way that breeding sows are frequently confined in factory farms—in crates so small they cannot even turn around or walk a single step—would be liable to prosecution for cruelty.

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In The Animal Activists’ Handbook Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich make a startling claim that vividly illustrates the vastly greater suffering of animals raised for food compared to other ways in which we cause animals to suffer: “Every year, hundreds of millions of animals—many times more than the total number killed for fur, housed in shelters, and locked in laboratories combined—don’t even make it to slaughter. They actually suffer to death.

Think about what Ball and Friedrich are saying. They are not describing the number of animals killed for food. They are talking about animals who don’t even get the “benefit” of supposedly humane slaughter laws because they are so badly treated that they die before they ever get to slaughter. The numbers include caged hens pecked to death because they are unable to get away from their stressed, aggressive fellow prisoners; broiler chickens bred to grow so fast that their immature legs collapse under them, and they then die of thirst or hunger in the broiler shed because they cannot reach the feeders; and pigs, cattle, turkeys, and chickens who were alive when packed into transports but die from the stress that transport imposes on animals who have lived their entire lives indoors. Harish Sethu has done the sums for the United States on his website Counting Animals. The total number of animals killed in shelters each year is around 4 million, for fur 10 million, and in laboratories 11.5 million, making a total of approximately 25.5 million. Using conservative figures based on industry reports and scientific journals, Sethu estimates that 139 million chickens suffer to death annually. Adding turkeys, pigs, and cattle would increase this figure.

Despite this immense disproportion, because our pets are so much more popular than chickens or pigs or cows, there are thousands of organizations in the United States working to help dogs and cats and relatively few working for farmed animals. Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) acknowledges that by sterilizing dogs and cats, curtailing the spread of disease among them, and finding good homes for some animals in shelters it is possible to reduce the suffering and killing of dogs and cats; but this comes at a high cost because it includes medical care, vaccines, and the provision of food and housing. Hence, ACE says, “it seems unlikely that this is a cost-effective method to alleviate suffering.” Instead, ACE concludes that the most effective way to help animals and prevent the largest amount of suffering is to be an advocate for farm animals. Whereas animal rescue will cost tens or even hundreds of dollars per animal saved, convincing people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products saves animals at a fraction of this cost. At the time of writing, ACE’s recommended charities are both focused on farm animals. This is an instance of altruistic arbitrage: we should follow Robert Wiblin’s advice to focus on the causes that most people don’t care about. This is where altruists will find the low- anging fruit.

The inclusion of animals on Berman’s list of causes does, admittedly, raise a more difficult question: How can we compare the good achieved by helping animals with the good achieved by other charities? Here, two separate questions are often confused. One is a factual question: Do animals suffer as much as humans? The other is ethical: Given that an animal is suffering as much as a human, does the suffering of the animal matter as much as the suffering of the human?

The answer to the ethical question should be yes. In Animal Liberation I argue that to give less consideration to the interests of nonhuman animals, merely because they are not members of our species, is speciesism and is wrong in much the same way that the crudest forms of racism and sexism are wrong. Speciesism is a form of discrimination against the interests of those who are not “us,” where the line between us and the outsiders is drawn on the basis of something that is not in itself morally relevant. My impression is that the moral irrelevance of species, in itself, has come to be accepted by most philosophers who reflect on the question.

The rejection of speciesism is not, however, the end of the debate about the moral weight we should give to animal suffering. Defenders of the way we treat animals usually point out that humans are more rational or autonomous or self- aware or capable of reciprocating than nonhuman animals. To argue on these grounds is to defend not speciesism but the distinct view that we should give more weight to the interests of beings who are rational or autonomous or self- aware or capable of reciprocating. This argument falls short of defending the way we currently treat humans and nonhumans, however, because there are some humans who manifestly have these characteristics to a lesser degree than some nonhumans. Compare, for instance, dogs with human infants less than a month old or chimpanzees with some profoundly intellectually disabled humans. To put aside the possible complications of the potential of a normal infant, we can think only about profoundly intellectually disabled humans. If a nonhuman animal is on the same mental level as a human being—or is superior to the human—and the human has no potential to surpass the level of the animal, then arguments based on the special value of beings with higher cognitive capacities will not justify giving more weight to the human, and we wrong animals whenever we give less weight to their interests than we would, in the same circumstances, give to a human with similar capacities.

