Effective Altruism for Animals: Consideration for different value systems

Recently i’ve been giving more thought to the issue of diversity and inclusion in Effective Altruism, and part of this process included wondering how the Foundational Research Institute (FRI) had considered issues around diversity[i] and inclusion at its inception. I didn’t initially find what I was looking for, but I did happen across this article from Brian Tomisik titled: ‘Reasons to Be Nice to Other Value Systems’ (I recommend reading it before proceeding further).

I think there are fairly good reasons to be nice to other value systems, and I want to consider whether Effective Altruism for Animals (EAA) reflects this view from a foundational perspective. For a starting point I’m going to consider the trend to utilise an animal movement model based on a welfare / abolition dichotomy. This has tended to reflect the appearance of welfare being something which isn’t related to a certain form of ‘abolition’ (namely the Abolitionist Approach). So in relation to this model, where Effective Altruists do not fit into the Abolitionist Approach, and choose not to advocate welfare (in an industry sense), then a good question seems to be how they fit into EAA and what this means in relation to the different value systems that Effective Altruists could utilise.

To provide some background to this question it is useful to look at the origin of the welfare / abolition framework, something which also provides some insight into the formation of EAA, as a number of the group who divided the vegan movement (with the reasonable intention of making it more effective) are also associated with Effective Altruism. The central aim of this division appears to have been to increase the scope of the vegan movement, however, it could also be said this scope already existed within the broader animal movement. For instance, the largest groups have traditionally included HSUS, CIWF, RSPCA, and all are concerned primarily with welfare rather than ending exploitation. These groups have occupied an integral part of the modern animal movement, and are closely aligned with the form of welfare advocacy with which the model was concerned. This is to say the adoption of reducetarian or flexitarian approaches are a good fit with traditional welfarism (both exist within carnism / a framework of animal consumption).

In terms of the decision to divide the movement, it is worth considering whether it also exacerbated some issues in relation to marginalisation, particularly where ‘welfare’ has reflected mainstream society. For instance, the non-profit groups promoted by ACE are largely structured on a fairly standardised organisational model, which is to say they largely reflect the system of white male leadership (for instance we can look at the CEOs of successful profit making organisations to note the comparison). If this aspect had been considered it is difficult to ascertain where it has been accounted, because the impact of utilising a patriarchal system explicitly or implicitly would need to be offset. Otherwise we risk the negative impacts of patriarchy (sexism and misogyny in their various forms) appearing within organisations, and more generally in the animal movement as a cost of this strategy. For people affected by this Carol J. Adams has engaged a process where issues can be reported.

When we further consider the situation that a small group of people in the animal movement created a divide in the vegan movement (perhaps with reference to the Unilateralist’s Curse), it might follow that resources were equally divided along this ideological schism, but there is no evidence of this being the case, if it were the case then we could perhaps more easily negotiate different value systems in terms of greater parity of wealth and influence. However, the split seems to have led to further consolidation of resources to various groups weighted toward welfare, and we can identify this today with various welfare / reducetarian organisations such as HSUS, Mercy for Animals, Animal Equality, The Humane League, Pro Veg occupying positions as the recipients of a vast proportion of movement resources. There is something of a comparison here in relation to the discussion within Effective Altruism regarding animal shelters as the beneficiary of resources over farmed animal groups. When we look at the farmed animal movement then we can observe how a small number of welfare organisations have accumulated wealth and power[ii], whilst more ideologically diverse groups are consequently neglected in terms of both resources and consideration within EAA, and often in the broader movement at large.

The benefits for utilitarian oriented groups gathering behind a single ideology are fairly numerous from an organisational perspective, where it is possible to support one another to equalise movement discourse in such a way that groups reinforce one another. So we could look at correlations between associated groups that dominate animal conferences, such as the International Animal Rights Conference, Animal Rights Conference and Sentience Conference (in particular). This also means that groups can globalise under the same system, and this has happened in relation to the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA), an ideologically reducetarian organisation that has chosen not to define the parameters of the work it undertakes. This is an approach backed by Peter Singer, Pro Veg, Faunalytics, Animal Equality, Beyond Carnism, FARM Sanctuary, Good Food Institute and HSUS through their board of advisors.  It’s also worth mentioning at this point that including Peter Singer as a board advisor can make it difficult to raise critical points in relation to organisations, this seems to coincide with people giving support on the basis of an association with one of the most famous people in Effective Altruism. So to argue against them in some way, is often to argue against the support he gives to that organisation, and essentially his judgement in doing so.

