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Effective Altruism As It Relates to Animal Rights: An Open Ended Approach to Advocacy

By Jasmin and Mariann — October 28, 2015
Photo by Rindala AlAjaji

Mariann (left) and Jasmin (right); Photo by Rindala AlAjaji

On October 9, 2015, Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan — co-founders of the multimedia nonprofit hub, Our Hen House — were asked to sit on a panel organized by NYU’s Animal Studies Initiative, about the growing discussion of Effective Altruism in animal advocacy circles. The event was entitled “Effective Altruism for Animals.” The other two panelists were famed ethicist Peter Singer (no relation to Jasmin), and Animal Charity Evaluators‘ Executive Director, Jon Bockman.

This was the official description for the event:

What is the best way to improve the lives of animals? Animal protection involves various, sometimes contradictory forms of advocacy and activism, most of which claim to be effective. But not everyone agrees on what effectiveness really is, how it should be understood, and whether it should be more important than, for instance, considerations of justice and institutional change. Being effective has been at the forefront of debates among activists since the infancy of animal protection movements. But while the alleged opposition between animal welfare and animal rights still nourishes debate, an emerging movement called “Effective Altruism” has, in recent years, attempted to reshape our views of charitable giving and advocacy, shifting the focus towards evidence-based assessments of cost-efficiency. “Effective Altruism” also evaluates the importance of animal suffering relative to other causes and, within animal advocacy, the most efficient ways to reduce suffering across species. Effective altruists thus believe there is a strong case to focus on animals, given that each year about 60 billion of them are raised and killed for food worldwide and how intense and widespread their suffering can be. Should one then focus on farm animals? Which tactics are legitimate, which have the largest impact? How should we assess effectiveness? Should one’s efforts aim at individual or systemic change, should one target food choices or overall animal exploitation? Is suffering in the wild equally important?

Jasmin and Mariann are the long-time co-hosts of the popular weekly Our Hen House podcast (Mariann is also the co-host of OHH’s newer Animal Law Podcast). Jasmin is also a memoirist (Always Too Much and Never Enough drops in February from Penguin’s Berkley) and Mariann teaches Animal Law at, most recently, Columbia University. When they were asked to be a part of the panel, this was specifically how the invitation was presented:

We are aware people may identify with multiple other ways to be effective in defending animals and which the ‘effective altruism’ doesn’t quite capture. To the least, we’re interested in hearing different voices, and both of you, whether through your podcast or your individual work, strike us as perfect examples of an open-ended approach to advocacy. Although of course every activist is to some extent concerned with effectiveness – exactly what should count as effective is still up for debate.

Below you’ll find a written, somewhat expanded, version of what Jasmin and Mariann presented that evening, to a standing-room-only house of animal advocates, philanthropists, and academics. Note, too, that Jasmin and Mariann further discussed the panel on Episode 301 of their podcast (also available on iTunes).

But first, here is a video link to the entire panel discussion:


Here is Jasmin and Mariann’s talk:



by Mariann Sullivan and Jasmin Singer


We were invited here, I think, to present the “other” side. Which is not to say that we are defending INeffective altruism. Or attacking the effective altruism movement. In fact, we love the effective altruism movement and are deeply moved by its commitment to a bottom line of reduction of suffering, as efficiently as possible.

We’ll skip the threshold question of why we should work on animal advocacy, and, specifically, farmed animal advocacy, as opposed to (or along with) other high-value impact opportunities. (I mean, Peter Singer is on the panel. If you have any questions on that, we’re pretty sure he can cover them, since he wrote that book.)

What we will do, as the “sort-of” outsiders, is raise some questions that we have about how it all works and what we think some of the risks are in making decisions about what works to change the world for animals.

So our first question is:



Yeah, they are. Or, at least, those who seek to reduce animal suffering face a significantly different challenge than those who seek to reduce human suffering and it seems to us that that has major implications for how Effective Altruism works when it comes to animals.

Assuming our goal is to limit suffering, in the human realm it’s relatively easy to figure out how to do it. Almost everyone already agrees that physical suffering and death are bad things. Figuring out which projects stop the most physical suffering and death for the least money is largely a math problem. It may be a complicated math problem, but still.

The big problem, as we understand it, is that people seem less likely to do anything about it if it doesn’t touch their lives directly. Persuading people that they should donate to help people regardless of proximity is tougher than doing the math, but you are primarily dealing with overcoming prejudices, and there are lots of good arguments for why that’s the right thing to do.

