white quails feeding in cage at farm

The good it promises (Part 5: de Coriolis et al.)

It’s time for Effective Altruists in the farmed animal protection movement to expand their strategic imagination, their imagination of what is possible, and their imagination of what counts as effective … We recognize that Effective Altruist support has brought new respect and tractability to the neglected plight of farmed animals, and we who have devoted our lives to this cause and worked in it for decades are grateful … [But] under the influence of Effective Altruist funding driven by narrow metrics, advocates are taking our eyes off the prize (or at least one prize): the end of factory farming.

deCoriolis et al., “Animal advocacy’s Stockholm syndrome
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1. Recap

This is Part 5 of my series The good it promises. This series draws lessons from a recent collection of academic essays, The good it promises, the harm it does: Critical essays on effective altruism.

Part 1 introduced the series and looked at the foreword of the book by Amia Srinivasan. Part 2 analyzed Simone de Lima’s discussion of colonialism and animal advocacy in Brazil. Part 3 discussed Carol J Adams’ feminist care-ethical critique of effective altruism. Part 4 looked at Lori Gruen’s discussion of `non-reformist reforms’.

Today’s piece discusses the goals of animal advocacy. What are the ultimate aims of animal welfare work, and what should those aims be? What kinds of interventions advance these aims, and what kinds of compromises should be off the table? And how should effective altruists relate to the many other communities in the animal advocacy space?

2. Dreaming big

Andrew deCoriolis is executive director of Farm Forward, which engages in corporate campaigns, supports organizations, and releases publications aimed at improving the welfare of farmed animals. Together with CEO Aaron S. Gross, consultant Steven J. Gross, and program coordinator Joseph Tuminello, deCoriolis and coauthors bring decades of experience in animal advocacy to their writing.

Their paper, “Animal advocacy’s Stockholm syndrome,” provides an important opportunity to reflect on the aims of animal advocacy and the strategies to take us there.

DeCoriolis and colleagues have dedicated their lives to improving animal welfare, and they are out to make progress, not to pick fights. DeCoriolis and colleagues begin by emphasizing the many goals and assumptions they share with effective altruists:

We write this essay as allies. Like us, Effective Altruists are especially animated by the immense and multidimensional suffering caused by factory farms. We share a profound concern, not only with reducing suffering, but also with reducing farmed animal suffering in particular. We even share a concern to impact as many animals as possible per dollar, and thus for more than a decade have focused our own advocacy energies on the plight of broiler chickens, especially their genetically induced suffering (anticipating Effective Altruist–funded campaigns that also seek to change broiler genetics).

In many areas, effective altruists dream big. They have acquired and moved billions of dollars towards neglected causes, building world-class institutions and infrastructure more quickly than many observers would have thought possible. In this vein, deCoriolis and colleagues urge effective altruists to dream big in the animal advocacy space. The goal, they emphasize, is at the very least the elimination of factory farming.

This is not to say that all efforts should aim at immediate cessation of factory farming. Incremental change is a tried and true way to undermine systems. But deCoriolis and colleagues worry that the way in which effective altruists have pursued incremental changes may have distracted from, or even abandoned the larger goal:

There is nothing wrong with building a campaign around an incremental change so long as one retains—and is accountable to—a larger vision. All large-scale social change has an incremental element. Our fear, however, is that because the immensity of factory farming can make it feel like an impossible problem to confront systemically, Effective Altruist dollars are not taking it on at all. The end of factory farming appears unrealistic and unpragmatic, and so it is abandoned in favor of a focus on a victory that is perceived as possible and measurable. This is both a failure to understand the real long-term vulnerability of factory farming and a failure of moral imagination.

In the past several centuries, we have done all of the following: toppled monarchies and replaced them with functioning democracies; expanded the voting class from male landowners to the majority of citizens; severely reduced the prevalence of slavery and child labor in many societies; and won freedoms for women including the right to work, own property, vote, hold political office, and pursue higher education. If all of this change is possible, deCoriolis and colleagues ask, might it not also be possible to pursue an end to factory farming in a society increasingly aware of, and concerned with conditions on factory farms?

3. Entrenching and undermining

As we have seen, deCoriolis and colleagues are not opposed to incremental change. They are, however, concerned to distinguish incremental changes which entrench factory farming and make the system more difficult to challenge from incremental changes which undermine factory farming and make the system easier to challenge.

