Is Effective Altruism in Animal Rights Actually Effective?

Catherine Besch
5 min readDec 16, 2022

The term “Effective Altruism” as it applied to animal rights is merely welfarist reform rebranded. In the EA movement, the assumption is that the most effective use of funds in animal rights is through changing the laws in which animals are used in animal agriculture and fishing rather than advocating for ending animal use altogether. The EA movement has focused most of its efforts in morally inconsistent and outright ineffective messaging that says we should both change our diets away from animal products but also that it is also more ethical to consume animal products from animals raised under “high welfare” standards. This is contradictory and confusing messaging. While some EA programs are focusing on changing dietary habits by the promotion of a vegan lifestyle, the vast majority are pushing towards welfare reforms. These reforms inject millions in taxpayer and corporate funds into keeping the industrialized systems of torture and murder profitable rather than investing in their alternatives, eliminating animal agriculture subsidies, and developing the market systems involved in increasing the growth and availability of plant-based products. For altruism in animal rights to actually be effective, the long-term mission of ending animal agriculture and fishing should be the goal rather than continually boosting up the existing food system with unenforceable guidelines that mean nothing at all to the trillions of animals trapped in it.

There are billions of dollars invested every year in propping up the existing food system that should be used in outright replacing it. Welfare laws have done nothing for the animals trapped in the food system and they have, in fact, only increased the profitability and demand for animal products. The global consumption of animal products has continued to rise since the advent of welfare laws so if the goal is ultimately to end the unnecessary suffering of animals, welfare legislation has never been able to do the job. Adding ten more centimeters of space to a chicken’s miserable existence that ends in its unnecessary murder at a tiny fraction of its natural lifespan is not effectively altruistic. If that system in which the chicken is imprisoned could be replaced entirely by diverting that same money used in lobbying for welfare reform towards alternative protein markets and farm transitions, then that is the most effective and impactful use of funds. Campaigning for corporations to change their suppliers to “free range” (which is anything but free range and definitely far from free) has made the consumer more likely to feel good about their purchases of animal products rather than eliminating them outright while doing absolutely nothing for the animals themselves. Happy exploitation is not effectively ending animal suffering but increasing the demand and slightly increasing the price for products from these “high welfare” systems in which sentient beings are still being bred, tortured, confined, and murdered for products no human even needs.

Then what is actually effective?

As animal rights activists, we have tools already in our toolbelt to use to end animal agriculture and fishing. These programs are the least funded in spite of the fact that they are doing the most good for the animals themselves, irrelevant to the feel-good impact for consumers who continue to pay for animal products. The following programs are where we can get the most bang for our buck, a truly effective form of altruism for the animals:

· Lobbying in state and national legislatures to assist farmers in transitioning away from animal production and providing financial incentives and assistance in this process

· Ending subsidies for animal agriculture and fishing and replacing them with incentives for producing plant-based products on the land and in the sea and for rewilding farmland

  • Ending the subsidies for animal products that make the cost to consumer unnaturally lower than its real cost (that which includes the environmental impact costs, the health care costs for workers and those living near waste pools, the damage reimbursement from natural disasters, etc)- this lowers the demand for these products and will deter producers from staying in the market

· Increasing market access and investment opportunities for plant-based food, clothing, and medical/cosmetics products

· Sticking to morally consistent messaging in media that is clear that using sentient beings for food, clothing, research, and entertainment is a violation of the rights of ALL species, not just pets and wild animals

· Providing the public with information about the threats to animal rights, the environment, global food security, food safety, and public health from the animal agriculture and fishing industries

· Never focusing on laws that can never actually be universally enforced- in agriculture and fishing there can never be functional systems in place that prevent violence and abuse in production in which violence and abuse are the only ways to create an end product

· Removing legal protections for farmers whose profitability is based on the exemptions to existing animal welfare legislation that covers only pets and captive wildlife- this forces animal production facilities to not be viable businesses if they must treat farmed animals with the same anti-cruelty protections dogs and cats already have

· Lobbying for legal personhood legislation that makes unlawful incarceration of all species of animals illegal- this eliminates animals in captivity in zoos, circuses, research facilities, and animal agriculture

With less than 3% of all charity funding going towards animals at all, with a majority of that used exclusively for dogs and a tiny fraction for the majority of the species killed in the largest numbers (fishes, poultry, pigs, cows, goats, and sheep), it is vital we discuss what are the most effective programs to donate to in order to do the most good. While the Effective Altruism crowd focuses on expensive and unenforceable welfare reform that does nothing for the animals stuck in the food system, we will see more results by focusing on the long-term solutions which begin with dismantling rather than propping up the animal agriculture and fishing industries that remain profitable and keep consumers happily exploiting and killing animals under welfarist policies.

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Catherine Besch

Cat Besch is a ferocious animal activist and pig, chicken, dog, and cat mom who is the founder and director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue-US.