When it comes to animals, our challenges start off similarly. We need to inform people about suffering that they probably don’t know is occurring.

The next step — getting them to understand that that’s a bad thing — is probably a little more challenging than it is with human victims. But we’re making progress here. Most people probably agree with us that the suffering of farmed animals does matter — though it’s true that there are still many people who, even if they understand that suffering and death are bad for a small subset of animals, such as dogs and cats, and perhaps some wildlife, just don’t get it about farm animals.

But still, so far, the challenges for advocating for animals are not that dissimilar from the challenges for advocating for far-away people — let people know they are suffering and convince them that their suffering matters.

But when it comes to the ask, animal activism deviates rather significantly from many efforts to help humans. Rather than asking people to give their money differently, we also have to persuade them that they themselves should step out of the mainstream and stop actively causing and paying for the suffering of farmed animals.

So, an enormous reason that reducing animal suffering is different than reducing human suffering is that most of the people you are trying to reach are actually directly and (sort of) consciously contributing to it.

Figuring out what is the most effective way of changing their hearts and minds is challenging, as we all know. It is definitely not just a math problem, such as how many mosquito nets prevent how much malaria.

Even people who are acutely aware of suffering and the need to end it might be far behind the curve on this issue. A blog entry on Animal Charity Evaluators says that one third of Effective Altruists are vegan or vegetarian. That’s certainly a much higher percentage than the population as a whole. But what about the other two thirds? Are those people doing something that they think is more effective than veganism? Or, do even these people, who are committed to reducing suffering, fail to recognize their obligation to refrain from actually contributing to it?



So, to say the least, our task is a large one. We all know that. We need to change the way consumers consume. We need to change the way people eat. Diet is one of the most intractable habits that people have. We need to change the way people think, in very fundamental ways. The changes we are seeking to make are, without question, monumental.

So, we need everyone who cares to spread the word. Or as many as possible. We are not going to achieve this goal with top down organizational campaigns from animal rights organizations, corporate outreach, or even with the development of new cruelty-free foods, though all of those are enormously important.

But we need boots on the ground. Lots of them. We need every single person who has awakened to this issue to spread the word. We need this to go viral. We are, after all, primates. We learn from each other. Social change still happens when people see their friends and colleagues stepping out from the norm to find a better way, leading by example, having that conversation at the proverbial water cooler. Coming out for animals.

What does this mean for our own effectiveness? Well, it means we need to do even more than inspire others to change their diets and to stop participating in causing the harm. It means that we need to find ways to inspire others to go out and inspire others. And others. And others.



Or at least a defense of “do something, even if you’re not sure what’s the best thing to do.”

“Do something, do anything,” is touted by some as the opposite of effective altruism, which seeks to help people find the best way to achieve their charitable goals, not the best way to make yourself feel better, or enjoy yourself while doing good or just follow your intuition about what might work.

For people who are open to that message, that’s great. But, at Our Hen House, since we want to get every single person who cares about animals to work to change the world, we also try, for better or worse, to meet people where they are about what it is they feel moved to do to change the world. And people are in all sorts of different places about what works best.

Our experience has been that you can’t expect them all to do it your way. They won’t. They just won’t. Even if you’re really sure you’re right. Especially at this point in time, when the research just isn’t good enough to say for sure what works best.

Another reason that we are enthusiastic about people doing what appeals to them, or makes sense to them, is the importance of innovation. We are trying to change the way the entire world works. None of us really knows how to do that. And people who care about animals have different talents and skill sets and passions and convictions. Since none of us really knows what works, and since it’s kind of a big job, trying new things is important. Then testing them with research is great. But at this point in time, it seems important to expand, rather than contract, our approaches to changing the world.

A while back, we started talking at Our Hen House about doing a new video, focusing on the connections between gay rights and animal rights. We believed that this was enough of a crossover issue to allow such a video to catch some non-choir attention. We wanted it to be really positive, gentle, and full of food — that was our choice, based on our experience of years of running Our Hen House and feedback we’ve gotten from our listeners, as to what would play well and what we do well.

