From Shepherd to Advocate: Why I Focus on Animal Suffering

In a world rife with human suffering and problems, why should one focus on animal rights and animal suffering? My answer is at once moral, emotional, and rational.

Mikko Jarvenpaa / Sentient Media

Perspective Policy Reflections

(04/10/2020: The post has been edited for clarity and annotated in places to provide more context. Edits have been made in italics.)

In retrospect, my personal path to animal rights has been both obvious and meandering. It consists of both emotionally charged experiences and cool-headed rational thought.

But it has been far from obvious to many of my friends why I would make the change from tech entrepreneurship into something that has a more positive impact on the world, and end up dedicating my efforts to animal rights. For their and my benefit, I wanted to chart my course briefly, lest my friends explain this all away with my never-too-latent rebellious tendencies, or by just having stayed in Northern California for too long.

Friends with sheep

I was born and grew up in Eastern Finland. As long as I can remember, my father had the hobby of keeping sheep. I call it a hobby because it wasn’t for economic gain but for reasons of self-reliance with meat – and wool, which my mother used as materials for her art. For me, the sheep were at least as good as pets, nearly friends.

Sheep are actually pretty amazing. The common misconception is that sheep are stupid, easily freaked out, and just, in general, pretty sheepish animals. But that’s before you get to know them. Yes, they certainly have strong herd instincts and can all bolt pretty easily if even one sheep feels threatened. But once you get to know them and they accept you into their herd, you learn their individual characteristics. Some are more playful than others. Some are entirely food-motivated while some will just want to get scratches. Some are devious and try to come up with different ways of escaping. They often collaborate, for example, by leaning against bushes to push them lower for others to eat.

I didn’t have too many human friends growing up. There were no kids within walking distance until I was seven or so. So the sheep were doubly important to me. We’d sometimes keep them over the winter, and my brother and I would often be responsible for bringing them fresh water and feed in their winter shelter. I took part in all parts of their lives, except the very last.

In the fall, the men would come. I don’t remember what they looked like, but I remember what I felt like. My dad told me not to come over to the sheep enclosure that day. I stayed indoors and played the radio loud to drown any sounds. Whether there were sounds from the slaughter, I don’t know.

After the men left, I would sometimes sneak into the small garage in the enclosure where the slaughter had taken place. The floor was always stained with blood and I seem to remember seeing the implements of violence, though I don’t remember exactly what they were.

What I do remember, though, is the tremendous sense of loss. Loss of lives that didn’t want to die. Loss of beings that were close to me and that I was close to. And most harrowingly, the palpably present sense of loss by the animals still left behind to be kept over the winter. They had lost their young, their parents, their friends, the only other beings that could give them a sense of safety. The sheep I remember well, huddled together at a safe distance, all tense, staring at me, the person who used to be there for them.

Betraying the trust of the innocent is the worst feeling I know.

Thinking rationally about animal suffering

Since the age of 15, I was vegetarian, on and off, for a long time. Even in my off-times, I never felt right about eating mammals: cows, pigs, and sheep always felt too close to human, too close to eat. For a long time, I tried to consider birds and fish more biological robots than sentient beings (and I was badly wrong in this). It took nearly 20 years from first going vegetarian for me to piece the puzzle together and take action that was consistent with my ethics.

The key to taking that action is suffering – realizing that it is suffering that I most oppose, not the loss of life, or the act of killing, or even the system of speciesist exploitation.

I had to go deep for this realization. I went back to school at the ripe age of 30 and completed my Master’s in Philosophy of Social Sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I focused on the philosophy of biological and cognitive sciences with an interest in ethics and the evolution of morality.

To summarize in three very broad strokes: first, understanding the suffering of others makes evolutionary sense for any animals that live in groups and have the capacity to do so (assume this holds at least for all vertebrates: mammals, birds, and fish, to mention the most exploited classes of the animal kingdom). The subjective experience of suffering is more obvious, but that also makes a lot of evolutionary sense: pain is a harm-reduction mechanism. Practically all animals with a spine feel and “understand” each others’ pain (quotes only to emphasize that their understanding may be very different from our verbal understanding). Considering a non-human animal’s mental suffering is just as valid as considering the mental suffering of a human animal.