Some find it offensive to compare the suffering of humans with that of animals. Presumably they believe that human suffering is always incomparably more important than the suffering of animals. If that is not to be simply a statement of bias toward our own species, it must be based on differences between the mental lives of humans and those of animals. That would mean that we also can’t compare the suffering of normal humans with that of humans at a similar mental level to that of nonhuman animals. In any case, even if we focus only on the treatment of animals, the implications of denying the possibility of comparing the suffering of animals with that of humans are sufficient to show that we do make such comparisons. If human suffering were incomparably more important than animal suffering, then any amount of human suffering, no matter how minor, would justify ignoring any amount of animal suffering, no matter how major. If a flock of chickens is without water on a hot day, and all you have to do to prevent them from dying slowly and painfully is turn on a tap, you ought to turn it on. If to do so you have to walk a few extra steps in shoes that pinch your little toe, you ought to walk those few extra steps. Once we acknowledge that some amount of chicken suffering can outweigh some human suffering, however, it doesn’t seem so absurd to start reducing the numbers of chickens affected and increasing the amount of human suffering, until we get closer to an equilibrium between the two, or if not that, at least to an area of uncertainty in which neither the chicken suffering nor the human suffering clearly outweighs the other.

To say that we are justified in comparing the sufferings of humans with those of nonhuman animals and that we wrong animals if we give less weight to their sufferings than we give to the similar sufferings of humans is not to deny that there are capacities possessed by normal humans beyond infancy that make a difference to how we should assess interests. Among those capacities might be, for example, the capacity to understand that one exists over time and to form desires about one’s future because arguably this gives one a distinct kind of interest in continuing to live that the many nonhuman animals who lack the capacity to form such desires do not have. We can also acknowledge that different levels of awareness may make a difference to how much beings are likely to suffer or enjoy their lives in varying circumstances. This makes it more difficult to compare the good done by reducing the suffering of animals with the good done by, for example, preventing blindness in people with trachoma. Differences in the mental capacities of pigs and chickens also make it difficult to compare the reduction in suffering gained by, say, reforms that prohibit the keeping of hens in cages too small for them to fully stretch their wings with reforms that prohibit keeping sows in crates too narrow for them to turn around. Have we perhaps now reached the point at which there are no sound criteria for choosing one cause rather than another?

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Some effective altruists think that giving to reduce animal suffering is the most effective form of altruism. They are aware of the difficulties just mentioned, but they believe that even if we think farmed animals like chickens, pigs, and cows have less capacity to suffer than human beings, the huge numbers involved and the relatively low cost of making a difference to these numbers by encouraging people to cut down or eliminate the consumption of animal products makes this the most cost- effective way of reducing suffering. Vegan Outreach has, for many years, used volunteers to hand out leaflets at colleges and universities in the United States and is now expanding these activities to other countries. Organizations like The Humane League now use Vegan Outreach leaflets and also do online advertising to lead people to watch videos. The outcomes have been evaluated through follow-ups that seek to estimate the number of people who change their diet as a result of the advertising. ACE has made a careful attempt to establish the cost of averting a year of animal suffering by these techniques. Their research makes estimates of the following:

• Cost per leaflet handed out or, in the case of online ads, cost per click;

• The percentage of those who reduce their consumption of animal products as a result of receiving a leaflet or clicking on an ad;

• The average number of years for which the reduction remains in effect;

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• The average number of factory- farmed animals, or their equivalents as dairy and eggs, consumed per person per year;

• The average length of life of the farmed animal (broiler chickens, for example, are killed at forty-two days, so nine factory-farmed chicken lives are equivalent to one year of suffering);

• Elasticity of demand for animal products (to take account of higher consumption by meat- eaters if prices fall as a result of others reducing their consumption).

On this basis, ACE estimates that when leaflets are used, the cost per year of suffering averted is $0.63; with online ads, it is $0.47. ACE acknowledges that the evidence for some of these figures is not robust and is seeking to carry out better studies. In the meantime, it publishes what it believes to be lower and upper bounds on the estimates. For leafleting, ACE’s worst-case scenario yields a cost of $12.52 per year of suffering averted; and for online ads, it is $4.52. The best-case scenario for both is less than $0.06. Even if we assume that the worst- case scenario is accurate, these are very inexpensive ways to reduce suffering.

Do animals suffer as intensely as humans? It is hard to know, but on the estimate that ACE believes to be most credible, we could build in assumptions that farmed animals are, for example, capable of only one- tenth as much suffering as humans, and leafleting and online ads about factory farming would still have excellent value compared to the most effective charities helping humans. In addition, when we reduce animal suffering by reducing the consumption of animal products, we get a huge free bonus. Ben West, one of the effective altruists, has shown that even if your goal were solely to slow down climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, you could do that more effectively by donating to organizations that are encouraging people to go vegetarian or vegan than by donating to leading carbon- offsetting organizations.