Even whilst this form of welfare / reducetarian advocacy has become the norm within EAA, it still remains that in 2016 ACE recommended both Animal Ethics and the Non-Human Rights Project, and neither necessarily fit into the welfare / abolition category, or are they particularly related groups. However, the overall picture supports a dominant discourse that is a combination of utilitarianism and welfare, so given that influence we ought to ask how it is that EAAs are working hard to be inclusive of other organisations and value systems. So one question might be the extent ACE are working with, and evaluating groups that exist outside the welfare paradigm in order to incorporate those issues of diversity.  In some ways there has been a little progress in relation to several interviews, the incorporation of some of the ideas as part of a symposium, and an article this year, but it remains unclear as to how important this is to ACE or EAA generally, and there is a vast disparity when comparing the work undertaken with welfare organisations, where issues such as these haven’t been incorporated in a meaningful way.

We also might consider the impact that EAA backed welfare organisations have had within the broader animal movement, and the possibility that people who choose not to associate with welfarism would also become disenfranchised with Effective Altruism, or indeed choose not to engage at all. Of course, we could wonder whether people would form their own groups, or attempt to exist outside this paradigm, though we could counter that ‘welfare’ has also become increasingly globalised, so there is a consequent difficulty in maintaining alternative spaces. I believe the impact of this into the future has been under-considered in a similar way to how its existence has been neglected. Given this outcome EAA is unlikely to attract leading thinkers from different value systems, and this could be accounted as a cost in the reduction of analysis from different perspectives, and perhaps analysis overall (whilst also incorporating the risk of replacing expertise with something far less useful).

Another point to consider is where competitive movement aspects may have become limited, potentially leading to a decline in engagement. For instance, if EAA had the appearance of considering welfare as the best thing, and anything not associated with it as secondary, less effective or ineffective, then it can also diminish the requirement for counter consideration. Arguably we may already have reached the point that welfare has become the dominant narrative to the extent that EA frameworks are under applied, as utilising that perspective would have become self-evident. Further to this, meta-evaluation is not considered reasonably important by either GiveWell or ACE, and neither by many people within EAA, so if we believe there is at least some validity in relation to concerns raised, there is no reference point to independent sources that could lead to validation or invalidation.


Concluding thoughts.

I am uncertain whether many EAAs would generally recognise they were treading on toes, but it might be one way to explain how it lacks diversity. The best way to find this out is from people who don’t want to be involved with EAA and are critical of it. If instead we really believe that many people in the animal movement aren’t interested in evidence, rationality, or effectiveness in relation to animal advocacy then I think this is unfortunate, because whilst some will not be, many would be interested in improving their advocacy on behalf of other animals. It also might be that EAA (or EA) isn’t particularly interested in addressing these issues, preferring to think about other important ideas rather than foundational considerations. However, this overlooks that without these initial considerations it is very difficult to draw potential conclusions from EAA work in relation to what might be the best, or most effective thing to do, if it isn’t based on a fair understanding of the various ideas present in the animal movement.


Considering some ways forward.

Meta-evaluation – with the necessary scope to consider foundational issues.

Speculation – in terms of donating to organisations that have certain values compatible with EA and that could provide a counter-point to the dominant position of utilitarian welfare groups within EAA and the broader animal movement. Given many people would not have the time to look beyond ACE top charities there could be a standardised form of offsetting or hedging based on ACE metrics.

Democratisation / accountability – EAA might consider whether the role of CEO at ACE could be limited in duration, and the potential value of rotating this role. I am also uncertain whether the advisory board is sufficiently diverse, and it appears there is reasonable scope for improvement.

Modelling – commit resources to modelling EAA in a way that is more inclusive, whilst fostering relations between people who aren’t utilitarian or associated with the welfare movement.   In this way it might be the case that EAA doesn’t tread on toes as a matter of course (for example, where non-welfare ‘abolitionists’ are referred to as extremist, fundamentalist, puritan, dogmatic absolutists). I also think there could be some adjustment around institutional intervention (particularly in relation to reflecting corporate organisation and hierarchy[iii]) and individual ‘mainstream’ messaging, to further consideration of social movements which emphasise shared meanings and respectful characterisation that would also relate to EA guiding principles.

Representation and diversity – emphasis on inclusion at EA Global and related events so that attendees can benefit from multiple perspectives.



[i] In this article diversity refers to the inclusion of people from traditionally marginalised groups who have been discriminated against, and also to the diversity of value systems that are reasonably compatible with Effective Altruism.  I do this because both are important, and one without the other could be tokenistic in the sense women could espouse on behalf of a patriarchal movement, or we could have white men espousing on behalf of ideological diversity.

[ii] ‘The concentration of wealth leads to the concentration of power.’ Noam Chomsky.

[iii] Note for instance comparisons that could be made with the work of Robert Jackall in the book ‘Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers’.

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