Second, reduction and elimination of involuntary suffering is perhaps the most universally appealing goal across most ethical frameworks. Some moral codes allow for causing harm or having a neutral stance on it, but in my view none of them are intuitively or rationally appealing. Everybody wants good things, and involuntary suffering is not a good thing.

And third, to have an impact one needs to focus on things that are most neglected. This idea stems from utilitarianism, though I’m not a total utilitarian in my views. This is also what lead me to put theory into practice.

Based on these premises, though considered in much more detail, I realized there is an urgent need to focus on the suffering of animals. We keep producing more animals into lives systematically filled with physical and mental suffering. In factory farming for meat, eggs, and dairy, we do this to billions of beings and we cause them to suffer. We do this needlessly, and we do it willfully. Importantly, we do it as a part of a self-enforcing system of economic and cultural structures.

Author (on the left) with a friend. Mikko Jarvenpaa / Sentient Media

Ok, you may say, animals suffer, but why would someone concerned with suffering focus on animals in a world with so much human suffering to go around? Surely human suffering ought to be addressed before taking up the fight against animal suffering?

Personally, I subscribe to the view that individual human life and individual human experience are indeed more valuable and more desirable than an individual non-human animal experience of life – but not incomparably so, and certainly not indefinitely so. This doesn’t mean there has to be a certain number of animals that are morally equivalent to a human. I believe comparisons can be made even though they be theoretical and uncomfortable, while at the same time I do not desire there to be a moral calculus that would tell us how many B-lives are worth one A-life.

Differentiating between comparisons of typical individual members of a species, and comparisons of entire species is important. These are two different types of comparisons, and claims made in one do not translate over to the other. The concept and accusation of speciesism is that human animals treat non-human animals as having lesser or no moral value because they are of different species and have different capacities and different needs. However, acknowledging that there are differences between typical individuals of different species neither implies or necessitates value judgments about the individual animals or entire species. We can reject speciesism without losing the capacity to make comparisons across species, including comparisons leading to or informing value judgments.

This is also not to make the claim that the existence of the human species is necessarily morally net positive. Even though humanity is capable of morally good things, we are also capable of great moral evil towards our species, other species, and entire planetary ecosystems. But it is the human capacity to improve the experience of non-human animals is part of what makes it valuable and even desirable: we’re the only species we know that could, if we so decided, even attempt to reduce the suffering of animals in the wild, just to give one particular example. Alas, we rarely do.

For example, if I was forced to cause a proportionally similar amount of suffering to an individual chicken or to an individual pig, say, suffering equivalent to that of a lost limb, I would choose to cause the suffering to the chicken because I assume that action to cause less suffering both in quantity and – perhaps more controversially – in quality. This disagreeable example (and there are much worse thought experiments used by experimental philosophers) may seem intuitively sensible, but in addition to pure intuition, we may also attempt to approximate the probability of the volume of suffering experienced by things like the complexity of an individual animal’s neural and cognitive systems. Yet even this is done not ever knowing the subjective experience of suffering of another being. And, yes, I may well be wrong with this example and future evidence shows that avian suffering is actually more intense and severe than the suffering of large mammals, in which case I ought to adjust my response to this thought experiment accordingly.

Providing an example where a chicken gets the short straw is unwise for multiple reasons. First, actual avian suffering in factory farming today is one of the most urgent moral issues of our day. Second, chickens and poultry generally get less empathy from humans than mammalian moral patients and repeating that perspective in this example was irresponsible. Third, there are still misconceptions about birds not actually suffering, though the evidence of their pain and suffering is irrefutable, as are their emotions of safety, enjoyment, and affection.

For another hypothetical thought experiment, if there was an opportunity to flick a switch and eliminate the suffering of any one factory farmed species, in the light of the current knowledge I would choose the broiler chicken. Nearly 9 billion are born every year into lives of intense suffering on U.S. factory farms alone.