We agree with Effective Altruists that incremental suffering reduction work is crucial, but such incremental efforts are of at least two kinds: suffering reduction that entrenches the status quo, and suffering reduction that makes industrial farming more vulnerable to challenge.

As examples of incremental changes that challenge factory farming, deCoriolis and colleagues cite community organizing as well as some corporate campaigns that they have participated in. For example:

Steve Gross led negotiations for what are arguably the first successful corporate campaigns to improve the lives of farmed animals, and which became influential models for today’s movement. As a pro bono consultant to PETA in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Steve led successful negotiations first between PETA and McDonalds, and then between PETA and Burger King, Wendy’s, Safeway, and others.

However, deCoriolis and colleagues worry that some of the corporate campaigns supported by effective altruists allow corporations to call the shots, restricting the kinds of challenges they will allow and the way in which they will respond to those challenges so as to do minimum damage to their bottom line. The growth of effective altruist funding has, they worried, forced even advocates who do not want to play ball with corporate demands to comply with a system that they characterize as follows:

The industry has told advocates that any change to factory farming must follow a certain path. In practice this has meant corporate refusal to negotiate with nonprofits for changing practices unless these negotiations essentially guarantee no disruption to their exploitative business model. Industry has, for example, demanded from animal advocacy organizations campaigning against them a “unified ask” for specific improvements (instead of facing diverse and changing demands from many fronts); they have asked for unprecedentedly long timetables for change; they have demanded our public praise for even the smallest and least costly changes; and, above all, they have asked that we advocates keep focused on the next “low-hanging fruit” and not focus our campaigns on more systemic problems.

While deCoriolis and others would sometimes prefer to balk at industry demands, they report that effective altruists’ growing influence and willingness to play ball has made it harder for them to refuse without simply being ignored.

Rather than recognizing these demands and others like them for what they manifestly are—rules that prevent factory farming from actually being challenged—these rules of engagement are often functionally enforced by Effective Altruist funders upon activist groups that would never otherwise proceed in this manner. In an understandable desire to constrain thoughtless, undisciplined campaigning, Effective Altruist funding has enforced a rule book written by the enemy.

Here, the demand is not to abandon efforts at incremental change, but instead to drive a harder bargain, not only in strength of demands but also in the process by which it is determined which demands will be made, and how those demands will be responded to.

4. Measurement

Effective altruists often aim to pursue initiatives with measurable impacts. That is, deCoriolis and colleagues emphasize, a laudable goal. However, they give several reasons to believe that measuring the impact of many interventions may be more difficult than effective altruists propose.

Suppose that effective altruists secure a promised change on behalf of factory farmers. This might be an improvement in slaughterhouse conditions, or an increase in the proportion of cage-free eggs produced. We might think that it is easy to measure the welfare impact of effective altruist’s work: simply estimate the value of the pledge welfare increase towards each affected animal, then multiply by the number of affected animals. However, deCoriolis and colleagues emphasize, matters are substantially more complicated.

For one thing, public opinion is rapidly turning against the worst excesses of factory farming, so it is hard to ascertain to what degree pressure from effective altruists is responsible for pledged changes. For another, as time goes on, technological changes and market pressures may make these changes more desirable for corporations to make, so that much of the impetus for change may be due to factors beyond lobbying or public opinion. Finally, it takes many years to know whether and to what degree corporations have complied with their pledges, complicating analysis not only due to uncertainty about compliance, but also due to uncertainty about the extent to which compliance will be in corporations’ future self-interest by the time that changes are made.

Moreover, corporate campaigns can have negative effects, particularly if they are pursued within the narrow playbook set by corporations. DeCoriolis and colleagues stress that corporations demand frequent and public praise in exchange for concessions, as well as protection from more extreme and disunified demands. These benefits to corporations need to be weighed against the benefits to animals in cost-effectiveness estimates.

The difficulty of measuring the cost-effectiveness of corporate campaigns has two important implications. First, it creates the possibility of substantially overestimating the cost-effectiveness of effective altruists’ animal advocacy work by ignoring or underweighting all of the complicating factors mentioned above, most of which would tend to lower rather than raise cost-effectiveness estimates.