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Climate Change

I have left until last the cause on Berman’s list that she states simply as “Keep glaciers frozen.” This could be a reference to the preservation of nature for its own sake or it could stand as a symbol for slowing, stopping, or reversing climate change because there is no way of keeping glaciers frozen without doing that. I’ll consider the second possibility first and then return to ask how we should value the preservation of nature for its own sake.

If the Himalayan glaciers disappear, hundreds of millions of people dependent on glacier-fed rivers will be deprived of the water they use to grow their crops. Climate change will also affect rainfall patterns, causing droughts and more severe flooding, and the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will result in a rise in sea levels that will inundate low- lying coastal areas, forcing people who now live there to become refugees. There is some possibility that climate change could spiral out of control in a way that makes our planet uninhabitable, and if that happens before we develop the ability to colonize other planets, it could mean the extinction of our species. That raises a separate ethical question. For the moment, I will assume that climate change will have disastrous effects on many millions and perhaps billions of people but that our species will survive.

It is almost certainly too late to stop or reverse climate change, at least without the use of risky geoengineering techniques. On the other hand, slowing climate change would be a very important goal, one that would bring huge benefits to the global poor and to all future generations. Whether we should support charities seeking to do that will depend on our estimate of the probability that our contribution will affect the ultimate outcome. Because the outcome is so critical, an action that has only a tiny chance of changing that outcome can still have very high expected value. So if one can reasonably believe that this tiny chance exists, then this does seem to be a worthwhile cause. People interested in high- risk, high- payoff causes could rationally donate to it. People who seek a high degree of confidence that their donation will do some measurable good will not. The uncertainties are too great to say whether contributing to an organization that seeks to slow climate change is a better or worse use of $100,000 than restoring sight to one thousand people. That doesn’t mean there is no objective answer; it means that we don’t have any way of knowing what the objective answer is because we do not have and cannot now get all the relevant facts.

Does Nature Have Intrinsic Value?

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Now I can turn to the question of preserving nature for its own sake. Nature here may include glaciers, old-growth forests, wild rivers, and endangered species. The choice of preserving or destroying nature will always have some consequences for other sentient beings, whether humans or nonhuman animals. Extinction is, as the slogan says, forever, and once an old- growth forest has been logged it can never be replaced, for any regrowth forest will have characteristics that old- growth forests do not, and the link with something relatively unchanged by human activity will be lost. Hence destroying nature can have negative consequences for an indefinite number of future generations. These considerations provide powerful reasons for protecting nature, even at considerable economic cost. They do not, however, locate this value in nature itself but in the value it has for sentient beings, human and nonhuman, present and future. We therefore should also ask a separate question: Is there value in nature beyond the experiences of sentient beings? Many defenders of wilderness and endangered species argue that there is. When they advocate action to preserve forest or protect endangered species—sometimes killing, in painful ways, large numbers of feral animals in order to do so—they often support their proposals by asserting that biodiversity is an intrinsic value that does not need further justification from arguments that link it to benefits for humans or other sentient beings. The view that nature is intrinsically valuable was memorably expressed by the early American environmentalist Aldo Leopold. In an oft- quoted passage he advocates a “land ethic” according to which an action is right “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” and wrong when it has the opposite tendency.

Effective altruists have not shown much interest in the intrinsic value of nature. Just as they tend to view values like justice, freedom, equality, and knowledge not as good in themselves but good because of the positive effect they have on social welfare, so they do not value nature as good in itself but instead ask whether preserving nature will be good or bad for animals and humans. Some effective altruists even see nature negatively because of the immense amount of suffering wild animals experience and look forward to a future in which it may be possible to do something to reduce that suffering.

For those who assert that nature has intrinsic value, the comparison of that value with other values, such as the well-being of humans and animals, becomes an insoluble difficulty. My own view, which I have defended elsewhere, is that intrinsic value is to be found only in conscious experiences (not in all conscious experiences but only in positive ones). On this view, nature itself, independently of the sentient beings whose lives it makes possible, does not have intrinsic value, and so the difficulty of comparing its intrinsic value with the intrinsic value of the experiences of sentient beings does not arise.

Excerpted from "The Most Good You Can Do" by Peter Singer. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2015 by Yale University. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Peter Singer

Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University, and Laureate Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne. The most prominent ethicist of our time, he is the author of more than twenty books including "Animal Liberation," "Practical Ethics" and "The Life You Can Save." He divides his time between New York City and Melbourne, Australia.

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