Assigning myself as the perpetrator of the moral atrocity in the original example certainly does not invite a charitable reading of my position. Here’s another thought experiment with a more impersonal actor. The trolley problem is a classic problem in experimental ethics. As autonomous vehicles – self-driving cars – are developed and deployed in real-world traffic, we will quite possibly run into real-life trolley problems. For example, let’s assume a self-driving car in a situation where it needs to make an evasive manoeuver to avoid a collision sure to lead to multiple human casualties. It can either go straight and the collision happens, or it can swerve right and hit a random individual human, or it can swerve left and hit a random non-human animal. What factors into our ethical algorithm in a case like this? We must allow ourselves the comparison between individuals of different species to even consider a dilemma like this. By inventing more details about the human animal and non-human animal in the problem, I believe we can come up with different moral scenarios for both swerving left and for swerving right.

This is also not to assume that the cognitive capacities exhibited by mammals correlate with moral value or intensity of suffering or pleasure. To add a little more color to this speculation on degrees of suffering, it could also be that much human suffering is less intense, and therefore qualitatively of less moral urgency than similar non-human animal suffering. For example, a human can tell themselves that a pain is over soon, or hold on to hope. Non-human animals, for the most part, lack that capacity, without which comparable harm causes more severe suffering. I believe that is a possibility, and just the possibility of it further increases the moral duty humans have towards non-human animals.

Extending comparisons from animal suffering to human suffering seems like a very bad idea. Almost taboo. Surely some things are black and white – animals are animals and humans are humans? The same person who finds that intuition to be common sense may also be a dog owner who loves their canine companion dearly. That person may well value the life of their pet much higher than that of a human stranger on the other side of the world. In doing so, they are actively making cross-species ethical comparisons that they intuitively agree with. But we are experts at living with moral inconsistency. We are forced to be such experts because human intelligence is limited.

Any comparison is an act of ranking, and rankings are tools. Ranking something by descriptive properties does not give one a prescriptive ranking, if there was no normative premise to begin with, so one should be alert with any rankings offered as descriptions of importance or value. Rankings can also cause us to make erroneous mental shortcuts: if we learn that in quality 1, A has less than B, we will be primed to expect two things even without any additional evidence: that in quality 2, A is also likely to have less than B; and that in quality 1, A is also like to have less than C.

Without going into detail of how comparisons should or even could be made, let’s just assume that sentient suffering is somehow comparable, contrastable, even if human suffering should be orders of magnitude more important than the suffering of the next most intelligent exploited animal. Which is the pig, rather uncontroversially. Yes: bacon, ham, pork chops – all made of intelligent, socially complex, family-centered animals who suffer insanely in the process. Hundreds of millions of such sentient beings every year.

Rankings also impose the perspective of the one doing the ranking, not necessarily one shared by those being ranked. Choosing to claim pig as the next most sentient non-human animal out of the farmed animals, I’m committing a fallacy I cannot escape: applying a concept by the human species to beings of other species. But just as we cannot know what it is like to be a bat, we cannot remove ourselves from the human frame of understanding the world. In order to make moral progress, we need to work with the tools we have at our disposal. The other option is to not make comparisons at all, but that would be leaving out an important tool. Note also that in assuming I’m committing an inescapable fallacy, it is implied that I believe non-human animals do not apply their own concept of sentience – a belief I could only have by making assumptions of the inner lives of non-human animals, which I just said we cannot know because of our human frame of experiential reference.

The sinews of suffering

Before taking a closer look at animals, consider just a sampling of the dizzying extent of human suffering in the world today.

There are 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world according to the UNHCR due to wars, persecution, and other upheavals. In 2015, 736 million people lived in extreme poverty (under $1.90 per day), and 3.4 billion people still struggle to meet basic needs, living on less than $3.20 per day in lower-middle-income countries or under $5.50 in upper-middle-income countries according to the World Bank. In the US, more than 10 million women and men are subjects of domestic violence every year. The WHO estimates that over 200 million women have been subjected to female genital mutilation. And I could continue this list for hours.

It’s not that I don’t care about human suffering. The degrees and types of cruelty, neglect, inequality, terror, and other sources of human suffering are mind-boggling and too frequently horrifying.

So the question remains, now stronger than ever – why animal rights? My answer is the proportional neglectedness of farmed animals: no matter how you look at things, animal suffering is incredibly neglected.