In the process of planning, we ended up losing a grant because certain research has shown that the thing that is most likely to make someone adopt veganism is seeing footage of the horrific suffering that animals undergo in animal agriculture. This grantmaker wanted such footage, but we didn’t want to include it. Of course we wanted our video to change hearts and minds, but we feel that what we do best is share personal stories. Footage didn’t feel right.

The video turned out well, we think, and in fact has gotten a lot of attention from mainstream gay media and a lot of views (on Facebook). Would it have done as well if it had footage? We tend to think not. But, maybe we’re wrong. Even if it didn’t get as many views, would it have been more effective in getting the people who did see it to go vegan? Would they have been more likely to stay vegan if they saw footage? We’re not going to pretend to have the answers, but we’re far from convinced that research has categorically established how to do this. So we made the video we thought we would be good at making, that we thought people who aren’t already awakened to animals would be willing to look at and which had the best chance of changing their hearts and minds.



It’s hugely helpful to be able to count how much change we are creating with our activism, or with our dollars. The “How many human lives are saved by mosquito nets?” sort of questions.

We know that lots of good work is going into coming up with ways to count this stuff. For example, studies are performed where leaflets are handed out and follow-up work is done to track behavior change from each of them. And new studies are, I’m sure, being designed as we speak.

Because these studies are trying to measure behavior change, not just money donated, it seems like the measuring process has the potential to get really complicated. There are so many questions that could potentially be asked. When it comes to that leaflet, how many people go vegan? Do they stay vegan? For how long? If they don’t stay vegan, do they cut down on animal foods? How much? How many people who are inspired by that booklet inspire others to become vegan? How many people don’t go vegan as a result of that leaflet, but go vegan a year later when they see footage? Did reading the leaflet set the stage that eventually helped them get there?

The fact is that measuring all the potential effects of a leaflet is tough. And when changemaking efforts go beyond a leaflet, for which it is relatively easy to measure outcomes, it’s got to get so much harder. So many things that we do hoping to change the world for animals are subtle, difficult to measure, and may not bear fruit right away. If we throw too many of these types of advocacy away, in exchange for absolutely measurable short term progress, we may be starving out groups that are pursuing strategies that may actually be more effective. Many of them seek to create long term, systemic change. As one example, the arts are frequently just put out there, with, to my knowledge, no really effective way to track who heard what, what conversations were started, how many tears were shed, etc.  

Ok, now we’re going to insert our first Broadway reference. As anyone who listens to the Our Hen House podcast knows, we get most of our wisdom from show tunes. We happened to be listening to South Pacific (the original cast recording, with Mary Martin, on vinyl) while we were thinking about what to say about what’s effective, and why. If you’re familiar with that Rogers and Hammerstein classic, you know that one of its major themes is racial prejudice, particularly regarding the issue of marriage between white people and Polynesians. The song, You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, includes these words of wisdom:

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.”


“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

It may seem very old hat, but at the time, this was a pretty controversial topic and a daring one to bring before audiences. So, how much did this mega-hit, eventually made into a blockbuster movie, influence the discussion around race in the United States? We have no idea. And we have no idea how you would count that. But my sense is that it was, in fact, a huge impact.

Caveat: We’re not saying that just because some things are hard to measure that we think we should simply turn to intuition about what works better to reduce animal suffering. But we are saying that maybe we should let intuition play a role in deciding what to try. And maybe then come up with ways to evaluate.



Or — so how do we evaluate accurately? We are strongly in favor of research that tries to evaluate what is most effective. But we are wary as well.

As we like to point out on Our Hen House, the potential activities that individuals can engage in to help animals is almost limitless. Leafleting, grassroots protests, writing letters to the editor, filming documentaries, opening vegan restaurants,  writing books, teaching animal law, illegal direct action, rescuing animals, opening sanctuaries, demanding vegan options, podcasting, baking vegan cupcakes and bringing them to the office, whatever.

Do all of these things work? We honestly don’t know. Can we measure them all? It doesn’t seem like it.

But given how useful measurement can be, and how important it is (understandably) to funders, it seems possible that we might run the risk of being biased toward activities with outcomes that are relatively easy to measure. We have come to understand that this is known, within Effective Altruism circles, as “measurability bias.”‘

That could lead to the funding of research to prove that those techniques work and the discarding of other types of activism that are harder to measure. But research, and statistics, don’t always give us the full picture.