Second, as corporate campaigns become less measurable, it becomes more difficult to insist that corporate campaigns should be preferred over other interventions such as ballot initiatives or community activism on the grounds that corporate campaigns are more measurable.

5. Community activism

In particular, deCoriolis and colleagues suggest, once we see that interventions which appeared highly measurable are more difficult to measure than they might have appeared, it becomes harder to rule out community-based interventions. DeCoriolis and colleagues write:

Let’s ask why, in the first place, we think we know less about what makes community activism effective. It is true that there are profound limits to the ability to precisely quantify effectiveness in community organizing, but are those limits really greater than the ambiguities and uncertainties that abound when trying to measure the actual difference a corporate campaign has made for animals? Even if it is easy to quantify the impact on animals of a particular corporation changing from policy A to policy B, how easy is it to be certain the move from A to B was the result of activist interventions?

We do, after all, have a good deal of experience with community activism, leading to accumulated knowledge of what works, and what does not work, as well as how hard it may be to achieve.

DeCoriolis and colleagues also suggest that effective altruists should think hard about their reasons for assuming that community activism is highly unmeasurable. There are, DeCoriolis suggests, many reasons for this thought, some valid, others less so. But DeCoriolis and colleagues draw our attention to one uncomfortable dynamic in particular: there are profound racial differences between the largely white community pushing corporate campaigns and the significantly more diverse group of community activists.  Centuries of scholarship have established that situated identities determine what we see as measurable, effective, or reasonable, and while we should not go so far as to take this fact to imply that all of our views about measurability are biased and wrong, neither should we ignore the impact of racial differences on views about measurability.

In this regard, DeCoriolis and colleagues do not exempt themselves from criticism. They write:

The most salient reason that we who write this essay—and, we suspect, the Effective Altruist allies we here hold to account—know less about how to evaluate the impact of community organizing is because we are firmly located in a white social world, whereas community activism has been a, perhaps the, primary tool for social upliftment in communities of color. It doesn’t take a professional race theorist to start deducing that maybe the reason so many of us, Effective Altruists and others, were so primed to see corporate activism as “easily measurable” and community organizing as “unmeasurable” is because of our whiteness, not the actual facts on the ground.

I urged something similar in a discussion of prison reform in Part 1 of my series on belonging. It is worth noting that prison reform is a cause which disproportionately impacts disadvantaged groups, who in turn are underrepresented in effective altruist decisionmakers. It is also worth noting that prison reform has come in for some of the most scathing and well-received criticism of any major EA cause area, leading to a substantial drop in funding in this area.

To note these facts is not to suggest that reasons and evidence have not, on their own, played an important role in the way that causes such as prison reform or community activism have been received. But neither is it to suggest that underlying dynamics of group membership should be ignored. Our situation in the world affects almost all aspects of our beliefs and behavior, and we would be wrong not to consider how those biases may have affected our own beliefs and behaviors.

6. Conclusion

DeCoriolis and colleagues have advanced a moderate critique of effective altruism’s influence on the animal advocacy space. This critique recognizes many values and assumptions that DeCoriolis and colleagues share with effective altruists, while also pointing towards important differences in areas such as the importance of striving (incrementally) towards systemic change, the limits of measurement, and the role of community activism within animal advocacy.

DeCoriolis and colleagues stress their hope for the possibility of future cooperation, and ask what changes might be required to pave the way for a more successful and cooperative future within animal advocacy. They write of this future that:

It will take a willingness to use metrics where they can be helpful while not overestimating what we can conclude on their basis. It means the messy work of listening to a wide range of strategic thinking to really suss out the limits and potentials of diverse forms of activism. It means recognizing the biases that might lead us astray, especially the limits of vision created by race, class, and gender dynamics. It means building real partnerships with academics who can provide a more disinterested perspective over decades—not only scientists, but a diverse range of animal studies scholars as well. It means taking the utilitarian ethos that drives Effective Altruism seriously, while recognizing its immense limitations, which others in this volume address.

Is this future desirable? Possible? I suspect readers will have a range of opinions on many of these counts. However, I do think the deCoriolis and colleagues’ piece represents an important possibility for dialogue across a large store of shared experience, goals and assumptions, and that this dialogue might be productive for all parties involved.


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