Let’s take a couple of proxies to quantify neglectedness. In 2017, Americans gave $410 billion dollars to charitable causes. For 2015, Animal Charity Evaluators estimated the top 10 farmed animal outreach organizations to have budgets of $20 million. Let’s assume they count for 50% of the total budgets, and call it $40 million in total to get a conservative overestimate. Note that this would also include governmental grants which are not included in the $410 billion giving figure. Yet to remain conservative, other causes (which are primarily human causes) get approximately 10,250 times the donations that farmed animals do in the US.

There are over 9 billion farmed land animals killed every year in the US (and probably tens of billions of fish). Without exaggeration, 99% of these farmed land animals are born into the factory farming system where suffering is the norm, not the exception, and where cruelty is sanctioned.

Therefore, if we accept that animals can suffer (they can), that we are causing their suffering (we are), and that we should focus our efforts on targets that need the most help (and as I’ve argued, yes, we should), then focusing on animal rights is rational. Even if you wanted to claim that human experience of suffering is 100,000 times more valuable than an animal experience of suffering for purposes of allocating resources, you’d still be left with the equivalent of 90,000 violent human deaths that capped lives of near-constant suffering. As violent and unequal as the US is, there are less than 20,000 violent human deaths per year with billions of dollars in private and public funding aimed at addressing those deaths, as opposed to the $40 million for the suffering of farmed animals.

To clarify, the above comparative multiplier is merely an illustration of the principle. I do not claim to know that an individual non-human animal’s suffering is less than that of an individual human animal’s suffering, let alone by how much. What I do want to illustrate is that even if one accepted many orders of magnitude of difference in the comparison, animal suffering would still be of great moral urgency.

And very importantly, there are many powerful people and well-funded organizations seeking to eradicate diseases, to alleviate poverty, and to put an end to cruel traditions where humans suffer. Animals have very few such friends, especially in proportion to the problem. While human suffering is very real and horrible, human suffering is not nearly as neglected as animal suffering.

For another angle of how neglected animal suffering is, consider how often you see animal rights discussed in the media. We should be surprised that the constant suffering of billions of our fellow Earth-dwellers in the hands of our fellow humans is not perpetually in the news. But still today the opposite holds: people are surprised and even dismayed that they are asked to question their beliefs and behavior when it comes to their lunch. The rare occasions that animal suffering is discussed in media, it is mostly on topics of outright animal abuse and neglect (usually of dogs, cats, or horses), or the use of animals in entertainment or laboratory testing. As horrible as those cases are, they pale in volume to the suffering on factory farms: in the US, there are 500 animals used and killed on factory farms for every one animal used in a laboratory.

No matter how you dice things, it is especially farmed animals who are neglected and whose suffering challenges us with its moral urgency.

The power in animals

My reasons for focusing on animal rights are both emotional and rational. There is much more to my personal experience and rationale than what I presented here. And I didn’t even get to mention the climate impact of animal agriculture (at least as big as that of all global transport), human health (from carcinogenic meat to health risks of dairy), or existential threats of animal agriculture (a promising breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant pathogens).

But there is one more thing to mention when focusing on animal rights: tractability.

I believe we can make a major positive difference for farmed animals within my lifetime. We may not eliminate animal farming within decades, but it will become undesirable, unprofitable, and widely morally questionable. Within one generation, eating animals and animal products like dairy and eggs will be viewed like smoking is generally viewed in the US today – pretty disgusting but somewhat tolerable. Within two generations, the same practices will be viewed like public executions are viewed today – morally reprehensible, barbaric, still done in some places in the world, but something that ought to be confined into the annals of history.

The issue is tractable because people care. Animals are powerful allies. They are relatable, cute, friendly, and wholesome. They are our link to nature and natural things. They give us support and happiness while our social ties erode and become fewer.

The vast majority of meat-eaters care about animals. Many are even a little annoyed by suggestions that they are doing something wrong because they know they well might be. I know I was.

And back in Finland, on some years there are still sheep at the house I grew up in. If I go, I still meet them and watch them play, graze, and socialize. But I don’t stay for the fall.

The edits and clarifications were prompted primarily by the criticism by Dr. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns, whose article challenging many of the positions was published on Sentient Media and has since been re-published elsewhere. Her detailed commentary on avian suffering is correct, and the criticism of downplaying the suffering of chickens is warranted. All edits in the text have been marked with italics to not obscure the original.

Please reach out to me on Twitter with any comments or questions.

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