Even in the areas where it’s possible to design studies and fund research that’s going to show us effectiveness (maybe, say, different leaflets with different asks — like the survey the Humane League just did which David Coman-Hidy talked about on a recent podcast episode — or corporate outreach, or online ads), the research, and the conclusions drawn from it, are probably not good enough (yet) to necessarily rely upon in throwing other types of advocacy under the bus.

Another problem with this sort of research is that it isn’t always easy to interpret. A while back, an animal rights organization started toying with advocating for people to go “meat-free” rather than advocating for them to go vegan or vegetarian. This was based on research showing that supermarkets had an easier time selling food labeled meat-free than food labeled vegan or vegetarian. From our vantage point, we’re not sure that this interpretation was correct. A person in a supermarket who is not vegetarian might be reluctant to buy food labeled “vegetarian” because he might think that food is just for vegetarians, but might buy something labeled “meat-free” because he has heard he should cut down on meat. A person who is thinking about embracing an organization, or a campaign, or a role model, might be more inspired by the word “vegan” than by the negative word “meat-free,” even if they are not ready to embrace veganism as an identity. To tell the truth, we don’t know. But the point is that the lessons we can learn from research are not always obvious. Before we do things like throw the words “vegan” or “vegetarian” away, we should be pretty sure that the research truly supports their alleged ineffectiveness.

That’s why we did our video the way we wanted. Not because we don’t think research is helpful, but because it can’t tell us enough. On the other hand, that’s why the effective altruism movement is committed to getting better and better research, and why some funders are bringing some big bucks to bear.



Well, actually, we do know what we want. A world free of animal suffering. But that’s a pretty big ask in a world where most of the people we’re appealing to are actively participating in the harm we seek to prevent.

So, what is the most effective ask? What should we ask them to do that is most likely to result in them changing their behavior in a positive way? This is a huge question and one that we expect will be the subject of much research going forward, as well it should be.

Do we ask people to go vegan, to reduce, to buy “humane?” What reduces suffering the most? What’s the best way to convince people to go vegan?

If footage is the best way to convince people to go vegan, how do we get people to watch footage? How do we know if people went vegan?

If we convince people to go vegan, how do we get people to stay vegan? How do we know if they stay vegan? Is promoting veganism the best way to reduce suffering and death, or do you do more good by persuading people to cut back? Are they more likely to cut back if you ask them to cut back, or if you ask them to go vegan?

Given the enormity of suffering on factory farms, should we focus on persuading people to support reforms that reduce that suffering by eliminating the worst practices? If we achieve reforms, will we have more short term success, but undercut future success by making animal consumption seem more legitimate?

As if it weren’t difficult enough to figure out which is the most effective ask, we need to consider whether different messages, and different types of advocacy, work differently on different people, so that we need  more than one ask. We do, after all, want to reach everyone. And we don’t want to all be doing the exact same thing.

But that’s not all. Perhaps even more importantly — from our point of view — is whether the message works for the speaker, as well as the listener. As noted, we need everyone who cares about animals to speak up for them. On their own time, in their own communities, and in their own way. While research about effectiveness clearly matters, for some people, it may be pointless to expect them to advocate for something they don’t believe in, or advocate in a way that doesn’t work for them. And we need those people. Because we need everyone.

So, even if research were to show (and we’re not saying it does or doesn’t), that it’s more effective to ask people to reduce their animal consumption, or support legislative reforms, than it is to ask them to go vegan, can you expect people who passionately believe in the depths of their souls that veganism is a moral imperative to advocate for halfway measures?

It’s fine in that situation to advocate for reduction or reforms yourself, or tell people why you do that, and show them the research. But don’t expect everyone to be able to advocate for something they don’t believe in with their hearts. For people who (like us, we have to say) stopping the horror that is happening every day to animals everywhere, is their life’s mission, who feel like they are one step away from going crazy knowing what they know, who struggle with every fiber in them to maintain some kind of hope, speaking the truth, as they see it, is absolutely, fundamentally necessary to maintain sanity.

Passion matters. Emotion matters. Honesty matters.



So, in case it’s not clear, we like to encourage people to go vegan, though we’re open to using messaging to encourage people to at least take steps toward veganism and support legislative reforms as well. But, as we know, most people who become vegan or vegetarian stop. Why that happens is one of the most crucial questions facing the movement.

We can’t prove it (yet), but we believe that one thing that helps people stay on the side of the animals is a sense of community. We’d love to see some research on this, but research is expensive, so, in the mean time, we’re following our intuition. And the results of surveys with our listeners, which, come to think of it, is actually a sort of research.

Mariann first went vegetarian when she was in her early 20s, and it didn’t stick. Two things that she knows contributed were that she didn’t know enough — she didn’t educate herself about factory farming, she just thought it was wrong to kill animals. (In her defense, Animal Liberation had not yet been published.) And, she was the only vegetarian she knew (this was way before online communities and she’s an introvert and mostly hates people and most of the people who were vegetarian then seemed totally crazy).

This conviction was one of the reasons we founded Our Hen House. We know there are a lot of people out there who are all alone with this.

Two recent examples: Most of our listeners are in the US, but we do have listeners around the world. In one week, we received emails from listeners in Niue Island and Saskatchewan that told very similar stories. Niue Island is a country, yes a country, in the South Pacific. The person who wrote to us is vegan, and as far as she knows, and she probably would, she’s the only vegan on the island. The person from Saskatchewan lives in a small town in a rural area. It appears that rural Saskatchewan is also not heavily populated with animal rights vegans (yet). Both of these listeners told us that we were the only vegans they knew. And that having that connection, as tenuous as it is, was really helping them. This really highlighted for us the importance of not being alone with this. And there are still many people who are, whose families think they’re crazy, whose friends make fun of them. That needs to change.



Indefatigable positivity. This is our mantra. And our strategy. We hope, and believe, that it is an effective one.

When we say we’re indefatigably positive, it doesn’t mean we ignore bad news, or that we don’t want to kill ourselves at least once a day. But we try to dwell on the good news, even when it’s hard to find. We do this because we think it keeps us, and others, sane, and it keeps us working for the animals. And because it appeals to the people we are trying to reach.

As Sally Bowles sang in the immortal Cabaret, “Everybody loves a winner.” So, to mix lyrical references, we try as hard as we can to accentuate the positive.

In addition to focusing on good news, as part of our positivity strategy, we work really hard at not criticizing others who are working for animals, even if they’re total assholes. Even if we think we know the way, and everyone else is wrong (and believe me, we do, and they are), we believe it is probably best to lead by example, or, even better, by succeeding and being able to prove it, than by criticizing others’ tactics .

For one thing, we all have to remember that people are probably not doing harm just because they aren’t following our advice. Let’s take an example from advocacy for humans here. When you are dealing with advocacy to reduce human suffering, fighting schistosomiasis, a disease carried by worms that causes enormous harm in the developing world, may not be sexy, but arguably does the most good. Are people who are donating money to fight some rare genetic disease that only kills a few hundred people a year therefore doing actual harm? No. They are perhaps not doing as much good with their money as they could if they donated it to combat schistosomiasis. But what they are doing is not immoral, or wrong, or evil. It would be kind of absurd to say that it is. Our understanding is that effective altruists are, as a rule, very aware that we should never accuse those who we think may not be doing the most effective good of doing harm. While that may seem obvious to those in the effective altruism movement, unfortunately, among animal activists, this is extraordinarily common.

Sometimes, of course, it seems to us that other animal activists are doing things that are not only lost opportunities for doing it our, better, way, but they are actually harming the cause. We think they’re too loud or too rude. Or we think they’re putting people off. Or we think they’re deceiving people by implying that they don’t HAVE to go vegan. Or they’re doing a million other things we think might set us back.

In this instance, we take the position that, even if we think others are setting us back (and it’s really pretty hard to be sure of that), criticism is not going to change them, especially when it is so hard to conclusively establish what works. NASTY criticism or arrogant criticism is definitely not going to work (anyone who has dealt with humans for any length of time knows that it’s actually likely to make people more entrenched in their views.)

Really convincing research demonstrating success may work. And that’s why we love the Effective Altruism movement. And want it to get better and better and better. Which brings us to the fact that…



This is, without question, the most exciting moment in the animal rights movement in the many years we’ve been involved. And the better it gets, the better it gets. With the passion that so many people are bringing to this cause, coupled with the fact that, in their hearts, the vast majority of people agree that what we are doing to animals is deeply wrong, growth has the potential to be exponential, even explosive. We are truly excited that the effective altruism movement is bringing with it so many tools that can make it an enormously important part of changing the world for animals.

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